Hollywood vs History: The Vikings (on History Channel)

Vikings

In the last decade television (particularly the “Premium” cable networks) has been the best forum to find really good historical drama. “Rome” (2005-2007), The Tudors (2007-2010), “The Borgias” (2011-present): Rather than trying to cram the life-and-times of some great historical personage into a 2 hour feature film, the television mini-series format allows 10 hours per season, and multiple seasons to tell the story!

As these things go, the new History Channel television mini-series, “Vikings” is very entertaining fare. As a history lesson, however, it’s rather thin (and confused) gruel.

This commendable look at the life and adventures of the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok is LOTS of fun to watch. Well cast, acted, and produced “Vikings” serves up a terrific vision of Dark Ages Scandinavian society. While not always accurate, it “rings true” in most respects.

The broad canvass looks good: the recreations of 8th century towns and the interiors of homes and long-halls, and particularly of Viking ships (a marvel in their own age) are both sumptuous and impressive in their detail. As a story, it holds together extremely well, masterfully written by veteran historical dramatist Michael Hirsh.

Where it goes wrong is in keeping its historical facts straight.

Ragnar Lothbrok (or Lodbrok) was a semi-legendary character. His life and gunnar_stabkirche_hyledeeds are recorded in his own sagas,  the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok  (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) and the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (“Ragnarssona þáttr”); written in the 13th century (four centuries after the events described). He is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, briefly, as the father of three warrior-chiefs who led “The Great Heathen Army” that invaded England in 865.  Finally, Ragnar and his famous sons are also mentioned in the Heimskringla saga, and in Saxo Grammaticus’ “History of the Danes“.

Enough, clearly, to warrant acknowledgement as at least a semi-historical character. Where the history ends and the legend begins is more difficult to discern.

Ragnar was a 9th century leader of Viking expeditions, that much seems apparent. Historians credit him with, among other exploits, the sacking the city of Paris in 845AD. He died around 865AD, when, shipwrecked on the Northumbrian coast of England, he was captured and executed by the Northumbrians. His killing was credited with inspiring his sons to invade England, seeking retribution.

In “Vikings”, we meet Ragnar Lothbrok (played by the intense and compelling Travis Fimmel) as a young man. He is ambitious and farseeing. He plans an independent expedition to the west, across the North Sea; sailing in a ship of unique design and using a proto-compass/sundial (actually used by the Vikings) to help successfully navigate the open ocean.

His ambitions put him at odds with his chieftain, Jarl (or Earl) Haraldson (well-played by the veteran actor, Gabriel Byrne); who sees the upstart Ragnar as a threat to his authority.

Defying his Jarl, Ragnar sails west; and in the story he “discovers” England. Sailing along the shore, he comes to the island monastery at Lindisfarne. Historically, the Viking Era began with the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne, in 793AD.  In “Viking”, this attack is credited to our hero, Ragnar.

Herein arises the first historical problem with “Viking”.

In the series, we meet Ragnar as a man in his mid-late 20s. If he were the leader of the raid on Lindisfarne, as the series portrays, then he would be an elderly man in his 70’s when the historical Ragnar Lothbrok led the Viking fleet that sacked Paris in the 840’s. He would then have to be a very unlikely 90+ year old Viking when he died in Northumbria, twenty years later!!

However unlikely, as a plot point putting Ragnar at Lindisfarne and making him the father of the Viking Era is brilliant. Michael Hirsh, who wrote “The Tudors”, is an accomplished and talented story teller; if one that never lets historical accuracy interfere with his story!

The timeline of “Vikings” isn’t its only problem, however. The storyline has Ragnar discovering a way across the previously unexplored North Sea, to raid England; utilizing a new and unique boat design (the prototype for future Viking longships). In the story, the Vikings are unaware of the lands to the west. Some voice the opinion that only the end of the world lies that direction.

Unfortunately, this is far from the historical truth. Scandinavian seamen had been sailing the North Sean and raiding the British Isles and the coasts of Western Europe since the Roman times. The English themselves had come from Denmark and northern Germany in the 5th and 6th century AD to conquer “Britain”; sailing in earlier versions of the longships later employed by the Vikings. So, to suggest that England and the lands to the west of Denmark were unknown to Ragnar and his people is simply silly.

