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Emma of Normandy Through Time

Mortuary Chest, Emma of Normandy, Winchester Cathedral

Mortuary Chest, Emma of Normandy, Winchester Cathedral

a gem more splendid through the splendors of her merits…

So begins the epigram written late in the 11th century by Godfrey, prior of Winchester, commemorating Emma, Queen of England.

Queen Emma died on 6 March, 1052, and was buried with great honor in the royal mausoleum, the Old Minster, in Winchester. Her passing was noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and commemorated annually by prayers at Winchester’s New Minster, at Ely Abbey and at Christ Church Canterbury. At her death she was at least 60 years old, perhaps as old as 70, and for 32 of those years she was a queen of England. She was the consort of two kings, the mother of two kings, and the great-aunt of William the Conqueror who would have had no claim to the English throne in 1066 if it hadn’t been for Queen Emma. She was wife, mother, queen, widow and dowager queen through one of the most turbulent periods in England’s history.

Although Emma does not have the name recognition today of, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Ann Boleyn, she was a remarkable woman and quite well known, not only in her lifetime but for centuries after her death.  Where’s the proof of that? Well, to begin with, we have two contemporary drawings of Emma – and that in itself is remarkable.

Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Frontispiece of Encomium Emmae Reginae. 11th c. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece of Encomium Emmae Reginae. 11th c. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, Emma, who was given the name of a royal Anglo-Saxon saint, Ælfgiva, upon her marriage to England’s King Æthelred, may be one of the few female figures stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. Caveat: it is not certain that this is Emma. Scholars continue to argue passionately about the identity of the lady in the tapestry; she was important enough to be named, and apparently she was so well known at the time that anyone looking at the tapestry would have known who this Ælfgiva was and where she fit into the story. Not so those of us looking back at it from a distance of 900 years! The images surrounding  her–the monk who reaches toward her face, and the little naked man in the lower border–merely add to the mystery.

Aelfgyva (Emma?) on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Aelfgyva (Emma?) on the Bayeux Tapestry.

We are on much firmer ground some 100 years after Emma’s death when an anonymous artist depicted her in a lavishly illustrated, 12th century biography of her son, King Edward the Confessor.

Emma with her sons Edward & Alfred from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c.

Emma with her sons Edward & Alfred from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c.

Queen Emma presents her sons to Richard of Normandy, The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c., Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59:fol4v

There are textual references to Emma, too, from the 11th century on. She appears in one of the Norse sagas, (Liðsmannaflokkr), as the chaste widow who stands upon the wall of London and watches the battle raging below her. She is mentioned in the annals of Germany and Normandy, and in the post-Conquest histories of England.

Late in her life Emma herself commissioned a book to be written about events she witnessed or which impacted her in some way. Known today as the Encomium Emmae Reginae, it was certainly read and discussed at the Anglo-Danish-Norman court where she reigned as queen mother. More than 500 years later a copy of that book was in the library of William Cecil, chief adviser to Elizabeth I, so it’s quite possible that the great Tudor queen, too, was familiar with Emma’s name and reputation.

Certainly someone in Elizabethan London knew about Emma. She appears as a character in a drama from that period titled Edmund Ironside.  It’s not a very good play, although at least one scholar thinks it may have been a very early work of Shakespeare. Whoever the author was, he knew enough about Emma to imagine her as a queen and as a grieving mother who is forced to send her children out of England for their safety.

After that, we have to fast-forward to the 1960’s to find Emma again. In his 1968 production The Ceremony of Innocence, playwright Ronald Ribman imagined Queen Emma as, well, something of a harridan. He places her opposite an agonized and irresolute King Æthelred.

A very snarky Queen Emma in A Ceremony of Innocence.

It was at about that same time that historical novelists began to set their stories in 11th century England, and Emma was cast in supporting roles. You can find her in Anya Seton’s Avalon,  Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Helen Hollick’s I am the Chosen King, and Justin Hill’s Shieldwall. 

Scholars of medieval history, of course, have always known about Queen Emma. Many eminent historians – Alistair Campbell, Helen Damico, Simon Keynes, Eleanor Searle, and, especially Pauline Stafford (Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship & Women’s Power in 11th Century England, 1997) – have looked closely at Emma’s career. Their in-depth studies led to the publication of popular biographies by Isabella Strachan (2004) and Harriet O’Brien (2005).

In 2005, though, Emma was finally given a central role in a historical novel. Helen Hollick’s A Hollow Crown was published in England in that year, and it appeared in the U.S. in 2010 as The Forever Queen. Emma was making a comeback!


My own novel about Emma, Shadow on the Crown, was published in 2013.  It has since been translated into four languages, introducing Queen Emma to readers in Russia, Germany, Italy and even Brazil.  The sequel, The Price of Blood, was released in 2015, and it continues Emma’s story up to the year 1012. I am currently at work on the final book of the trilogy that will follow Emma into her second royal marriage and introduce her, I hope,  to an even broader audience.

