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THE LAST KINGDOM HISTORICAL NOTES

logotlkEvents came at us thick and fast in Episode 1 of Season Two, The Last Kingdom, so I thought I would offer a few historical tidbits.

GUTHRED: The 10th century History of St. Cuthbert says that a Dane named Guthred was raised to kingship from a Viking army through the visionary intercession of the saint.

Ep2.1aGuthredTo show his thanks, Guthred granted St. Cuthbert’s community control over all the lands between the Rivers Tyne and Wear. Take away the element of miracles and visions, and we have a Viking warleader acknowledging the power and authority of this community of monks. In return, they offer him allegiance and St. Cuthbert’s approval of Guthred’s kingship. His sister, Gisela, is a character invented by Bernard Cornwell for his novels.

St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral (Dunholm) Credit: Chris Furkert

St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral (Dunholm) Credit: Chris Furkert

ST. CUTHBERT: he was a 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne, the holy island off the east coast of Northumbria. He was inspired by a vision in his youth to become a monk. He lived at several different abbeys until, in the 670’s he joined the community at Lindisfarne. He was a hermit for a while, living outside the abbey on the remote island of Farne until he was persuaded to become a bishop. He returned to Farne in 687, which was where he wanted to be buried. When he died a few months later, though, he was buried first at Lindisfarne, and then his remains were placed in a wooden chest above the original burial ground so pilgrims could see his casket. The body was found to be incorrupt – a sign of his holiness. But Lindisfarne’s position off the eastern coast was exposed to continued Viking raids, and the community moved all their treasures, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and St. Cuthbert. He was taken first to Norham-upon-Tweed, then to Chester-le-Street and finally he was laid to rest at Durham, where you can see his shrine today at Durham Cathedral. It’s possible that he traveled more in death than in life.

Fenwick Lawson's sculpture: St. Cuthbert's Journey. Photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13832521

Fenwick Lawson’s sculpture: St. Cuthbert’s Journey. Photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13832521

David Dawson as King Alfred. Photo Credit: THE LAST KINGDOM

David Dawson as King Alfred. Photo Credit: THE LAST KINGDOM

WHAT IS PHYSICALLY WRONG WITH KING ALFRED? He has to be careful about what he eats, and he is frequently in pain. In an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1991, G. Craig postulates from Asser’s description of his symptoms that Alfred suffered from inflammatory bowel disease, probably Crohn’s Disease from the time he was 19. Although this disease is chronic, the sufferer experiences periods of remission followed by relapses. The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation and sometimes fever. It is an indication of Alfred’s fame (or of his desperate efforts to find a cure) that the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias, sent the king remedies that were intended to ease his symptoms.

NORTHUMBRIA: Most of the action in the first episode takes place north of the Humber, and the written records for Northumbria at that time are pretty scanty. When Guthrum was baptized (at the end of last season), he took the name Athelstan and settled in East Anglia. But there were still plenty of invaders attacking the island of Britain: crossing the Channel from France after the Franks had paid them off or kicked them out, sailing the North Sea from Scandinavia, and hopping across the Irish Sea from Ireland, not to mention the Scots. The northern end of Britain was a mess! So Alfred is trying to not only protect his borders, but also gain some control over his out-of-control neighbors in Mercia and Northumbria. Guthred – who is a Christian Dane – would be someone that he would perceive as perhaps able to help keep Northumbria peaceful.

HORSES: Jamie Jeffers at The British History Podcast reminded me that the horses in Anglo-Saxon England would have been much smaller than those in the show.

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

What I noticed, too, was that there were no saddles – or if there were, they were so heavily covered by fleeces that they couldn’t be seen. Saddles and stirrups did exist by this time. No sidesaddles, though.

GISELA’S GOWN: Gisela was dressed in Danish style, very different from what Aelswith is wearing back in Winchester.

Ep2.1aGiselaUhtred

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

Also, she didn’t drop to her knees when St. Cuthbert was carried in. So, she is a Dane and a pagan – and Uhtred definitely notices. His kind of girl!

Sources:
Craig, G. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 84, May 1991, pg. 303
Lapidge, Michael, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Blackwell Publishing, 2001
Higham, N. J. and Ryan, M. J. The Anglo-Saxon World, Yale University Press, 2013.
https://www.thebritishhistorypodcast.com/

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode One

Season2Episode1THE PATH NORTH

Uhtred is back! The eight episodes of THE LAST KINGDOM Season 2 must cover events in two of Bernard Cornwell’s novels – Lords of the North and Sword Song, so screenwriter Stephen Butchard has a lot of ground to cover. He throws us immediately into the year A.D. 878 and deftly introduces us to the major players.

