I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of the History Channel’s popular new series, VIKINGS. After all, in my novel all the guys with names like Swein, Cnut and Halfdan are enemies. Who was I going to empathize with in this show?
The first episode, to my surprise, made me draw my chair a little closer to the t.v. screen (despite the carnage), my interest snagged by the brash, good looking bad-boy, Ragnar Lothbrok. Travis Fimmel’s insolent half-smile had something to do with that, I admit.
The third episode, though, portraying the Viking attack on the abbey at Lindisfarne, brought me up short with a dose of bitter reality. I couldn’t help watching it from anything other than the Anglo-Saxon point of view, and that raid in A.D.793 was nothing but bad news for England.
By Episode 5, though, even the enslaved Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan, the fellow with the soulful eyes and a disdain for pagan Vikings, had become an admirer of Lothbrok;
so when series writer Michael Hirst wisely turned the Vikings against each other (very true to history, that), I too found myself rooting for Ragnar. After all, Ragnar was not really a stranger to me. Before this series began I had already bumped into the name Ragnar Lothbrok in my research, one historian calling him “the most famous and widely-reported Viking hero of them all.”* But the tales about Ragnar were a little tough to swallow as evidence of a historical reality.
Sometimes he was portrayed as a local Danish king fighting against the Jutes; sometimes he was an emperor whose realm included Ireland, Orkney, England and Scandinavia, and who at his death bequeathed 1700 boats to his sons so they could use them to hound poor Alfred the Great into the marshes.
Sometimes Lothbrok even defeated Charlemagne in battle, not to mention whipping a few fire-breathing dragons, aided no doubt by his snake-repellant leggings.
And then there’s the Icelandic saga titled Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar which, translated, means The Saga of Ragnar Hair-breeches, in which Ragnar wins his first wife by slaying a serpent, has three sons (including one named Bjorn) by his second wife, and has a run-in with an Anglo-Saxon king named Aella. Any of that sound familiar? So, did Ragnar Loðbrók really exist?
Well, there may have been a Norse chieftain named Ragnar in the late 8th or early 9th century. It’s the name Loðbrók that raises some questions. According to Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók — Ivarr, Bjorn and Sigurdr — were 9th century historical figures whose mother was named Loðbrókar, and whose father was — well, nobody knew who their father was. Through confusion of her name, Loðbrókar, with the common noun loðbróka (hairy-breeches, which would not be an unusual nickname for a warrior), Loðbróka came to be regarded as the father rather than the mother of her sons. Legends developed about this Ragnar Loðbróka, his serpent slaying and his sons, and the historical woman, Loðbrókar, was soon largely forgotten. I hate when that happens.
Was there a real Ragnar Loðbrók? Quite possibly there was. And quite possibly she was a woman.
*The Viking Art of War by Paddy Griffith, Casemate, 1995