Recently, Queen Emma became the subject of scientific investigation. Her skeletal remains and those of a number of early English monarchs have for some years been  undergoing examination by a team of scientists from the University of Bristol. The effort hopes to separate and identify bones that were tumbled together into mortuary chests in the 17th century, as well as to learn details about these long-dead royals. (Personally, I would love to know, at the very least, how tall Emma was and what her diet might have been.) Recently the Dean and the Chapter of the cathedral announced that the remains had been “formally dated by the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford and that their origins are thought to be from the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, which is consistent with the historical burial records of the named individuals.” The study is on-going, and I am sure that I am not the only one anxiously awaiting further announcements about their findings.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

So, through the efforts of scientists, of scholars, of historians, of novelists who love history, and of readers who love historical fiction, this remarkable woman is once more garnering some name recognition as a significant figure in English history.

Shadow on the Crown, Russian edition.


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A Story in Three Parts

My current work in progress is the third book of a trilogy about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy.

Why write a trilogy, you may wonder. Why not put the entire story into one book? Maybe, you think, I began to write a single book, but the story just got away from me. Or was it possible that I knew it was going to be a trilogy back when I began to write it? (In 2007, if you’re wondering.)

In fact, I knew from the start that this had to be more than one book. It seemed to me that I would not only have to tell Emma’s story, but I would also have to include the very complicated history of the world she lived in and immerse readers into it. Either I was going to write more than one novel, or it was going to be so long that no one would want to publish it—not that I had any inkling, when I began, that it would ever get published.

I’d already spent several years researching Emma, the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the history of late 10th and early 11th century England, and before I wrote a single word, there was a very big decision I had to make:

How much of Emma’s life story was I going to tell?

That was a dilemma, because Queen Emma lived well into her sixties, perhaps even into her seventies. Almost immediately I decided that I did not want to write a novel that would cover, say, fifty years, for the simple reason that I did not know how to do it, even in a trilogy, without diluting the drama that I felt was inherent in Emma’s story. One thing I did know was this:

It is drama, conflict and change –those things that we hate in our own lives—that make the imaginary world of a novel so compelling.

So in contemplating my novel, I needed to focus on the drama. I had discovered that there were two distinct periods of Emma’s life that were fraught with conflict: the 16 years of her marriage to King Æthelred of England which began when she was probably about 16, and another period of nine years when she was in her 50’s. Both periods were marked by turmoil in Emma’s life and by massive unrest and political upheaval in England.

Emma and her children fleeing from Sven Forkbeard’s conquest of England. Manuscript Miniatures Cambridge.

It was that earlier period, when Emma first arrived in England, that intrigued me the most. I wanted to explore the difficulties that she must have faced as a young, foreign queen. I wanted to write a story that would reflect the turbulent history she witnessed, explore what she must have lived through, and imagine for myself the emotions she must have experienced.

Most importantly, I wanted to present the unrest of that time, not from the viewpoint of a king or a warrior, but from the viewpoint of a woman. The men’s stories—those tales of heroes in mail with their swords and shields—have been told over and over; it is the women’s stories that have gone largely unrecorded. That was my challenge: tell the story that hasn’t been told.

In the process I have created 68 characters, most of them historical figures, including their backgrounds and detailed descriptions. I have researched and imagined 11th century England, Normandy and Denmark, including 25 different towns. I have had to envision churches, great halls, royal chambers, ships, manors, abbeys, tents and army camps—and fittingly furnish each one of them.

Sometimes historical re-enactors provide inspiration.

I have had to make up a great deal of Emma’s story due to the simple fact that there was no monk sitting on a stool in a corner of the great hall or the royal bedchamber taking notes about what the king, the queen and their retainers and attendants said to each other. Emma didn’t keep a journal. There are no letters extant from her or anyone who knew her, and even many of the annals that were kept at the time have been lost. Most of what we know was written after the people involved were already dead. It has been a difficult task to write Emma’s story—much more difficult than I first imagined. It has filled my life now for nine years, and I’m not finished yet.

I do not regret a moment of it.

Why do we read and watch and listen to stories? We have been doing these things since our ancestors first gathered around their fires in the dark or drew pictures on cave walls. Stories fascinate us. We fall into them, we fall in love with the characters we meet in them, we draw inspiration or insight from them, we experience emotions through words printed on a page.

I set myself the task of creating that emotional rush—first for myself and then for anyone else who would read what I’d written. That meant I had to whittle sixteen years of 11th century history, and sixteen years of a woman’s life along with her hopes and fears and a myriad of decisions, into manageable chunks, I had to take readers into another time and place,  introduce them to individuals with odd names they had never heard before, and occasionally fling words at them from an English language so different from our own that it is unreadable to anyone who has not made a study of it.

That meant I had to write…a trilogy. Three books, yes; but one story about a once-powerful woman who had been forgotten but who deserved to be re-introduced to the world.

Her name was Emma.

Russian language cover of Shadow on the Crown

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 10: MOMENTS OF VISION

Although this episode is set in Denmark and Iceland, there is an elegiac quality to it that reminded me of Old English poetry.

O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away,
slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’

How appropriate, that the final words we hear at episode’s end are from the spámaðr:

“We are all going into the dark.”

This somber mood begins in the opening moments with the mournful song that the battle Danes sing as they march toward slaughter. I don’t know what the words of the song mean, but it is in a minor key and their voices echo eerily through the hills. Hearing the song, the major players look skyward or close their eyes. Heahmund the Christian prays. Everyone is solemn except Ivar because this is Ivar’s party and he is oh! so happy. Everybody else is going to fight, and he is going to watch them die. Fun times!

