Finally got around to watching the first episode of the new History channel miniseries “The Vikings.” Considering how poorly the Vikings typically fare in film (I’m looking at you, awkward Vikings-in-the-New-World “Pathfinder” remake), I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. There are some neat things taken from our knowledge of late Viking Age/Medieval Iceland (or rather, what sources from the latter tell us about the former–it was ‘history’ for them as well)–for example, they make the distinction between illegal secret murder and a legal killing, in which you announce what you’ve done (though the relation to feud seems a little tangled–the latter serves to enable open, reciprocal feud, rather than prevent it, as the earl’s words seem to suggest, though an anti-feud posture is arguably taken by certain Norwegian jarls and kings in the sagas). And generally, when we look this far back there is a LOT we have to speculate about, so it’s fine to guess a bit about what the religion would have looked like, etc (though let me note, the visit to the prophet doesn’t look like anything from the sources, as Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog has pointed out). Still, here are some points that bothered me (keep in mind I haven’t seen the second episode yet–it is out, right? Also, points 1 and 4 are inspired by points made by friends on facebook… nice to know so many people who study this sort of thing…). Note also that we really know very very little about the early Viking Age, and this movie is set RIGHT in the year our history books have (slightly arbitrarily) chosen as the “start” of the Viking Age (a detail I return to below).
1) Ragnar and Rollo? Two famous Vikings happen to be brothers? Not to mention chronological issues, though the miniseries doesn’t seem too concerned with that… Well, even if “Rollo” is not the famous founder of Normandy, let’s at least keep both of their names in the same language. “Rollo” is the name given to Hrolf (Hrólfr) on the continent. They would have called each other Hrólfr and Ragnarr (the -r endings mark the nominative case–would have changed depending on function in the sentence), though I imagine Hrolf and Ragnar would be OK too. Or, you know, Rob and Reggie…
2) I’m a little bothered by the hall they feast in, which looks a bit like a church gym decked out for a potluck (except for the throne…) with rows of tables, and the earl sitting above everyone before eating in a separate room entirely. I might be off here (would like to be Indiana Jones [=more archaeologically savvy], but I’m just a plain ol’ bookworm). I have in mind the medieval Icelandic farmhouse/hall, which I believe is similar to what you would find throughout Scandinavia pre-Viking age through the early Viking age: the “high seat” was not literally a separate, higher seat, but rather the spot reserved for the chieftain/jarl/king, whoever was Big Man, in the central position on one of the benches that lined the hall (and where everyone sat relative to him was a BIG DEAL). So, two benches, each along the walls, used as seats during gatherings, but broad and used for sleeping as well, with a long fireplace down the middle. Well, I’ll have to check with some of my archaeologist friends re: the halls of very early Viking age rulers. Still, I recommend the Icelandic film “The Outlaw” (Útlaginn) for an alternate vision of the Viking Age hall (in relatively poor Iceland, however).
3) These accents… feel a bit hokey. That’s all… Not sure whether or not any of the actors are actually Scandinavian, but many of the accents felt a little stilted or exaggerated. But maybe I am just a jerk…
4) They treat “The West” (not the new world, but Western Europe) as though it had not been “discovered” by Norse folks yet. While pre-Vikings didn’t drop by Heathrow all that often, they weren’t completely ignorant of the world beyond the Baltic. The Viking age itself got at least some of its momentum from the earlier rise of towns when trade shifted from routes through Frankia to routes through the Baltic (creating wealth, and the demand for more wealth), Denmark was/is/and probably will be for a long time actually ATTACHED to the rest of Europe (duh), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who settled England came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany long before the Viking Age. The series seems more interested in staging the barbaric here, the usual 13th Warrior, Hollywood, timber mud n chkns (+ swords) standard primitive early-Medieval schtick. OK, OK, there are some good references to what we actually “know” (as I mentioned above), but I still think “The Outlaw” gives a nicer (=less Hollywood) feel for the Viking Age. Whoops, I just looped back to a previous topic, didn’t I…
5) “I would never insult you–you’re too great a warrior. But perhaps not so great a man…” Um… do they really think virility, virtue (note the vir– in both), and martial competence were understood as separate back then? (or now…) Womanliness and cowardliness were essentially equivalent in the insults of the time. Penetration in battle was sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly equivalent to penetration in a sexual encounter, and the same for turning one’s back in battle (to run away) and turning one’s back so as to be… um, well… See Preben Meulengracht Sørensen’s The Unmanly Man and Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” for more…
6) Ragnar is married to a shield maiden–OK, nice reference to the romantic liaisons between human warriors and valkyries in the Eddic poetry and elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Sigurd…and, well, at Ragnar too… look to Saxo Grammaticus for the account of his relationship w/ Lagertha). I am reluctant to admit the historical existence of warrior women in the Viking Age (excepting… well, exceptions–women may have been able to transgress gender boundaries more easily than in other places and times, though we just don’t have good access to information from that period), but hey, could be. I wouldn’t give too much credence to the sagas and heroic legends on this though–I consider those more fantasies about powerful women than survivals of actual socially acceptable roles. Doesn’t make them any less interesting to me, though. For more on this topic, see Karl Siegfried’s discussion of Éowyn in LOTR and Old Norse warrior women (he is a bit more positive about the historical likelihood of warrior women than I), and check out (again) Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” (and… well, a lot of other articles…), Jenny Jochens’ Women in Old Norse Society and Images of Old Norse Women and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. I’ll try to get to a dedicated post on the topic one of these days.
