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Vikings: how TV drama fell in love with bloodthirsty paganism

Vikings – a nice bunch of lads

Television series Vikings, season four of which is currently running on the History Channel, has proved a cult hit since it began. If you like medieval gore – and everyone seems to these days – it’s good fun, but it is also culturally significant in showing an increasingly anti-Christian and pro-pagan view of the medieval period.

The show starts in the AD 790s with Ragnar Lothbrok leading an expedition to England, having discovered a new means of sailing the western sea. Along with his jealous brother Rollo, a half-insane shipbuilder called Floki and some other violent Norsemen, they raid the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria and begin the great Viking age.

The programme mixes historical fact, legend and fiction. Ragnar Lothbrok (literally “hairy trousers”) was a mythical figure who may have existed and the Lindisfarne raid was a real event that took place in AD 793. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles put it in its typically miserable style: “This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”

But much of the actual history Vikings covers is from the late 9th century when the raids intensified and after the Great Heathen Army landed in AD 865.

There is plenty of rapine and slaughter on display in the show, which is grizzly and absurdly violent, although that goes without saying with television these days I suppose; what’s perhaps more uncomfortable is that, as the first series goes on, we’re clearly supposed to identify with those doing the slaughtering.

The Vikings are violent and uncouth, but for all that they are portrayed as being honest and earthy, authentic and fun-loving; the Christians in contrast are peaceful but also cowardly and hypocritical. The Church is accused of acquiring gold for monasteries out of sheer greed; their attitude to sex and celibacy is nonsensical; the Christian armies are weak and worthy of contempt, led by cowardly kings (in real life the Vikings disappeared for a while after the 790s because they were heavily defeated in battle by the Northumbrians).

Athelstan, a monk kidnapped by Ragnar and taken back to Denmark, eventually comes to abandon God and worship the pagan deities – basically because Christianity is no fun while Odin and Thor allow him to live life as one long stag party. And when the Danes and English have a truce it is the Christians who break it, having sworn to their God, despite historically it being the pagans who always went back on oaths (well, according to Christian chroniclers).

On top of this the English are portrayed not as an early medieval society built on the warrior code of Beowulf and loyalty to one’s loafward, or lord, but as a somewhat effete group of class-bound idiots led by incompetent toffs; their military apparel is far more like a Roman legion than the early medieval style it would have been in reality, allowing the Vikings to look plucky when in reality Saxon armies were very small and made up of farmers (which is why the Vikings tended to win). In season one the Northumbrian King Ælla (who is historical, although he lived much later in the 860s) has one of his cronies thrown into a pit of snakes, like a cartoon English baddie from a Hollywood film (this is partly borrowed from Norse myth, although in The Tales of the Sons of Ragnar it is Lothbrok who is thrown into the pit – Lothbrok seemed to die on countless different occasions in various painful ways, if the legends are to be believed).

This contrast of pagan manliness and Christian hypocrisy is also found in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, which was adapted into a TV series last year.

Cornwell’s series also tells the tale of a Northumbrian kidnapped by a Viking called Ragnar, in this case a young lord, Uhtred, whose father is killed by the Norsemen but who comes to see Ragnar as a father figure. In The Last Kingdom Viking paganism is filled with fun, feasting, booze and sex, while Christianity is shown to be dull, joyless and spread by sour-faced hypocrites. Alfred the Great, who to Victorians was that perfect epitome of English manliness – courageous, compassionate, deeply Christian and sexually a bit weird – is to a 21st-century audience a religious bore, his wife even more so. In contrast Uhtred’s Viking adoptive father Ragnar is the sort of cool uncle every boy has ever wanted.

The Vikings TV series perhaps expresses a prevailing cultural idea about Christianity, especially in Ireland where the programme is made – that it’s hypocritical, joyless and sexually unhealthy. This is especially appealing to men, and the show, about a group of long-haired young lads causing havoc to the sounds of a somewhat anachronistic rock soundtrack, shows why Norse paganism – like radical Islam – wouldn’t have trouble appealing to adolescent males. Ragnar even gets to have two beautiful, sexy wives, as was the custom for Norsemen (although it continued for a while even after they were converted, Canute the Great upholding the tradition).

Christianity did stop young men having fun, of course, reining in their urges to indulge in polygamy, violence and feuding, but that was the whole point. It’s no coincidence that the Christian peoples who we see in the programme were converted by women; the Franks came to the faith after their leader Clovis married a Christian woman from the south, Clotilde, who persuaded him to abandon his gods; a century later Ethelbert of Kent agreed to baptism at the instigation of his Frankish wife Bertha. Northumbria became Christian after its future king Edwin married a Christian woman from Kent.

The conversion of Northumbria was the subject of the famous passage in Bede where the idea of adopting the new religion is discussed in the royal palace and a counsellor says these words:

The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately out another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Obviously I would say this, because I’m biased, but I rather agree with this Syrian shopkeeper who said that when his country sent us Europeans the great St Paul, they “took us out of the darkness”.

Within a century of conversion Edwin’s kingdom had produced what was later called the Northumbrian Golden Age, the jewel of which was the Lindisfarne Gospels. Christianisation was one of the most important aspects of the greatest achievement of the last few millennia – the domestication of men. If only someone in television would commission a series about the Christian Saxons.

Ed West’s latest book is 1215 and All That: A very, very short history of Magna Carta and King John