Then the war drums begin. And after that the bells begin to toll. Meantime, two armies face each other beneath a dark sky across a field where mist is rising. The sense of doom is conveyed in everything we see and hear, from the black paint around Lagertha’s eyes to the rasp of her sword as she pulls it from its sheath, to the cry of “Loose!” as the sword comes down and we hear the sound of arrows flying.

The quick cuts between present and past time in the midst of the ongoing battle, the ‘moments of vision’ of the title—these are techniques we’ve not seen before in the show. Michael Hirst explained in a recent interview that he was bidding farewell to some of his characters as well as trying to convey what happens in the mind of a warrior in the midst of battle when death is but one sword stroke away. We see brother meet brother; we see one turn away from fratricide and another embrace it. And that dirge-like song returns to haunt us as we watch. I found the scenes with Halfdan the most moving, even though, as a character I didn’t especially like him.

Magrethe’s weird visions add to the sense of doom, and we’ve seen this kind of thing over and over. Everybody has visions! Athelstan, Ecbert, Alfred, Floki, and now Margrethe. I wish Hirst would be a little less prolific with the visions already. It’s true that not everything Margrethe envisions comes to pass, but if that’s supposed to tell us that we can’t trust her, ummm, we already knew that!

The battle continues to rage, and although many are ready to die, there is one who WANTS to die. We still cannot be sure why. And then…we’re off to Iceland where Bul, who died last week, is being mourned by his family and even by the man who killed him because, as Floki tries to convince Eyvind, it was an accident. Well, we know Eyvind by now. Floki tries to nip vengeance in the bud—quick cut back to the battlefield and the vengeance taking place there—and he tries to bargain with Eyvind while Aud observes them. Eyvind wants revenge, and Floki has to find another way to prevent his community from descending into the chaos–like that battle happening in Denmark–that he had hoped to leave behind. A sacrifice to the gods is what’s needed. How, we wonder, will that play out? But that’s a cliff hanger to be explored when the series returns.

Back on the battlefield (and, honestly, how do these people know who is who?) Ivar has a moment of eye contact with Heahmund, another with Lagertha, and finally with Bjorn, and that seems like set-up for future conflict, however this episode ends.

In Kattegat Margrethe is not so much worried about who is dying on the battlefield as she is about whether she’ll make it to queen or not. She visits the spámaðr and leaves us in no doubt that she’s mad. It’s a scene that adds creepiness to the gloom.

Can I just mention here that I don’t really buy Ivar’s miraculous ability to walk, given that he’s been ‘grounded’ from birth?

In Kattegat, when the battle is done and a good many Danes have died, Bjorn goes to his mother who is almost catatonic with grief. We have seen something similar, when she mourned her miscarriages. This goes well beyond that and, oh my goodness! She looks so much like Daenerys Targaryon I started looking for a dragon.

The very last scene made me shout ‘Yes!’ although it seems like it might be too little, too late. Still, it’s an interesting twist.

And now, we wait.


Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel
THE WANDERER  from Old English Poetry: An Anthology, edited and translated by R.M. Liuzza

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 9: A SIMPLE STORY


The first half of this episode rockets around from Lagertha’s camp to Vestfold to Floki’s Iceland settlement and back around again. We’re all used to this by now, right? The episode begins with the aftermath of last week’s battle, but I want to jump, first, to Iceland.

This series has forced me to do some research about the settlement of Iceland. I have learned (and I am certain that many of you already knew this) that our Floki is based upon Raven-Floki (Hrafna-Floki), a great viking who was the first Norseman to set foot on Iceland, which led to the settlement of Iceland by his countrymen. His story is told in the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) written in 13th century Iceland. Raven-Floki took 3 ravens with him to help him find land, and that’s how he got his nickname and why we see the raven, Odin’s bird, with him in the show. He stayed a season with his companions in Iceland, returned to Norway, and eventually went back to Iceland. What we are seeing in these episodes are fictional stories, sprinkled with characters from Iceland’s history,  about what difficulties Floki and company may have had to cope with as they settled this new land.

Gustaf Skarsgard as Floki

Floki’s dream of a community where internal strife is resolved through negotiation is shattered by the end of the episode.

Meantime, in Norway, all the war leaders survived last week’s battle, which means that nothing has been resolved. Nobody is going to back down. At Hvitserk’s suggestion Ivar sends him to Uncle Rollo, across the sea and about fifty years into the future, to ask for help. Rollo, as we know, is no stranger to brotherly strife. He agrees to help Ivar, and you may have heard the wail from thousands of yearning Rollo fans when the man himself didn’t appear in person but sent ships and men. Today it would take two weeks to sail round trip between Oslo and Rouen. It would have taken far longer in the 9th century. Then you have to add in time for negotiation, gathering troops and supplies, weather complications and their impact on a fleet – so we are looking at a passage of weeks if not months before the Franks actually appear.