I was also taken by the lack of armor on the part of Viking warriors. The Vikings wore shirts of mail or leather in battle; as well as iron helmets. These are wholly lacking in “Vikings”; except amongst their English enemies. The suggestion is that the Vikings disdained armor, or were not advanced enough to make it. Neither was the case.

But this is to pick nits in an otherwise excellent historical series.

The conflict between the young, ambitious Ragnar and the aging, unscrupulous Jarl Haraldson drives the plot of the series’ first season (thus far). It leads to Ragnar slaying the Jarl in combat, and becoming himself Jarl of his people. According to the saga, Ragnar was a king of parts of Denmark and Sweden. So this first assumption of power may be our series’ protagonist initial steps toward his eventual kingship.

“Vikings” is rich in supporting characters: Canadian-born actress Katheryn Winnick as Ragnar’s shield-maiden wife, Lagertha (who really “sells” the role); Clive Standen as his motivationally opaque brother, Rollo; and vikings-promo-2_13Swedish star  Gustaf Skarsgard as Ragnar’s half-mad friend, the boat builder Floki.

However rich the supporting casts is,  the success of “Vikings” (and I think it will be a very big success) rests squarely on the well-muscled shoulders of its main character and star.

Australian  Travis Fimmel is one of those rare animals: a male model who can also act. Like fellow former Calvin Klien underwear model, Mark Wahlberg, Fimmel is much more than just a pretty face (or chiseled abs). He commands every scene, and is wholly believable as the young Ragnar. We, the audience, can readily see that he will grow into the legendary Viking leader we know Ragnar Lothbrok to have been.

If you enjoy historical drama but were suspicious of “Vikings”, you can relax and tune-in. You will not be disappointed.

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42 Responses to Hollywood vs History: The Vikings (on History Channel)

  1. Well said and well done as always 😀

  2. Zak says:

    I see that you commented on the fact that Scandinavian raiders were present even from roman times. I would be curious to know where you got that information? I am currently studying the “Vikings” at university, and speaking with my professor, I brought up the problem of these ships crossing the North Sea. From Denmark, it would be relatively simple to reach the England by hugging the coast past Frisia to Frankia, and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who were the fore bearers of the English Kingdoms were believed to have crossed at the Channel (the short strip of water between Calais and the Dover area), and archaeological evidence points to the use of even coracles (small reed boats covered in hides) to cross this small expanse of water. From Norway, on the other hand, it can be very difficult to negotiate the North Sea. One of my friends, who is Norwegian, worked on an oil rig in the North Sea, and told me that the storms are truly brutal and terrifying even to modern ship captains. Thus crossing this water expanse would require new forms of shipbuilding other than that used on the Baltic (many of these types of ships did not even have sails). Evidence in Norwegian elite burials from the early 9th century, such as the Oseberg ship, shows that even then boats of this type were too flimsy for the rough water and currents of the open seas. There’s probably a reason that no historical record really exists of Viking raids before 793 (Alcuin’s letter on the Lindisfarne raid), because their ships couldn’t negotiate the rough passage. However, I will say that perhaps trading vessels were different, since the Norse “Knarr” had a much deeper keel, and seemed generally more sturdy (to carry tons of cargo), so perhaps it is the reason that actually the first English encounter with the Norse was in Portland Bay (6 years before Lindisfarne) where the local sheriff hailed strange ships who were believed to be traders (although they seemingly killed him for reasons beyond me).

    Anyways, I think that the show is for sure historically flawed, but not sure if your argument concerning ships is completely true.

    Cheers,
    Zak

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      I, Zak.
      You made my point in more detail than I went into. The Jutes and Angles came from the Jutland peninsula; and the Saxons from the northwestern Germany. All these peoples came to England by longships (called “keels” in the sources). We don’t know how they sailed their exactly. It could have been as you described, it could have been across the North Sea, as the later Vikings did. We just don’t know.
      What my point was is that in the TV show, the idea that England and lands to the West were unknown in Scandinavia (Ragnar came from Denmark, though he is claimed as a Norseman and a Swede as well) is absurd. Or that Scandinavian’s never raided the west. The “Saxons” (a term used by the Romans to include virtually all Germano-Scandinavians who raided Britain and the Gallic coast in late Roman times) were a menace as early as the 3rd century AD. By the 5th century, they had conquered the eastern portion of Britain and had (temporary) colonies in Gaul (particularly along the Loire River).
      I urge you to go search on this blog, and read “The Age of Arthur” series. Much of this is discussed therein.
      Thanks again for checking out Deadliest Blogger!
      Barry

      • Zak says:

        Thanks for the clarification, and yes I agree totally that the series is not accurate, would you recommend any good books on the subject of Britain and Scandinavia in the early Medieval Period (apart from the Saga’s that is)?

