Michael Hirst’s historical drama Vikings returns to the History Channel in the US today following a mid-season break. 1 After failing to invade Paris in the previous episode, Ragnar Lothbrok appears to be aged, ragged and potentially nearing the end of his run, leading the way for his sons to take centre stage. After following the story of Vikings up to this point, I became fascinated to learn how similar Hirst’s recreation of Ragnar is to the historical record.
Therein lies a dilemma. Research on Ragnar shows that he suffers from a severe identity crisis. Different sagas show different achievements and backgrounds, some are exaggerated with deeds of dragon slaying, suggesting that Ragnar could be mythical. Rory McTurk offers the best explanation, arguing that different characters called Ragnar, Lothbrok, as well as other names and myths, have been mixed together into a single figure through translations over the centuries. 2 This leaves a consistent representation of the character unlikely.
To solve this problem, Hirst appears to have pieced together his own Ragnar based on selected sources with clear distortions. The most prominent of these is the Gesta Danorum, a thirteenth-century saga where Ragnar succeeds his father as king and conquers across Europe and Asia. He meets his end in King Ælle’s snake-pit while attempting to invade Northumbria, a tale also recalled in The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and his Sons. The final source, the Annals of St Bertin, notes an invasion on Paris in 845 led by a Viking chief who left after Charles the Bald paid large quantities of silver.
In Vikings, the deeds of Ragnar are very different. Unlike the Gesta Danorum’s account, Ragnar becomes king through combat rather than inheritance. His fame comes not from wide-spread conquest, but rather through early western voyages. These include the plunder of Lindisfarne, a deed historically credited to an unnamed raiding party, an invasion against King Ælle’s kingdom in Northumbria where Ragnar perished in the sources, and an alliance with Wessex, an act associated with the Viking king, Halfdan. The TV show depicts Ragnar failing to invade Paris, unlike the historical figure.
Ragnar’s personal relationships are also embellished as they receive little mention in the sagas. Vikings alters Ragnar’s relationships to ‘flesh-out’ the character. Lagertha and Aslaug are wives of Ragnar, but are unrelated in sources. In the Gesta Danorum, Lagertha is Ragnar’s first wife whom he divorces to marry Thora. While in in The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and his Sons, Ragnar weds Princess Aslaug after the death of Thora. The reason for this change can only be to form a ‘love triangle’ complex for drama, while allowing for the inclusion of stronger female characters.
The majority of Ragnar’s relationships in Vikings however are entirely fictional, including the presence of Rollo as Ragnar’s brother and Athelstan, the Christian monk. Rollo’s defence of Paris took place in 911, over sixty years after Ragnar’s invasion, but placing them opposite each other as siblings makes for an engaging storyline. The inclusion of Athelsthan, a fictional Christian monk, allows Hirst to explore the psychological conflict of Norse and Christian contact within Ragnar. This likely represents the founding of Christianity under the Viking king, Olaf Tryggvason.
Do these distortions really matter? Perhaps more concerning is the intent to portray Ragnar as much more than the heroic king he was in Viking mythology. Hirst has created a new Ragnar who sponsored ship development, navigation methods, invaded Lindisfarne, formed alliances with Wessex and potentially introduced Christianity to the pagans. 3
The historian may well roll their eyes at the inaccuracies. However, many of the Viking sagas were not historical accounts, but fantastical dramas created by distorting older tales for entertainment. Here Vikings shares common ground. For as Hirst stated in an interview:
‘Writing a drama is different from writing a documentary. You have to flesh out the characters, you have to write about their internal and emotional lives.’
Vikings has its successes for portraying Viking culture realistically. But by attributing the Viking achievements to one character, Vikings educates its audience through developed characterisation which at last gives the Northmen their own voice.
Lee Norton is a student in the University of Sheffield History Department. His interests include Medieval and Early Modern European history, with a particular focus on Viking Age mythology, culture and contacts with the wider world.
Image: Norsemen Landing in Iceland, Guerber, H. A. (1909), [via Wikicommons].
- The UK date is as yet unconfirmed. ↩
- McTurk, R., Studies in Ragnar’s Saga Loðbrókar and its Major Scandinavian Analogues (Oxford, 1991). ↩
- In fact all of these feats are discussed suspiciously close together in Gwyn Jones’ sub-chapter,’The Movement South and South-West to 954′, from A History of the Vikings (2nd edn. Oxford, 1984) ↩