7) From the setting (fjords), I assume they are somewhere in Norway–meaning in the west, meaning closer to the apparently imaginary England than to the eastern Baltic. Norwegians and Dane typically went westward during the Viking Age, while the Swedes went east. So, the whole “we know the east, we dare not try the unknown west!” seems a bit off to me too… (OK, OK, see #4… I probably could have condensed these, huh…).
8) Feels like a whole lot that made the Vikings Vikings (according to our modern imagination) is finding its origin story here–not only two famous Viking names shoe-horned into the year we traditionally call the start of the “Viking Age” (it was no different than any other year to ‘them,’ incidentally), but the ability to sail in the open ocean (represented in three inventions all smashed into a single episode: sunboard, sunstone, and clinker built ship). Well, less about history, more about the idea of history–par for the course. And hey, it’s not like they’re killing puppies…
Hm, pretty sure I’m forgetting some… and there is probably a lot I just didn’t think of, so oh well. But hey, I can be a bit of a crank when it comes to… well, lots of things, so enjoy the series, just don’t take it as particularly educational! (par for the course for non-PBS ‘documentary’ TV…)
Remember also to check out my brief notes on how Vikings dress (I’m not looking to argue with the series about that–again, not an archaeologist, and I really am not familiar with the full range of variation across the North and throughout the period), and remember that “Viking” literally means “Pirate,” even if nowadays people tend to treat it as a blanket term for everyone who lived in Scandinavia between 793 and 1066. Also check out this interview, and note that the historian in question has a book on the history of the Viking Age coming out next year! Cool! Been a long time since Gwyn Jones’ History of the Vikings.
And while my expertise lies more with the vernacular Norse literature of Medieval Iceland (which is what a lot of this is based on anyway), I have been meaning to share some general resources for the study of the Viking Age. Here are the books I used when I taught an upper division course on Viking and Medieval Scandinavia at Berkeley:
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Great chapters on various aspects of the Viking Age (history-wise rather than culture-wise) and its later reception.
Medieval Scandinavia. Goes well beyond the Viking Age, but includes plenty of material on the earlier period as well. (The book Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia is also a great resource, but you will have to find it at a library).
The Vikings. Roesdahl’s introduction is still a great one (plus I modeled my illustrations for Viking clothes, shown above, on the illustrations in her book). Much more of an archaeological focus.
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. A nice overview-source, but I did not feel like it was of the same caliber as some of the other sources–or maybe it’s just that I disagreed with the author’s take on the debate over the historical authenticity of the so-called blood-eagle ritual. Whatever. It has PICTURES!!! (Seriously though, it’s alright).
We were also going to use The World of the Vikings, but for some reason it was listed as out of print at the time–still, I found it handy to refer to occasionally (also, PICTURES!). Looks like it is available in paperback now!
I also recommend Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited in part by my friend and colleague Elisabeth Ward, as well as The Viking World (not the same as above). The latter is GINORMOUS and oriented towards more of an academic audience, but I think the Kindle version is relatively inexpensive, and the articles are still very introductory (I go to it for general points on Viking Age and Medieval archaeology). Peter Foote’s The Viking Achievement is still great as well, but I believe out of print (for a while now). If you really just want something short and quick, try The Very Short Introduction to the Vikings. I haven’t read this one, but I do like the series–in fact, I hope to talk about some of their other books (Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, etc) some other time! It is short though, so if you want anything more substantial, you will have to dig into some of the other books mentioned above. I’ll try to get around to separate posts for things like Viking Age Religion or Viking/Medieval Iceland one of these days.