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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 18: REVENGE

4-15vikingsaVIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. I mean, really.

In REVENGE, Vikings series creator/writer Michael Hirst takes a walk on the dark, disgusting side and forces us to go with him. Thank a lot.

So if you are not into equating ritual human sacrifice with sexual penetration, or you are not eager to watch a graphic depiction of the reputed Viking blood eagle carved into a man’s back, you might want to give this episode a pass.

We know that we are in for trouble when the show begins with Lagertha claiming that in order to guarantee success of the greater-than-ever-war they are about to wage on the Saxons, her people must offer the gods a greater-than-ever-sacrifice. For the next twenty minutes we are wondering who is going to die.

While the episode lingers way too long on bloody matters, the more intriguing story lines move forward at a somewhat lethargic pace. Harald Finehair, Halfdan and Egil continue their plotting against the Lothbroks, reassured by Egil’s promise that the amazing fortifications around Kattegat (and I quite admired them!) could be breached.

There are other dangerous liaisons, too. Ubbe marries his no-longer-a-slave Margrethe, and in keeping with the episode’s grim imagery, blood is part of the ceremony. Hints that trouble might be brewing because of Hvitserk’s interest in his brother’s new wife are swept away when the overly generous Ubbe offers to share her. Hirst has been dropping hints about this for weeks, but…really? He toyed with this concept before, back in the first season when Lagertha and Ragnar invited Athelstan to share their bed; but he dropped it almost immediately. Now he seems to think he needs to go there again. Granted, bed sharing was probably not uncommon in the 9th century, but my understanding is that it was for warmth, not three-way sex. It was too important for a man to be certain that the sons he raised were his own.

Given the double standard in male-female relations throughout recorded history, Bjorn’s illicit liaison with Lagertha’s favorite shield maiden, Astrid, is more plausible, and it continues in this episode. Bjorn’s wife knows about it and seems unperturbed. It’s Lagertha who warns Astrid to watch herself, and we are reminded that Lagertha has nearly died twice in childbirth. For women, the consequences of sex could be life-threatening.

The episode’s central action is the vengeance that the Lothbrok boys seek against King Aelle,  but the battle between Aelle’s Saxons and the Great Heathen Army is only hinted at. I’m betting it’s because Hirst is saving that for when the Viking comes up against Wessex. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, Hirst goes for our throats and stomachs by dwelling on the punishment inflicted on King Aelle.

Never mind that. The most compelling scene of this episode takes place in Wessex, when Æthelwulf finally pulls up his breecs and confronts King Ecbert. Hirst and actors Linus Roache and Moe Dunford give us a beautiful scene of a son laying out his grievances against his father calmly and rationally. At the same time he reveals his desperate need for his father’s affection – begs for it even. But his father, stricken, has nothing to give. THAT is powerful.

Next week: Kattegat and Wessex under siege.

 

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 17: THE GREAT ARMY

4-15vikingsaThe underlying theme of this week’s episode of VIKINGS appears to be ‘Vengeance and the Alpha Male’. The women are around, to be sure, but in this episode they are mere ciphers – items to be acquired (Margrethe and Tanaruz), threatened (Lagertha), vilified (Judith) or put to whatever use the men see fit (Astrid in the final scene with Bjorn). How historically accurate is this attitude? I am sorry to say: VERY. Hey! It’s the 9th century.

In Kattegat Lagertha and her people are building some impressive fortifications, although later on a newcomer named Egil the Bastard – a name that probably reflects his personality as well as his social status – sneers to Harald (Peter Franzén) and Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen) that all defenses have their weaknesses. These guys aren’t plotting a takeover yet, but they’re working up to it.

Meantime the Lothbrok Lads are making noises about avenging the deaths of their parents; at least, whenever they are not needling each other in what appears to be a never-ending rivalry for sibling domination. I found this alpha male snarling a bit tedious the third time around. Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), who appears to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, is always at the bottom of it, of course. And when it comes to vengeance, he doesn’t just want to go after Aelle, Ecbert and Lagertha. He wants to declare war on the whole world. I continue to find Ivar irritating, even with his new pompadour hair style. That, I’m certain, is intentional, so, well done, Alex.

4.17Ivar1ARagnar’s boys reach out to old enemies as well as old friends as they build the great army that they plan to lead to Mercia and Wessex. Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) opts out, thank you very much, which Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) seems to resent. He and Ivar finally go after Lagertha in the great hall, neutralizing her defenders while Lagertha, center stage, stays cool and collected. Ivar uses his nasty iron spikes to drag himself toward her, Ubbe circles behind, but she doesn’t even break a sweat. She casually picks up a sword, and although the tension is high we are confident that she will find a way out of this (we’ve seen her karate moves), but just then Bjorn walks in – having sailed all the way from the Mediterranean – and he intervenes.

4.17Lagertha1Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), mind you, is BIG. Have you noticed? He is the ultimate, bear-like, alpha male, and his brothers know better than to defy him when he lays down the law. Harald and Halfdan seem to think that Big Bjorn will take all the profits from the women they have brought back as slaves from Algeciras. Unlikely. The Vikings shared their booty among the ships’ crews. Their leader may have taken a greater proportion, but not all of the profit. If he had, nobody would have signed on with him.

