Big fans of television series available for binge-watching after the kids go to sleep, my husband and I recently worked through the first three seasons of the History Channel’s hit Vikings. So far, the series has followed the rise of Scandinavian Ragnar Lothbrok from farmer to earl to king and his growing interest in Western Europe and mostly successful exploits in England and France. Although roundly criticized for its historical inaccuracies, Vikings is loosely based on Scandinavian figures and events passed down through the oral tradition to writers who finally recorded them during the late Middle Ages. It includes the infamous Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, for instance, as well as the figure of Rollo, known in history as having founded the Scandinavian settlement of Normandy and as the great-great-great grandfather of William the Conqueror. The character of Ragnar himself is based on a legendary king and hero, said to have battled Charlemagne and borne important warrior sons (the same sons whom he is shown to have fathered in the show as well). The accuracy of the legends of Ragnar are debated by historians, some saying that they are based in truth and others perceiving them as mostly fictional. Vikings admittedly plays fast and loose with history, combining legends from diverse regions of Scandinavia (by, for instance, depicting Rollo as Ragnar’s brother) and often flouting the chronology of historical occurrences (by placing Ragnar in the time of Charles II’s rule instead of Charlemagne’s, to name one example). Moreover, while many of the events depicted in the show might plausibly have happened within the Scandinavian cultures of the early Middle Ages, others seem unlikely. The intense (and often homoerotic) friendship that develops between Ragnar and Athelstan, a monk who Ragnar captures in the Lindisfarne raid, is one such fabrication, perhaps unrealistic but effectively used in the show to heighten one of the central tensions of the series—between the paganism of the Scandinavians and the Christianity of the Western Europeans.
Athelstan originally perceives the Vikings as heralds of Satan, sent from God as punishment for the sins of man, but he comes to respect and love Ragnar, teaching him the language of the English and sharing information about the cities and cultures of Western Europe. When he is first taken captive, Athelstan brings a religious text with him to Scandinavia, and he is shown as reading it faithfully during his first few months as a slave to Ragnar and his family. He also maintains his practice of tonsure, very painfully and bloodily using a dull blade to shave the top of his head. But, as he becomes more and more integrated into Ragnar’s family and community, Athelstan begins to doubt the existence and power of Christ. He calls out to God, saying that, for the first time in his life, he cannot feel His presence. Eventually, Athelstan’s holy book disintegrates, and he begins wearing his hair in the style of the Scandinavians. He accepts an arm ring from Ragnar when the latter becomes earl, thus pledging his allegiance to Ragnar and the ways of the Scandinavians. In Season 2, Athelstan returns to England to raid with Ragnar and, through a series of extraordinary events, becomes the prisoner—and confidant—of the intelligent but morally dubious King Ecbert of Wessex. At this point, Athelstan eagerly returns to the kind of writing that he once did at the monastery, this time transcribing Ecbert’s secret Roman scrolls. He is unable to resume priesthood, however, professing that he has strayed too far from his Christian beliefs. A dark beast—symbolic perhaps of his sin against God or maybe of the duty that he now owes to Odin—haunts him in waking dreams, and he seems to feel, at once, disloyal to Christ and to the belief system of the Scandinavians. Athelstan even admits to Ecbert that Scandinavian customs are, in some ways, superior to English customs. When given the opportunity, Athelstan leaves England, to reside again in Scandinavia with Ragnar, who offers him affection and protection—as well as a somewhat more consistent moral code than Ecbert’s.
In his interactions with both Ragnar and Ecbert, Athelstan acts—sometimes unwittingly—as an agent of what either king, and certainly the show’s viewers, might perceive as “progress.” As a former monk, he is a learned man, and he affirms Ecbert’s appreciation for Roman architecture, art, and literature. He agrees with Ecbert that the Christians have much to learn from pagans—presumably both Roman and Scandinavian—and encourages Ecbert’s curiosity in Scandinavian customs and his decision to allow the Scandinavians to settle in Wessex. Athelstan shares information with Ragnar about England and France that ultimately facilitates profitable Scandinavian raids, settlement in the fertile regions of Western Europe, and adoption of important technological advances in farming equipment (a plough in Season 2) and weaponry (a cross-bow in Season 3). On many occasions, Athelstan acts as translator between the Scandinavians and the Western Europeans, enabling that which we know to be the massive changes in the cultures and languages of Western Europe that the Viking settlements ultimately produced. Perhaps most importantly, Athelstan promotes the blending of traditions, teaching Ragnar to recite the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before taking up arms himself to fight in his now beloved friend’s battle for the kingship of Scandinavia. Indeed, Athelstan seems to embody cultural exchange, which both Ragnar and Ecbert value, at least in part, and certainly that many 21st-century viewers imagine as progressive in our age of globalization.
(As another example of how Vikings plays with history, we might note that Ecbert, Athelstan, and Athelstan’s son Alfred, borne of Athelstan’s affair with Ecbert’s daughter-in-law and so far fiercely protected by Ecbert despite the infant’s well-known status as a bastard, are all also based on historical figures. The historical Ecbert was a Christian king of Wessex who battled regularly with the pagan Vikings. Alfred the Great was Ecbert’s grandson, and he made peace with the Scandinavians after their king Gunthrum was baptized. Finally, the historical Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred, and he ousted the sitting Scandinavian ruler from the Viking settlement of York. As with their counterparts in the show, the lives and times of these three figures were very much influenced by the conflicts—and blending—of English culture and Viking culture as well as Christianity and paganism.)
