Oh, Sweet Heaven, I don’t know where to begin with this week’s episode. I have so many thoughts in my head, so much speculation, and even a discovery of sorts. Perhaps I should start with the title. The Usurper.
By my count there are 3 usurpers: Kalf, who has usurped Lagertha’s lands and people at Hedeby; Athelstan, who has usurped the affections (and more) of Æthelwulf’s wife, Judith; Harbard the Wanderer, who has usurped the affections (temporarily) of Ragnar’s wife, Aslaug.
Unpleasant discoveries all around. So what are Ragnar, Lagertha and Æthelwulf going to do?
Upon his arrival in Kattegat, Ragnar is immediately suspicious of what’s been going on with Aslaug. He scoffs, though, when Floki tries to tell him that his wife has been cavorting with a god. (I called that one correctly a couple of weeks ago! Harbard = Odin. High five.) Ragnar is pretty much fed up with women anyway, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.
Lagertha demands that Ragnar help her fight Kalf and win her lands back. But Ragnar is pretty lukewarm about this idea, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.
And Æthelwulf – well, he does exactly what we’ve been worried he would do, and it’s even worse than we imagined.
In Kattegat, King Ragnar, hugely excited about his plans for taking on Paris, gets pretty pumped about the idea and soon almost everyone else is excited about it, too. Mead is flung into the air like water on a sweltering day.
Except, there’s Rollo, who is suffering massive man-guilt, so much so that he invents a new kind of self-flagellation which involves brawling in the mud with Bjorn.
Rollo whines to the creepy spamaðr that he is useless and hollowed out by failed ambitions, and he is stunned when the spamaðr laughs at him. “If you knew what the gods have in store for you in Paris you would dance naked in the rain.” Okay, maybe those weren’t his exact words, but something like that.
So, let’s talk about Paris. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I deplored the idea of a military leader who would divide his army into two forces with a broad river in between, allowing the Vikings to merely choose to fight the smaller force. Having done a little research now, I’ve discovered that some dang fool king actually did that, but it wasn’t in Mercia. It was outside of Paris, and the king was Charles the Bald of Frankia. It happened in 845 when the Viking Ragnar, aka Reginherus, sailed up the Seine. So yes, in the tales, Ragnar attacks Paris.
Now, this television series is based on sagas as well as facts, and it’s had to invent its own timeline to bring all its different stories together. For example, King Ecbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians in 825, and he was already dead by 845 when Ragnar would have attacked Paris. Yet in this story they’re contemporaries. The time frame is a little off. Connections have been made that weren’t necessarily there, really. But I’m okay with messing with the timeline. Just because it’s on the History Channel doesn’t mean that this is history. It’s fiction. It’s good storytelling. It’s a modern-day version of a saga. The Vikings would have loved it. And anyway, this all happened – if any of it happened – a long time ago.
So let’s go back to Rollo and the Spamaðr’s prophecy about Paris. In the legends about Ragnar Lothbrok, there is no mention of a brother named Rollo. But there is a historical Rollo, also known as Hrólfr. In the early 10th century this Rollo led a Viking fleet to northern Frankia, caused all kinds of trouble in the area – which, as we know, was pretty standard Viking behavior – and settled within the old Roman walls of Rouen. The Frankish king at the time, Charles the Simple, finally dealt with Rollo by granting him the city of Rouen and the provinces around it, and telling him to defend it if he could. And Rollo did. In fact, he founded a dynasty in northern Frankia.
There is a tradition that Rollo married the Frankish king’s daughter; but he had another wife, as well, who gave him a son named William, who had a son named Richard, who had a daughter named Emma who married an English king named Æthelred in 1002.
Which brings us back to Wessex and Æthelred’s great great great great grandfather Ecbert. Isn’t he a charmer?
The real Ecbert probably never knew the real Ragnar Lothbrok (if there was one), but he probably knew men like him. Was the historical Ecbert as ruthless as the Ecbert in this series? Probably. He established Wessex as the dominant power in southern England so he had to be more ruthless than any of the other kings around him. Was he as devious as the King Ecbert in this series? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He definitely knew Charlemagne, though, and so, as our King Ecbert congratulates himself for a devious, atrocious, despicable deed, I must award him the prize for this week’s zinger line:
Even Charlemagne would have approved.