This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Warning: contains spoilers for Vikings seasons 1-5.
Something I struggled with quite considerably in the early seasons of Vikings was finding a way to like the characters. I liked them perfectly well as long as they were fighting amongst themselves, settling feudal disputes, standing up to corrupt earls, or simply going about the business of trying to forge a life for themselves as farmers in the cold, inhospitable climate of medieval Norway, but the minute they jumped into their ships, sailed across the sea and started butchering monks, women and children, it’s fair to say that my sympathy for them, and empathy with them, decreased rather significantly.
I tried to counter my revulsion at their behavior by reminding myself that the show I’d started watching was called Vikings and not “Friendly Spice Traders.” I couldn’t really act surprised that the titular Vikings were acting… well, like Vikings.
I tried to look upon the show as the story of civilization itself; a treatise on the horrors of organized religion and the perils of “othering” your fellow humans. I kept telling myself that life before modern medicine and social democracy was characteristically short, savage and brutal; if you wanted to thrive or survive you sometimes had to wipe out the other guy and take his stuff before he did it to you. Weren’t the Vikings as much the victims of their time, as their victims were the victims of the Vikings?
The conflict I experienced watching the show was a mere mote of dust floating inside an atom when set against the series of super-nova-sized conflicts that raged within the stormy seas of Ragnar Lothbrok’s soul and psyche: battles between surviving and living, good and evil, right and wrong, blood and water, scythe and sword, paganism and monotheism, peace and war.
Ragnar began the series as a simple farmer, content to eke out a living on the land alongside his (then) tight-knit family, but circumstances and manifold injustices soon thrust him into the roles of rebel, warrior, leader, mystic king and celebrity. Ragnar spent the next four seasons searching for ways to ditch his sword and return to the soil, whether back home in Kattegat or in lands afar. He wanted to leave a legacy of peace and prosperity for his family and his people.
Of course, Ragnar was no ye olde Rick Grimes, treading the path of peace and pig-rearing as men with eye-patches assailed him with tanks. Ragnar’s greatest enemy was, of course, himself. The forces of hubris, vanity and vengeance bubbled and boiled within his blood, ever ready to erupt in fire and fury. In the end, Ragnar came to believe his own press, and as the series went on he acted more and more like a fame-hungry rock-star: casting aside his beautiful shield-maiden wife, Lagertha, to pursue the hand and womb of the famous Aslaug; experimenting with class-A drugs; warring with his brother; neglecting his children; leading his fans astray in the most fatal of ways; chasing his fading legacy at the expense of all else; and wandering off to become a hermit, suddenly tired of having to deal with all the pressure, PR and bad headlines.
Ragnar’s friend Athelstan – his brother from another mother; his smidgen from another religion – served as both audience proxy and a civilising force in Ragnar’s life, a way of opening the marauding farmer’s eyes to new ways of thinking, feeling and doing things. Close though the two men became, the evolution of their friendship was far from conventional or typical. Ragnar first encountered the Christian monk at Lindisfarne during a raid in which he and his men slaughtered all of Athelstan’s friends and colleagues. Ragnar then took Athelstan back across the sea to a life of slavery in a savage alien culture that regarded him as a verminous heathen. At one point Ragnar almost sacrificed Athelstan to the Norse Gods. It’s not exactly the stuff of best man speeches.
A process of trust and spiritual osmosis broke down the invisible chains around Athelstan’s wrists, and unlocked the door to Ragnar’s heart and perceptions. Athelstan became a friend, advisor, confidante, counsellor, and an honorary member of the family. He also acted as Ragnar’s emissary in Saxon lands, helping to form a bridge of respect between King Ragnar and King Ecbert that might, under different circumstances, have had a chance of holding.
Ragnar prized and protected Athelstan above all others, a state of affairs that didn’t sit easily with Ragnar’s previous BFF, the bonkers boat-builder Floki. Floki’s jealousy soon turned to murderous rage, and set in motion a chain of events that would be felt for years to come, not just in Kattegat but across the world.
Ragnar was left broken and bereaved by Athelstan’s death. Guilt and anger gripped his soul. Things started going wrong for him in ways that ran against the grain of his legend. He lost his foothold in England. He lost his friendship with Floki. His people discovered the truth about the slaughter of the Viking settlers in King Ecbert’s lands. He failed to sack Paris. His brother turned against him once more, and went on to enjoy a life of comfort, prestige and fortune. There was nothing else for Ragnar to do but disappear, which he did for many long years.
Ragnar’s eventual comeback also served as his farewell tour. He returned to his grown sons – Bjorn, son of Lagertha, and Sigurd, Ubbe, Hvitserk and Ivar, sons of Aslaug – as a man no longer fully beloved, trusted or respected by his people. His behavior and presence did nothing to inspire or unite the town, or smooth out the frictions between his kith and kin. The seer had foretold Ragnar’s death, but added that he wouldn’t die until the blind man saw him. Ragnar denounced the seer as a fraud and a charlatan, just as he later would the Gods themselves. Nevertheless, Ragnar spent his final weeks both leaning into the seer’s prophecy and trying to thwart it by hook, crook and rope.