Before returning to Kattegat Bjorn and company had stopped in northern Frankia to return Rollo (Clive Standen) to his family. Rollo invited anyone who might want good, rich land to settle in his kingdom, but there were no takers. They all remembered what Rollo did to the earlier settlers, and who could blame them? Historically, though, there were plenty of Scandinavians who joined Rollo and supported him in his fierce drive to expand and control his territory. He was not just stuck at home with Gisla (Morgane Polanski) who, in this warm homecoming scene, welcomes him enthusiastically in French. I heard her call him a Northern bastard and a dog just before she smacked him on the nose.

That’s not the only marital discord this week. In Kattegat Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) is not at all happy about the slave girl that Helga (Maud Hirst) brought back from Algeciras. That three-way relationship is looking awfully rocky, especially since Helga seems mentally and emotionally fragile and the girl is traumatized. Next door, Torvi (Georgia Hirst) doesn’t want Bjorn to go with Ivar on his vengeance mission, but Bjorn resents her nagging. They now have three small children (this shield maiden has her hands full!), and there is mayhem at the dinner table when the couple begin to argue. Did you see that poor infant in Torvi’s arms burst into tears when Bjorn started to shout? Alexander Ludwig may have been acting, but that baby was not.

Speaking of children, over in Mercia Judith (Jennie Jacques) goes with her parents to visit Ragnar’s death site, suggesting it is a sacred place, and I’m with Aelle on this one: “Are you nuts?” She tries to warn her father about the wrath of the Lothbroks, with little success. He’s too convinced of his own martial superiority to heed her, which is just asking the gods for a smackdown. And in Wessex King Ecbert (Linus Roache) gives the hapless young Alfred (Isaac O’Sullivan) a nasty lesson in trust which involves drinking too much wine, poor kid. “Don’t be influenced by other people, especially people like me,” Ecbert advises. Thanks, granddad.

4.17Ecbert_AlfredEcbert hopes that Alfred will be king, which has me wondering again about his older grandson, Æthelred, the true heir, and what kind of lessons he is learning, and from whom. (What might papa Æthelwulf  be teaching Æthelred behind the scenes?)

Back in Kattegat again, at Ivar’s request Floki makes him a chariot that looks just like Ben Hur’s, and he responds, predictably, like a 1950’s teenager with a new hot rod. This is Hirst’s idea of how Ivar was able to get around on the battlefield, and it’s as plausible as any other suggestion, I suppose.

4.17chariot1AWe are left at the end of the episode with a final tangle to ponder. Astrid is busily weaving – and, in fact, women in that world would have spent most of their time weaving, so I love seeing her at the loom.

4.17Loom1In Lagertha’s absence (and what, we wonder is she up to in Hedeby?) Bjorn makes a pass at Astrid; she responds willingly, and this is likely to lead to domestic trouble in any number of ways. Bjorn is like the proverbial fox in the henhouse, a development that gives Hirst all sorts of options for future conflict: rivalry, resentment, revenge. Fun times!

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 16: CROSSINGS

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The title this week seems to refer to three different kinds of CROSSINGS. The first would be the journey that Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) and company take, crossing a wide expanse of sea to reach the Mediterranean. The second might be a reference to double crossing, as Bjorn’s companions Harald (Peter Franzén) and Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen) speculate that they will have to overcome the Lothbroks one day – perhaps soon – in order for Harald to become king of Norway (which, by the way, he does).  Finally it is a reference to Ragnar’s crossing from this life into Valhalla, and for my money, the segments of the show that deal with Ragnar are the best.

First, though, let’s look at what’s happening in Wessex. Do you recall the very first image of King Ecbert (Linus Roache) back in Season 2? He looked like this.4-16ecbertbath
Now he looks ancient, emaciated, and almost non compos mentis.4-16ecbert-1What a terrific job the make-up team has done, consistently, on this show. Ecbert’s aging is merely one example of their expertise. It’s also an example of Roache’s fine acting.

And although we worried last week that Ecbert had been taken in by Ragnar’s promise to direct Lothbrok vengeance toward King Aella, this week he agrees with his son Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) that the Vikings will return…and he makes Æthelwulf responsible for the defense of Wessex while Ecbert intends to spend his time teaching Alfred. We have to wonder, is this a kind of mad Lear moment for Ecbert, or – because Ecbert has used his son as a fall guy before – is this cunning?

In Kattegat there is plenty of family drama. Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) and Sigurd (David Lindström) appear to be under constant guard (shield maidens eyeing them while they are bathing, poor guys), and they have two big worries. First, that Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) might kill them. Second, that Ivar-the-Loose-Cannon might do something that will trigger Lagertha’s wrath. This is borne out when Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) challenges Lagertha to single combat and, when she refuses, he promises that he will kill her.

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Lagertha, though, is burdened with more than just Ragnar’s troublesome sons. She has a kingdom to govern, and she tells her people that because Kattegat is now quite wealthy, (evidenced by her gorgeous wardrobe – who knew that women dressed so well in the 9th century?) they must build defenses. So the whole village gets to work.

Meantime, in a land far away, Bjorn’s ships are lost in fog. We hear what sounds like a fog horn, but is probably a shipman sounding a horn to keep the boats together in the murk, and I thought that was an interesting, plausible touch. Rollo, meantime, is using the sunstone that we saw in the very first Vikings episode to try to determine where they are. Where they find themselves, very soon, is Algeciras, Spain, across the bay from Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean.

