Vikings are awesome. Today the ancient Norse have attained a mythical reputation, blended with dragon ships, unstoppable warriors and grandiose gods. Vikings show up in a lot of places. Tuesday and Thursday are both named after Norse gods. Thor has proven to be a resilient – and eventually very popular – character for Marvel. Words like ‘Valkyrie’ and ‘Valhalla’ are reasonably common. There is a point to be argued that Conan and his barbarian genre owed a lot to the Viking mythos. Japanese animators and comics love to forage through viking folklore. There is a music genre called Viking Metal. Eric. Hagar.
Yeah, the world digs vikings. But the knowledge we pass around really tells us nothing about who the vikings actually were. For hundreds of years the narrative was largely of seafaring marauders who laid waste to whatever came in their way. So when the History Channel decided to take a spot at the high stakes TV drama table, it had its theme. It didn’t even need to change the name. ‘Vikings’ says it all.
Ragnar Lothbrok is just a farmer, but not really content with his place in life. As a viking he is under the rule of his local Earl, an old but cunning warrior who has grown complacent and corrupt. Yet Lothbrok is not interested in any of that – all he wants to do is sails ships to the West, following a story that there are lands not far away.
This is more or less the starting setup for Vikings, but things don’t stay that way for long. The first season has an epic buildup as Ragnar heads on a collision course with his ruler, the Earl Haraldson – epically portrayed by Gabriel Byrne. But this is Ragnar’s story. He is loosely based on Ragnar Lodbruk, a historically uncertain person said to have fathered several great Viking heroes we do know existed. So he is the perfect canvas for a fictional story based in quite a bit of fact.
Lothbruk’s rise is joined by a cast of regular characters, like his mercurial brother Rollo, Ragnar’s indomitable wife Lagertha, Athelstan the priest and fan-favourite Floki, the boat builder. The story moves fast – if Vikings deserves criticism, it’s that the characters tend to shift motivational gears quite fast. But if you can hold with the slightly jarring character development, it tells a great tale with a good deal of action.
These are of course vikings. Being of the History Channel, the show aims to be accurate about viking society and representing facts in terms of who the vikings were. Their reputation for being fierce warriors and a scourge upon other nations is completely intact. The show is a bit slow at first to roll out action set pieces, but soon finds a nice balance between vikings kicking ass and kicking their heels. The battle scenes are great; the Norsemen and women show why they were not to be taken lightly. But we also get more of a view of how the vikings lived their days and ran their business in brutal fashion, though the show is not as graphic as cable dramas.
Yet this isn’t a history lesson. Vikings never feels like you are being taken back into time. Instead the audience is drawn into another world – the world of Ragnar Lothbrok, viking legend. It is ultimately his story, which also happens to be a sweeping tour of the raiders who changed the Western European world over a thousand years ago. It’s hard not to give more away, but the show’s two current seasons have kept raising the bar and fans are eagerly awaiting the third.
Last Updated: September 2, 2014