Vikings on Television and in History

Updated on August 30, 2016
Viking Expansion
Viking Expansion | Source

The History Channel’s television series, Vikings, which first aired in 2013, tells the tales of Ragnar Lothbrok (or Lodbrok, which translates into “hairy breeches”), who goes from simple citizen to king of the Vikings. IMDB states that Ragnar is “the first Viking to emerge from Norse legend and onto the pages of history - a man on the edge of myth." (1) The series revolves around Ragnar and his family, the struggle between the Vikings themselves, their encounters with the English and French, and maybe more importantly, the struggle between pagan and Christian beliefs.

It is clear that the series is based on the history of the Vikings with liberties taken to provide entertainment. The history of the Vikings is fraught with inconsistencies and a combination of myth and fact, leading to many variations of events and people. So trying to piece together what is “real” or “factual” in the series is not so clear-cut.

Beginning with Ragnar himself, there is debate on whether he was actually even a real person or a mix of people, much like the theory about King Arthur being not a person but a combination of people embodying an idea. Else Roesdahl who is a professor in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Århus in Denmark, tells of the account in 845 of Vikings under the leader Ragnar conquering Paris and bringing home 7,000 pounds of silver, as well as a bar from the Paris city-gate, but with almost all of them dying, including Ragnar, on their return home from an epidemic, a “judgement of God with the darkness of blindness and madness.” (2) However, in the Danish History, Books I-IX, Saxo Grammaticus presents a different version in that Ragnar triumphs and continues his journeys and battles until he is captured by King Ælla of Northumbria, then tossed into a pit of snakes whereupon Ragnar is devoured by serpents. (3)

Probably the most difficult to understand is the differences and associations with Ragnar and his sons. According to Saxo Grammaticus, Ragnar was the father of (oldest to youngest) Fridleif, Radbard, Dunwat, Sigurd, Bjorn, Agnar, Ivar, Ragnald, Hwitserk, Erik and Ubbe. But once again, there is little known about the validity of Ragnar being these men’s father even though Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, and Ubbe were real historical figures.

Ragnar Lothbrok and sons Hvirtsek, Bjorn, Ivan Ubbe, and Sigurd
Ragnar Lothbrok and sons Hvirtsek, Bjorn, Ivan Ubbe, and Sigurd | Source

This debate as to not only was Ragnar real or a conflation of other Viking heroes and rulers but as to his fathering these sons of history gets muddied in the television series as with the order of their births and significance of their position. In the television series, Bjorn Ironside is the oldest son, fathered by Ragnar’s first wife, the shield-maiden Lagertha. However, Saxo Grammaticus tells that Bjorn was produced by Ragnar’s second wife, Thora. Confusing this further, Fridleif is left out of the series, and Ragnar’s second wife is not Thora but Aslaug the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr. (4) We also never hear of Radbard, Dunwat, Agnar, and Ragnald or Erik. Ubbe plays a significant role in the television series and yet he too is misplaced and being the second oldest while Saxo’s lineage places him as the youngest and also of Ragnar’s last wife.

Ultimately the entire concept of Ragnar’s son’s is all conjecture and open to interpretation of sources, with the existence of Ragnar himself at the source of conjecture. In a commentary on Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, Hilda Ellis Davidson argues that "certain scholars in recent years have come to accept at least part of Ragnar's story as based on historical fact" (5) while Katherine Holman points out that "although his sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived, and he seems to be an amalgam of several different historical figures and pure literary invention." (6)

Interestingly enough, the television series embraces many characters whose historicity is documented, yet again takes some liberty with their associations. The Viking chieftain Rollo is portrayed in the series as Ragnar’s brother, but once again, there is no evidence to support this. Rollo was granted the land around the mouth of the Seine in France by the French king Charles the Simple in 911. Rollo accepted Christendom and founded the race of people subsequently known as the Normans. This is actually portrayed in the television series, yet Rollo early on the series was always portrayed as a defeated man who was always second to his brother Ragnar. The idea that they were brothers makes for a good television, however, if Ragnar did indeed exist and the tale of his coming to Paris true, it is possible that Rollo and Ragnar would have known each other. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Rollo’s Frankish wife, Gisla, who is portrayed as the daughter of Charles the Simple, is doubtful and his marriage to Poppa, daughter of Berengar the Count of Rennes, is impossible to verify. (7) What is known is that he was the third great grandfather of William I (William the Conqueror).

Statue of Rollo in Rouen
Statue of Rollo in Rouen | Source

Many of the stories presented in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum are presented in the television series, albeit modified versions. In season 2’s episode “Blood Eagle” for his betrayal against Ragnar, Viking leader Jarl Borg is executed by what is known as the blood-eagle, however, there are no known references of this being a common practice among the Vikings and appears later in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum when Ragnar’s son’s enact revenge on King Ælla for the death of their father by the act as well as salting his flesh. (8)

Another is in season 4’s episode “Promised” where Lagertha kills Earl Kalf on their wedding day and claims sole earldom. This matches up mostly with Saxo’s account of Lagertha returning to Norway, having a quarrel with her husband and then killing him with a spearhead concealed under her clothing determining that she "usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him. (9)

Lagertha, lithography by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)
Lagertha, lithography by Morris Meredith Williams (1913) | Source

The contrasts between paganism and Christianity are very important to the series as well as the actual history of the Vikings. The series’ first season introduces the attack on a monastery at Lindisfarne and the capture of Athelstan, a Christian monk. Throughout the series, Athelstan’s presence is critical in the transformation of not only Ragnar, but in those around him. Ragnar’s friend and shipbuilder, Floki, is dedicated to “the gods” and see’s Athelstan’s presence as an affront to their pagan gods. The conflicts between the English and French Christians and the pagan Vikings, plays a foundational role in the entire series.

In the end it is clear that with the varying accounts and inconclusiveness of the historicity, the television series Vikings has made a program that presents historical fiction that is exciting to watch as well as one that piques the viewers interest. It presents compelling stories that leave the viewer wanting to know more about the character or event, which in turn leads them to historical research that presents equally compelling stories. Unlike many historically fictitious programs, that skew the historicity of the subject matter to the point it doesn’t even come close to resembling any of the recorded history, Vikings wets the taste buds of history and makes a period, so often overlooked into, something fascinating and actually enjoyable to study.

Footnotes and Bibliography

[1] IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2306299/

[2] Rosedahl, The Vikings, p197

[3] Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History, Books I-IX, p194

[4] The Story of the Volsungs (Volsunga Saga)

[5] Davidson, 1979 p277.

[6] Holman, 2003, p220.

[7] van Houts 2000, p.14.

[8] Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History, Books I-IX

[9] Saxo, p189

Bibliography

Anonymous. The Story of the Volsungs, (Volsunga Saga). Edited by Magnússon Eiríkr, & William Morris. n.d.

Grammaticus, Saxo. Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson. Translated by Peter Fisher. BOYE6, 1979.

—. The Danish History, Books I-IX. Translated by Oliver Elton. New York: Norroena Society, 1905.

Holman, Katherine. Historical Dictionary of the Vikings. Lanaham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. London: Penguin Group, 1998.

van Houts, Elizabeth. The Normans in Europe. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Vikings. n.d. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2306299/.

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