4-16promoSeries creator Michael Hirst uses the scenes in Spain to remind us of the Viking reputation for viciousness and barbarity. They attack at night, they murder, pillage, rape, and they take prisoners. But there were elements of these scenes that stretched my credulity.

Would there have been a bustling, crowded outdoor market taking place at night, even in southern Spain? Would the men in the mosque be so intent on their prayers that they wouldn’t hear a foreign tongue spoken in their holy place, and wouldn’t notice when an infidel violently kills their imam? Would the vikings take only female prisoners when men would have been far more useful on a long voyage?

And then there is Helga’s puzzling statement that she wants a child, this in an age when the norm would have been that women were breeding almost constantly. It implies that Helga (Maud Hirst) and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) are not intimate, which is possible, given Floki’s concerns with the gods – Norse, Christian, or Muslim. This may be what we are meant to think. Still, I’m not sure.

All in all, I found the scenes in Algeciras unsatisfying. The scenes about Ragnar though, were brilliant.

In one of them Lagertha wakes up and sees Ragnar. She begs him not to forget her, to haunt her, speaking to him until the vision fades away. It is a lovely, tender moment. Later she visits the spamaðr (John Kavanaugh) and learns that he, too, has seen Ragnar. But the question she poses to him is about Ragnar’s sons.

4-16promolagerthaThe answer he gives her is chilling.

Finally, that one-eyed stranger who arrived at the end of last week’s episode appears again, confirming that he is Odin. He visits each of Ragnar’s sons and it is prophetic that the Lothbroks are each in the midst of warlike endeavors when they see him: Bjorn and Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) about to raid the Mediterranean, Ivar at the forge making a sword, Ubba inspecting an arrow, Sigurd sharpening an axe. We hear Ragnar’s final words again, amid thunder, lightning, and the quaking of the earth. It evokes, quite wonderfully, the very first opening scene of the series, when Odin walked among the battlefield dead beneath a glowering sky to gather warriors to his hall.

Ragnar has gone to Valhalla but his warrior sons live on. The Viking Age will continue for another five generations, and there are many more stories to tell. Stay tuned.

Photos of Vikings © The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 15: ALL HIS ANGELS

4-15vikingsaSpoiler Alert! Reader Beware.

As the episode opens, King Ecbert (Linus Roache) has decided to deliver his ‘frenemy’ Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) into the hands of King Aella, who will very happily kill the viking leader. Tormented by guilt at this decision, Ecbert agrees to Ragnar’s request to speak alone with his son before Ecbert sends Ivar back to Kattegat. Ecbert’s distress about Ragnar’s coming death makes him a more sympathetic character in these last two episodes than the sly, devious king we have seen in the past. His decision to trust Ragnar alone with Ivar, though, is a big mistake.

Elsewhere in the palace, Alfred (Isaac O’Sullivan) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) are playing chess. Given that this is the 9th century, a game of taefl is far more likely, but chess pieces are more photogenic.

4-15chess-1aIt appears that young Alfred unexpectedly outmaneuvers Ivar in the game, and this might very well be a portent of a future battle of wits between these two. Stay tuned.

When Ivar and Ragnar have their private meeting, Ragnar urges his son  to “Take revenge for my death on King Ecbert, not on King Aelle” – despite Ragnar’s assurance to Ecbert that he would tell Ivar to do the exact opposite. Ragnar, you see, has an entire wiped-out settlement to avenge – a blood feud, if you will. Revenge was an important concept in Dark Age society, and Ragnar remains true to his Viking nature (and to his gods) in urging vengeance against Ecbert.

Before Ragnar is sent away he gives Alfred the cross that belonged to the monk Athelstan. “It was your father’s,” Ragnar says, and Alfred doesn’t even blink. Apparently this Alfred, whose parentage is purely an invention of series creator Michael Hirst, knows that Æthelwulf is not his father and King Ecbert is not his grandfather, which means that he has NOT A SINGLE DROP OF WEST-SAXON ROYAL BLOOD IN HIS VEINS. But it doesn’t seem to bother him or anybody else. He is SPECIAL, apparently by royal decree.

At this point we are given just the merest glimpse of Alfred’s older brother, Æthelred, who is a composite of all four of the historical Alfred’s older brothers. As the other three were named Æthelstan, Æthelbald, and Æthelberht, you should be grateful for this.

At this point we know what absolutely has to happen next because the sagas tell us that Ragnar will die in King Aella’s snake pit. But the road leading to Ragnar’s End is dark, pitiless and grim.

4-15ragnar1aHe is beaten, stabbed, and burned, and his right eye badly injured before he is dropped into the pit. The scenes are horrific, but the script is excellent and gripping, with fine acting by Roache and Fimmel (who did all his own stunt work, by the way; this show is tough on its actors). The only bright moments of this episode are Ragnar’s memories of his family, his youthful exploits, and his friendship with Athelstan.

The conflict between the Christian and Norse religions – a theme that runs through this entire series – permeates this episode. King Aella (Ivan Kaye) sees himself as God’s instrument. “I thank God and all his angels that I am still alive to witness this day,” he says, and lucky Ragnar is given the opportunity, through torture, to atone for his crimes. Three times (that mystical number) Aella demands that Ragnar ask for absolution, but Ragnar never yields. In reality, Aella wants to break Ragnar, not redeem him. He wants vengeance – as important to an Anglo-Saxon as it was to a Scandinavian; Aella has simply put a Christian spin on it. While he prays for deliverance from evil and violent men, Aella is himself evil and violent, and he relishes his violence. Brutality and cruelty were the norm in the Dark Ages, not the exception, no matter which god you followed.

