From my blog...

Vikings 3, Episode VI: BORN AGAIN

Vikings-BR-Review-00This week, an open letter to series writer, Michael Hirst.


Dear Mr. Hirst,

I have a bone to pick with you. Don’t worry, I am not going to call you out for going all George R. R. Martin on us in this latest season of THE VIKINGS, although many of your fans will. Death was a constant presence in the Dark Ages, and in your series Death is practically one of the main characters. People die, and in ways that are savage and shocking. Frankly, it’s a wonder that any of the major characters in the show are still alive because they’ve been in terrible peril week after week. So I shall not complain about any sudden deaths that may occur on your show.

MichaelHirstIndeed, I’ve even forgiven you for messing with the historical time line. (Am I not generous?) I’ve accepted that this is story, not history. I’ve come to think of it as a saga on film, so I’m willing to ignore the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok, if he existed at all, was not precisely contemporary with King Ecbert, who certainly did exist; and I’m even willing to accept that Rollo is probably going to get his hands on land in Frankia, although that didn’t happen until 910, which would make Rollo about 110 years old. If you feel it’s necessary to collapse time in order to tell your story, I will agree to go along with it. This period of history is pretty hazy to most people, and the figures that inhabit it even more so. Your attitude seems to be, What are a few decades and a few misplaced, unfamiliar historical figures when there have been 1200 plus years between then and now? I don’t agree, but I sympathize with that point of view.


In the recent episode titled Born Again, you have resurrected a historical figure whose name is very familiar indeed, and I’m gnashing my teeth at your cavalier attitude toward one of early Britain’s greatest kings. Talk about Born Again!!! Perhaps you thought you were being clever – even brilliant. I think you must have been lost in a creative fog.

The scene in question should have been removed with a hand seax, stricken from the script before it was filmed. You remember the one – it’s all about Judith. Having made her the wife of King Ecbert’s son Æthelwulf, you’ve given her an illicit passion for our favorite monk (and Ecbert’s favorite monk, and Ragnar’s favorite monk) Athelstan.

In this scene Judith delivers a son. We all know that Æthelwulf is not the child’s father. What’s worse, Æthelwulf knows it, and so Judith is dragged from childbed, hustled outside and tied to a stake. She is accused of adultery, and she’s told that she will lose her ears and nose. Much screaming ensues, followed by the removal of an ear.

Really, Mr. Hirst? Was this necessary? There were so many other directions you could have taken…why this one? It is not only gruesome, it’s unbelievable. Ecbert and Æthelwulf would not have tortured Judith, a high status woman and the daughter of King Aella, in this way. They never would have risked having her father arrive on their doorstep with an army seeking revenge; they would have put her in a convent and forgotten about her – or sent her home and demanded return of her bride price. Perhaps you were thinking about the Arthur/Lancelot/Guenevere love triangle when you wrote this? It was certainly on my mind as I watched the scene. I was wondering who was going to ride in, like Lancelot, to Judith’s rescue. Her father?

But no. Her rescuer is King Ecbert himself, only way past the time when he should have stepped in and put a stop to this (and saved us all from having to watch it). Judith names her lover, and at this point the wily king, pretending astonishment that Athelstan is the father of the child, insists that because Athelstan is a holy man, God must have had a hand in this conception. Judith has given birth to a very special child, he insists, and should not be punished.

At this point I am muttering aloud, “No. Don’t do it. Don’t you DARE do it.”

But you, Mr. Hirst, had already done it.

“There will be a christening after all,” Ecbert announces, “and the child will be called Alfred.”

So in your Wessex World, Mr. Hirst, Alfred (the Great) is not the fifth son of Aethelwulf and Osburh, but the illegitimate son of one-eared Judith and a monk named Athelstan. In fact, he is no blood relation to King Ecbert at all. This is ridiculous, because no king worth the name would have allowed a child not of his blood to be accepted as throne worthy, not even the son of his favorite monk. The entire scenario is ludicrous. It feels as though you wrote yourself into a knot and grasped at an easy way out.

Mr. Hirst, much of your writing in this show has been brilliant, but in this instance you lost your touch. This entire scene felt wrong.

I presume that you are playing fast and loose with the Anglo-Saxons, their historical figures and their history because your real interest is in what’s happening with Ragnar and company. The show is called THE VIKINGS after all; the Anglo-Saxons are merely props for you to manipulate at will in order to highlight that other culture across the sea.

