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21.09.38 Hardwick/Lister (eds.), Vikings and the Vikings

21.09.38 Hardwick/Lister (eds.), Vikings and the Vikings

Filmic medievalisms can offer a sense of “truth” distinct from often cautiously-stated academic appraisals. This certainly applies to the TV show Vikings (2013-2020), which details the lives and deeds of the semi-historical Ragnar Loðbrok and his family. Vikingsconcluded after six seasons: as a reviewer who had never seen the series, I prepared for this review by binging the series, though Season 5 was the last broadcast before this volume’s publication. Vikings and the Vikings (a title that is somewhat confusing spoken aloud) offers eleven essays: each is relatively short, but all are tightly focused and informative. The essays respond to each other well, and the collection might be seen to have four parts: the first (the first three essays) introduces the sources and asks questions about their interpretation, recreation, and adaptation; the second (the next four essays) considers gender performance; the third (the next three essays), supernatural and legal elements; and the fourth section and final chapter, larger social issue of white nationalist appropriation of “vikingness.” The collection begins with a short forward by Justin Pollard, historical consultant for the series, which discusses the issues of converting historical material “into useable scenes and plot structures for production” (1). Following this, Hardwick and Lister offer a short introduction, which furthers Pollard’s questions, quoting from series creator Michael Hirst (“If you’re writing drama, you’re not interested in whether something is accurate, you’re interested in whether something is true” [3]).

With this introductory focus on truth and accuracy, it might seem surprising that Stephen Basdeo’s “The Once and Future Viking: The Popularity of Ragnar Loðbrók in the 18th Century,” offers only the slightest connection to the series, instead presenting a study of the reception of Ragnar by British readers. Since the concept of Vikings as “a half-civilized and brutal race” (7) was a Victorian invention, this earlier reception offers a view of Vikings predating the vision to which Vikings responds. Ragnar Loðbrok was a popular figure in the antiquarian publications of the period. Basdeo’s primary argument is that while Percy’s translation of The Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok has been held as the most influential version known in the period, it was the more affordable and several-times-reprinted translation by Hugh Downman that popularized Ragnar. Badseo also offers several claims central to contextualizing the subsequent essays. Firstly, Badseo notes the stereotypes eighteenth-century readers would have ascribed to Vikings: Ragnar is “a pirate,” a type popularly “presented as debonair and stylish, but also manly and willing to use force” (12), thus laying the ground for the inquiry into the series’ representations of masculinity picked up by Katherine Lewis later. Secondly, Badseo offers a review of antiquarian interest in “constructing a trans-national northern European identity” (10). Here, Badseo argues that this view was “racialist [but] not racist,” attempting instead “to raise the historical heritage of these regions and place it on par with that of Greece and Rome” (10). The first essay thus sets the stage for the remaining essays’ consideration of sources, accuracy, and the white nationalist appropriation of Norse identity.

Donna Heddle’s “Norse Noir: Sagas and Sources,” focuses on the primary sources used by the series. Heddle discusses the multitude of sources that present competing visions of Vikings as either dirty and barbaric savage pagans (e.g., Adam of Bremen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) or clean, hospitable, civilized, and gender-equitable (e.g., Ibn Rustah, Saxo Grammaticus, the Norse sagas). Given this multiplicity, Heddle argues the series freely borrows from all, “thus present[ing] an entirely fictionalized microcosm which at the same time gives the impression of an authentic Norse narrative” (34), a subject elaborated on by Eleanor Chadwick in the next chapter. Some of the blanket statements about the series’ presentation--that, for instance, the program shows women as equal to men--could be better supported, as contrary examples abound (e.g., Lagertha’s leaving Kattegat, and her subsequent battles for control of Hedeby, where she is first abused and restricted in her actions by her second husband, Earl Sigvard until she kills him and ultimately assuming control of her fate in Season 2). Nonetheless, Heddle’s essay offers a comprehensive and valuable overview of the sources available to the showrunners.

Eleanor Chadwick’s “Fantasizing History: Anachronism, Creative License and the Re-Emergence of an Early Language of Storytelling” draws on the ahistorical elements of the sources used by Vikings, pointing out that elements such as anachronism, fantasy, symbolism, and archetype are commonplace in the sagas and chronicles. This reading contextualizes certain distinctly unhistorical moments in the series, such as the crucifixion of Ragnar’s friend and apostate monk Athelstan, which can be understood as a form of ritualized violence to restore social order (as well as, Chadwick astutely points out, showing a punishment that might be conceived of by an inventive Norse chronicler unfamiliar with the theological underpinnings of the crucifixion). This more amalgamative form of storytelling presents a multitude of authenticities, drawing fresh parallels to the audience’s time and generating new meaning. Chadwick thus closes a seeming first part of the collection, which has established the sources used by Vikings and the ways that they can and have been used in other contexts.