King Ecbert, though, is driven to self-imposed penance because of his guilt about Ragnar. Dressed in the robes of a monk he walks to Mercia to witness Ragnar’s death – a hike that had to be at least fifty miles and possibly more, depending on where in Mercia Aella was staying. Ecbert seems to be searching for something as he watches Ragnar’s dying face. Forgiveness, perhaps. His expression, though, implies that he does not find it.

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Throughout this episode Ragnar seems to be torn between belief in his Norse gods and an utter denial of the existence of any god. On the road, he imagines a conversation with the spamaðr, and he boasts to him that he, Ragnar, has been the master of his own fate; that the gods are man’s creation. Or does he protest too much? His final words are what he has told Ecbert they would be – he speaks of Odin’s Hall, where he will await the arrival of his sons, and he welcomes the Valkyries to summon him home. Perhaps this is nothing more than bravado tossed in Aella’s face; perhaps it is meant to be repeated to Ragnar’s sons and his people. But even if Ragnar does not believe his own words, he dies a pagan, true to his Viking nature.

Our blue-eyed boy is gone, although Hirst claims that we have not seen the last of Ragnar. And we have Ragnar’s own blue-eyed boy to replace him. Has anyone else noticed the blue cast to Ivar’s eyes in every scene?

When Ivar arrives in Kattegat he tells Ubbe and Sigurd of their father’s fate and they in turn tell him that Lagertha murdered their mum. Vengeance, Ivar says, is what matters. That merciless Dark Age concept will continue to drive this story forward.

Meantime, we are given an additional mystery: who is the one-eyed man we see sailing into Kattegat beneath a flock of Odin’s ravens?

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Photos of Vikings © The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 14: THE UNCERTAIN HOUR BEFORE THE MORNING

Vikings4mThe action this week swings between Kattegat and Wessex, and the face-offs between Lagertha/Aslaug and Ragnar/Ecbert that we have all been eagerly anticipating. Kudos to the actors, whose expressions convey a wide range of emotions – doubt, fear, anxiety, understanding, astonishment, suspicion. For a show that glories in sweeping battle scenes, this episode is dialogue-rich and intimately emotional.

It begins with Ragnar’s wives – women whom he has loved, who have borne him children, and who have assumed, each in her own way, power over her followers. There is a great deal of uncertainty in their meeting, reflecting the title of the episode. Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) claims that Ragnar is dead. Unsettled, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) questions her ‘sight’, and Aslaug confesses that she cannot be sure. The grievance between them revolves around Ragnar, and writer Hirst uses it to explore the limits of Viking age female power. Lagertha seems to be stepping into the role of the ruthless early medieval warlord; Aslaug, despite her heritage and mystical abilities, claims that her true destiny was to bear Ragnar’s sons. Their dialogue implies that it was not their own decisions that led them to this moment, but Ragnar’s decision to choose between them – which is too bad. I expected more from Hirst. He created two powerful women – probably more powerful than they could actually have been in that period – but he didn’t go deep enough into their minds in this scene to suit me. The resolution, when it came, was so unexpected and abrupt that I felt cheated. It was over and done in maybe five minutes, while the resolution of the conflict between Ragnar and Ecbert would go on for most of the episode. Lagertha and Aslaug deserved far better. In particular, I needed more exposition for Lagertha’s actions. Hirst, though, saved all the good stuff for the men.

And it was really good.

King Ecbert (Linus Roache) is not at Winchester when Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrive so they are delivered into the hands of Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) who gets more unlikable with every episode. This time around he gets to enjoy seeing Ragnar beaten and caged, and he gets to toss Magnus, the adolescent son of the woman he supposedly loved, out into the wilderness alone. Into the rain yet.

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Æthelwulf has no cunning. He’s simply a thug. And is this the last that we will see of Magnus (Cameron Hogan)? Or is he a character – purely fictional as far as I can tell – that Hirst intends to use later on?

But back to Ecbert and Ragnar. When they meet, Ragnar is caged like an animal, and Ecbert treats him warily, clearly afraid of what Ragnar might do if he is set free. Because we’ve actually seen Ragnar rise from the dead last season, we are as wary as Ecbert. But Ecbert sets about taming this wild monster – setting food before him, ordering that Ivar be brought in to assure Ragnar that his son is safe and well cared-for, even confessing that he ordered the massacre of Ragnar’s Danish settlement and apologizing for that act.

It was part of a larger and bolder strategy, he says. And we know that he means the conquest of Mercia, part of his effort to form a united ‘Englalond’. Their conversation is wide-ranging. To begin, Ragnar claims that Magnus is not his son. But is Ragnar lying to protect Magnus, as he will lie to protect Ivar? And is Magnus the real reason that Ragnar has returned to Wessex? We are uncertain. (See episode title.) But some truths are agreed upon. (Ecbert to Ragnar: You are the most dangerous man on earth; Ragnar to Ecbert: You like power don’t you). And even though it is Ragnar who is in the cage, it is Ecbert who seems trapped. What do you want me to say? he asks. And the answer comes back, The truth. Although we already know that both these men are kind of allergic to the truth.