But guess what? Some of us are fans of the Anglo-Saxons, too. And we know the history. And while I applaud your use of Old English in your scripts this season, (that was SO AWESOME!) you’ve made a very large misstep with this latest episode. What a disappointment! What a lame way to end this fascinating rivalry (your invention!) between Ragnar and Ecbert. You are capable of far better than this, and your fans demand it. Please.

Very truly yours,
Patricia Bracewell

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Review, UK, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vikings 3, Episode V: THE USURPER


Oh, Sweet Heaven, I don’t know where to begin with this week’s episode. I have so many thoughts in my head, so much speculation, and even a discovery of sorts. Perhaps I should start with the title. The Usurper.

By my count there are 3 usurpers: Kalf, who has usurped Lagertha’s lands and people at Hedeby; Athelstan, who has usurped the affections (and more) of Æthelwulf’s wife, Judith; Harbard the Wanderer, who has usurped the affections (temporarily) of Ragnar’s wife, Aslaug.

Unpleasant discoveries all around. So what are Ragnar, Lagertha and Æthelwulf going to do?

Aslaug & Ragnar: not a happy homecoming

Aslaug & Ragnar: not a happy homecoming

Upon his arrival in Kattegat, Ragnar is immediately suspicious of what’s been going on with Aslaug. He scoffs, though, when Floki tries to tell him that his wife has been cavorting with a god. (I called that one correctly a couple of weeks ago! Harbard = Odin. High five.) Ragnar is pretty much fed up with women anyway, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.

Lagertha demands that Ragnar help her fight Kalf and win her lands back. But Ragnar is pretty lukewarm about this idea, and besides, he’s dreaming of Paris.

And Æthelwulf – well, he does exactly what we’ve been worried he would do, and it’s even worse than we imagined.

Ragnar gets excited about Paris. Photo credit

Ragnar gets excited about Paris. Photo credit

In Kattegat, King Ragnar, hugely excited about his plans for taking on Paris, gets pretty pumped about the idea and soon almost everyone else is excited about it, too. Mead is flung into the air like water on a sweltering day.

Except, there’s Rollo, who is suffering massive man-guilt, so much so that he invents a new kind of self-flagellation which involves brawling in the mud with Bjorn.

Bjorn & Rollo are not happy. Photo credit: The History Channel

Bjorn & Rollo are not happy. Photo credit: The History Channel

Rollo whines to the creepy spamaðr that he is useless and hollowed out by failed ambitions, and he is stunned when the spamaðr laughs at him. “If you knew what the gods have in store for you in Paris you would dance naked in the rain.” Okay, maybe those weren’t his exact words, but something like that.

So, let’s talk about Paris. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I deplored the idea of a military leader who would divide his army into two forces with a broad river in between, allowing the Vikings to merely choose to fight the smaller force. Having done a little research now, I’ve discovered that some dang fool king actually did that, but it wasn’t in Mercia. It was outside of Paris, and the king was Charles the Bald of Frankia. It happened in 845 when the Viking Ragnar, aka Reginherus, sailed up the Seine. So yes, in the tales, Ragnar attacks Paris.

Now, this television series is based on sagas as well as facts, and it’s had to invent its own timeline to bring all its different stories together. For example, King Ecbert of Wessex defeated the Mercians in 825, and he was already dead by 845 when Ragnar would have attacked Paris. Yet in this story they’re contemporaries. The time frame is a little off. Connections have been made that weren’t necessarily there, really. But I’m okay with messing with the timeline. Just because it’s on the History Channel doesn’t mean that this is history. It’s fiction. It’s good storytelling. It’s a modern-day version of a saga. The Vikings would have loved it. And anyway, this all happened – if any of it happened – a long time ago.

So let’s go back to Rollo and the Spamaðr’s prophecy about Paris. In the legends about Ragnar Lothbrok, there is no mention of a brother named Rollo. But there is a historical Rollo, also known as Hrólfr. In the early 10th century this Rollo led a Viking fleet to northern Frankia, caused all kinds of trouble in the area – which, as we know, was pretty standard Viking behavior – and settled within the old Roman walls of Rouen. The Frankish king at the time, Charles the Simple, finally dealt with Rollo by granting him the city of Rouen and the provinces around it, and telling him to defend it if he could. And Rollo did. In fact, he founded a dynasty in northern Frankia.

Rollo's grave in Rouen. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Rollo’s grave in Rouen. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There is a tradition that Rollo married the Frankish king’s daughter; but he had another wife, as well, who gave him a son named William, who had a son named Richard, who had a daughter named Emma who married an English king named Æthelred in 1002.

