June 18th, 2013

The History Channel’s first foray into dramatic TV, and I actually really enjoyed this 9 episode tale of semi-mythical Viking adventurer Ragnar Lodbrok. I’m nowhere near enough of an expert to comment on its precise level of realism, but it felt pretty convincing in the main to me, but much more importantly it seemed to get across some sense of the utterly alien Viking mindset.  The characters in epic fantasy often see the world from the perspective of a modern American or European.  It’s historical fiction (like Robert Low’s The Whale Road, which I always use as an example of this) that often presents us with something more weird and wonderful in terms of the characters’ behaviours, rituals, routines and motivations.  Here they use the point of view of a captured Christian priest to really mine the strangeness of viking thinking.

Gabriel Byrne’s the only actor I recognised, but there’s some solid performances in there, from eternally shifty Ragnar, via his hotheaded brother Rollo, his hard-hitting wife Lagertha, to their loopy priest/jester/boatbuilder Floki.  You can tell the budget isn’t immense, they’ve cleverly kept most of the action pretty small-scale and intimate, but what there is works well and looks good.  Once battle is joined it’s crunching stuff.  At times there’s a sense of an educational mission lurking just beneath the surface, but that actually makes for a series that doesn’t always do the obvious or reach for the low-hanging dramatic fruit.  It delivers drama, but it’s not dumbed down.  Good stuff.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on June 18th, 2013.

23 comments so far

  • sjb says:

    I agree that overall it was better than expected. But there were a few things that never stopped annoying me; the whole theme of him being the first to sail west(?) and making Lothbrok a stand in for “generic viking hero” (him being responsible for sacking Lindisfarne). Reminded me of braveheart and how they made Wallace an amalgam of a bunch of different people.

    They did have probably the best movie/tv adoption of an actual shield wall, though, which was glorious.

  • megazver says:

    I’d like to hear some more historical fiction recommendations from you. Maybe in its own post? Your Westerns post was pretty good.

  • JLC 776 says:

    Any inspiration there for your next novel?

  • Játvarður says:

    I found the show made for an entertaining drama, but at times certain historical elements pulled me out of the story. On the one hand they included information from the writings of Ibn Fadlan and Adam of Bremen, showing depth of research, but then they make sloppy mistakes like calling Hrolf a Christian name and Rollo a Norse one (Hrolfr is an Old Norse name that certain scribes Latinized as “Rollo”). Aside from the “no lands to the west” bit, I found the story interesting and enjoyable.

  • Dking says:

    Good series. Started poorly but improved a lot I think.

    Looking forward to next season (if there is one).

  • routechecker says:

    I was wondering when you were going to come around and mention this great series.
    My fantasy reading “experience” only comprises Lord of the Rings when I was about 18 and your books (all of them).
    For some reason all trough the viewing of Vikings episodes all I could think was -“Gee, they look a lot like a slightly mellowed and real world version of the Northerners in Abercrombie’s books”.

  • Adam A. says:

    @Dking – History Channel already renewed a second season.

    I enjoyed this show immensely, but… [SPOILERS]

    I have this sneaking suspicion, since History Channel seems so hellbent on pleasing its rural American Evangelical viewer base (this show aired right after “The Bible”), that there will be numerous Xtian conversions in later episodes and that the priest will be painted as some heroic figure as a result.

    If that happens, I’m out. As long as this Scandinavian ensemble remains pro-pagan, I’ll keep watching.

  • Stirling says:

    Good evening Joe, I’m the slightest bit off topic,but……How did your meeting go in London??

  • James Webster says:

    Glad you liked it, and interesting you had exactly the same reaction I did, particularly with the sense of a totally different culture. I also loved the accents despite Ragnar’s actor being from Oz, and found my self rolling the name “LLLLRRRagnallllothbrrrrlllokk” under my breath on the way to work…

    Now, time for you to check out Banshee, for a dose of moral ambivalence and a cracking plot!

  • Markz says:

    Vikings was very good. A second series has been approved and will start filming in Ireland soon. I agree with James Webster about Banshee. One of the best shows I have seen in a long time. One episode has the best onscreen fight I have ever seen

  • AntMac says:

    Things like being “the first to go West” probably happened a lot. It was the coming back alive thing that got someone noticed. And even then, who is to say that Eric the Red was the first to do that?. He seems to have been the first who did it and became known for it though.

  • Lewis says:

    How about that film Valhalla rising that was on the other night. On the one hand a decent portrayal of the death of ODIN/Norse mythology in the face of Christianity or on the other a plain fucking weird movie! Clearly low budget but looked good for all that and worth a watch if you’ve the patience for it.

  • Jimmy says:

    I’d have to agree with Játvarður. THe naming of Rollo as a heathen name and Hrolf as a christian took me right out of the story. I’m swedish and my fathers name is Rolf so I might have over reacted somewhat. A few other things disturbed me as well.

    The Earl should have been called a Jarl (same word, different languages, but back in that time it was more like different dialects). They did use Jarl for the swede that appeared later in the series so I guess that they are just trying to show some cultural differences between danes and swedes, so ok…

    What really bothered me was that the Earl was written more like a feudal lord than a viking Jarl. I might be wrong, of course, but I’ve always had the view that viking (pre-christian germanic that is) jarls and kings ruled in a more democratic and flat society (the demos here consists of free males).

    Anyway.. I was still pleasantly surprised by the series.

  • Játvarður says:

    Jimmy, you’re not wrong about the mis-portrayal of Earl Haraldson. He certainly behaved much more like a high/late Middle Ages lord than a Germanic jarl. The way in which he sentenced people to death instead instead of outlawry seemed anachronistic. For an in depth reconstruction of the power structure in pre-Christian Scandinavia I recommend Anders Winroth’s The Conversion of Scandinavia. It is a brilliant book.

  • Jimmy says:

    VEry cool, I’ll check it out. I read the summary on Amazon and Mr Winroth seems to make the assumption that it’s the people in power that fucks over the common man, driven by lust for power and greed. Nothing new, then and now, for our lovely species I guess. =) Something Mr Abercrombie shows with his writing as well.

  • Jordan says:

    @ Adam A — I agree that the pagan perspective is fresh, and it would be foolish to dump it all together for pro-Christian Vikings. However, a lot of them did convert when they started settling in England. What I hope is that the show can be more or less historically accurate. Show those leaders who did convert, and keep those who didn’t true to their pagan roots.

  • RedMonkey says:

    I have watched the first 5 on love film and am hugely impressed. This maybe due to not having any expectations which I may have unfairly had with Game of Thones. Unlike the latter it actually depicts conflict/skurmishes well and although low key and clearly low budget believably. Deffinately see some similarities in the North Men especially our favourite lost soul “Logan Nine Fingers” or survivor “Dogman”

  • Peter Haverty says:

    Yeap really enjoyed the show. Check out the Raven Bloodeye books a great read

  • hnric says:

    Check out “The long ships” by Frans G Bengtsson. Excellent viking/middle age/historical fiction. The book(s) that got me in to reading 20+ years ago.

  • Morag says:

    If you want to really get into the Viking mindset, you have to read Orm Bengtsson’s “Long Ships” – one of my favourite books ever.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Frans Bengtsson’s Long Ships. Orm is the main character. And I love that book too, indeed, believe it or not, there’s a quote from me on the cover of the new UK edition…

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