But the king breaks out the wine because In vino veritas, and Linus Roache gives a fantastic performance here as he taunts Ragnar with the key to his cage, uncertain whether this monster is tame enough to let it lose. He approaches Ragnar, key in hand while the caged and cagey Ragnar toys with him – Are you sure? – and we don’t know which of them is the cat and which the mouse.

Ragnar, though, came to Wessex to die. I’m fated to die the day the blind man sees. Remember those words. First, though, they have much to talk about. They argue about life and death and the gods, and Ragnar even questions the existence of any god at all. Which is when Ecbert quietly says that Athelstan was a godly man. And now the conversation turns on love and guilt and Athelstan’s fate, which is the fate of all men, and why Ragnar has come to Wessex. Twice he says to Ecbert, You have to kill me.

Then we are in the hall and the two kings are seated on thrones where we have seen them before, equals, side by side.

4-14-ragnarecbert1Now they are old, and in what seems like a farewell gift from Ecbert to Ragnar, Judith enters with Alfred who looks like an adolescent Athelstan and Ragnar, moved, knows immediately who he is.

4-14-athelstan1In terms of historical impossibility, this scene is off the charts. But Hirst is tying up all the threads he’s left hanging from the first four seasons, clearing the decks for future story lines with the new generation.

This impossible scene is followed by Ecbert praying alone, not in Old English which is what he would have known, but in the beautiful language of the King James Bible: I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. It’s Ecclesiastes 1:14-18, and concludes with the line, For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Meantime Ragnar is seated alone, thinking his Viking thoughts which Hirst expresses through images of the vast, eternal sea. What an eloquent way to portray the reflections of these two men as they contemplate the end of their days.

In the final scene, both men admit that Ragnar must die, but Ecbert is unwilling to kill him, not least because, as Ragnar points out, the sons of Ragnar will seek revenge. It’s Ragnar who suggests that he be turned over to Ælla, and that poor, crippled Ivar, who is no threat at all, (hah!) be sent to Kattegat with word that Ecbert is the good guy, and they must take out their vengeance further north, on Ælla.

How much of this is a ploy on Ragnar’s part? Do we trust him? Does Ecbert trust him? We are, as the title of this episode suggests, uncertain. Ecbert prays for guidance and Ragnar clasps his hand with the very unreassuring assurance, Don’t be afraid.

Photos of Vikings © The History Channel

 

 

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 13: TWO JOURNEYS

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In this episode Lagertha starts a war, Rollo goes swimming, and Ragnar takes Ivar on a road trip.

In Hedeby Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) is plotting with her girlfriends to take back Kattegat, but Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) and Sigurd (David Lindström), unlike their brothers, have opted to hang out at home and protect the town and their mum. So to get them out of the way Lagertha lures them to Hedeby, puts them in storage, and attacks Kattegat by land and sea. Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) – she of the many visions – has already seen this coming. So while her people are forming shield walls and fighting for their lives, she decks herself out in her finest ceremonial garb and prepares for – well we’re not sure what, but it involves a gorgeous golden sword. Once Lagertha calls a halt to the fighting, Aslaug, leaves the hall bearing this sword on her palms.

4-13swordCould this be her father’s sword? Aslaug’s father, Sigurd, had a powerful golden sword that he used to kill the dragon Fafnir. If this is his sword, what is Aslaug going to do with it? The sword has a name: Gramr. It means Wrath. Uh-oh.

Over in Normandy Rollo (Clive Standen) greets Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), and Helga (Maud Hirst), and even recognizes Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), which is impressive because it’s been about ten years since he’s seen this nephew who must have been 8 then. Bjorn and Hvitserk meet their three cousins, only one of whom I’ve ever heard of before. That would be the eldest, William (Charles Last), who would one day be called William Longsword, and his great great grandson, another William, will cause a row at Hastings in 1066. You can see Longsword’s tomb, and Rollo’s, in the Rouen cathedral.

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Bjorn shows Rollo his map and Rollo admires it so much that he snatches it and throws his visitors, shackled, into a cell. Welcome to Normandy! After a time, though, Bjorn is released and invited to meet a librarian (Jack Walsh) who’s come all the way from Paris to show Bjorn a bigger and better map. This gentleman is Johannes Scotus Eriugena – a historical figure who was born in Ireland and joined the court of Charles the Bald in 847. Teacher, theologian, philosopher and poet, he became head of the Palace School. And, apparently, he was at the beck and call of Rollo in what must be the year 919, which would make Johannes about 104 years old, although we know he died sometime around 877, but if you try to keep this series to a strict time line you’ll go mad, so never mind.

Johanne’s map of the Roman Empire is lovely.

4-13map1Did they have maps like this in the 10th century? It’s possible. Eratosthenes drew a world map in 194 BC. The actual map didn’t survive the centuries, but scholars have recreated it from the description, and it looks a lot like this one. I’m willing to believe that such a map might have been floating around in a library in Paris in 847 or 919 or whenever, although no one can prove it. As they study it Rollo warns Bjorn about violent storms in the Bay of Biscay that he will have to navigate. Pay attention Bjorn! Even today massive cargo ships run into trouble there because of rough seas and twenty foot swells. Imagine what it must have been like in a Viking boat.