Which brings us back to Wessex and Æthelred’s great great great great grandfather Ecbert. Isn’t he a charmer?

King Ecbert. Awesome, but also Slimey. Photo Credit: The History Channel

King Ecbert. Awesome, but slimey. Photo Credit: The History Channel

The real Ecbert probably never knew the real Ragnar Lothbrok (if there was one), but he probably knew men like him. Was the historical Ecbert as ruthless as the Ecbert in this series? Probably. He established Wessex as the dominant power in southern England so he had to be more ruthless than any of the other kings around him. Was he as devious as the King Ecbert in this series? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He definitely knew Charlemagne, though, and so, as our King Ecbert congratulates himself for a devious, atrocious, despicable deed, I must award him the prize for this week’s zinger line:

Even Charlemagne would have approved.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Authors on the Move 2015

AuthorsOnTheMoveLast Saturday night I had the very great pleasure of attending, for the second time, the Sacramento Public Library Foundation fundraiser event, AUTHORS ON THE MOVE. Our keynote speaker was Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket and he was joined by 40 authors from all over California. The theme for the event was Once Upon A Time, so about 1/3 of the authors in attendance were writers of children’s books. Also on hand were some buddies of mine: C.W.Gortner (his newest title, Mademoiselle Chanel releases this Tuesday, March 17); Anne Leonard, author of Moth & Spark (dragons!); Susan Spann whose Blade of the Samurai is the second in her mystery series set in Renaissance Japan; and Barbara Rhine whose debut novel Tell No Lies is set amid the harsh political realities of the 1970’s movement to organize farmworkers in California’s Central Valley.

How AUTHORS ON THE MOVE works: The writers gather late in the afternoon for a banquet and an opportunity to meet and greet each other. I never take full advantage of this. There are so many amazing authors in the room, and I rarely connect with more than one or two. Last night I did manage to meet Jessica Barksdale Inclán (How to Bake a Man) who lives near me (!), and author/artist Josie Iselin (An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed). We are each given a moment in the spotlight to introduce ourselves and our work, and we are also given our three table assignments for the larger banquet to come.

Once we are happily stuffed with the same lovely repast that will be served to the gorgeously attired diners congregating in the banquet room below us, we are invited to make our way to where our books are on display, to spend 30 minutes greeting browsers and signing books.

Capital Public Radio's Beth Ruyak greets the guests.

Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak

The real event begins, though, when the authors take their places in the banquet hall – one author to each table of 10. The attendees are served their first course, and we authors begin our pitches. I spoke passionately to eager listeners about Emma of Normandy, the haunted King Aethelred, and the Viking invasions of England. I answered as many questions as I could before it was time to move to my next table – where I did it all again.

There was only one small glitch the entire evening. An announcement was made after the entrée was served, but it was difficult to catch what was said. A number of authors (including me), presumed it was time to switch to our third table. I gathered my things and made my way to Table 19 where I found Daniel Handler still holding forth. I will have to toss him from his chair, I thought dismally; which I did with help from author Emily Jiang. This is probably why he looked so nervous when, later in the evening, I posed with him for a photo.

I frighten Daniel Handler.

I frighten Daniel Handler.

However, it turned out that we weren’t really supposed to change tables yet. So after hounding the Celebrity of the Evening from his chair, I had to give it back to him and return, chagrined, to my earlier table. And then, to add to my discomfiture, I had to go back to Daniel’s table and reach under his chair to retrieve my purse. It was, alas, a series of unfortunate events, after which my authorial sang froid lay in tatters somewhere under Daniel Handler’s chair.

But now it was time for the Live Auction: 19 Items, many of them involving the participation of one of the authors. I had agreed, some days earlier, to take part in Item #15.

AOM1 Now, before the banquet began, Auctioneer Patrick Hume had sought me out to ask for some details about my book; so I had given him a thumbnail sketch of Emma’s life, her marriages and her historical significance. He, in turn, did a terrific job of ‘selling’ Emma. The result: Item #15 was purchased for $1200. and then purchased again by another bidder. (!!!) So $2400 will go to the library thanks to the gracious donors who will be hosting the dinner, to the brilliant auctioneer, to the two winning bidders, and to Queen Emma. Outstanding! And I’m happy to report that over $100,000 was raised for the library that night.

