Series review: Vikings (season 1)

I can't believe I missed this when it was on

Vikings

In the US: The History Channel. New season begins at the end of February
In the UK: Lovefilm. New series begins at the end of February

The Vikings are a very under-appreciated bunch. Without them England, Ireland and indeed much of northern Europe would be very different places. Even at a very trivial level, the English language would probably be considerably harder and more like German, and might not have got such a purchase on world culture.

Although their importance as been glossed over and largely ignored, despite the debt we owe them, more and more they’re being acknowledged: I’d recommend going to the British Museum’s forthcoming Vikings exhibition, which will include a 37m long Viking longboat, for starters.

Also helping is the US’s History Channel, which broke the habit of a lifetime to produce its first scripted TV series last year. Now, I was on holiday when this first aired, so it completely passed me by. Fortunately, I’ve now got Lovefilm access, and was able to catch up with the show, having an idle moment or two to fill.

And I’ve very glad I did, because it’s actually a really interesting piece of work. A Canadian-Irish co-production written by historical drama go-to guy Michael “Tudors” Hirst, it’s part-educational, part-drama, telling the story of the semi-legendary, semi-historic Ragnarr Loðbrók (aka Ragnar Hairy Breeches), the man who pointed the Vikings in the direction of England (maybe) and whose sons launched the Great Heathen Army that was eventually to settle and rule most of the north and east of the country. It’s gripping, fun, thrilling, bloody, defies expectations and gives you a lot of insight into Viking culture and religion.

Ish.

About
The HISTORY® original series Vikings transports us to the brutal and mysterious world of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Viking warrior and farmer who yearns to explore—and raid—the distant shores across the ocean. His ambition puts him at odds with local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who insists on sending his raiders to the impoverished east rather than the uncharted west. When Ragnar teams up with his boat builder friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to craft a new generation of intrepid ships capable of conquering the rough northern seas, the stage is set for conflict.

But for all its warfare and bloodshed, Vikings is also a story of family and brotherhood, capturing the love and affection between Ragnar and his wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), a respected warrior in her own right. It is the tale of Ragnar’s brother Rollo (Clive Standen), a fierce fighter who simmers with jealously; of Earl Haraldson’s wife Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig), a dutiful beauty who may be less than loyal; and of the monk Athelstan (George Blagden), whose Christian morals clash with the Vikings’ pagan society. As ambition and innovation rattle a civilization, these characters will be put to the test—and their way of life will never be the same again.

Vikings was created and written by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors).

Is it any good?
As I said, I really enjoyed it and the show has a lot of strengths.

Given that Loðbrók can’t really be pinned down as a true figure of history, Hirst and the producers take what legends and sagas there are about him and combine him with various dramatic moments that can illuminate Vikings and history better. So Loðbrók (Travis Fimmel) is shown here as a regular farmer who wants to head the impossible route west rather than east for his Earl’s (Gabriel Byrne) yearly raiding parties. He has science on his side – a way to focus the sun’s rays even when it’s cloudy and a board for mapping the sun’s shadow so he can correct his course. Together with his brother, Rollo, they defy the Earl and head west, where they find the riches they desire. But they want a lot more than just that, as does the Earl.

Rollo and Loðbrók bring back a Christian monk, Æthelstan (George Bladgen), and he then becomes not only a window for the viewer onto the world of the vikings but also a translator, being fluent in Norse as well as Anglo-Saxon. He in turn teaches Loðbrók his language (something that happens perhaps too quickly, on the show, despite the languages both being Germanic and quite similar) and about his country, something Loðbrók uses to his advantage and which ultimately leads to a showdown and the chance of never before considered power.

If you don’t know much about Norse mythology and religion before you watch The Vikings, you will before the end. Names that are probably familiar to you, like Thor/Þórr, Loki and Odin/Óðinn get mentioned frquently, although these aren’t the Marvel Universe ones but much closer to the Aesir of myth – in fact, very early on Odin makes several appearances, as do the Valkyrie and Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, Loðbrók claiming to be Odin’s descendant. You’ll learn about Fenrir, Ragnarök, Valhalla/Vallhäll and Heimdallr/Rígr. You’ll learn how the world was created by Odin and his brothers from the body of the giant Ymir and about the world tree Yggdrasill. Because this is the History Channel after all and learning is the name of the game.

Intriguingly, rather than the Vikings learning the ‘errors’ of the ways, their beliefs are counterpointed with the beliefs of Christians at the times and not found lacking. Æthelstan becomes slowly less convinced that what he’s always believed is true and a crux point of one episode is whether he truly believes in God any more, or whether as he says, “How could anyone listen to Thor beating on his anvil during a storm and not know he exists?”

As well as learning about their religion, we see their culture in action. While the question of whether shield maidens truly existed or not is still under consideration, legend is clear that Loðbrók was married to a shield maiden Lagertha/Hlaðgerðr, played by Katheryn Winnick. Through her and through several of the many action scenes, we learn how Vikings fought and how they were able to cut such large swathes throughout Europe and Russia, with some genuinely thrilling small-scale and large-scale fights.

We also learn about Viking things/þings (assemblies), the importance of arm rings, and the importance of women and their near-equality in Vikings societies, with one wife essentially deputising for her noble husband in his absence. And it does it all with the minimum of instruction, letting it arise naturally in the story.

One nice little touch is the use of language. While everyone largely speaks modern English for the benefit of the viewer, from the outset it’s made clear that the Vikings are really speaking Norse and the English speaking Anglo-Saxon. When they encounter one another, suddenly each is speaking his own language rather than English – until, that is, they begin to learn the other’s language. And although the cast is largely Irish, British and Canadian (with Fimmel a lone Australian), there are Scandinavian cast members as well, and wisely, the producers give them the bulk of the Norse – although not in this scene.

Although I couldn’t tell a genuine Scandinavian accent from a dud one, the main cast do a very good job with the accent work, even Donal Logue (Life, Knights of Prosperity, Terriers) who arrives towards the end as Danish king Horik. The acting is excellent, particularly Fimmel, who is shifty and ambitious as Loðbrók, Standen as his jealous brother and Winnick, whose bodyguard training and multiple black belts pay off in the fight scenes as well.

The first season follows a very definite arc, which I won’t spoil for you, with only the final episode perhaps a little disappointing in where it goes, although only marginally so. Of course, it’s very easy to find out what Loðbrók’s fate is and Hirst and the writers cleverly already hint what becomes of him in several episodes. Here’s hoping they get that far and even as far as his sons’ fates in season two and beyond.