Twelve of these characters we met last season; another eleven are introduced in this episode. I’m going to mention every single one of them, so try to keep up.

After a brief look at events in the life of Uhtred as portrayed in Season One, we are swept into Winchester and the court of King Alfred (David Dawson). His daughter Æthelflæd (Millie Brady) has grown into a dark-haired young woman and is practicing her sword skills. If, as in the books, she is only 14, she is a VERY MATURE 14. I suspect she has been cast quite a bit older here because her father and Ealdorman Odda (Simon Kunz) are discussing a husband for her, and although the Anglo-Saxons had no qualms about marrying off their 14 year old daughters, modern audiences might balk. So Æthelflæd has been given at least 3 extra years and a sword. Nice touch, that sword. One day she will lead armies, but that’s in the future.

Alfred introduces the theme of this entire season during a meeting with his witan, warning that there are Danish troublemakers, Sigefrid (Bjorn Bengtsson) and Erik (Christian Hillborg), up north and that a day of reckoning is to come. His nephew Æthelwold (Harry McEntire), who resents his position as Not-the-King listens attentively. Moments later Brother Beocca (Ian Hart) – Uhtred’s friend and former teacher – introduces Brother Trew (Peter McDonald) from Cumbraland who reveals that St. Cuthbert has told his abbot Eadred in a dream that Cumbraland’s heir to the throne, Guthred, has been enslaved by the Danes and must be rescued. Please help.

Alfred, who is already thinking about the troublesome north, instantly agrees, and a few scenes later he will speak of his hopes for (designs on) Eoforwic to his wife Ælswith (Eliza Butterworth), who, I must say, looks quite fetchingly sexy in this scene and comes on to her husband a bit like Lady Macbeth. Ælswith! You naughty!

Ep2.1AlfredAelswithHistorical fact: Alfred sired 6 children, one of them illegitimate – so we are seeing, in this scene, another side to the rather pious Alfred.

Meanwhile, our hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) has been traveling north with two companions – the nun Hild (Eva Birthistle) and the young man Halig (Gerard Kearns). (And no, Halig was not in the novels.) Hild has replaced Brida as Uhtred’s Voice-of-Reason, and although he would like to see her in his bed as well, in this tv version she keeps him at arm’s distance. She goads him out of drinking and whoring, and sets him on the path to Dunholm, to rescue his sister Thyra and avenge his adoptive father, Ragnar Ravnson.

They soon arrive in Eoforwic where the Saxons, led by the firebrand Fr. Hrothweard (Richard Rankin), have taken advantage of the temporary departure of those Danish troublemakers Sigefrid and Erik to murder every Dane they can catch. Uhtred rescues the Danish warlord they have tied up and are tormenting – Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen) – and sets him free. (He’ll be back.)

And, oh look! Beocca and Brother Trew, sent north by Alfred to rescue Guthred, just happen to already be in Eoforwic, and Uhtred’s turning up there saves them having to go look for him. Alfred wants Uhtred to help them free Guthred, and when Uhtred learns that the young man is being held on the lands of Uhtred’s old enemy Kjartan, he sees fate at work and agrees to help. If this seems a bit coincidental, well, it is. It didn’t happen quite this way in the book, but Butchard only has 8 episodes to tell the story. Give the guy a break! Besides, it’s logical that Beocca would start looking for news of Uhtred in Eoforwic, so I quite happily bought this fortuitous meeting of the rescue team.

In the book Uhtred drives away the slavers who hold Guthred and who are working for his old enemy, Kjartan’s son, Sven-the-One-Eyed (Ole Christoffer Ertvaag) by disguising himself as a leper. Butchard riffs on it by setting it at night, adding a creepy wolf’s skull to Uhtred’s disguise, and tossing in some real lepers. (About that skull. I thought it was a horse skull, but a keen-eyed reader and zooarchaeologist informs me it is a large dog or wolf skull…thank you!)

Ep2.1aHorseLordIt works beautifully, and I especially liked Beocca’s enthusiastic role playing to assist Uhtred. The priest has hidden depths we have yet to see.

Uhtred as a phantom horse lord sends Sven into the wilderness, hands bound, to relate his horrifying experience to papa Kjartan (Alexandre Willaume). It’s there, in Dunholm, that we get our first glimpse of Thyra (Julia Bache-Wiig), looking like a cross between Miss Havisham and mad Ophelia.

Ep2.1aThyraShe is living in a cell below ground, surrounded by fierce hounds that appear to be under her control, so Sven keeps his distance. Clearly, she has not had a happy time in captivity, but she’s found a way to cope.