After the Auction the authors took their places at their third table for the evening. Daniel Handler, no doubt in fear of his life, had already absconded from Table 19 before I arrived to take his place. Shortly thereafter, he was up on the stage giving a keynote address that had the audience in stitches.

And THEN, we scurried back out to the book hall for more sales and signings. All in all, it was a lovely evening. I would do it again in a minute! Well, except for the bit where I tried to steal Daniel Handler’s chair.

With Viking author Anne Leonard. Note Daniel Handler's head looking like a finger puppet on Anne's shoulder. Isn't he cute?

With Viking author Anne Leonard. Note Daniel Handler’s head looking like a finger puppet on Anne’s shoulder. Isn’t he cute?

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Vikings 3, Episode IV: SCARRED


This episode was, I think, the best so far. Well, they just keep getting better. What the title, Scarred, is referring to – other than Porunn, who appears only briefly in two scenes – escapes me.

The episode begins, as it will end, in Kattegat with the ever more mysterious Harbard. Once more he soothes Ivarr’s pain, and once more he sidesteps the question of who he is.

In Mercia, the victorious Saxon and Viking warriors return to their camp where Porunn’s injuries are being tended and where Æethelwulf is trying to make nice with Floki and Rollo. Rollo meets him half way, but Floki resists. That old ‘my god/your god’ tension is still needling Floki, and he insists that Rollo, Ragnar and the whole lot of them have drunk from the Christians’ poisoned chalice. We’re going to remember that line later.

Queen Kwenthrith (photo credit:

Queen Kwenthrith (photo credit:

Somewhere nearby Kwenthrith, who is becoming more like my character Elgiva with each episode, practices some unorthodox healing measures on the wounded Ragnar. He warns her that her brother is weak and will be her downfall; she reciprocates by warning Ragnar that King Ecbert is always out for himself. (Gasp! Ecbert the Awesome? Surely not! Surely he is a prince among men.)

Across the North Sea, in Kattegat, Siggy is annoyed with Aslaug that her fascination with Harbard is drawing her away from her children and her duties as queen. Siggy suggest that she will take on those royal duties since Aslaug is too busy mooning over Harbard. Aslaug goes off for a pleasant interlude with the Wanderer, and Siggy perches on the queen’s throne in the empty hall, as if remembering what that was like. We recall, of course, that she was once the wife of the Earl. Ah, those were the good old days.

Back in Wessex, Judith and Athelstan have succumbed to passion – naked limbs and all, and I wonder if I’ve missed something, but apparently not. They’re just THERE, young and in love.

Floki (Photo credit:

Floki (Photo credit:

The warriors are on shipboard, making their way to Wessex. Kwenthrith is reassuring her brother of Ecbert’s support, Floki is still upset about the gods, Bjorn is upset about Porunn, Rollo is upset about Floki…and Ragnar is watching all of them with a brooding gaze.

King Ecbert, in a moment of post-coital tenderness, is trying to convince Earl Lagertha to stay in Wessex, but she has his number and gives us this episode’s zinger line:

The only person you truly care for is yourself.

And even Ecbert knows it’s the truth.

Back in Kattegat something momentous is taking place and part of it involves a visit from Siggy’s daughter who died of pestilence – along with many other children – in the first season. And in Hedeby there are other characters arriving from last season. The next generation is stepping in to pick up the feuds of their fathers. Here we go again!

Siggy's pivotal scene. (Photo: The History Channel)

Siggi’s pivotal scene. (Photo: The History Channel)

There were three scenes in this episode that I really loved, and one of them took place in Ecbert’s hall at the feast that the king is throwing to celebrate the defeat of the Mercians. We see Ecbert and Ragnar seated side by side, and the conversation between them, along with gestures and facial expressions, is absolutely brilliant writing and acting. Hugely entertaining.

(Photo Credit: @DarrenFranich)

(Photo Credit: @DarrenFranich)

My next favorite scene is also at the feast, when Kwenthrith toasts her brother and their joint rule in Mercia, and shows herself to be exactly what I’ve always thought she was: smarmy, deceitful, and dangerous. The gathered company’s responses to her little bit of dark ages theater are priceless.

And finally, over in Kattegat, the Wanderer decides it’s time to leave. Helga watches as he walks away from the settlement, and I stand by my earlier opinion about his identity. Harbard = Odin.