The next section focuses on forms of gender performance. Katherine J. Lewis’ “‘What does a man do?’ Representing and Performing Masculinity,” points out that Vikings presents a complex depiction of masculinity, with Ragnar as “the ultimate embodiment of hegemonic masculinity” (59-60); his son Björn as a symbol of the attainment and maintenance of masculinity; and figures such as Ivar the Boneless, the Christian kings of England, and the shieldmaidens of Kattegat as deviations from this performative masculinity. Lewis establishes that masculinity in the sagas was as socially constructed as masculinity today, premised not merely on gender, age, or secondary sex characteristics, but also requiring education and practice. Ragnar’s masculinity is exemplified through martial prowess and use of cunning strategy, and further, is not zero-sum: Ragnar encourages masculinity in other men and women. Lewis contrasts this with “the essentially inferior nature of Christian masculinity” (62), marked by cowardice and martial ineptitude. Lewis highlights the exception of Bishop Heahmund to this binary, though this argument could be expanded to discuss the bishop’s rather wobbly Christianity in multiple episodes. Among Norse men, sexual virility marks successful gender performance, with Ivar the Boneless as an intriguing counterpoint. Physically impaired and seemingly impotent, Ivar attempts to match his brothers in sexual performance, despite his father’s contention that an intelligent use of his anger will make him a man. Although Lewis wrote her article at the conclusion of the first half of Season 5, Ivar’s subsequent attempts to beget an heir when he is King of Kattegat offer further evidence for her argument. Finally, Lewis discusses shieldmaidens, noting the “the sense that they are ‘putting on’ masculinity” (67). Unlike men, whose gender renders masculinity “natural” in spite of the need to practice its performance, masculinity among women is inherently unstable.

Shane McLeod’s “Shieldmaidens in Anglo-Saxon England” expands on the performance of masculinity by women. McLeod here draws on written records, burial evidence including burial artifacts and the skeletal record, and Viking Age images, and argues that in contrast to the regular depiction of shieldmaidens in the series, the evidence to date offers only the “tantalizing possibility” of Viking shieldmaidens, and stands “against the likelihood of shieldmaidens operating in western Europe on a regular basis” (89). However, as McLeod notes, although it was not the norm for women to regularly be warriors, these “exceptional cases” still offer space such that “Lagertha deservedly remains an inspiring character” (89).

In “Motherhood in Vikings,” Lillian Céspedes González discusses three categories of maternal action: pregnancy, protection, and grief. The chapter opens with an informative literature review of medieval motherhood, highlighting that studies to date have not focused significantly on Scandinavian women, meaning that Vikings has little evidence on which to draw. The first section points out that both Lagertha and Þórunn struggle to balance pregnancy and motherhood with their martial activities, hinting “that it is these women’s transgressions [of gender norms] that compromise their fertility and motherhood” (98). These figures stand in contrast to the fecund Auslag, who with four sons presents “the epitome of Viking Age fertility” (99). This fertility may result from Auslag’s role as volva, and although Céspedes González notes that Auslag’s relationship with the mysterious and magical wanderer Harbard “emphasizes her use of magical means to protect Ivar” (100), there is also the potential that her son’s impairments may serve as a punishment for their affair. In the second section, Lagertha is presented as a protector, maintaining a close relationship with Björn into his adulthood. Maternal protection of daughters is far less common, though Siggy and her daughter Thyri serve as one example. The final section discusses the relative infrequency of deaths of sons in the series, versus the more common deaths of daughters: Lagertha, Siggy, and Helga all lose their daughters. Notably, though, the grief is more often performed by the fathers, Ragnar and Floki particularly. Céspedes González concludes that depictions of mothers struggling with a multitude of roles and social pressures encourage a twenty-first century audience to find identifiable figures in the series.

Lister and Hardwick’s “‘Have you done this sort of thing before?’ Sexual Violence and Historical Revision in Vikings,” discusses critical and popular responses to the series’ depiction of rape, whether too infrequent and shunted to unsympathetic characters (Dennis Perkins, The AV Club), or too frequent and misogynistic (as by the blogger “The Photgfeminist”). In comparison to other popular medieval or neomedieval fantasy, such asGame of Thrones, Vikings features rape and sexual assault less often, and when shown, the victims can often fight back. However, this can also suggest that strength and a willingness to resist is the only thing needed to prevent such assaults. At the same time, the agency revealed by women in these scenes, as in their depictions as shieldmaidens and willing sexual partners, shows an effort by the series to evince a “nuanced subversion of established gender roles” (126).