When Lagertha and Bjorn find out about the Franks they are still in their camp somewhere. They have been in that camp a long time, apparently, but they can take it. They are vikings. Bjorn goes to Ivar and pleads with him, in the presence of Harald and Astrid, to give up this war. Ivar’s response is scornful and he gestures for his thugs to surround Bjorn. Harald puts a stop to that, protesting, “This is not our way.” I was astonished. I have been watching this series for 5 seasons now, and I would have sworn that this was exactly their way, at least in the show. Scorn, distrust, betrayal, and trickery are all part of the script. But Harald’s protest may be just one of the signs of a developing rift between the Norse king and Ivar. We shall see.

Bjorn returns to camp to report, gloomily, the arrival of the Franks. So many Franks! Ubbe wants to jump into battle, Lagertha wants to send some of their men to protect Kattegat, and Halfdan cheers them all up with his morose pronouncement that the outcome has already been decided by the gods. Never invite Halfdan to a party.

Also, I forgot to mention: Heahmund and Lagertha are now an item. Was anyone surprised?

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Heahmund & no longer a bishop; Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha.

And now a few words on my love/hate relationship with what’s going on in Wessex.

I loved Æthelwulf’s summary, right out of the history books, of the situation in which Wessex found itself: facing viking invaders from all over who were attacking the British Isles and who were putting, as the king says, ‘our land and our faith in peril’.

I loved that bee. Most of the time we do not know how Anglo-Saxon kings died. It’s up to storytellers to come up with explanations, and this was a beauty. And I can’t help wondering what they did to make his face so puffy at the end.

Moe Dunford as King Aethelwulf

I loved Æthelwulf’s moving death scene. His affection for Judith almost made me forget that he had her ear cut off  a while back. I loved the almost immediate meeting of the witan to choose the next king, indicating that, yes, it was the witan that made that choice.

I know this is picky, but what is Judith wearing? She has gone all high medieval on us, and it’s only the 9th century!

Judith’s high medieval couture.; actress Jennie Jacques

For comparison, here is Alfred the Great’s queen, Lady Ælswith, in THE LAST KINGDOM.

Lady Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth) in a gown more appropriate to her century. Photo: THE LAST KINGDOM

I also have to take Michael Hirst to task yet again for re-writing English history. I was taking notes as I watched this episode, and when Judith offered Cuthred the bishopric of Sherborne in return for supporting Alfred, not Æthelred, as Æthelwulf’s heir I wrote: “Oh my God I don’t believe this…”

It got worse. Judith claimed that Wessex did not need a warrior king. WRONG! Given the viking incursions, that’s EXACTLY what Wessex needed. In fact, it needed a warrior king and his brother to take on the vikings. Somehow, though, she persuades Æthelred, who is acclaimed king by the gathered nobles, to refuse the crown in favor of his younger brother Alfred. NOOOO!!!!

Here’s the thing: Even if we accept the complete elimination of King Æthelwulf’s 2 older sons who ruled Wessex or parts of it after Æthelwulf died, there are still the six years of King Æthelred’s reign, when he and Alfred TOGETHER fought against the viking invasions of Wessex. Is this where the title of the episode, A SIMPLE STORY, comes from? The oversimplification of history to fit this series? But Hirst hasn’t just simplified history. He’s changed it. It makes me nuts when he does that, and judging from the look on Æthelred’s face when Alfred is crowned he’s not too happy about it either. Also, there was never a bishop of Sherborne named Cuthred. Just saying.

On the plus side, the final few minutes of the episode were beautifully filmed. Alfred’s coronation, Heahmund’s oath of fealty to Lagertha and the temple fire in Iceland all brilliantly juxtaposed. Heahmund, then Floki, then Alfred falling to their knees. The cries of ‘Long live the king’ in Wessex echoing as the pagan temple in Iceland falls. Is the symbolism too heavy handed? Maybe. But I liked it.

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 8: THE JOKE

Most of this episode takes place in Norway. The few scenes set in Wessex and Iceland are essentially place holders, to remind us that, yes, we have characters of interest there.

In Wessex King Æthelwulf is still training his eldest son to be a warrior. The more cerebral son, Alfred, opines to his mother that what the Saxons really need is a fleet of ships to keep the viking hordes from landing. “Once they’re here,” he says, “it’s too late.” This is a nice nod to historical accuracy. It was Alfred who first established a navy to protect his coastlines.

In Iceland Floki and his raven are still having to listen to rumblings of discontent from Eyvind and his family. Aud the Deep-minded and her father, Kjetell, continue to support Floki who should have carefully sieved out naysayers like Eyvind from the flock before he left Kattegat. But if he had, the show runners wouldn’t have any conflict other than survival to play with. Survival, though, when winter hits Iceland, is likely to loom large in this plot.

Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki. Let’s call the raven Odin.

The big story, though, is in Norway where the preparations for internecine war are taking place on both sides. Ivar is pretty jovial about it, looking forward to killing Lagertha and to having a warrior Saxon bishop with a magical sword on his side. He’s the only one who seems to be reveling in pre-battle glee, though, and Bishop Heahmund, in particular, isn’t in a jolly mood. In Kattegat, faces are grim as farewells are exchanged. It is only Ivar who thinks that the coming battle is a joke.

Alex Høgh Andersen as Ivar with the fetching braids confronts Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Bishop Heahmund.