Harbard (Photo Credit:

Harbard (Photo Credit:

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Vikings 3, Episode III: Warrior’s Fate

vikings-vikings-logo-on-blackThe title of this episode seems to refer not just to the wounded and suffering Torstein, but also Porunn and, by extension, Bjorn. The battle that decides their fates was marvelously executed and filmed, which means it was horrible if you don’t like the violence. It certainly did an excellent job of portraying just how devastating bowmen could be, in case you had any doubts.

Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

For my money, though, it was the post battle interplay between the various characters that was really intriguing. Kwenthrith seems awfully tight with the brother who she wants us to believe raped her. (Their interplay suggests that she could devour him for lunch.) Ragnar and Floki are at odds over the Mercians, the Anglo-Saxons and the Christian God. Rollo and Ragnar play good cop/bad cop with Bjorn in brief counseling sessions, and we’re reminded that Bjorn has a bond with his uncle Rollo that is quite different from the relationship he has with his father.

And so it goes: battles, blood, blame and belly-aching. Just another day in the life of a Viking.

Meanwhile, down in Wessex, Ecbert the Awesome is facing down detractors and cozying up to Lagertha.

Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

He gives her a plow and she looks suitably overwhelmed – even more impressed than when he gave her that lovely necklace last episode, which she’s wearing. It’s what he says to her when she’s unwrapped the plow, though, that has me raising my eyebrows and gets my vote for this week’s best line:
Plowing and sowing seed are the very basis of life, he says, with an eloquently ardent, royal gaze.


Soon he’s playing realtor again, showing off his Roman bath with its portraits of frolicking gods and goddesses. We know what this is leading up to. We’ve seen the preview. Passion will blossom a few scenes later. For now, though, Lagertha opines that the gods are as real as you and me, and it’s the perfect segue to take us back to Kattegat and the mysterious wanderer, Harbard.

Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

Harbard, in one of the sagas, is the name that Odin calls himself when he’s in disguise. And certainly this character appears to have a god’s healing gifts. He calms and soothes the fretful Ivarr (who is absolutely adorable and will, alas, grow up to become a fierce viking warrior) and so wins Aslaug’s favor. Harbard claims that he’s a skald, which makes some sense because skalds did wander about – entertaining in the jarls’ halls and carrying messages and news.

But there are some strange events that take place while Harbard is in Kattegat – events that cannot be easily explained. This was a society that saw the mystical in anything that was inexplicable, and so everyone is wondering about Harbard, including me. Siggi doesn’t trust him. She consults the spamaðr, but he is not the least bit comforting. His words, filled with portent, end the episode and make us shudder:

No one can help you.



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Emma, England’s Forgotten Queen

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, in honor of Emma, Queen of England.

Queen Emma died on 6 March, 1052, at age – well, actually, we don’t know how old she was. Although her death was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was commemorated annually by prayers at Winchester’s New Minster, at Ely Abbey and at Christ Church Canterbury, her birth date was never noted. We can be certain, though, that she lived to be at least 60 years old, perhaps into her 70’s, and that for 32 of those years she was a queen of England.

Emma and her sons, 12th c

Emma and her sons, 12th c

Although most people today will look at you blankly when you mention her name, Emma of Normandy would have been familiar to the people of England, Normandy, and Scandinavia during her lifetime and for many decades after that. How do we know? Well, to begin with, we have two contemporary drawings of Emma – and that in itself is remarkable. In addition, she may be one of the few female figures stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. (Not certain about that, but it could be Emma. Rabid medievalists have been known to argue passionately about it.) And in the 12th century an unknown artist illustrated a manuscript of a Life of Edward the Confessor with beautiful color images of Emma.

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

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

There are textual references to Emma, too. She appears in one of the Norse sagas (Liðsmannaflokkr), and is mentioned in German, Norman and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. During Emma’s lifetime she commissioned a book to be written about events she witnessed or which impacted her in some way. It is known today as the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and 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 owned by William Cecil, chief advisor to Elizabeth I, so it’s quite possible that the great Tudor queen, too, was familiar with Emma’s name and reputation.

And then there’s the play. Emma appears as a character in an Elizabethan drama titled Edmund Ironside. I’ve read it. It’s not a very good play, although at least one scholar thinks it may have been written by Shakespeare. If he’s right, it would have been a very early work. But Emma is in there, so someone in the 16th century knew her story well enough to imagine her as a real woman, a mother and a queen.