  3. Rye Rye says:

    I come from a viking ancestry. I’m glad we are getting more respect these days by being on TV. LOL! It’s still a good watch, but as most historical programs…..it is not all factual.

  4. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you could
    be a great author.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later on.
    I want to encourage one to continue your great job, have a nice
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    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am planning on releasing “The Age of Arthur (and the Birth of England)” as a web book this year. I hope you enjoy it!

  5. Pingback: THE VIKINGS: AN ENDURING (AND SAVAGE) FASCINATION | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  6. Tim Kempton says:

    Having just watched the first series of this fantasy series I would like to point out that it bares no resemblance to history in any way but it is a fun tale in the likes of Game of Thrones and as such is great entertainment. I come from a long line of Anglo-Dane heritage and was raised in the old faith as such I can tell you the religion as described in the program is wrong, the names of the characters are wrong, the fighting is wrong, the, well it’s almost all wrong. But it is great fun….

  7. Pingback: THE VIKINGS: AN ENDURING (AND SAVAGE) FASCINATION | Djalma Web

  8. Scott Hornbuckle says:

    Actually, they got a whole lot more wrong than just the timeline of all the historic figures. They got the clothing articles wrong. Most Vikings would have been wearing wool tunics and trousers, not the “barbarian” fur and leather. It seems that the costume designer had no desire to see what the archaeological records and the historians are saying. None of the Vikings are wearing historically accurate armor into battle. The Thing in the first episode was inaccurately held at the local earl’s hall. The lawgiver in the second season was, as usual, dressed like a wild savage and they misread the role of the lawgiver. He was supposed to OVERSEE the lawsuit and RECITE the law, not judge. Oh, and the Vikings didn’t deliver capital punishment. The only two punishments that could be delivered to a free man were fines and outlawry. The Vikings didn’t hold the belief that the gods presided over fate; they believed that the Norns, three ancient sisters who sat at the bottom of Yggdrasil, did. Seers? I haven’t seen one of those in the sagas yet, except for the Volvas. The Vikings were much given to cleanliness, something that the “Vikings” in the show appear to be lacking. In actual Nordic society, Earl Haraldson would have been deposed quite quickly for his tyrannical acts. By the way, his title formulation is messed up (would you really call Queen Elizabeth by her last name?). The temple at Uppsala is incorrectly made to look like a later stave church, and no, human sacrifice wasn’t all that common. Unless the people in the series were the Rus, the burial customs from Ibn Fadlan’s accounts should have never been brought into the plot. I don’t recall any Nordic hall having the same dimensions as the one in the film, and the Vikings really weren’t doing the demented things to the clergy members that they were doing in season 2. Hirst, in an interview, stated that he wasn’t concerned about historical accuracy, just ratings (profit, profit, profit!) and he obviously did some really lazy research. He basically made the Vikings look like primitive, wild savages, which is exactly NOT how they actually were.

  9. Mike Orick says:

    Thank you! I’m laughing at all the recurves and/or hornbows they have the Vikings using too. Probably not unknown to them, but not used as shown

  10. george says:

    don’t know if anyone bought this up but I found the chats about the Romans in the series to be the most odd. the first time they mention them they refer to them as giants, they clear this up in the next episode. but use a strange pagan analogy aspect between the priest and the King. were the preist says the Romans were pagan. true the simple question is where did does the Pope live? I know papal authority was weaker at this point but every clergymen would have known that the heart of Catholicism was ROME!! and by extension the former Christian roman empire.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      The ancient/Dark Ages Scandinavians saw Roman ruins and concluded that only giants could have created such work. The Anglo-Saxons thought pretty much the same thing. So the series was correct in that respect.
      Rome was indeed the center of Christianity; and whenever Rome was mentioned by Christian missionaries they were of course talking about the Vatican. The church always had mixed feelings regarding the pagan Rome of the Caesars; while acknowledging the authority (to one extent or another) of their successors, the Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, and the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany.

