How Accurate Is: Vikings (TV Show, 2013-), S1E1

Hello everyone! Welcome to the first full post on ButISawItOnTV!

For the first subject, I have chosen to review the pilot episode of Vikings, a television show which has been airing on the History Channel since 2013. This is, in my opinion, a good subject to begin with because it is such a good representation of how television tends to adapt history (such as it is; Vikings isn’t based entirely on history in the first place, which I will get to in a second) to its needs once the screenwriting process begins. Now, before I continue, I feel I should say that there will be spoilers for the first episode, and potentially the entire show, of Vikings, so if that worries you, stopping reading now is probably a good idea. Furthermore, we are still trying to settle on many of the formatting and other design choices that we aim to establish for the site, so don’t be surprised if the first few posts are a little disorganized and different as far as design goes. Also, please let us know what you think of this format, with a (relatively) brief summary before the cut and a longer post after it, in the comments below. If you are interested in references, you can find them after the cut. So, with all of that out of the way, please join us in officially opening the very first full post of ButISawItOnTV! Thanks for joining us, and we hope you have a great time.

Summary:  Vikings evokes a strong historical atmosphere, but also makes plenty of changes to the source material.  Many of the changes made, however, are in the interest of a stronger story. My impression of the episode was a positive one; the characters were well established, and I particularly enjoyed the choice of sets and filming locations to bring an authentically medieval feeling to the table. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the episode, I couldn’t help but notice that major changes from the source material (the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum, by the chronicler Saxo, and the Tale of Ragnarr Lodbrok, by unknown sources; translated by Chris Van Dyke) include:

  • In both the Tale and the Gesta Danorum, Ragnar is the son of the King of Denmark, Sigurdr Ring (alternately, Siward Hring); in Vikings, Ragnar is a farmer. [1]
  • In Vikings, Ragnar seems to be the first person in Scandinavia who has ever heard of Britain; the rest believe it to be a legend. In fact, the raid on Lindesfarne which Lodbrok perpetrates in the show was likely not the first Viking raid on Britain.
    • To expand on this last point, the show seems to place Lodbrok approximately 70-100 years earlier in history than when he likely existed; the Lindesfarne raid took place in 793 CE, and only a few of the potential historical figures to whom Lodbrok can be tied were alive during this raid, much less sufficiently old to be raiding. (However, the chronicles do state that Ragnar began fighting at a very young age.)
  • In Vikings, Ragnar has only one son and one daughter, Bjorn and Gyda; in the two sources, he seems to have had as many as nine children (only three of whom were with Lagertha, whom he divorced, according to the Gesta, after “changing his love”). [2] Supposedly, it was some of his sons who invaded Northumbria at the head of the Great Heathen Army in 865 CE to avenge his death.
  • And more: For more detailed information on the historical accuracy of Vikings, continue past the link.


As previously stated, what little we know of Ragnar Lodbrok comes from two sagas: The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrokfrom the 13th century, and the Gesta Danorum, from the 12th (the links lead to PDF versions). Therefore, nothing can be certain as far as the historical “truth” goes; the sources date to three hundred years (minimum) after the events they claim took place. However, I will do my best to lay out, in detail, the differences between the TV show and the Gesta Danorum/Tale, as well as what we know of the historical situation. Keep in mind that so far I have only watched one episode, so some of my complaints may no longer apply by the current time; please let me know in the comments if so. My plan is that over the course of the posts about this show, I will make a more detailed post of the kind you see below every few posts, or when something sticks out to me. Let me know how this format works for you. Today, I will be talking about viking sea routes.

Viking Sea Routes

This is one thing that really bothered me while watching the episode: Ragnar suggests sailing west, and his brother says “we can’t sail across an open ocean”, his mind only changing when Ragnar produces the sun-board and stone, which together allow the vikings to continuously sail west rather than lose course. This has two implications: 1) the vikings have never heard of Britain, and 2) they have no way of crossing the North Sea. My question, therefore, is: where does Ragnar live? Both the Gesta and the Tale describe him as ruling Denmark, so this would seem to be the most obvious placement. [3] And, indeed, the village where he lives in the show is named Kattegat, which bears the same name as a sound in Denmark. Therefore, Ragnar would seem to live in Denmark. So wouldn’t it be easier to sail along the coast of the (modern-day) Netherlands and France and then up the English coast? Why make the dangerous North Sea Crossing? I hoped that I wasn’t the only one being bothered by these questions, so I made a map of viking sea routes leading to England (see above). If you look at the map, you will notice that while, yes, one possible route to Lindesfarne is directly across the North Sea, as proposed by Ragnar, another viable route would be to skirt the coastline and then sail up the English coast.[4] True, historically the vikings may have crossed the North Sea, as can be seen on the map; however, historically, Lindesfarne was also not the first Viking incursion in England, and so they would have had the knowledge to attempt the crossing. From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “787: …came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robber… These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.”[5]. This was a full six years before Lindesfarne, implying that the vikings had a fairly good idea of where and how wealthy the British isles were by 793 CE. Therefore, as the show runners have chosen to make Lindesfarne the first viking raid, it is unlikely that the vikings would have risked (or needed to risk) their ships crossing the North Sea for the first time, and would instead have sailed along the French coast.

This brings to a close our first full post. Thank you for reading, and please make any corrections, suggestions, and feedback on our format in the comments below. Stay tuned for both more posts on Vikings and for posts on other media, and follow us on Twitter and Tumblr for more information and up-to date notifications whenever a new post is made (hopefully). Have a good one!

References:

1 Chris Van Dyke, trans. Ragnars Saga: Lodbrokar. Denver: Cascadian Publishing, n.d.

2 Douglas B. Killings and David Widger, trans. The Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus. n.p, 2006.

3 Chris Van Dyke, trans. Ragnars Saga: Lodbrokar. Denver: Cascadian Publishing, n.d.

4 Cornell University. “World of the West Norse: Vikings in England and France.” Last modified May 17, 2015.

http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=32286&p=203484

5 John Allen Giles and James Ingram, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Great Britain: J.M Dent and sons, 1938.

Bibliography:

Chris Van Dyke, trans. Ragnars Saga: Lodbrokar. Denver: Cascadian Publishing, n.d.

Cornell University. “World of the West Norse: Vikings in England and France.” Last modified May 17, 2015.

http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=32286&p=203484

Douglas B. Killings and David Widger, trans. The Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus. n.p, 2006.

John Allen Giles and James Ingram, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Great Britain: J.M Dent and sons, 1938.

 

 

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