Rollo agrees to grant Bjorn passage, but only if he will take Rollo along. Bjorn agrees, but his wife Gisla (Morgane Polanski), understandably, is not happy about this. Rollo tells her that despite his conversion to Christianity, he is a Viking at heart. True enough. Supposedly the historical Rollo, on his deathbed, gave benefactions to Christian churches and also some human sacrifices to the old gods, thus hedging his bets. So off he goes. But all is not well with his Viking crew and family. They are still mad about the drubbing he gave them eight years before, so they keelhaul him. This nasty punishment – dragging someone under the hull of a ship – was first recorded by the Greeks in 800 b.c. Ironically, it was meted out to pirates while here it’s the pirates doing the punishing. We hold our breath because we don’t know how long Rollo can hold his.

Meantime, in Wessex, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) survive their own watery ordeal, along with about a dozen companions. The Saxons know they are lurking about but King Ecbert (Linus Roache), older but still canny, is not too worried about Ragnar so long as he doesn’t have an army with him.

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Ragnar and his mates evade the Saxons for a while, but Ragnar knows it’s only a matter of time until they are caught and killed. His solution: he and Ivar have to dispose of their friends and go it alone.  So they do, and it stretches my sympathy to the breaking point. Ragnar’s purpose in going to Wessex was to avenge the slaughter of the Danish settlers he left there 8 years before, yet he has no qualms about murdering his companions. Is there logic in that? Well, in the last episode we saw the corruption of the concept of lord as gold giver, and now we see the next step – once Ragnar turns on his own men, how is he different from the treacherous Jarl Haraldson  that he defeated in Season One? Mind you, we’ve seen Rollo kill his people as well. Is it a Lothbrok trait or a Viking one?

Ivar doesn’t even question it. Well, he’s a Lothbrok. The two of them make their way to Winchester, and I have to wonder if writer Hirst thinks that the clever, sometimes affectionate dialogue between father and son will make me forget just how twisted and dangerous these two are. It doesn’t. That snake imagery comes to mind again – deadly, unpredictable and cold blooded.

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As they approach Winchester Ragnar warns Ivar to “act like a cripple so they won’t see you as a threat,” and the episode ends with a shot of Ragnar’s devious, chilling expression as he is about to meet his old adversary, King Ecbert.

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All photos: The History Channel

 

 

 

 

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 12: THE VISION

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The title of this episode, THE VISION, refers to something that happened near the end of the hour, but I’m going to ignore that event because of spoilers. I’ll only note that my favorite part was the waterspout and the breathtaking final scene.

Much of the rest of the episode, similar to last week, was Set Up for conflicts to come:
between Bjorn and Rollo or possibly Bjorn and Harald Finehair (who has AMBITIONS);
between Ragnar and King Ecbert; and between Lagertha and Aslaug.

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Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) making nice. It didn’t last long. Photo: History Channel

This episode also gave us more insight into Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) who was one of the most famous sons of Ragnar.

There are several theories about why the historical Ivar was given the byname Boneless, and series writer Michael Hirst has incorporated all of them into his character of Ivar:
1. Ivar was impotent – suggested because he never married or had children.
(Hirst’s Ivar is, apparently, impotent.)
2. Ivar was a skilled warrior and so agile he seemed almost snakelike.
(Hirst’s Ivar has superior upper body strength and incredible ability with weapons, thus making him a skilled warrior. In addition he drags himself – creepily snakelike – along the ground.)
3. Ivar was born with no bones in his legs.
(Hirst’s Ivar has, from birth, never been able to walk.)

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A creeping – and furious – Ivar. Photo: History Channel.

In the Saga about Ragnar’s sons (Ragnarssona þáttr), Ivar describes himself this way: “I’m borne before my fighters forward though I’m boneless, I have hands for vengeance, though hardly strength in either.”

That certainly implies that he cannot walk so has to be carried. The saga also describes him as the cleverest of the sons of Ragnar and Aslaug, and therefore the leader of the brothers who, in the saga, get along remarkably well with each other. In this series though they are not quite so chummy – at least, not with Ivar – and frankly, I think that Hirst’s characterization of the brothers is probably more realistic. There is a scene in this episode that is like The Dinner From Hell, filled with tension, resentment, jealousy and cruel taunts – directed at Ivar. The youngest brother, Sigurd (David Lindström), suggests that Ivar should have been left to the wolves as an infant (which tells us that Ivar knows the history of his birth), and the eldest brother, Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), later admits that Ivar terrifies him.

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A dinner gone bad, & it wasn’t the food. Photo: History Channel.

Well, what else can you expect from the sons of Ragnar, whose relationship with his own brother was so fraught with rivalry and resentment?

Hirst has carefully grounded this family dissonance in the character of Ivar himself which, although as twisted as his body, is perfectly understandable. He was born, deformed, into a family of strong, healthy, ambitious sons. Sibling rivalry is taken to extremes with these guys, because they all want to outdo their father in fame. For example, when Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) sets out on a long, dangerous voyage, his woman Thyra (Georgia Hirst), tells him to stay safe, but warns him not to come back unless he does something extraordinary. No pressure, Bjorn.

So Ivar, the runt of the litter, resents his brothers for their health, their strong bodies, and their skill with weapons and with women, and is determined to outdo them any way he can. Although his mother clearly favors him, he perceives it as pity, and at the same time that he hates her pity, he has all his life taken advantage of the license it grants him. Meantime, he hides his own fears about his inadequacy behind cruelty, bullying and a ferocious anger. And now he has joined Ragnar for an adventure to Wessex, both of them crippled in more ways than one.