Then Uhtred and Guthred (Thure Ep2.1aGuthredUhtredLindhardt) arrive in Cumbraland to be greeted by Abbot Eadred (David Schofield) who, despite the vision of Guthred sent him by St. Cuthbert, mistakes the far better garbed Uhtred for the king and then hates Uhtred for making him look a fool. Calls him a pretender and snarls that he is someone to be watched. Poor Uhtred just can’t seem to get the clergy on his side. But he’s far more interested in Guthred’s sister, Gisela (Peri Baumeister), anyway.

Ep2.1aGiselaUhtredAhem: Uhtred ♥ Brida Mildreth Iseult Hild Gisela. Just sayin’.

I was very excited when St. Cuthbert’s coffin was carried in and they opened it up! I was searching for the gospel book that was buried with him – the one that I saw at the British Library a few years back. But alas, it wasn’t there. St. Cuthbert’s Corpse (Corpse) was there, though. Luckily for Alexander Dreymon they skipped the part where Uhtred had to kiss the saint’s lips. And I’m sorry, Abbot, but that saint looked pretty corrupted to ME!

Ep2.1aCuthbertWhile Guthred is being crowned in Cumbraland, Alfred is in Winchester having a little talk with the hostages Brida (Emily Cox) and Ragnar (Tobias Santelmann) that hints that the king is planning something involving them – set up for a future episode, surely. I love how, when he gestures to them to sit in some very nice, comfy chairs, Brida hooks her leg over the chair’s arm, reminding Alfred – lest he forget – that she’s no lady; she’s a Dane, dammit!

Ep2.1aBridaAnd in Dunholm Kjartan discovers that Uhtred has hooked up with Guthred, so he orders his man Tekil (Marc Rissman) to join Guthred’s army, kill the king and “bring me Uhtred!” More set up for what’s to come.

So there you have it: 23 significant characters and a breathtaking first episode. Bet you can’t watch just one…

All Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 20: THE RECKONING

4.15VIKINGSabSPOILER ALERT. A number of characters meet their ends in this episode. One death, at least, has been anticipated for some time. One is a total surprise, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet, read on at your peril. (And now you can’t resist, can you?)

THE RECKONING has elements of King Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet, and I loved everything about this season finale. Terrific, long-running story lines are satisfactorily wrapped up while new plot elements are introduced for the story going forward.

We begin with Ecbert (Linus Roache). We will, essentially, end with Ecbert. And all through the episode we keep checking back with Ecbert.

4.20Ecbert1AThere is a kind of Lear quality about the king as he sits on the floor in front of his throne, rocking back and forth, knowing – because he has a brilliant tactical mind and his son does not – that the Saxons facing the Great Army in a battle miles away, are losing. It seems to me that Ecbert has been, throughout this series, the quintessential medieval king: pious, ruthless, cruel, compassionate, treacherous and, now at the end of his reign, wise. Many fans of the show are already lamenting the disappearance of Ragnar, who has been such a fascinating hero. But as marvelous as Ragnar has been, for me he faded into the background the minute that Ecbert arrived on the scene. Are you Viking or are you Saxon? In my heart, I have always rooted for the Saxons.

So after a brief glimpse of Ecbert, it’s off to the battlefield where we see the Lothbrok Lads, all but Ivar, having a grand time at the slaughter. Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) puts up a good fight, but when he is unhorsed and then flattened into the mud we go into slow-mo and see the battle from his point of view, and he knows that all is lost. Nice technique.

4.20AethelwulfaIt’s a Richard III at Bosworth moment, but Æthelwulf doesn’t have to call for a horse. His steed awaits, and when Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrives in his little cart with more Vikings, the Saxons retreat, falling back to Winchester where Æthelwulf announces that the royal family must flee.

Ecbert, still in Lear mode, refuses to budge. He insists on a ceremony that transfers the crown and its powers to his son, then sends his family away with a kind of wild bravado that, when they are gone, dissolves into grief.

4.20EcbertBishopaThe Vikings are deliriously happy about their victory – all but Bjorn who has been grim-faced from the moment the fleet set sail from Kattegat. Now he snarls that they’re not finished yet, that they still have to deal with Ecbert, and that puts a damper on the celebration as they start for Winchester…

…where Ecbert and the bishop, two old allies, are silently getting drunk as they await the reckoning that they know is coming. I felt sorry for the poor guards who stayed behind with them and had to face a Viking horde sober.

The Great Army can’t believe their good luck at finding Winchester deserted, except for Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) who is still wearing his angry face because he hasn’t found Ecbert. But then Ecbert appears in all his drunken, mad-Lear glory. He doesn’t rage, though. He reaches out to Bjorn – the son of Ragnar who is so like his father.

