In recent years, Western television stations such as BBC, HBO or Showtime have produced several historical series which managed to catch the attention of a wider audience. The storylines of ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Rome’, ‘The Tudors’ or ‘The Borgias’, to name just a few, are set in historical times and in real locations. Furthermore, many characters portrayed there are historical figures and likewise, the events that are shown in these series actually took place.
Such productions required serious financial support and an enormous amount of historical research. Nevertheless, these shows remain entertainment rather than documentary productions. Thus, they are faithful to the periods depicted to a varying degree. Of course, we can discuss how much we actually know about history and how much of what we think we know is, in fact, a more or less an appropriate construct of scientists and researchers. Views on past events and reality tend to change significantly over time and we can never be sure if in the future some spectacular archaeological finds will not overturn our ideas about a certain historical fact. Nevertheless, in recent times historical dramas have flourished and won numerous curious viewers. Moreover, a similar phenomenon can be observed in East Asia, especially in Korea and Japan, where movies and series about historical events and characters are released regularly.
On March 3rd, 2013 the American History Channel aired the very first episode of its new television series — a historical drama called ‘Vikings’. This premiere was a major event in the revival of Viking-related interest in the West and is currently in its third season. The series also received generally favourable ratings from critics and viewers. Vikings is an Irish-Canadian co-production and is mostly filmed in Ireland, although some background shots were taken in Western Norway. It was created by Michael Hirst. The first season of the show consisted of nine episodes, while subsequent runs consisted of ten episodes each.
This, however, is not the first time that the Vikings have appeared in popular culture. In fact, we can trace Nordic threads back to nineteenth-century novels and operas, yet it is the cinema that is the medium most commonly connected with creating and implanting various powerful images in the minds of the masses. The Hollywood movies ‘The Viking’ from 1928 or ‘The Vikings’ from 1958 — the latter featuring Kirk Douglas as the main character — were important factors in creating the figure of the stereotypical Viking warrior. Nevertheless, they were not the only productions concerned with Scandinavian warriors. The last five decades have seen several feature films and animations (some based on novels) dealing with Viking themes — from comedies like ‘Erik the Viking’ or more solemn ‘Valhalla Rising’ created by Europeans to American action movies ‘The 13th Warrior’ and ‘Pathfinder’ which were not only financial failures but are also much more fictional than historical.
On the other hand, a quite recent DreamWorks animation ‘How to Train your Dragon’ gained sympathy among a worldwide audience. Moreover, Vikings do appear in comics, manga and video games and contemporary adaptations of Marvel Comics cartoons which include a variety of characters based on the Norse gods — namely Thor and The Avengers — and which also earned popularity. Even the Lego company released a series of Viking themed sets. A more sophisticated view of the Norsemen is presented in various historical fiction novels. Authors such as Tim Severin or Bernard Cornwell in their series — ‘Viking’ and ‘The Saxon Tales’ respectively — have proven their thorough studies of the early medieval world. What has become obvious is that, whereas books tend to be appropriately set in a historical background, many other works present stories of little historical accuracy. Nevertheless, the medium which is probably the most infused with Viking themes is modern music. The Norsemen and their exploits appear in shanties, which is understandable since they were the great seafarers of their time, yet it is the metal scene where the Viking theme comes into its own. Norsemen motifs appear in the works of many well-known heavy metal bands — especially Manowar, despite the fact that they were not the first to sing about the ancestors of modern Scandinavians. However, in the late twentieth-century even a whole new genre — called Viking metal — arose. We can safely say that modern popular culture is abundant in Viking themes.
Therefore one question emerges: why is the television series ‘Vikings’ currently enjoying such significance? In my opinion, we should consider several features of the show. Michael Hirst’s creation finds a wide audience amongst a population which is not necessarily aware of the real history underlying the events presented in the series. The show is aired on History Channel which adds to the possibility that it might be perceived as a kind of documentary production. Moreover, the creators of Vikings spare no effort in convincing their viewers of the History Channel’s commitment to reality. In fact, the station prepared numerous short documentary programmes on various aspects of Viking culture, such as Viking ships, gods or women’s status among many others. They are accessible through the official site of the ‘Viking’ series. These programmes sometimes feature acknowledged scientists — like Neil Price — or famous Museums — for example, the Danish Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. These documentaries familiarise the audience with more specific Viking traditions. This approach taken by the producers leads us to believe that the Vikings spectacle is something more than mere entertainment. In fact, the History channel even prepared an educational guide about the Vikings for more inquisitive viewers or even academics since this four-page document is called the ‘Idea Book’ for educators on one of the margins. It holds propositions of essay topics and refers the reader to various sites with additional educational movies, book references and other materials.
As we can see it is hard to suspect the producers of Vikings of incompetence when it comes to the real Vikings and their world. However, it is obvious that they did not want to restrict their vision so at the same time the show cannot be perceived as a historical record. In the episodes presenting many well-grounded facts about medieval Scandinavia or the European world in general, we can find materials which are more or less fictional. This fantasy is sometimes based on disputed hypotheses. On the other hand, it seems that at least some features are the products of the imagination of the series’ creators. It appears that the most important factor for Michael Hirst and his crew is rather to generate a product with a specific atmosphere — something which can be called “cool” by modern audiences. And keeping this atmosphere means adapting, at least to some point, the television series to the anticipations of the scheduled viewers.
This approach is explained when we consider the producer’s inspiration for ‘Vikings’. As the creator and writer of the series states: “the main source of inspiration for the television show was the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok”. The Icelandic sagas are one of the jewels of medieval literature although they are relatively late sources when it comes to the Viking world. The word “saga” is related to the English verb “say” — “its various meanings in Icelandic can be roughly understood as denoting something said, a narrative in prose.” Therefore the word “saga” might have been used for serious historical chronicles or totally fantastic tales alike. Nowadays sagas are divided into several types. Their contents are differentiated and while some are close to describing the actual history, others contain stories of ghosts, trolls, angels and other imaginary creatures. The majority of the sagas were only written down in the thirteenth-century or even later, although at least some components of their narratives existed before in the form of oral tales passed down through generations. A critical approach to the sagas might render them useful as one of the sources of the Viking Age.