Vikings, Season 1
2013, The History Channel
It’s a show called Vikings. It’s a drama. The protagonists are vikings. They hit people with swords and axes and they sail around in longships and kill Christians and take slaves. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and the acting is remarkable. The writing wavers from good to great. The historical accuracy is not particularly high but is better than some people are giving the show credit for.
And it’s about vikings.
You’re either going to want to watch the show or not based on that. There’s little I would want to do to convince you otherwise.
What’s the show about? As I watch it, it’s a show about death. It’s not gory like a war film. The death in it is not by large glorious, not even gratuitous. But the show is about death, and the emotional toll of death, viewed from outside the Christian/Atheist lens chosen by most of the media we’re presented with.
Now I’m going to jump subjects all the sudden and talk about pirates. Golden Age pirates. “Yarr matey,” “walk the plank,” all that shit. There’s this strange thing that happens in anarchist subculture (and punk subculture, and probably everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees) where people idolize pirates. They say things like “pirates were egalitarians” and “pirates didn’t care about gender” and “pirates hated capitalism” or whatever. And those statements? While there are kernels of truth to be found here and there in them if you cherry-pick, those are myths.
Pirates were, on the whole, slaving, murderous thugs. They may or may not have had an honor among thieves, or an equality between them, but that didn’t stop them from being the aforementioned slaving, murderous thugs.
In his excellent book on the subject, Life Under the Jolly Roger, anarchist author Gabriel Kuhn does a masterful job of, piece by piece, dismantling all the popular myths about Golden Age piracy. And then, more masterfully still, he picks up the pieces and weaves together an understanding of why, knowing what we know, we still love us some goddam pirates.
Do you see where I’m going with this? The vikings of history and the Vikings of the History Channel alike were/are slavers and murderers. All the hints of egalitarianism we might find are just us projecting what values we hope they might have or represent. (Conservative blogger Lars Walker lambasts the show for presenting the “democratic” real life vikings—in which every non-slave male had a vote—as autocratic.) But there’re still some fascinating philosophical themes that draw us to vikings, the same as we’re drawn to pirates.
With the pirates, Kuhn draws our attention to the fact that, whatever else they were, pirates were people (mostly men, honestly) who lived outside the state. They lived outside the predominant logic of domination. They did what they wanted to do. They lived lives of excess and were generous with their wealth. This did not make them moral, it did not make them revolutionaries. It also left them very, very short-lived. But those of us who dream of escape will always, on some level, be drawn to pirates.
I watch Vikings because I love the writing and it’s gorgeous and I want to be Floki but with Ragnar’s haircut. I watch Vikings because I want to live in the woods and because there’s always going to be part of me that would rather face a world without antibiotics rather than a world with mass extinction and global warming. There’s a part of a lot of us that would rather die in battle or of a plague than full of tubes and wires. But more than that? I watch Vikings because I’m fascinated by these people who live outside the monotheistic/atheistic world I’m surrounded by in my daily life.
In one scene, an excited viking explains—to a Christian—what life is like in the afterlife Valhalla: immortal soldiers feasting and drinking all day, fighting and killing one another every night, then rising again to do the same each morning. A paradise. Yet, also, by one way of looking at it, an accurate description of human history—only, of course, we each only get one go at it.
The viking culture presented is “civilized” by many understandings of the word—it is sedentary, it has social hierarchy, it has animal husbandry (and presumably agriculture). But at the same time, it is a society that simply accepts (one understanding of) what it means to be a human animal. It is a society that accepts the violence and death inherent in the feral world, the violence and death that modern society tries so hard to hide and deny. It’s the vikings’ very barbarism that draw us to them, sacrifices and all.
Any other anarchist morals I could try to draw from the show would be completely disingenuous. Sure, there’s a seditious subplot, but it’s the least-anarchist version of rebellion you could imagine. Yes, there are women warriors (shieldmaidens) represented throughout the show, but there are almost as many “rape to move the plot along” moments as there are empowered women characters. There are nods to egalitarianism here and there, but the main character keeps a slave.
If I were a fascist, I’d have an easier time coming up with praises for the themes of the show.