When the armies face off at Scar Mountain, Lagertha who, like Aud the Deep-Minded, is practical and logical, insists that it’s wrong for Ragnar’s sons to be trying to slaughter each other. She calls for a parley which takes place the next day. Meantime Hvitserk and Halfdan are exchanged as hostages, which allows each camp to try to convince them to switch sides. One argument is the same on both sides: brothers don’t want to kill brothers. Lagertha, though, wants to avoid needless slaughter while Ivar just wants to win. Last episode there were lots of hints that someone might turn traitor, but nobody does. In case you are wondering where Bishop Heahmund’s recital in Old English comes from, he seems to be preparing himself for battle by murmuring Psalm 2. And why not? King David, who wrote the psalms, was a great warrior.

The setting for the parley is awesome and totally unhistorical. Gold banners for Harald’s team and blue banners for Lagertha’s team. What are they supposed to have done? Arranged ahead of time who would be blue, and who would be gold? Please. Yes, there would have been be banners in the 9th century, but they would all have been different. Each warlord would have had his own.

Blue and gold banners are not historically accurate.

The parley begins, with everyone but Harald looking for a way to avoid a battle. The arguments are, effectively, directed at a silent Ivar. Bjorn finally voices what they all know. It’s up to Ivar to decide. And Ivar is loving it. He’s THE MAN. They are all hanging on his decision.

And Ivar announces that there will be no battle. He is honey-tongued. He says he still hates himself for killing Sigurd and this would be ten times worse; he renounces his oath to kill Lagertha; yada yada yada.

Did you believe a single word? I didn’t.

When everyone has a cup of mead to celebrate amity, Ivar changes his tune. There is no reasoning behind it, and we have to presume that, given the gleeful mood he brought with him to this occasion, he just enjoyed yanking their chains.

The Battle of the Brothers is on.

The battle itself takes up the last twelve minutes of the show. The cast of extras is large, and allows for both sides to send in more than one wave of warriors. Plus there are more warriors hiding in the woods. It’s a giant melee, though, rather than shield wall facing shield wall. How did they know who was who? Still, it’s visually effective, if you like that sort of thing – lots of fierce sword and shield fighting. Nobody wears a helmet or mail, though. Also, there are no archers to speak of and no spearmen. You can’t have everything, I guess.

Miraculously, none of the major figures is hurt in the battle except for the bishop.  (Is there a message there?) At one point he takes note of Lagertha, and afterwards she’s the one who discovers him, finds he’s alive, and won’t let Ubba kill him. I was hoping that would happen. I’d like to see how these two deal with each other.

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn and Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha decide the fate of Bishop Heahmund.

Do you remember what Bjorn said last episode about what this battle would be like? “It will be like Ragnarok. Ivar will be like the wolf Fenrir, with flames in his eyes as he tries to tear the sky apart!”

Except, Ivar isn’t even there. He’s taken off with a third of the army to protect the ships, only he doesn’t even do that. He stops to listen to the battle, but refuses to go back when  the horn sounds calling for aid.

So, in the end, it’s Ivar who loses the battle of the brothers.

Sorry, Ivar. The joke’s on you.


Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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Vikings 5 Recap, episode 7: FULL MOON

This episode is an increasingly dark, doom-laden build-up toward the battle that is looming between, essentially, the sons of Ragnar. But I want to talk about that later. First, let’s look at the other three elements in this episode (it was a COMPLICATED episode!): Family Matters; The Iceland Settlement; and Philosophy.

Bjorn is back in Kattegat, and he confesses that he doesn’t love his wife any more. He feels bad about it, and you may remember that last season Torvi killed her nasty husband Erland to save Bjorn’s life. He SHOULD feel bad! Poor Torvi. This is the third husband she’s lost. She’s quite philosophical about it, though. She tells Ubbe later, “We all die. We musn’t try too hard to hold on to things that pass.” A good philosophy for the wife of a viking warrior.

Bjorn promises to always care for Torvi and the children, and he gives her son, Guthrum, a knife because he’s such a good dad. Then he goes to the tent of the Sami princess Snaefrid (who treats him pretty much the way Lagertha treated King Harald when he was her prisoner.) Rough sex. Hunh. If Bjorn grows tired of this one, he’d better be careful. She’s not likely to just smile sadly and walk away, like Torvi.

Ubbe offers sympathetic kisses to Torvi, observed by his sweetie Margrethe, who whines about it. Then she takes on the Lady Macbeth role, telling him not to fight Ivar, not to support Lagertha when the battle comes. “If Bjorn dies,” she purrs, “you will be king and I’ll be queen.” Ubbe, of course, is listening. How could he not?

But there is a basic fallacy in Margrethe’s thinking. Consider how Ragnar became king by killing Horvath; and how Lagertha became queen by killing Aslaug. That has been presented as the viking way. Margrethe, though, is not encouraging Ubbe to fight anyone, but to merely allow them to slaughter each other and then step in as the last man standing. And she is completely forgetting about Ivar.

Lagertha questions Halfdan about his divided loyalties between his brother Harald and Bjorn. Halfdan assures her that Bjorn saved his life, and he will be loyal. We don’t know whether to believe him, or if Lagertha believes him.