Medieval scholars, of course, have always known about Queen Emma. Many eminent historians – Alistair Campbell, Helen Damico, Simon Keynes, Eleanor Searle, and Pauline Stafford – have looked closely at Emma’s career. Their in-depth studies have informed recent popular biographies by Isabella Strachan and Harriet O’Brien. They’ve also inspired novelists such as Helen Hollick (I am the Chosen King), Dorothy Dunnett (King Hereafter) Anya Seton (Avalon), Justin Hill (Shieldwall) who cast Emma in supporting roles.

But when it came to popular recognition, Emma could not hold a candle to Eleanor of Aquitaine or Anne Boleyn – a situation, I am happy to note, that appears to be changing.

FQueenIn 2005 British historical novelist Helen Hollick made Emma the central figure of her book A Hollow Crown, which appeared in the U.S. in 2010 as The Forever Queen. Readers loved it, and awareness of who Emma was began to spread. My own novel about Emma, Shadow on the Crown, was published in 2013 in North America, Britain and the British Territories. It has since been translated into four languages, which means that readers in Russia, Germany, Italy and even Brazil are becoming acquainted with Queen Emma. The sequel to Shadow, The Price of Blood, has just been released, and it continues Emma’s story.

So, through the efforts of scholars, of historians, of novelists who love history, and of readers who love historical fiction, this remarkable woman is once more being recognized as a significant figure in English history. On this day, 963 years ago, she left this middle earth. I am thinking of her today – as I do every day, actually – with admiration; and I salute all those who are helping to spread the word about Emma of Normandy, the all-but-forgotten, twice-crowned queen of England.


Shadow on the Crown, Russian edition


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Vikings 3, Episode II: The Wanderer

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

So, who is the Wanderer of the title of this episode? Note that the title is singular, not plural. One Wanderer, and not our band of Vikings who are roaming Britain’s green and pleasant land.

There is an Old English poem titled The Wanderer. He is an outcast – an exile who wanders winter-weary the icy waves, longing for lost halls, a helping hand far or near.*

Could series writer Michael Betrayal Hirst be evoking that poem? There is a mysterious figure in this episode who appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug and Siggi. He is always walking through snow.

The Wanderer. Photo Credit:

The Wanderer. Photo Credit:

One of his hands is bloody, and in the other he carries a ball of burning snow. Near the final moments of the episode, he walks into Kattegat – not a dream this time, but real – seeking help for his bloodied right hand. Is he the Wanderer?

But wait. Let me start at the beginning…

If you’ve been paying close attention to this series you know that there is a story arc for each episode, and also an arc for each season. Of course, it’s hard to see what that seasonal arc is going to be until we get very close to the end. The earliest episodes are set-ups, leading toward a dramatic denouement in the season finale. What is the technical name for this? I don’t know. I just call it Brilliant Storytelling.

The many story lines in this episode, and the many cuts between Mercia, Wessex, Kattegat and Hedeby, were dizzying. Let me see if I can summarize somewhat.

Porunn & Bjorn. Photo Credit:

Porunn & Bjorn. Photo Credit:

In Mercia we witness post battle trauma symptoms in Bjorn, Torstein, Rollo and Kwenthrith. Bjorn proposes marriage. Torstein, wounded by an arrow, is in pain and visibly suffering. Rollo and Kwenthrith, both intoxicated, are wildly violent, he against the living and she against the dead.

Ragnar and company have won a battle against half of the Mercian army (see previous episode), and the Mercian soldiers who remain across the river flee when faced with Viking ships ornamented with Mercian heads. Was there historical precedence for this grim scene? Oh yes. The heads of slain enemies – whether warriors, criminals or innocents – were used throughout history to terrify an enemy army or populace.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

As the gruesomely bedecked ships approach the Mercian shore, Kwenthrith calls out to her brother, Burgred, assuring him that he will come to no harm. I was reminded of Floki’s words from Episode 1 as he watched Kwenthrith dance among the men in the Viking camp: “No man should trust the words of a woman.” Personally, I don’t trust anything that Kwenthrith says, even the reasons she gives for hating her uncle and brother. Burgred, whose stupid battle tactics have already convinced us that he’s an idiot, has to be dragged away from his sister and those dangling heads by one of his thegns.

In Wessex King Ecbert is still playing realtor. He delivers Lagertha to her new home, hands her a fistful of dirt, and assures her that he will protect her people.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Lagertha is reassured. I am not. Sure enough, in a later scene, Athelstan’s Christian blessing of the house is interrupted when one of Lagertha’s people prominently displays a figurine of Odin. The stage is now set for future conflict between Viking settlers and the Christians – possibly the ones they’ve displaced in this vil. It is not looking promising for Lagertha’s folk and, unknown to her, over in Hedeby, her trusted manager Kalf has taken over as jarl. He wants to be famous, like Ragnar. Spoiler: he won’t be. Throughout the centuries between then and now, there has been no Viking war lord more renowned than Ragnar Lothbrok.