4.20EcbertBjornaMeantime, Helga (Maude Hirst) is wandering through the burning halls of Wessex singing a mad Ophelia tune and dragging poor, terrified Tanaruz (Sinead Gormally) along with her. We’ve known for some time that Tanaruz was working up to suicide, and I wasn’t terribly surprised when she took Helga with her. Poor Helga.

Next, Ecbert sits in a cage hanging from on high while the Lothbrok Lads debate what to do with him. Ivar wants to Blood Eagle him and continue to ravage the land. The others think they should settle down and hold Ecbert as hostage for their protection. Ecbert makes them an offer: I will give you a deed to East Anglia; that kingdom will be yours and you’ll have the paperwork to prove it. (This, by the way, was the same agreement that Rollo made with the Frankish king. That actually happened and the deed still exists. Ecbert, though, never ceded E.Anglia to the Vikings.) In return for what? Bjorn asks. Ecbert is cagey. Well, he’s in a cage after all. Not sayin’ until you agree to the deal.

The Lothbroks decide to accept Ecbert’s offer, although Ivar insists that Ecbert has to be Blood Eagled. But Ecbert’s one request is that he choose the manner of his death. This is good diplomacy. Everyone at the table gets something. EXCEPT: Unknown to the Lothbrok Lads, Ecbert is no longer king. The deed he signs is worthless. (And he was never the over-king of East Anglia in any case.) The once-king is still duplicitous.

So Ecbert comes full circle in this series. We first glimpsed him in his bath, and that is where his life ends.

4.20EcbertBathaIt is a fitting end, but I will miss him. He was a mighty king.

Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) , too, seems to be bidding us farewell. There is a lovely Hamlet-like moment when Floki lays Helga in her grave and tenderly placies her treasures beside her.

4.20HelgaaLater, in a beautiful soliloquy, he offers himself to the gods – I am an empty ship with no rudder, set upon their endless sea.

But the episode isn’t over yet. Hirst has a surprise in store for us at the celebration feast where the Lothbrok Lads quarrel yet again about what to do next. Feasts were a time of drunken boasting and taunting, and often it was up to the queen to keep order. Weapons were not allowed in the hall. But there is no queen here, and weapons abound. Ivar, who has anger management issues, snaps. He throws an ax at Sigurd (David Lindström), and the blow is lethal. At first Ivar seems surprised at what he’s done. But his look of surprise fades, and as he justifies his action to himself we can read it in his face.

4.20IvaraI am unhappy with Ivar. I was hoping for someone more like Richard III – false and treacherous, yes, but subtle and clever. Ivar, instead is like a blunt instrument – a cudgel instead of a scalpel. I presume that is what Hirst intends, but I wish it were otherwise.

And still the episode isn’t over. In far off Dorset, in a matter of literally minutes, a warrior bishop (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engages in prayer, sex and violence, and opens up a whole new story line.

4.20DorsetaHis Latin, by the way, is excellent. No doubt he picked it up at the Tudor Court.
And now we wait for Season 5.

Photos of VIKINGS ©The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 19: ON THE EVE

4.15VIKINGSabBefore I recap events in VIKINGS Episode 19, ON THE EVE, in which Ivar and Co. land in Repton, and King Ecbert sends his son, Prince Æthelwulf , to fight them, let’s have a look at the historical timeline:

King Ecbert died in 839.
King Ecbert’s son, Æthelwulf, died in 858.
Ivar the Boneless and the Great Army DID NOT LAND IN EAST ANGLIA UNTIL 865, when Æthelwulf had already been dead for 8 years. That army rattled around in Mercia for 10 years, and they didn’t settle in Repton until 871.
It was Æthelred I who was King of Wessex in 871. He and his younger brother, Alfred, were the war leaders who faced the Great Heathen Army led by Ivar. It was not Ecbert or Æthelwulf.

Do you see the problem here for crazies like me who try to recognize historical touchstones in this story? THERE AREN’T ANY!!!

Okay, now that I’ve vented a bit, let’s look at what’s going on with the Lothbroks in this historical fantasy episode.

First, there’s the Kattegat story line. Lagertha (Katherine Winnick) senses that trouble is on its way, and she’s preparing for it. I love that sweet little model of Kattegat she is studying in her quarters.

4.19KattegatcIt’s doubtful that any such thing existed in Scandinavia in the 9th century, but it looks amazing and I want one. Not only that, she has discovered a Flammable Magic Powder which she has strewn on the ground so that when the bad guys head for her great hall, she just tosses a burning torch on to the Flammable Magic Powder and…whoosh!

