Vikings TV Series: Everything you Need to Know
Vikings. These Scandinavian peoples left their mark on Europe in the early Middle Ages, from the 8th to the 11th century. Since 2013, these hordes of warriors from the Nordic countries have resurfaced with the Irish-Canadian Vikings series, broadcast on the History channel in Canada and the United States and on Canal+ in France. A frankly daring gamble.
Indeed, there are very few concrete testimonies of this tumultuous past. So it took a lot of courage - and perseverance - for British showrunner (writer/director/producer, editor's note) Michael Hirst to make Vikings the most realistic fiction possible on the life of these famous "Northmen", literally: the Men of the North.
For if the Vikings have long since nourished popular imagery in the arts - from painting to cinema, literature, opera and comic strips - (the famous warrior wearing a horned helmet: a pure invention in reality!), they have very little been the subject of a work faithful to History.
The creator of Vikings has surrounded himself with eminent specialists to be as close as possible to reality
To create Vikings, Michael Hirst has surrounded himself with the greatest specialists in order to anchor his story in the closest historical reality. Thus, in the unpublished second part of season 4, broadcast in February 2017 on Canal+, the hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) sees his aura increasingly threatened by one of his sons, Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), a future conquering king whose existence has been confirmed by historians as Ivar the Ditch.
As in previous seasons, these new episodes of season 4, between chaos and tragic deaths, follow in great detail the adventures of these great Nordic fighters during invasions aboard their drakkars while other companions of fortune, beautifully dressed, plunge the viewer into an austere daily life where religion and emancipated women play a major role. But is the series credible for all that? Didn't it sometimes go astray at the whim of its creators' imagination? Inquiry.
Who's Michael Hirst, the "Vikings dad"?
Born on 21 September 1952 in Bradford, England, this former Oxford student, specialising in the History of England, very quickly turned to screenwriting. He is the creator of The Tudors (2007-2010) and was producer on The Borgias (2011-2013), two historical series. Also noteworthy is his presence as co-producer on the unique season of the series Camelot (2011), which recounted the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table. For the small anecdote, his two daughters, Maude and Georgia Hirst, made furtive appearances in the Vikings series.
I. Looters thirsty for conquest?
In the show, the Viking people are portrayed primarily as conquerors. Soon, in season 1, Ragnar Lothbrok, the hero, is plagued by a "thirst for elsewhere". Unsatisfied with the political softness of his local lord, he decides to lead a secret expedition to the western lands.
This is the beginning of the adventure... and of wealth. In Vikings, it is mainly the kingdoms of Northumbria (England) and Western Francia (France) that bear the brunt of these "barbarians from the North", dixit the king of the Franks Charles III (played by Lothaire Bluteau), but the terrible "jarls", these kings of the sea, have imposed their fury of living on all of Europe, and far beyond, for more than 300 years.
In the show, Northumbria (England) and Western Francia (France) are the targets of the Vikings who, in reality, have imposed themselves all over Europe .
These Scandinavian warriors used to ravage everything in their path: rival armies decimated, treasures plundered, civilians murdered, buildings burned down... Scenes that we see very regularly in Vikings.
But it is important to know that these murders and lootings were largely exaggerated by the grimoires of the Western monks, who depicted them as bloodthirsty giants, but also by the Skaldes, glorious songs of the North written by Scandinavian poets... 200 years after the end of the Viking era.
Michael Hirst and his team of advisors drew on these written accounts to focus on the invasions, while showing that the Vikings had more commercial motivations than a desire for domination. In France, the raids did not cease until the first third of the 11th century.
In the 9th century, the Vikings shook medieval Europe with their incursions which, as the series shows, often turned into real assaults.
Like Ragnar and Haraldson in the series, rivalries between Vikings were not uncommon. To do justice, they could settle their differences with a duel.
In order to conquer many territories, the Vikings crossed seas and oceans and sailed on rivers.
The great Viking expeditions from the 8th to the 11th century
Even if we cannot speak of an Empire, the extent of the territories conquered by the Vikings is immense. These people were, without a doubt, one of the most expansionist in the world. Great explorers and warriors, they reached the Atlantic coasts of Europe, the Mediterranean, the East and even America (Vinland), while establishing trading posts and colonies along the way. The series, however, has not yet shown everything...
Was Paris really besieged by the Vikings?
In season 3 of Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother Rollon set out to attack Paris. Pure narrative invention? Not at all. Everything that is shown in this season is true to reality.
In 845, a Viking chieftain named Ragnar set off well into the mouth of the Seine, not far from Le Havre, with an impressive fleet of 120 ships and some 5,000 warriors. On their way, these "Northmen" pillaged the cities of Rouen and Saint-Germain-en-Laye before reaching Paris, which at the time was only a fortified town around the islands of La Cité and Saint-Louis.
In the series, it is Rollon who will inherit this kingdom which will then become Normandy. But if it is indeed Rollon who will establish himself in France, he was not at all contemporary of Ragnar Lothbrok and had no family ties with him, as shown in the series. Vikings therefore makes a chronological and familial twist.
Chronological, not historical freedoms!
As we can see in the series, when the warriors were announced to be arriving soon, the population panicked and fled inland. And if King Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, faced these invaders, the Frankish soldiers were quickly exterminated.
Ragnar left Paris on the king's gracious payment, promising never to return. He did not keep his word for long, since Paris was invaded three times later, in 856, 861 and 885. Emperor Charles the Fatty got rid of these invaders once and for all by paying a heavy price.
The Viking writers deliberately mixed two attacks on Paris, that of 845, under Charles the Bald, and that of 885, under Charles the Fatty. During this second offensive, it was Count Eudes who protected the Parisian city, but the writers made Eudes a follower of Charles the Bald, and not Charles the Fat One.
We find this chronological problem with the Anglo-Saxon kings. In Vikings, King Aelle of Northumbria and King Egbert of Wessex are presented as contemporaries, whereas Aelle became king 23 years after Egbert's death.
II. Did Ragnar Lothbrok really exist?
Ragnar is like the Viking Vercingetorix. Scandinavian literature and tradition give him many glorious facts, but the historical accounts of the time are confused and contradictory. According to La Geste du Danois, by the medieval chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, this warrior would have succeeded his father at a very young age and would have had, from his four wives, a vast descent.
But in order to feed his hero in Vikings, Michael Hirst was rather inspired by the Scandinavian literary saga Ragnar in the Hairy Braids, where he marries a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Aslaug, who appears in the series as actress Alyssa Sutherland.
We also find in these opuses composed in the 12th or 13th century, the pious and protective side of Ragnar in the series. To tell the story of the destiny of this semi-legendary king, who would have reigned at an undetermined time between 750 and 850, the creator of the series had anticipated the critics in an interview on the History channel.
For him, the character did exist but his actions would be an amalgam of several historical figures. "It is highly unlikely that Ragnar carried out one tenth of the political or warlike acts attributed to him. But it doesn't matter, he is an exciting character," he said. So much so that it makes him (almost) immortal. Indeed, between the attack of Lindisfarne, in the first episode of season 1, and the pact of his brother Rollon with the King of the Franks in the last episode of season 3, it actually happens ... 118 years!