King Ecbert’s daughter-in-law Judith appears to have been smitten – along with all the women watching this series – by Athelstan’s bedroom eyes. She reveals this in confession. In a confessional. I hate it when the set designers do this. Confessionals probably didn’t appear until the 17th century or later. Michael Hirst! Stay in your own century! That phrase ‘Bless me father for I have sinned’ doesn’t belong here either. Minor quibble, I know. I guess I always have to find one.

Ecbert is smitten too – by Lagertha. Nevertheless, the king warns Judith off of Athelstan, saying that the more complicated a person is, the more dangerous he is. She responds with this episode’s zinger line:

“And would you say that about yourself, Father-in-law?”

She doesn’t see Ecbert’s answering smirk, but we do. Yes, Ecbert is complicated. And probably a little tricksy. Be careful, Lagertha.

Now, all through this episode there are two mysterious story lines: the first is the wounded Torstein. He took an arrow in the upper arm, but no one has tended him, unless you count a few magic mushrooms and Ragnar’s hope that “Freya will lie with you tonight and take care of you” as medical intervention. Why is that? He’s in obvious pain, and finally he asks Floki to remove his arm. Floki obliges, but that wound too is untended. Why? The point of this eludes me, unless it is meant to portray the hazards of the Viking life.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

The other mystery is, as I mentioned earlier, the Wanderer. Three times he appears in dreams to Helga, Aslaug, and Siggi. Three dreams, three female dreamers. Three has ever been a mystical number. (The Blessed Trinity and the three Norns of Norse mythology come immediately to mind.)The Wanderer finally arrives in the flesh, and that brief segment is followed by an even briefer one when Athelstan approaches Lagertha with his hands dripping blood from his stigmata.

So I’m guessing that the dreams, the dripping blood, and the puzzling prophecies we’ve been hearing from the spamaðr in the first two episodes and in webisodes (Athelstan’s Journal), portend a clash between the pagan gods and the White Christ, played out among their followers. Have to say, though, that the previews of Episode 3, with King Ecbert, Lagertha and Athelstan in the bath at Bath, looks pretty friendly. What will Ragnar think about that?!

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

* “The Wanderer” Translation by Greg Delanty in The Word Exchange, ed. Greg Delanty, W.W. Norton, 2011.

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VIKINGS 3, Episode 1: Mercenary



The Vikings are back with a vengeance! There are new plots afoot in every part of the Viking-Saxon world, and writer Michael Hirst has promised that we’re going to France, so grab hold of the gunwale and get ready for a wild ride.

Although the title of this first episode is “Mercenary” the theme seems to be man’s struggle between his yearning for peace and his desire for adventure and excitement. First thing on the agenda is Ragnar’s determination to return to Wessex and take King Ecbert up on his offer of arable land for farming.



In Hedeby Lagertha, shield-maiden and earl, appears at first to be the very picture of Viking role reversal. There were no shield-maidens (that I know of) in the sagas. There were, though, women who managed farms and the people on them. There were also women who accompanied their men to distant lands (Iceland, Vinland) in search of better lives, and in this episode, at any rate, Lagertha is taking on that role. She is leaving her Hedeby steading in the hands of Kalf, a man she trusts. Of course, it is only a matter of time until he betrays her. (Betrayal must be Michael Hirst’s middle name.)



Meanwhile, in Kattegat, Bjorn has an awesome new hair-do and a pregnant, shield-maiden sweetheart who is every bit as stubborn and fierce as Lagertha. Like Lagertha, Porunn is eager to take ship for the planned voyage to Wessex, and he is unable to persuade her to stay behind. He, of course, is young, virile, eager for adventure, eager not for farming, but for battle. Why? His father asks him. For power, Bjorn replies, giving King Ragnar the opening for the best lines in the episode:

Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.



Meantime, Ragnar’s passion for Aslaug seems to be cooling. I wonder if we are being set up. Is there a new love interest in Ragnar’s future? Or are these the seeds of some other kind of betrayal?

Floki – the trickster – is eager to return to Wessex as well. He is feeling trapped by fatherhood, and his poor wife, Helga, has no more luck at figuring out his mercurial moods than we have. Floki is a wild card. We never know what he’s going to do next.