Late in Season 3, however, Athelstan’s symbology in the show shifts. No longer does he seem to promote the blending of traditions but, instead, advocates for a return to seeing Christianity as distinct from—and superior to—paganism. He experiences a sign from God and returns with fervor to his Christian faith. After a scene in which he seems to re-baptize himself in the waters off the coast of Scandinavia, he tosses his arm ring out to sea. Athelstan then announces to Ragnar that he has been born again and that he can no longer stay in Ragnar’s kingdom. Ragnar refuses to allow him to go, saying that Athelstan is the only person who he can truly trust, and the scene ends with Athelstan reaffirming his dedication to Ragnar’s planned attack on Paris. In some ways, this seems another example of Athelstan’s ability to blend belief systems: he is renewed in his Christianity but willing to facilitate a Viking raid of an important Christian city, indeed, the center of Western Christendom during much of the Middle Ages. But, when Athelstan is killed by a member of Ragnar’s inner circle who fears Athelstan’s growing Christian influence over the king, Ragnar remembers him as a Christian, first and foremost. Ragnar carries Athelstan’s dead body to the top of a tall hill and buries him there, intending to lay him to rest as close to Athelstan’s god as he can get him. He then places Athelstan’s cross necklace around his own neck and shaves his head in a bloody scene reminiscent of Athelstan’s shaving episode at the beginning of the series. As Vikings creator Michael Hirst has pointed out in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, here, Ragnar adopts a version of the Christian practice of tonsure to signal the significant change that he has experienced as a result of his friend’s death.
Like Athelstan during his time in Wessex, Ragnar seems caught between Christianity and paganism at this point in the show. When he is injured in the raid on Paris and fears that he is dying, he imagines two competing visions of that which awaits him after death. One of these is the figure of Odin, pictured throughout the series as a black silhouette with a raven on his shoulder; the other is Athelstan, who seems to function, for Ragnar, as a stand-in for the Christian God. Ragnar reaches toward Athelstan, but the latter turns to walk away, and Ragnar is left with Odin. Fearing eternal separation from his friend, Ragnar bargains with the Parisians, agreeing to send his warriors back to Scandinavia in exchange for a large quantity of gold and, more importantly, his own baptism and Christian burial. When he is baptized in front of his shocked and angry kinsmen, Ragnar seems to have finally chosen, like Athelstan, Christianity over paganism. After he is carried inside the Parisian cathedral for his final rites, however, Ragnar jumps up from his casket and brutally slays the Christian priest who had previously expressed revulsion at the prospect of having to baptize him. Ragnar escapes the battle that ensues and, then, in the final scene of the season, is shown aboard a Viking longship bound for home in Scandinavia.
Given Althelstan’s and Ragnar’s conflicted thoughts and contradictory behaviors in Season 3, it is difficult to interpret the show’s message regarding Christian conversion. Throughout Season 1 and Season 2, Athelstan suffers with his conflicting feeling of duty toward Christ and his attraction to the Vikings gods, but he lives with both and seems to work toward an ethic of cultural exchange that perhaps most viewers in the 21st-century can get behind. For his part, Ragnar is presented as a visionary, a leader who imagines a better future for his people through raiding and settlement in Western Europe. His attachment to Athelstan is used to highlight the conflicts between Christianity and paganism in the Viking Age, but viewers are also able to see it as indicative of Ragnar’s willingness to embrace the kind of progress embodied in the priest-turned-Viking-warrior, the progress of economic and financial advancement for the Scandinavians as well as of the cultural blending that occurred between Scandinavians and Western Europeans during this historical period. Given their characterization throughout the series, what are we to make of Athelstan’s and Ragnar’s actions in Season 3? Is Athelstan still representative of progress? Is Ragnar still dedicated to progress? Maybe most importantly, is cultural blending still inherent to progress?
Since Athelstan is gone from the show by the end of the season, we are left to reckon most violently with Ragnar’s lingering dedication to his dead friend and his resulting baptism, as well as his decision in the last episode to kill the Christian priest and return to Scandinavia with his people. I would argue that there are ways to read Ragnar’s actions in the last few episodes as in keeping with his role as visionary. It is plausible, for example, that Ragnar is baptized only to ensure that he rejoin Athelstan in the afterlife but that he intends to remain loyal to Scandinavian traditions during his remaining time on Earth and, thus, that the baptism signals only the further blending of cultural systems that we have witnessed heretofore through Athelstan. Ragnar’s baptism might also serve as simply one more move toward the progress that he sees as essential for his people. Historically, of course, the adoption—or partial, or even feigned, adoption—of Christianity eased the way for Scandinavian groups’ acceptance in Western European trading and settlement. Renowned Viking historian Anders Winroth offers further clarification of the reasons for conversion, stating that the Scandinavians came to perceive Christianity as prestigious by associating it with the material wealth that they found in raiding monasteries and, ironically, that Scandinavian leaders sometimes used the practice of converting potential followers to Christianity as a way of convincing them to dedicate themselves to these leaders’ future raids in Western Europe. Whether to align their beliefs with those of new friends, to appease the Christian rulers of Western Europe, or to gain Scandinavian followers, masses of Scandinavians did eventually convert to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages. Ragnar’s baptism, therefore, seems at least somewhat historically plausible and, in that it foreshadows the future of conversion in store for his people, in keeping with his characterization as adept at navigating the tides of change in order advance the interests of his kinsmen.
Nonetheless, it is difficult (and disappointing) to imagine this show as depicting progress as simply a matter of conversion to Christianity instead of a process of cultural blending. My hope is that Ragnar and Ecbert, as well as other important figures in the show, will continue to contend, in complex and convincing ways, with the clashes between their two cultures and belief systems in Season 4, scheduled for release in early 2016—despite the show’s loss of Athelstan as a figurehead of cultural exchange.
|Ready for a new show . . .|
Until then, my husband I will have to find a new series. Any suggestions?