The third section pivots to broader social constructs depicted in the series. “Dialogues with the Dead in Vikings,” by Howard Williams and Alison Klevnäs, discusses the ways that the series offers a fantastical, but richly and imaginatively informed vision of Viking Age mortuary and cult practices. Williams and Klevnäs argue for the value of treating the series as a modern phenomenon of mortuary archaeology because of its richly imagined visual and textual world, presenting a medium to educate and debate not only medieval death practices, but also modern understandings of mortality and mourning. The authors point out certain lacunae in the series: although open-air cremation is shown on multiple occasions, the post-cremation treatment of the remains is not depicted, nor are grave monuments often portrayed. This means the scenes among the Norse offer more often an active, present, frontier world of human activity against an otherwise untouched wilderness; this is in contrast to the focus on antiquity present in English settings, and contrasts with archaeological evidence. Overall, however, in its treatment of death in multiple ways, the series “reveals a complex variability over time and space in the treatment of the dead that no other popular portrayal of Viking Age Scandinavia has achieved to date” (148).

Aleks Pluskowski’s “Nature and Supernature,” follows, offering a nuanced critique to some of the praise offered to the series so far. Pluskowski points out that despite the careful and rich treatment of the sources, Vikings nonetheless recapitulates the binary distinction between pagan and Christian. Pluskowski focuses on elements of the natural world, including the centrality of the sea, wilderness and domesticity, and the presence of animals and bestial identities, to offer another reading of the depiction of the natural world in the series. Among the Norse, for example, religious ceremonies are almost always held outside, while among Christians, they are held inside, revealing a striking depiction between the “relative connectivity and disconnection with the natural world” (154). Pluskowski’s conclusion that the series “reinforces the presentation of pagan and Christian societies…as oppositional cultures” (168) is well-supported with numerous examples up to Season 5, including interactions with other cultures (seen in Björn’s travels to North Africa); Ivar’s travels to Rus’ in Season 6 could further complicate some of the claims.

Alexandra Sanmark and Howard Williams’s “Things in Vikings,”describes the ways that the legal complexities of the Norse world are depicted in the series. Sanmark and Williams break the chapter into an evaluation of things in Seasons 1-5, including the role of lawgiver, the connections between law and religion, and rituals such as punishment. The authors draw on a wealth of sources, including archaeological evidence, to conclude that although the series might give too much credence to the view of the Viking world as proto-democracy, and despite “a series of misconceptions and assumptions” (173), Vikingsnonetheless serves as an educating and entertaining presentation of Viking Age law.

The volume concludes with Richard Ford Burley’s “Ambiguous Images: ‘Vikingness,’ North American White Nationalism and the Threat of Appropriation.” Ford Burley notes that the appropriation of a Norse cultural heritage by white nationalists can be aided by popular series such as Vikings. This is not to say that “the creators of Vikings are so-called ‘crypto’ white nationalists”: rather, white nationalist narratives “cling to any toehold offered, even accidental ones […] created through absence and ambiguity” (202). In its imagination of Viking communities, presented through language, religion, and aesthetics such as tattoos,Vikings “stands at risk of becoming complicit in the support of white nationalism” (203). One way in which Vikings may do so is in its ahistorical conflation of sources, setting Rangar’s dynasty at the source of a transnational and trans-Atlantic history: Ragnar’s sons conquer portions of England, his brother Rollo becomes the first ruler of Normandy, and his friend Floki discovers Iceland. To this, I can add that Ragnar’s son Ubbe discovers Newfoundland (Season 6, Episode 17), potentially the oft-cited “Vinland” of white nationalist myth (a subject which Ford Burley presciently discusses on pp. 210-11). Another way is in the series’ otherwise entertaining and clever use of language in scenes of cultural interaction: the Scandinavians speak in subtitled Old Norse, the English in Old English, the Franks in Gallo-Latin, and so on. As Ford Burley points out, this simplifies the varieties of Scandinavian dialects--there are no such scenes of translation between Old West Norse and Old East Norse--and “signals for the audience a monoculture that glosses over a much more complex mosaic of probably multi-layered locally- and socially-derived identities” (205). Ford Burley concludes by arguing that the series should ideally include “empowered characters of color” to “create an ever-present interpretive framework for viewers” (218).

Ford Burley’s critiques are important to keep in mind, and the threat of white-nationalist appropriation is indeed why I was so reluctant to watch the series. Nonetheless, as both the series itself and this fine collection of essays demonstrates, Vikings is and entertaining and valuable resource for the study of modern medievalisms and a consideration of our own time.