I’m glad I wasn’t born in medieval Scandinavia. I don’t idolize vikings or envy them their culture. But during the title sequence, while a body falls slowly into the depthless water and Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” plays, I feel a connection to something that draws me in.
Though as my friend said to me as I typed away online while he was watching Vikings, “I’m not sure Odin lets facebookers into Valhalla.”
Historical Accuracy: I don’t really care that much about historical accuracy. Obsession with historical accuracy is probably the main reason I never joined the Society for Creative Anachronism—despite its name, the society is remarkably uncreative with its anachronism. Some people have said that Vikings looks like “Skyrim the TV show.” I’m having a hard time interpreting that in a negative way.
I wouldn’t be upset if the show was more accurate, either, and I do like medieval european history enough to appreciate when people get it right. I’m no viking scholar, only someone with an amateur historian’s interest in medieval armor and weaponry. So all I know about what they got wrong is coming from Google and the odd research I’ve done on the period.
What did they get wrong? Their longboat has the steering board on the port side of the ship. Since “starboard” got its name from the steering board and “port” got its name from being the opposite side, where you could be next to the dock in port, this is apparently a rather strange mistake to make.
There wasn’t a death penalty in viking law, apparently—people just got kicked out. And it was legal to kill anyone who got kicked out. And viking society wasn’t as feudalistic as it is depicted in the show.
Apparently the vikings did, in fact, know there was land to the west of them, despite what the show would have us believe.
The armor is “wrong.” And it’s also awesome. And one of my favorite parts of the show. But what’s funny about this one is watching the internet historians argue over it. Because the vikings who fought in armor likely fought in full chainmail and wore metal helmets, the kinds with nasal guards. But apparently most vikings didn’t fight in armor at all, so the scrapped-together approach favored by the show doesn’t seem so bad afterall.
Most vikings didn’t use swords, just the rich ones. Most used spears and axes. They do use plenty of axes in the show, and I caught at least one “using the beard of the axe as a hook” in one fight, which is cool. The sword-and-shield fighting in the show looks wrong to me, but to be honest I don’t think that having spent hours of my life watching youtube videos of viking sword-and-shield fighting really makes me an expert, nor is it something I should admit to in print. And apparently, the duel itself is remarkably accurate, as are a large number of historical details.
There’s a lot of arguing about all the awesome haircuts in the show that make all the vikings look like badass crust punks and metalheads. But the historical record is looking pretty favorable on that account, since one of the only records we have included some guy who shaved all but one lock of hair on one side of his head.
Okay that’s all I can muster to care about historical accuracy.
Gender: Gender representation and women’s roles actually seem to get better and better as the season goes on. In the beginning, men rape women to show that they’re bad and one woman goes all viking on some random rapist guys as a way to introduce herself as a badass to the audience. By the end of the season, more and more women are just doing their thing, as peasants, rulers, warriors, and healers. It’s obviously a “manly” show, at the end of the day, however.
There’s definitely something to the protagonist’s relationship with his wife that is bothersome, but I suspect it was written that way intentionally.
Class: To be honest, I just don’t have interest in talking about class relations in Vikings. This shit is from before capitalism. Yeah, there’s some hierarchy and disparate levels of wealth. And there’s a bit of a (ahistorical, actually) thing where the protagonist picks himself up by his bootstraps and goes from happy middle class guy to… oh just watch the show. (Though if “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” more often meant killing the rich men who are exploiting your labor then I might be more alright with the phrase.)
Race: So there were definitely people of color throughout europe throughout the middle ages, but in my rigorous googling I can’t find any evidence that the vikings would have really encountered too many people of color during the period that this show covers. Leaving me with two interesting points about race in Vikings.
First of all, honestly? Stormfront and other white supremacist groups will probably love this shit. Contemporary “yay the pagan north” folks have an unfortunately tendency to also often be nazis. Now, as a fan of metal and neo-folk, I’m used to operating in the strange liminal cultural spaces that anarchists share with fascists. So I mostly just bring this up as an aside.
Secondly, Vikings actually does an interesting job of presenting white people in negative/strange/exoticized roles that media usually leaves for people of color. When was the last time you saw something about human sacrifice that wasn’t about Southeast Asia or Central America? Totems and religious drug use that wasn’t about Native Americans?