He sailed to England with Ivar, the disabled son he’d once tried to euthanize. Ivar had grown up pitied and teased by the people of Kattegat, smothered by his mother’s love, worshipping his father, and full of anger and bitter resentment towards the world because of his condition, all of which proved the perfect recipe for a psycho cocktail.
When Ragnar chose Ivar above the rest of his brothers to come with him to enact vengeance upon the Saxon kings, Ivar felt special, touched by godhood. In reality, Ragnar had turned himself into a time-bomb, and needed Ivar to light the fuse. Ragnar knew that none of his other sons would be allowed to leave King Ecbert’s clutches once they’d surrendered themselves to him. He needed Ivar to smuggle home word of his true intent. Though Ragnar promised Ecbert that his sons’ vengeance would be visited upon King Aelle, and King Aelle alone – into whose hands Ragnar would soon be delivered – Ecbert’s death had always been the plan. Ecbert believed all of Ragnar’s promises of mercy, forgiveness and friendship, mainly due to their mutual love of Athelstan.
And, so, Ragnar was delivered into the hands of King Aelle, and handed a death almost as brutal and never-ending as the one given to Chef in South Park. Ragnar was beaten, hoisted, humiliated, stabbed, and finally dumped still-breathing into a pit of poisonous snakes. The last thing Ragnar saw before he died was the robed figure of King Ecbert, come incognito to bear witness to his frenemy’s death. Ecbert was the blind man of prophecy, blind because he couldn’t or wouldn’t see the trap that Ragnar had set for him.
Ragnar died for his sins. He died for ours, too: the sin of watching and enjoying the show. Though he endured an almost Christian martyrdom – surrounded by biblical augurs of serpents and crosses – Ragnar’s blood promised not a clean slate, but more blood to come. So much for the legacy of peace and prosperity.
Any progress that Ragnar had made in the direction of civility and wisdom (not to mention likeability) were quickly annulled by his sons in the wake of his death as they set about burning and butchering the young, the innocent, the old and the guilty alike. It was almost as if the series re-set itself. Harsh lessons had to be learned anew, particularly that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. This, I suppose, is the story of all humanity. Lest we forget, we tell ourselves. But we always forget. Or, rather, the young have to feel out the world for themselves.
The manner of Ragnar’s departure made a spider-web of his legacy, one spun by a thousand spiders drunk on wine and hatred. Did Ragnar turn his sons into guided missiles of vengeance in order that they could cleave the land from the Saxons and live their promised life of plenty after all, or did he simply want the world to burn, all of it, starting with Ecbert and Aelle, and ending with his sons and former kingdom?
Ragnar was a twisted, bedevilled and complex man, and so too is his legacy. Bjorn, his first-born, appears to be the keeper of the nobler side of Ragnar’s spirit; the part of his father that sought to chart and explore; to lead and to love, only fighting when absolutely necessary, eager to reach out and drop roots. Ubbe, too – though vengeance courses through his veins – has a spirit tempered by peace and pragmatism. Ivar, of course, represents Ragnar’s brooding darkness, brute force, vanity, treachery and impulsivity, the part of his father that wanted to sear his brand onto the surface of the earth and rub the world’s face in it.
For a long time it seemed that Ragnar’s darkness would be his sole legacy. Ivar’s Heathen army seemed unstoppable, like something out of myth and legend, a supernatural incarnation of Ivar’s unbound rage and hatred. Ivar rolled it over the Saxons and then, ever-hungry for blood, over his own friends and brothers. Anyone, in fact, who stood in his way. Not even the seer survived Ivar’s purge, a killing that was a vainglorious fuck-you to the future.
Yet Ivar’s ultimate undoing was his inability to connect with people; to love and to be loved; to show mercy, compassion and fairness. These were the qualities without which Ragnar would never have been able to succeed. Ivar saw people as chess pieces, the same way, tragically, that his father had seen him as he’d put his final plan into action. When Bjorn came to wrest Kattegat from Ivar’s iron grip, the people, tired of being tortured and brutalized, moved against Ivar without hesitation. Ivar ate alone, and no-one, not King or God, can hope to endure that way.
But things are never so clear-cut. Though Bjorn stands the victor, flying the flag for his father’s light and hope, the fifth season ended with Bjorn haunted by visions of blood, murder and thunder. Perhaps Bjorn realises that peace always comes at a price; perhaps he realises that his father’s rage and darkness isn’t exclusive to Ivar, and may yet rise to engulf him.
Ivar will undoubtedly return to settle the matter of Ragnar’s legacy. In the meantime it’s the ill-fated Floki who has come closer than any of the other characters to realising Ragnar’s blue-skied dream.
Present-day Iceland and Scandinavia house some of the happiest, most prosperous and progressive peoples on the planet. It remains to be seen whether Vikings will end a step closer to that reality, or a few steps back. Either way, expect blood and sacrifice.