Some historical trivia to note: there was a scene in which Ragnar seemed to go manic and fling gold at the men of Kattegat. It was a bizarre corruption of the image of the lord as gold giver and ring giver, who rewarded men for bravery and loyalty. Ragnar wasn’t rewarding them, but bribing them to sail with him – and they were, as Ivar described them – the dregs.

The term ENGLAND was used four or five times in this episode, but there was no England or even Englalande. There was WESSEX, MERCIA, EAST ANGLIA and NORTHUMBRIA. Yes, Ecbert was a king, but King of the West Saxons, not King of England. By this time, historically anyway, he was no longer King of Mercia. That only lasted for one year. The word England was not used to describe the island that was home to the Anglo-Saxon people until the mid-tenth century. (Ecbert died in 839.)

And speaking of Ecbert, remember the gold coin that Ivar held up and asked to keep? That was a mancus, and we find references to these gold coins in charters and wills. No mancus has ever been found with Ecbert’s image on it, which does not mean that there weren’t any; gold tended to get melted down. I question the crown on Ecbert’s image, though. These coins were modeled after Roman coins, and the heads of the emperors were crowned with wreaths, so the images of the Anglo-Saxon kings had wreaths and, later, helmets. A gold mancus of the Mercian King Coenwulf (796-821) was found in 2001 near the River Ivel in Biggleswade (yes! There is a town in England named Biggleswade!) about 45 miles north of London, in 2001. Coenwulf, you’ll see, has no crown.

Mancus of Coenwulf. British Museum.

Mancus of Coenwulf. British Museum.

But a 19th century drawing of King-Ecbert-with-a-crown looks a lot like the coin created for VIKINGS. And let’s face it, Ecbert the Awesome, given his ambitions and colossal ego, would probably have insisted on a crown.

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King Ecbert, 19th c. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Photo: History Channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ragnarssona þáttr translation: Peter Tunstall

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 11: THE OUTSIDER

 

Vikings4mThe second half of VIKINGS Season 4 begins right where we left off last spring, with Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) returning to Kattegat after an 8-year absence, and challenging each of his sons:

“Who wants to be king?”

As it turns out, nobody does. Well, maybe Ivar. But none of them really wants to challenge Ragnar. Ubbe steps forward, sword in hand, but he’s all but dragging it on the ground, and even when Ragnar cuffs him (twice!) he just stares at his father – and staring eyeball to eyeball at Ragnar would be terrifying – until dad grabs him and hugs him.

Later in this episode Bjorn, will ask Ragnar, “Why did you come back?”
And Lagertha, will ask, “Why did you leave?”
Nobody poses the questions I’m asking, “Where the heck have you been and what have you been doing to yourself?” Because Ragnar looks terrible: old, sick, maybe a little mad (okay, he’s always been a little mad). And as the Outsider of the title of this episode, he is uncomfortable among his family – and we are uncomfortable with him.

randuSo, about that family, the sons of Ragnar and Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland).  If anyone is having trouble putting names to the faces of this Viking quartet, here is a family photo taken with dad and half-brother, Bjorn.

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Left to Right: Hvitserk, Bjorn, Ivar, Ragnar, Ubbe, Sigurd. Got that?

This episode allows us to become familiar with the younger Lothbrok boys and to see their relationships with each other. They are all capable fighters, they are all ambitious, and apparently they all like to sleep with the same blonde servant girl. But there are differences.

HVITSERK (Marco Ilsø) is fired up by Bjorn’s ambition to find Rome and plans to tag along…..IVAR THE BONELESS (Alex Høgh Andersen) is your worst viking nightmare. Writer Michael Hirst describes him as pathologically cruel, and he should know because he wrote him that way. Ivar was born deformed, and although Ragnar intended the infant to die of exposure, Aslaug saved him. (If Ivar knows about this, Ragnar had better watch his back.) Ivar’s bond with his mum has always been creepy and she’s never disciplined him. Because of his deformity he is driven to prove he’s as good as or better than his brothers at everything. Hirst seems excited by Ivar, but I’m not sure how much of him I can stomach….. UBBE (Jordan Patrick Smith) is the eldest and has, in Ragnar’s absence, assumed a protective, father-figure role. He even arranges an assignation for girl-shy Ivar with that blonde servant girl…..SIGURD SNAKE IN THE EYE (David Lindström), the youngest, looks to big brother Ubbe as a father-figure – not surprising, as he never really knew Ragnar, and the half-mad, bedraggled man who returns from exile doesn’t measure up to the myth.

There. Enough with the sons. Back to Ragnar, who wants to go to Britain and wreak vengeance on King Ecbert for wiping out the Norse settlers eight years before. He asks each of his sons except Ivar to join him, and they each refuse because they have other plans.

His next step is to approach Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), but Floki has given his oath to Bjorn. There is an intriguing exchange, though, between Ragnar and Floki. “If you don’t come with me I’ll never see you again,” Ragnar says. When Floki insists they will meet in Valhalla, Ragnar replies that he doesn’t know if he will go to Valhalla. We’re reminded of the very first scene of this season, when Ragnar dreamed of Valhalla and of the golden door that shut him out. Ragnar is clearly coming to terms with his own mortality and beliefs, and in this scene he seems to be bidding Floki what he believes is a final farewell – the final chapter of a turbulent friendship.

