The opening scene of this episode made me think of novelist Dorothy Dunnett’s description of the African desert:
There are few water holes, and the way hidden by sandstorms. One mistake in the desert and whole caravans can perish. The sands are half made of bone.
from Scales of Gold, Chapter 33.
Bjorn, Halfdan and Sinric, however, had no difficulty, it seems, in launching themselves on to camels in the middle of a dust storm and making their way out of the storm, on to the coast, into their boats and sailing to Kattegat. There should have been a banner message across the screen at this point reading:
Most of the action in this episode, though, takes place in Vestfold. And my goodness, there is a lot going on. Things begin with Astrid leading Harald a merry chase through the woods, symbolic, perhaps of her state of mind regarding her husband. Later this will be confirmed when she pays a whaler to deliver a warning to Lagertha. I really expected Astrid to be a bit more canny in her dealings with these men. She seems to be relying on her position as queen, but in reality, she is a captive. She exhibits a naiveté that doesn’t fit the fierce shield maiden we’ve seen her to be; she is just asking for trouble and boy does she get it. The only thing that surprised me about this scene was that the whaler actually delivered the warning!
Ivar, Hvitserk and company show up in Vestfold with Heahmund in tow and forge an alliance with Harald to attack Kattegat. My favorite part of this episode is when Heahmund recites Psalm 23 in Old English, and for once, Heahmund comes across as a real man, far less wooden. Throughout several scenes we see the growing tension between Ivar and King Harald, between Ivar and Hvitserk, and between Ivar and Heahmund. Ivar tells Harald what he really wants is to take revenge against Lagertha. He tells Hvitserk that what he really wants is to be famous. He tells Heahmund that he’s going to be king of Kattegat. Note to everyone: don’t believe what Ivar says.
As for Heahmund, Ivar gives him a choice: fight at my side or die. It’s hard to know what is going through Heahmund’s head as he pleads with God for deliverance, but we know what has to happen. If the gentle scribe Athelstan chose to become a Viking warrior, the bloody-handed bishop is not likely to refuse the chance to join Ivar’s army and kill heathens. Did you notice how, much of the time, Heahmund is filmed half in light and half in shadow? It is stunning!
In Winchester young Æthelred, gazing around at the city’s destruction and fearing the return of the northmen, argues that they must return to the swamps for safety. He sounds more like his famous descendant, 11th century Æthelred the Unready, rather than the historical figure who fought so fiercely against the Vikings in the 9th century and died in battle. Meantime Alfred goes into the chapel and stands in the very same spot where King Ecbert once swore to his God.
Ecbert swore: “I would sup with the Devil if he would show me how to achieve my earthly goals!” It was a memorable and wonderfully performed scene.
Alfred, too makes a vow, to his dead grandfather, King Ecbert, to whom he is praying (and I, for one, am wondering where this King Ecbert wound up after death).
If our Lord should ever see fit to choose me as king, even over this wasteland, then I swear to you that I will fight and struggle to restore your kingdom to its former glory – to realize your dream of becoming king of all England or perish in the trying.
It’s a wonderful scene, evoking the earlier vow of Ecbert, and setting Alfred’s goal of restoring Wessex (sorry, not England yet, WESSEX!!!) in direct opposition to Ivar’s megalomaniacal goal of becoming the most famous man who ever lived. There is just one problem: Alfred, in this show, is not the grandson of the king he is praying to. Michael Hirst decided to make Alfred the son of the fictional monk, Athelstan, making him no blood relative of Ecbert at all. This show insists on having it both ways: Alfred is illegitimate, but he is also the accepted son of Æthelwulf. And we’re reminded of that plot hiccup when Alfred sets out for Lindisfarne to find out about his father, the monk. It’s aggravating because lineage was of enormous importance to Anglo-Saxon royals, who probably knew their forebears going back many generations.
Meantime, King Æthelwulf coaches Æthelred in swordplay and tells him he has the makings of a great warrior and king, foreshadowing the young warrior that Æthelred will one day be.
In Kattegat Lagertha has discovered the Floki contingent preparing to sail for Iceland, but despite her righteous anger that they are leaving their home when she needs warriors the most, she allows them to leave, although not before she makes that wonderful play on his name – alluding to Floki as the Trickster, like the god Loki.
There are two opinions about Lagertha’s decision: Margrethe, a fictional character who is a snide, sneering, adolescent (don’t we all know someone like her?) sees it as another example of how weak Lagertha is. Later, Lagertha gives her a final warning: “Speak against me one more time and I’ll cut out your tongue.” And I’m thinking: Yeah! The other opinion comes from Aud, the daughter of Kjetell Flatnose. She claims that only a woman would have let them depart because women are more patient than men. Women live life more slowly and more deeply.
This is Aud the Deep-Minded, and she and her father are historical figures.
Here is historian Helen M. Jewell, on Audr the Deep-Minded:
“Ari Thorgilsson’s Islendingabók, written in the 1120s describes the Viking settlement of the then empty Iceland and lists Audr…as one of the four key settlers…Though much associated with her may be legendary, she does represent surely the most a woman might achieve in the Viking Age.”*
I heartily commend Hirst for bringing Aud and her father into the story. They do not look too optimistic at this point, though, about their new surroundings. Kjetell assures Aud, “It cannot be as bad as it looks.” Um, golly. It might be. Even Floki says so. We’ll find out just how bad next week.
*Jewell, Helen M. Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c. 500-1200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 15-16.
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