Over in Vestfold Astrid is pregnant and not happy about it. Why, I wonder? Because it’s Harald’s? Because it might not be Harald’s? Because she’s a shield maiden and doesn’t want a baby at all? Hard to say. Harald, though, is ecstatic.

Upon seeing the site that Floki has chosen for their settlement, with it’s bubbling hot springs and a geyser, there are mumblings of rebellion. Can’t blame them. It must have smelled like rotten eggs, too. Plucky Aud, though, looks on the bright side. “This hot water has been given us by the gods to make our lives easier!” She is definitely a Viking Age Pollyanna.

When the question of leadership arises, Floki says they will govern themselves. Eyvind, who never has anything good to say, accuses Floki of wanting to be king. But the Iceland settlement would develop, historically, just as Floki has suggested. They institute the Althing, where the chieftains and their people would meet for 2 weeks at midsummer to pass laws, resolve disagreements and discuss politics. Probably not beside the stinky hot springs though.

While Heahmund and Ivar play tæfl – a game of war strategy – they discuss the coming conflict, but also fate, free will, and God’s plan. Later they discuss the fickleness of the moon, and Ivar tells the bishop that he wants to believe that in this world there is someone who never lies, who is always noble. “I am that man, Ivar,” the bishop assures him. Ivar, though, is standing behind him holding a knife to his head when this occurs and afterwards the bishop is shaken. He knows he’s just barely dodged a bullet knife.

At the Holy Isle, Alfred and the abbot also discuss the working of God’s will, especially in regard to the monk Athelstan whom Alfred reveres as a saint and the abbot condemns as an apostate. “We are all of us devils and angels,” Alfred says. More of that light and dark imagery we saw last week.

An aside: I especially liked Alfred’s recommendation that the abbot translate his Latin books into English, because this is something that Alfred the Great actually promoted.


Ivar begins the episode by telling the bishop that this battle will be a whopper. “The world will tremble,” he says, “and the winner will inherit the earth.”

Bjorn, in an attempt to cheer Lagertha out of her dismal mood after she says that her life is full of ghosts, enthuses that the coming battle will be like Ragnarok! Ivar will be like the wolf Fenrir, with flames in his eyes as he tries to tear the sky apart!

Thanks, Bjorn. I don’t know about Lagertha, but I feel much better now.

Margrethe says that the world is coming to an end, and later Lagertha echoes it, saying “The end of our world is here.”

In case you were wondering, this will be a BIG BATTLE.

The penultimate scene, with Lagertha’s war council debating their strategy, their voices continuing over images of Ivar making moves on a tæfl board, is utterly brilliant. It ends with Ivar’s hand winning the game as ominous music builds.

I thought it would end there. I was really happy with that. I thought it was AMAZING! But there was one more scene. Alfred, at the Holy Isle, recites the Lord’s Prayer, and Athelstan’s voice joins in. As he says the final words of the prayer, Alfred disappears and we see instead those who are conflicted:

Lead us not into temptation – Ubbe
But deliver us from evil – Halfdan
For ever and ever – Lagertha


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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 6: THE MESSAGE

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!

Heahmund pleads with God.

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.

Alfred in the chapel.

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.

Aud and Kjetell

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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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 5: THE PRISONER

Ivar watching the battle from the wall and enjoying himself.

Let’s start with where the rats were living.

Was the ground underneath 9th century York really honeycombed with Roman tunnels? I do not know. Let’s think about it.

Ground level in Viking Age York was 21 feet below today’s ground level. Could ground level of Roman Age York have been another 9 feet below that? Well, my mathematical calculation, positing .2 inches of rising ground level per year, indicates that it was possible. (I majored in English, so take my calculation with a grain of salt.) And Roman barracks have been found beneath York minster. But sewers? With trap doors leading up into the streets of Viking Age York? That seems a little too unlikely. Nevertheless, Ivar needed a plan for winning his battle, so series creator Michael Hirst gave him one. This. Is. Fiction.

I have to say, though, that it was kind of ludicrous that the Vikings were able to come boiling out of their underground lair to meet with so little resistance. They had to emerge one at a time and it seems to me that a simple game of whack-a-Viking was called for, yet the Saxons were incredibly inept at it.

The title of the episode, THE PRISONER refers, most obviously, to Bishop Heahmund who midway through the hour becomes Ivar’s prisoner. Ivar apparently admires the bishop for his fighting prowess. Indeed, he stops the battle at one point, just to give the bishop a horse. Poor Richard III, many years later, would not be given that advantage, although it didn’t really help Heahmund much. Also, I don’t know about you but I kept wondering why some Saxon archer didn’t just send an arrow into Ivar, who was standing on top of a wall making a target of himself. Maybe nobody had time to look up. I’ve never fought a battle in the streets of Viking Age York, so what do I know.

The Saxons lost, of course, but Queen Judith, tending to the wounded, made a wonderful contrast to the glamorous Kassia, down in Africa. I bet Kassia wouldn’t have done that!

Queen Judith in a stressful moment.