  11. george says:

    I mean how did you even convert people to Christianity without mentioning the roman empire. the view of truly literally dark age where human society starts again from 800 AD is the oddest part of Vikings. in terms of archaeology, costumes society etc they seem to have done well. but the actual chronology of events real history seems to have taken a massive back seat to archaeology and social history. Yet this basic aspect of history is the easiest to get right!

  12. Pingback: Show #007: The Vikings, Terror of the North | History Bytes

  13. Duane Wirdel says:

    They pretty much messed up the Anglo-Saxons too, having them rum=n around virtually in uniforms. The fact is that the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings looked, were armed and fought quite similarly. It ruins the series for me in a way because the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed as these soft, over-civilized softies. Was Offa a softie?

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      No, but Offa wasn’t around when the Danes started attacking England. The Danes were, initially, better organized and better warriors than the Anglo-Saxons. But after years of battle, the West Saxons became the equal of the Danes for the most part (though likely not on a man-for-man basis).

  14. Pingback: TV’s Vikings accuracy | Perseo desencadenado

  15. This is Thrand !! Barry did a Review of Vikings with us on our Channel and it was excellent . Here is the Link on Youtube HISTORY’s Vikings review with Barry Jacobsen

  16. Very good blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost
    on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There
    are so many choices out there that I’m completely
    overwhelmed .. Any recommendations? Many thanks!

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      I have been using the free version of WordPress for a few years; and it has worked very nicely for me. It took some time with a tutor to learn all the tricks to getting what I wanted out of it. But after the first couple of weeks, I never looked back.
      I don’t recommend a pay site, unless it comes with some tutorial you can’t live without.
      The trick is promotion. I use FB to reach-out… That and word of mouth.
      It also helps to learn to write. If you have never taken a course, or read a book on style, I recommend that as well.
      Good luck.

  17. Pingback: THE VIKINGS: AN ENDURING (AND SAVAGE) FASCINATION (Second Edition) | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  18. Travis Halvorson says:

    My family originates from Norway, only in the USA since 1920 and immigrated from Canada. Growing up I heard the vikings were hated, even by the average Norwegian. They we’re the cartels of today. Most Norwegian were farmers and raised families. Eric the red was banished and well hated for his temper. Most people didn’t support the killing of women and children and is the reason Christianity was so successful in Scandinavian countries. It was a way for the common folk to battle back against the gangs and thugs. I really hate the show vickings.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      That might be the way it was taught to you in school; and what your family might believe. But I assure you, that is not quite correct. The Norse rejected Christianity most strenuously and violently for a century-and-a-half. They fought (and occasionally overthrew) kings who tried to impose it upon them.

      As for their attitude toward Vikings, your incorrect on that as well.

      The average bondi was not a Viking per se; if Viking is meant to imply brigand and pirate. But most of the Vikings who raided throughout Europe from the late 8th though the 11th century were not just a few brigands and pirates. The Norse and Danish “Vikings” were both professional warriors following chieftains or even Kings (such as Olaf Trygvasson, or Harald Sigurdson); and bondi who would plant their crops in the spring, go “Viking” in the summer, and return to harvest in the fall.

      These Norwegian Kings who I mentioned were both great leaders of “Viking” expeditions and… Christians.

  19. Duane Wirdel says:

    I get really upset that the Anglo-Saxons’ costumes are all wrong. They have them wearing uniforms, metal shields (in the first season) and some are wearing 15th century morions in season three. The costumer should hang her head in utter shame.

  20. David Hansen says:

    Now we have season 4 and the and all the PC BS included. Got to have multicultural characters, can’t leave them out. If they had a show on Shaka Zulu, is there a need for white characters, obviously no, so why do this here? You would think 1/3 of the Viking army was composed of women from watching the show, then we have to have the scene of Lagatha castrating the poor man shot by a crossbow, and all the commercials that show men being submissive to their dominant wives. Obviously they have figured out that men are not the viewers of this BS anymore. This show has become a total farce, when it could actually serve a greater purpose by actually revealing what we do know about the era and would be far more interesting.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Couldn’t agree more, David! The show has gone down that pc gopher hole that Hollyweird so loves.

      Adding to that, the armor of the English and Franks is ridiculous. Men wearing 16th century burgonets, and rapid-firing crossbows? In the 9th century?

      The writers have also bought into the whole Ivarr the Boneless as a cripple theory; one I think is the invention of handicapped rights folk. We don’t know why he had that nickname. But it is highly doubtful that a child with such a degenerative disease would even be allowed to live in the 9th century; not that warriors, who admire courage and skill in battle above all else, would follow a warlord who could neither walk nor carry a sword.