4.19FirebBut hey! China had gunpowder, and – remember the slave girl Yidu earlier this season? She might have been from China, so maybe our Viking friends learned the secret of gunpowder from her. Somehow. Sure they did. Also, sorry Torvi (Georgia Hirst) but even if you had a crossbow in the 9th century, (probably not), it would not be humanly possible for you to reload as quickly as you did in this episode. And are you still alive? Inquiring minds want to know. Lagertha learns that King Harald is behind the attack, so there will likely be some payback next season.

Over in Wessex, it’s family time. Ecbert (Linus Roache) urges his mistress/daughter-in-law to return to her husband – the man he seduced her away from just ages ago – because Æthelwulf is going to need the strength and brilliance of her mind. This is a bizarre personality about-face on Ecbert’s part.

While we are still reeling from that, we are treated to Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) gently telling young Alfred, at bedtime, that his real father – the monk Athelstan – was a holy and special man. Wait. Is this the same Æthelwulf who hated Athelstan at first sight and railed against him for two full seasons of the show? Is this the same mean Æthelwulf who tossed poor Maxim (his mistress’s son) out of Winchester, alone and helpless? I’m watching this and wondering if Michael Hirst is trying to turn mean old Æthelwulf into a nice guy, into someone we want to root for. After all, historian Frank Stenton describes him as “a religious and unambitious man for whom engagement in war and politics was an unwelcome consequence of rank.” And who, in fact, led an army in 851 that was drawn from all over Wessex against a Viking horde made up of 350 ships’ companies, and won a decisive victory. He may have been overshadowed by his father, King Ecbert, but Æthelwulf was a pretty impressive king. So I’m thinking that maybe Hirst is giving him some credit at last.

But then the Vikings arrive and, as in the first season, the poor Anglo-Saxons – even though they have cavalry, better weapons and better armor – are taunted and outsmarted by their clever Viking foe while Æthelwulf looks like an idiot and plays right into their hands.

I hate it when the Anglo-Saxons are made to look like dopes.

As for the smaller stories, while nasty Harald (Peter Franzen) is getting his Finehair braided he spots the woman he loves in the Viking camp with her husband. True to his despicable nature, Harald strolls over and tells her that he forgives her for making the mistake of marrying someone else, and then casually kills her husband with his trusty axe. Later, she honeys up to Harald and he is vain enough to believe her sweet words. I don’t believe her. And because I know that Harald goes on to become king of all Norway, I’m thinking this is not going to end well and, ow, I’m right.

Also in the camp, Helga (Maude Hirst) panics when her adopted daughter, the foreign born Tanaruz, (Sinead Gormally) runs away. Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) finds the girl and shows a not completely uncharacteristic tender side when he reassures the girl, but when he hands her back to Helga poor Tanaruz looks terrified, as well she should be. Helga’s mother-love is stifling, paranoid and scary.

The Lothbrok boys are in camp and still sneering at each other – mostly Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), sneering at Big Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig). But Ivar convinces his brother to try a different battle plan than what the Anglo-Saxons expect, which leads to Æthelwulf’s frustration and humiliation, not to mention a lot of winded but gleeful Viking warrriors. Well, Ivar’s not winded. He’s in a chariot.

4.19VikingsbBut there’s more battle about to come. When the episode ends the Saxon army, shattered and in disarray, is charging toward a solid Viking shield wall. We have to wait until next week to discover who wins, but I’m putting my money on that shield wall.

4.19ReptonbHirst, though, has promised to toss in a new character next week – a West Saxon bishop who is much easier on the eye than the one we’ve been seeing in Winchester (no offense, bishop).

Daniel Wu as Sunny - Into the Badlands _ Season 2, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly

Jonathan Rhys Meyers steps into the role of the warrior bishop Heahmund, a historical figure who I’ve never heard of before today but who, according to Michael Hirst, will be a worthy opponent to Ivar. Meantime I have a very bad feeling that we might lose King Ecbert next week. The episode’s title: THE RECKONING.

Photos of VIKINGS ©The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 18: REVENGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Kattegat and Wessex under siege.

 

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 17: THE GREAT ARMY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 16: CROSSINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-16promolagerthaThe answer he gives her is chilling.

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

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

Photos of Vikings © The History Channel

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 15: ALL HIS ANGELS

4-15vikingsaSpoiler Alert! Reader Beware.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was really good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 13: TWO JOURNEYS

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

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

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

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

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

Johanne’s map of the Roman Empire is lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All photos: The History Channel

 

 

 

 

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