Heahmund, portrayed accurately as a man of his time, is not only Ivar’s prisoner by episode’s end, but also a prisoner of his own prejudices and convictions and hatreds, don’t you think? And now, he is being transported to the Viking homeland by Ivar. What will Hirst explore in the conflict he has set up between these two characters that he has not already touched upon with Ragnar and Athelstan? Perhaps a great deal, since Ivar does not have his father’s insatiable curiosity and the bishop does not have Athelstan’s merciful nature.

Speaking of the Viking Homeland, Floki has returned to Kattegat in order to recruit true believers like himself and lead them to the gods’ promised land. He has to do it in secret because Lagertha is not keen on losing warriors. Ubbe expresses doubt that Floki actually found the land of the gods and tells Floki he’s nuts. But Floki knows what he knows, and our last glimpse of Ubbe is of a man who is not sure what to believe. I’m wondering what Hirst is planning for Ubbe. He is in marked contrast to his far more lethal brothers, Ivar and Hvitserk. Does Hirst see him as a foil? Or will Ubbe somehow prevail?

Floki sees himself as more than a boat builder. He has a mission.

Down in Africa, Bjorn is riding a camel and he looks horribly uncomfortable doing it. Camels are the ships of the desert, and poor Bjorn, stuck on this thing because he’s accepted the job of Euphemius’ bodyguard, looks like he’d give anything to be back on a real ship.

Bjorn! Sit up straight!

And now we pick up the theme of PRISONER again, because while his bodyguards are being seduced by drugs and sex, poor Euphemius has been imprisoned by Ziyadat Allah at Kassia’s request, and although he escapes, neither he nor the guards who let him get away survive the episode. The showrunners regale us with a little light-hearted butchery humor which I didn’t find funny. I liked the final scene though, a great cliff-hanger. Bjorn and Halfdan are now the prisoners,

Two dudes in big trouble.

with a blood-thirsty Kassia eager to see murder done, a massive windstorm approaching, and Bjorn with a little something up his sleeve. Nice.

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 4: THE PLAN

I have to confess that I was just a wee bit distracted this week by Bjorn’s long, blond plait and Lagertha’s intricately braided and metal-studded coiffure.

Look at Bjorn’s braid. Down to his waist.

Lagertha’s hair is plaited into a crown.

Whoever is doing the make-up and hair styling on this series is having a field day, but the actors, especially Katheryn Winnick, must spend hours in the stylist chair. Some of her braids are so tiny and tight I don’t know how she can remember her lines! And while I’m on this topic, I wonder how long it takes to paint on all those tattoos that cover some of the actors practically from head to toe. I know the Vikings probably had a lot of down time in the winter, but still!

But I digress. The settings for this episode change with every scene as we follow the various characters and their story arcs from Gibraltar to York to Kattegat to Sicily to York to Kattegat to Sicily to Kattegat – see what I mean? It’s dizzying. I wish they wouldn’t hop about quite so much.

If anyone in this episode has a plan, as the title suggests, it’s Ivar. We know that because he tells Hvitserk “I have a plan” although he doesn’t ever say what the plan is and we are left wondering about it. Ivar and Hvitserk are squabbling, naturally, because Ivar is an obnoxious, controlling nutcase. We don’t like Ivar. We’re not supposed to like Ivar. He is not meant to be a good guy, and he probably wasn’t one in real life, either. No worries. At least his mother loved him.

Ivar & Hvitserk in York, & we do not want to know what their friends are burning.

Outside the walls of York our king-of-kings-bretwalda-king-of-wessex Æthelwulf finally grows tired of Bishop Heahmund telling him what to do as they try to outwit Ivar. This is understandable. Heahmund always sounds like he’s reciting a really boring speech that he’s been forced against his will to memorize. His voice is a monotone and his face wooden. Is this supposed to imply that he doesn’t really believe any of the pious platitudes, the visions, the claims about God’s wrath that he mouths? The most interesting thing that he says comes when they finally enter York to find it deserted and the cathedral full of trash and vermin; Heahmund stuns us – and Æthelwulf – by asking “Why are the rats above ground?” Could this be part of Ivar’s plan? Hopefully we’ll find out next week.

Over in Kattegat Lagertha welcomes Ubbe home and they become allies even though he still resents her for killing his mum (who liked Ivar best, anyway). Meantime Margrethe badmouths Lagertha to both Ubbe and Torvi (Bjorn’s wife). It backfires on her when Lagertha overhears her, but instead of punishing Margrethe, Lagertha’s response is a mild one, promising respect if Margrethe has the courage to be loyal. Wow. No bloodshed. Not even a slap. Lagertha, you rock.

In Vestfold Astrid finally decides to marry Harald because, she says, at some point one has to accept that you can’t deny fate. They are married under the ribcage of a whale and she only makes him sweat a little when she hesitates before saying ‘I do’. I don’t know about you, but I still don’t have a good feeling about where this is going. I worry about Astrid and that whale of a wedding doesn’t make me feel better.

Bjorn and Halfdan, meanwhile, have sailed through the Pillars of Hercules into the Mediterranean where they meet a ruler named Euphemius and a nun named Kassia who is so extravagantly gowned that she looks like a cross between the Byzantine Empress Theodora and the Queen of Bohemia.

