So, who is the Wanderer of the title of this episode? Note that the title is singular, not plural. One Wanderer, and not our band of Vikings who are roaming Britain’s green and pleasant land.
There is an Old English poem titled The Wanderer. He is an outcast – an exile who wanders winter-weary the icy waves, longing for lost halls, a helping hand far or near.*
Could series writer Michael Betrayal Hirst be evoking that poem? There is a mysterious figure in this episode who appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug and Siggi. He is always walking through snow.
One of his hands is bloody, and in the other he carries a ball of burning snow. Near the final moments of the episode, he walks into Kattegat – not a dream this time, but real – seeking help for his bloodied right hand. Is he the Wanderer?
But wait. Let me start at the beginning…
If you’ve been paying close attention to this series you know that there is a story arc for each episode, and also an arc for each season. Of course, it’s hard to see what that seasonal arc is going to be until we get very close to the end. The earliest episodes are set-ups, leading toward a dramatic denouement in the season finale. What is the technical name for this? I don’t know. I just call it Brilliant Storytelling.
The many story lines in this episode, and the many cuts between Mercia, Wessex, Kattegat and Hedeby, were dizzying. Let me see if I can summarize somewhat.
In Mercia we witness post battle trauma symptoms in Bjorn, Torstein, Rollo and Kwenthrith. Bjorn proposes marriage. Torstein, wounded by an arrow, is in pain and visibly suffering. Rollo and Kwenthrith, both intoxicated, are wildly violent, he against the living and she against the dead.
Ragnar and company have won a battle against half of the Mercian army (see previous episode), and the Mercian soldiers who remain across the river flee when faced with Viking ships ornamented with Mercian heads. Was there historical precedence for this grim scene? Oh yes. The heads of slain enemies – whether warriors, criminals or innocents – were used throughout history to terrify an enemy army or populace.
As the gruesomely bedecked ships approach the Mercian shore, Kwenthrith calls out to her brother, Burgred, assuring him that he will come to no harm. I was reminded of Floki’s words from Episode 1 as he watched Kwenthrith dance among the men in the Viking camp: “No man should trust the words of a woman.” Personally, I don’t trust anything that Kwenthrith says, even the reasons she gives for hating her uncle and brother. Burgred, whose stupid battle tactics have already convinced us that he’s an idiot, has to be dragged away from his sister and those dangling heads by one of his thegns.
In Wessex King Ecbert is still playing realtor. He delivers Lagertha to her new home, hands her a fistful of dirt, and assures her that he will protect her people.
Lagertha is reassured. I am not. Sure enough, in a later scene, Athelstan’s Christian blessing of the house is interrupted when one of Lagertha’s people prominently displays a figurine of Odin. The stage is now set for future conflict between Viking settlers and the Christians – possibly the ones they’ve displaced in this vil. It is not looking promising for Lagertha’s folk and, unknown to her, over in Hedeby, her trusted manager Kalf has taken over as jarl. He wants to be famous, like Ragnar. Spoiler: he won’t be. Throughout the centuries between then and now, there has been no Viking war lord more renowned than Ragnar Lothbrok.
King Ecbert’s daughter-in-law Judith appears to have been smitten – along with all the women watching this series – by Athelstan’s bedroom eyes. She reveals this in confession. In a confessional. I hate it when the set designers do this. Confessionals probably didn’t appear until the 17th century or later. Michael Hirst! Stay in your own century! That phrase ‘Bless me father for I have sinned’ doesn’t belong here either. Minor quibble, I know. I guess I always have to find one.
Ecbert is smitten too – by Lagertha. Nevertheless, the king warns Judith off of Athelstan, saying that the more complicated a person is, the more dangerous he is. She responds with this episode’s zinger line:
“And would you say that about yourself, Father-in-law?”
She doesn’t see Ecbert’s answering smirk, but we do. Yes, Ecbert is complicated. And probably a little tricksy. Be careful, Lagertha.
Now, all through this episode there are two mysterious story lines: the first is the wounded Torstein. He took an arrow in the upper arm, but no one has tended him, unless you count a few magic mushrooms and Ragnar’s hope that “Freya will lie with you tonight and take care of you” as medical intervention. Why is that? He’s in obvious pain, and finally he asks Floki to remove his arm. Floki obliges, but that wound too is untended. Why? The point of this eludes me, unless it is meant to portray the hazards of the Viking life.
The other mystery is, as I mentioned earlier, the Wanderer. Three times he appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug, and Siggi. Three dreams, three female dreamers. Three has ever been a mystical number. (The Blessed Trinity and the three Norns of Norse mythology come immediately to mind.)The Wanderer finally arrives in the flesh, and that brief segment is followed by an even briefer one when Athelstan approaches Lagertha with his hands dripping blood from his stigmata.
So I’m guessing that the dreams, the dripping blood, and the puzzling prophecies we’ve been hearing from the spamaðr in the first two episodes and in webisodes (Athelstan’s Journal), portend a clash between the pagan gods and the White Christ, played out among their followers. Have to say, though, that the previews of Episode 3, with King Ecbert, Lagertha and Athelstan in the bath at Bath, looks pretty friendly. What will Ragnar think about that?!
* “The Wanderer” Translation by Greg Delanty in The Word Exchange, ed. Greg Delanty, W.W. Norton, 2011.