It is at exactly 27 minutes into the episode when my man King Ecbert finally comes on the scene. What took you so long???? Be still my heart!



But wait! He is flanked by two dark-haired beauties, and it takes me a moment to determine that we’ve seen them before. One is Judith – his son’s wife who seems to be quite taken with Athelstan. (I smell a new plot line here.) The other is that she-wolf Kwenthryth who wore Ecbert out in bed last season and is still looking for an army to vanquish her uncle and brother. Apparently she’s lost the last batch of Vikings that Ragnar gave her. (See last year’s recap for background on the Real Kwenthryth and her family history).

There is a feast in Ecbert’s hall. There is a great deal of Old English bandied about which must make my friends in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists giddy with delight. There is a plan agreed to between King Ecbert and King Ragnar, with Ragnar and company agreeing to fight Kwenthryth’s uncle and brother. So why do I feel as if nobody is happy about it, that there is enormous tension in that hall, and that nobody trusts anybody else? Because this script is written by Michael Betrayal Hirst, that’s why.



After the feast, Ragnar and his men take to their ships to go attack the Mercians while King Ecbert plays the role of realtor, attaching himself to Athelstan and Lagertha in order to show them the 5000 acres he’s promised them. (Actually, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t measure land in acres. They measured it in hides, the definition of which changed over time. A hide was, at first, equivalent to the land farmed by a single family. By the 11th century a hide might support 4 families. To be a thegn, one had to own at least 5 hides of land.) Right. To continue: As Lagertha, Athelstan and Ecbert are bouncing along on their wain, the king is speaking in Old English, Lagertha is speaking in Danish, Athelstan is translating for them, and we’re seeing the modern English on our screens. Ecbert, it seems, is smitten by Lagertha. “She is unlike any woman I have ever met. I’m infatuated by her! She is incredible!” There’s more, but you get the idea. He waxes eloquent. Athelstan’s translation in Danish to Lagertha is somewhat less inspired: “He likes you.”

And now we come to the only scene that stuck in my craw. I’m not going to gripe about the storyline, which is pretty much fictional. Hirst is using names of real Mercian rulers – Berhtwulf, Burgred – and a vaguely accurate time frame, but he’s telling a story, not recounting history. I’m okay with that. (History: Mercian king Beornwulf invaded Wessex, and in 825 King Ecbert vanquished him at the Battle of Ellandun.) No, what bothered me was the idiotic sight of the Anglo-Saxons splitting their forces on either side of a wide river and waiting for the Viking fleet to arrive. Really? We’re supposed to believe that the Mercians were so stupid that they expected the Vikings to split their force in half instead of simply ignoring the larger army on one side of the river and attacking the smaller one? It annoys me when the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed as dolts.

Okay, with that single gripe behind me, allow me to give a hearty two thumbs up to this first episode of Season 3. Bring on Episode 2 and please – more King Ecbert!

King Ecbert looking royally awesome.

King Ecbert looking royally awesome.

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On Inspiration

A very generous Elisabeth Storrs, author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice – novels set in Ancient Rome – invited me to answer a few questions about inspiration. She’s posted the resulting Q&A post on her web page, and I hope that anyone interested in what goes on in the mind of a writer when contemplating a work of fiction will find it – well, inspiring.

An Excerpt: There were women of power in that world, yet anyone reading 11th century annals might imagine that women did not exist at all because they were so rarely mentioned. I wanted to write about women’s power and what that might have looked like…

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The Book Launch Party

Diesel2There were lots of familiar faces last night at the Diesel Books launch party for The Price of Blood. Friends from as close as next door and as far away as New York turned out to buy books and cheer on our favorite medieval queen, Emma of Normandy, and her nemesis, Elgiva.

Book club members, fellow writers, tennis buddies, even my friend the Norse sailor (retired) greeted each other – and me! – although there’s never enough time to schmooze at a coming out party as much as I would like.

Diesel3The audience devoured the two pounds of Sees ‘Normandie’ chocolates that my husband had carefully arrayed on a delicate glass platter — and thank heavens! God forbid I should have brought the leftovers home!

So, what did we do, besides nosh, drink wine and chat? Well, I spoke about Emma, Elgiva, and the ghost who haunts the king; about why I’m writing this medieval trilogy; about the business of publishing a book. I read a little from the novel, answered questions, and exchanged lots of hugs. Tonight, in Pasadena, I hope to do it all again!


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