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Next stop, Hedeby, where Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) is living the good life with her girlfriend Astrid (Josefin Asplund). Lagertha, badly wounded 8 years before, has survived beautifully. She looks about 20 years younger than Ragnar. Maybe it’s the food. I’ll have what she’s having!

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Lagertha is so done with men now. They have beaten her and betrayed her, and there is no way she’s joining Ragnar for a cruise to Wessex. We don’t even see any men in her lovely hall with its delicately carved accents. Maybe she picked up some decorating tips while she was in Frankia.

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Later we find her sitting on a bed with Astrid and the two of them are gazing at their lovely reflections in – is that a mirror image? WAIT! STOP!

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Sorry guys. They didn’t have mirrors like this in the 10th century, and although I might let you get away with Lagertha’s charming hall, the set designer got a little carried away with the bed chamber. Just sayin’. (The owl’s a nice touch, though.)

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Ragnar bids farewell to Lagertha – a bittersweet moment that leaves him mildly shattered. He attempts to hurry his own death, but Odin’s raven intervenes. Sorry Ragnar, you’re not done yet. He makes his way back to Kattegat – and to Ivar. At episode’s end we still don’t know anything about what’s been going on in Wessex (Alfred the Great!!!) or Frankia (Rollo!!!), and we don’t know what Ragnar was doing for those 8 missing years. But we know he’s headed for Wessex, and we know that Ivar is going with him, and I’m thinking that Ecbert the Awesome had better watch out.

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All photos © The History Channel

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The Modern Medieval: Day 5

ModernMedieval
A street called Distaflane appears on my City of London map from the year 1270. Today the street sign looks like this:

DistaffDistaff is an Anglo-Saxon word for a very ancient tool. It was a staff on which wool or flax was wound in the process of spinning. It was held under the left arm, and the fibres of the material were drawn from it through the fingers of the left hand, and twisted spirally by the forefinger and thumb of the right, with the aid of the drop spindle, round which the thread, as it was twisted or spun, was wound. I’ve tried this. It is not easy!!!

And apparently, as we see in this manuscript drawing, medieval women found other uses for the distaff as well.

DistaffMs1At any rate, in medieval London, if you were looking for someone to spin wool, Distaff Lane was the place to go.

Probably one of the most recognized street names from the Anglo-Saxon period is this one:

WatlingStreet
It was a road built by the Romans that ran from Dover to Wroxeter, and in the late 9th century it appears as Wæclingastræt. It was significant for the Anglo-Saxons because, from the time of King Alfred its diagonal path from London northward separated the Anglo-Saxons from the Danes who settled in England. Interestingly, as far as I can tell, it ran from Dover only as far as the Thames, then picked up again on the other side of London. There was no Watling Street that ran through the city. The Watling Street that is there now was originally called Æthelingstrete. An ætheling was a royal son, and this Old English term meant throne-worthy. The late Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II had several grown sons, all æthelings. And I would bet money that one or more of them had a residence on Æthelingstrete – now Watling Street – at some time in the 11th century. Today the street looks like this, and there’s a nice pub on the corner to commemorate the Legions.

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I hope you have enjoyed the posts this week, and that perhaps they will inspire you to think about the history behind the street names where you live because, as William Faulkner reminds us:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

 

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The Modern Medieval: Day 4

ModernMedievalWhile walking from London’s Tower to St. Paul’s one evening, I started to pay close attention to the street signs that evoked London’s Anglo-Saxon past, and right away I spotted this:

CheapsideAnyone who walks through Cheapside today is passing through the heart of Anglo-Saxon London. The name comes from the Old English word ceap, pronounced cheap. It means market. Today you’ll still find street names that evoke the goods sold in the old Anglo-Saxon ceap: Wood St., Milk St., Honey Lane and of course:

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Then we come to more ecclesiastical street names, like this one:

RoodLane1The word rood is Old English for the cross on which Christ died. The Dream of the Rood, for example, is an Old English religious poem, and some passages from it are carved in runes into the 8th century Ruthwell Cross in Scotland. The town of Ruthwell itself gets its name from the Old English words rood and wella (cross by a spring). Rudston in Yorkshire takes its name from its own stone cross. In London, on Rood Lane, there was once – surprise! – a cross. It stood in the churchyard of St. Margaret Pattens until 1538.

Walking further west we run into our old friend from Winchester:

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St. Swithin was a 9th century Anglo-Saxon bishop  of Winchester whose tomb at the old minster in that city was a site of pilgrimage. A kind of popular cult formed around this saint, although we really know very little about him. There are still many churches in England dedicated to St. Swithin, and London’s church dedicated to him stood at the corner of Vicus Sancti Swithin and Candelwryhttstrate as far back as the 13th century. It was destroyed in the fire of 1666, but a new St. Swithin’s designed by Christopher Wren took its place. The church, alas, did not survive the bombs of WWII. At war’s end only the pulpit was salvageable, and the church’s ruins were finally demolished in 1962. But the name of the beloved Anglo-Saxon saint, Swithin, is still remembered in St. Swithin’s Lane.

Tomorrow: Another look at London

The Modern Medieval Day 3
The Modern Medieval Day 2
The Modern Medieval Day 1

 

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