Karima McAdams as Kassia

After being greeted as Varangi (that’s Greek for Viking) they agree to be Euphemius’ bodyguards. Halfdan spends his time carving graffiti into a stone which is something vikings liked to do (Halfdan was here). He also seems smitten by the nun. They all decide to go to Ifriqya (northern Africa) to meet Ziyadat Allah who appears to be the real power in this part of the world. This is unfamiliar territory to me. I can only tell you that Euphemius and Ziyadat Allah were historical figures from the 9th century in Sicily. And yes, Euphemius supposedly kidnapped a nun from Byzantium. I think that nun might be trouble for Halfdan, or maybe the other way round.

In Iceland Floki decides he really can’t keep this awesome place that he’s discovered to himself, so with the gods’ approval he will set out to find true believers to join him. And I can’t help wondering how the heck he’s going to find his way back there again, since he was blown there by a storm in the first place, but he doesn’t appear worried and there does seem to be a giant volcano to mark the spot, so I guess he’ll figure it out.

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 3: HOMELAND

I’m always intrigued by the titles chosen for the episodes of VIKINGS. This week it’s HOMELAND, and the episode seems to explore what that means to various characters in this 10th century saga.

We begin with Floki who, looking younger without all his eyeliner and facepaint, has been swept by his gods to a new home.

He stands atop a plateau surveying this new world.  By the end of the episode, having witnessed two visions (and we recall that he has seen visions in previous seasons) and having discovered that his infected hand has, miraculously healed, he comes to believe that he is living among the gods. Which is what he suspected last episode. Now, has that really been confirmed? Is he dead? Is his hand really healed? Is he hallucinating? How is he keeping himself alive? How much time has passed since he landed? Ten minutes? Ten days? There is a kind of alternate, heightened reality to his experience, and the many unanswered questions made me feel like I was in that bizarre reality, too. What he is experiencing is beautiful, but troubling.

Harald Finehair conveys Astrid to her new homeland, but she is stiff and disgusted rather than impressed.

He showers her with a nice pied-a-terre, (guarded, unfortunately by what appears to be a troll), a new gown, jewelry, servants and a feast. After dinner, believing that he’s softened her up he makes his move on her and she responds by breaking his nose. We hold our breaths, anticipating tit for tat, but Harald is playing the long game with Astrid. He’d better be careful. He may end up the loser because his brother isn’t there to watch his back. I’m not certain which of them is going to win this game. Harald does become king of Norway, historically, so maybe they make a pact after 10 or so episodes of sparring.

Speaking of Halfdan, he’s hanging with Bjorn in somebody’s homeland – we’re not sure whose; someplace south. These two are trying to bond, but they’re interrupted by one of their crew members who comments that they should pretend to be traders, not raiders. His suggestion that Bjorn should get rid of all but three ships leaves both Bjorn and Halfdan scratching their heads. Vikings were, of course, savvy traders, explorers and settlers as well as raiders. They journeyed east as far as Uzbekistan, west to North America and south through the Mediterranean. But since this is an adventure series, I doubt that we’ll see Bjorn do much trading or settling.

Ubba, though, wants to settle although first there’s the little matter of holding on to the land he believes (erroneously) he’s been granted in the face of Anglo-Saxon opposition. Viewers who love a good battle should have been pleased with the fight at York. We knew, even if the Saxons didn’t, that those ruined Roman walls were just a ruse to lure them into a trap. They are driven into volleys of arrows, sent tumbling into spiked pits, or doused with oil and set on fire. Young Æthelred takes an arrow in the shoulder. I think we see him later on, but I can’t be sure. I have trouble telling the æthelings apart. I wish one of them would grow a mustache.

The Viking victory leads to a showdown, of course, between Ivar and his brothers. So, okay, let’s talk about Ivar. He has a scene with a pretty slave girl who tells him that he is destined for greatness, that his infirmity means he is favored by the gods. These are almost exactly the words that Ragnar once said to him, and Ivar is suitably thunderstruck by them. He looks almost lit from within. It’s Ivar who stage-manages the Viking defense of York. He watches the slaughter from a high window, and now he’s looking like a malevolent minor deity until he suddenly appears zinging through the narrow streets in his little chariot. I cheered when he fell (sorry), but although flattened Ivar took out a Saxon who threatened him and, convinced of his own invulnerability, challenged the Saxons around him, laughing, his face all bloody. For a time both Saxons and Danes were thunderstruck by the sight of him, and when the battle raged on, around him Ivar continued to laugh, delighted at the mayhem.

There is an interesting moment, though, in the midst of the battle chaos when Bishop Heahmund comes face to face with Ivar. Heahmund is calling on his God, and Ivar is laughing demonically. And this seemed to me a defining moment, if we can find one, between Ivar and Heahmund, and probably between Ivar and everyone else. Heahmund and the Saxon leaders are fighting to hold on to something. Ubba is fighting to gain something. Ivar is fighting for the sheer pleasure of creating mayhem. He’s not actually even fighting. He looks like a berserker, but he is merely sitting there, howling in rapture at the chaos he’s unleashed.

He is really quite, quite terrifying.

Ivar wins the battle of the brothers, and Ubba, despite his victory at York, goes back to the Viking homeland, defeated. For now, anyway.


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