      This could have been so much better, just sticking to history… But Hollywood can’t help itself.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      BTW, the multi-ethnic cast also disturbs me. We only see that in films/tv involving Europeans. You never see a story (today) about, say, Chinese Han history with white guys playing roles in the story. Or, as you suggest, a film about Shaka in which he or his top guys are white! Even Marvel’s “Thor” has to have a black guy as a Norse god (Heimdal); and an Asian guy as one of Thor’s sidekicks (Hogan the Grim).

      Don’t get me started on the whole multiculturalist bullshit!

  21. Titivilus says:

    The entire setup of Paris almost made me stop watching the series. The clothing is wrong, the architecture is wrong, the furniture is wrong!! Vitrals (horrible, by the way) in the IX century? And then Rollo goes and betrays and kills all his danes, leaving him worth… what? The entire point of granting him Normandy was as an ally against other raiders…

    I wonder if I am right on the issue of the steerboard of the ships being on the wrong side? They are all on the left side of the ships, rather than on ‘starboard’. Is this correct?

    Why they call themselves the History Channel if they simply do not give a penny about history?

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      I completely agree with all your complaints and analysis (BTW, the story is set in the first half of the 8th century, not even the 9th)! And, yes, the steerboard should be on the starboard (right) side; that’s why it’s called “starboard”.

  22. I love the TV show Vikings, my favorite show, but even I have to admit that it is about as historical as “Pawn Stars.” Ragnar is shown sailing out of majestic mountainous fjords. In reality he was from Denmark, which is as flat as a pancake. Ragnar and Rollo were not brothers. The real Rollo was born three years after Ragnar died. They were distant cousins, and the real Rollo was good friends with Ragnar’s grandson Gumarik. Ivar was not really crippled. Ragnar did not have a Chinese girlfriend. Ragnar was not yet born when the Lindisfarne raid happened. Ragnar was not the son of a simple farmer, his father was a king. Alfred the Great was not the son of a monk named Athelstan, who in fact never existed. All this aside, I love the show.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Yes to all your comments, Mark! You nailed it, buddy. Rollo was a tenth century character from Norway, son of the Earl/Jarl of More; who left after Harald Finehair unified the country. Ragnar was a 9th century Dane; who may have had family connections in both Norway and Sweden. We have no idea why Ivar was called “the Boneless”. There are only theories. Mine is that he was so flexible a warrior that he appeared to have no bones. But that is just an educated guess. What I feel very confident saying is that a cripple would have not have been leading bands of Viking warriors in the 9th century. Warriors followed leaders of renown. They would not have followed a cripple.

      BTW, the weirdest theory was that Ivar was both a dwarf AND a cripple, with a rare bone disease. The author of this theory, Nabil Shaban, is himself a dwarf and a disability rights advocate with a rare disease: osteogenesis imperfecta. He made the documentary History Channel show, “The Strangest Viking”, in which he explored the possibility that Ivar the Boneless may have had the same condition as himself. I found the whole theory unpersuasive; more Mr. Shaban grinding a personal ax (he even starts the show vowing to shatter the myth that Vikings were all “manly men”), trying to show that this great Viking warlord was someone more like him than like Dolph Lundgren.

    • PattiAnderson says:

      Well, could’ve put a “Spoiler Alert” label on that “Alfred the Great” comment….

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        But you knew Alfred the Great wasn’t the son of Ragnar (or any other Viking); right? So where is the “spoiler”?

  23. I love the Vikings TV show, but it is about as historical as ” Pawn Stars.” The cast is wonderful, the story is very entertaining, but the producer Hirsch has complete contempt for history, he just throws it right out the window to make his entertainment.

  24. Emma-Jane Cross says:

    Hey I completely agree with you which is why I am soooo excited about the new Viking series coming out called Storm Warrior. This program is focused on presenting the Vikings or dark ages acuratley. Check it out on fb, this is one to watch 🙂
    #stormwarrior
    https://www.facebook.com/StormWarrior2016/?fref=ts

  25. Edgar Aethelred says:

    “Shield-maidens”
    AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHahahahahahahaa
    Yeah ok. Viking warrior chicks. BAH HAHAHAHAHahahahahahahahahaa!!

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