It’s been more than fifty years since Kirk Douglas and his production company produced what most people still consider the best Viking movie ever made, The Vikings. Within the limits of the information available at the time, they made a good faith effort to do the thing relatively authentically. We’ve learned much in the years since, especially due to advances in archaeology, and many reenactors around the world (of whom I am among the least) work hard to re-create authentic Viking Age life. Dozens of accurate replicas of Viking ships have been built and put to sea, to the wonder and delight of many. The time would seem to be ripe for a depiction of the Viking Age that would surpass Kirk Douglas’s film in portraying of one of the most exciting and colorful eras in human history.
The History Channel’s new series, Vikings, is not it.
I could say a lot about the technical faults of this series — the nonsensical idea that 8th or 9th century Scandinavians had never heard of the British Isles, the placement of the “steering board” (starboard) on the port side of the ship — but I want to discuss here what I see — on the basis of viewing the first episode — as the philosophical and political underpinnings of the thing. And no, I’m not joking. There’s ideology being flogged here, and it’s more significant to our history than you probably think.
The villain of the series thus far is the chieftain who rules over the hero Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), a man called Jarl (Earl) Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). This title formulation, by the way, is a dumb one, equivalent to calling the queen of England “Queen Windsor.” Jarl Haraldson rules like a feudal lord, dominating the governing assembly (the “Thing”), bullying and threatening everyone. Ragnar has a dream of sailing west to raid the British Isles, but the jarl insists there is no such place. He threatens Ragnar with the confiscation of his property if he doesn’t get in line.
This is not in any way an accurate depiction of the political system of the Vikings. Rather, it’s an expression of the tropes to which lazy contemporary scriptwriters are prone. Every story has to be about some dynamic young person (who wants freedom) in conflict with a hidebound old conservative, who lives by oppression.
The problem — and this is serious in a series coming from a network that calls itself the History Channel — is that this is precisely the opposite of the political dynamic that was actually playing out in the Viking Age.
In the Viking Age, there was indeed an old tradition — but it was a tradition of freedom and democracy. And there were fresh new ideas about — but they were ideas of centralization and autocracy.
As it happens I’m currently in the process of translating a Norwegian book whose title means Norway in the Viking Age (though we’re planning to jazz that up for the American market). The author is Prof. Torgrim Titlestad of the University of Stavanger. His thesis is that Viking society (which had roots in earlier Germanic tribalism of the sort described by Tacitus) was essentially democratic, centered in local, district, and regional Things, with authority vested in twelve-man courts and Lawspeakers, whose duty it was to recite one-third of the law each year. These were not egalitarian assemblies — the chieftains and magnates certainly had power and exercised it — but they were essentially democratic, and every free man had a voice. When pushed by the chieftain, they were more than willing to push back.
As pictured in the Vikings series, the Thing is held in the jarl’s house and is totally under his control. The jarl of this story acts in ways the real Vikings of that time would never have tolerated. Indeed, one of the old Norwegian Thing laws (unfortunately impossible to date) makes it a civil duty to rebel against a chieftain who arrogates too much power to himself. Things were held in the open air, in a central, neutral location offering no special advantage to the chieftain.
Now it’s true that the Viking Age was an age of change in Scandinavia. This Thing system came under attack from “new thinkers” who fancied they had a better way. These new thinkers were primarily Christians (an awkward fact for me, as a Christian, to swallow, but there it is — and in fact there were Christians on both sides) who had picked up fashionable new ideas in continental Europe. These new ideas argued that everything would work much better if all the power was placed in the hands of a king, who would centrally manage the realm. The old democratic Things, in this view, were outmoded relics of a barbaric and heathen past, due to be stamped out.
In other words, the liberals were autocratic and freedom-hating, and the conservatives were democratic and freedom-loving.
Very much like our own time.
Which probably explains why the people at the History Channel got it so wrong. Telling it right would be Hollywood blasphemy.