This Vikings review contains spoilers…
When I sat down to write this review, I wanted to start with something along the lines of “It is a modern luxury, largely, to be able to see religion (including the lack thereof) as a personal choice.” From there, I would go on to talk about how this has not been true for a good portion of Western history and specifically in medieval and Renaissance Europe. How the religious and the political of those periods were tied so tightly together as to be inextricable (as opposed to how things are today).
But as I re-watched “Warrior’s Fate,” I was reminded of the old truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We see this throughout the episode in moments that mirror some of the realities of our own time.
Some will always believe that mutual religious tolerance is impossible. The tension between the Christian Saxons and the Norse Vikings has begun to create problems on both sides as we are shown early on in parallel scenes in the episode. Two of Ecbert’s court (somewhat) hesitantly call their king out for his willingness to ally himself with the Northmen, even to the point of evicting his own people from their lands and giving it to the new arrivals. The fact that they feel strongly enough about this to admit the content of their muttering to him speaks a great deal to how serious a problem his people believe this to be. While any king rules, on one level or another, by the consent of the people, an English court of the time did not have the democratic tone that tended to be more true of a Viking one where anyone could, in theory, speak his mind.
Which we see when Floki, without Ragnar soliciting his opinion on the subject, expresses his own misgivings in a far more passionate manner, calling Ragnar deluded. Why, he asks, are they fighting for the Christians? But what Ecbert’s men only imply—that the difference in religions makes the two cultures incompatible – Floki calls out directly: “There can be no reconciliation between our gods—the true gods—and the god that they worship.” Thus, he suggests, there is no way to reconcile the followers of those gods. His next statement seems almost ripped from the mouths of modern-day zealots. Religious tolerance is unacceptable. “One or the other must prevail.” And his prophecy that “the triumph of the Christ-God will mean the death and destruction of all of ours” was both historically true and echoes the contemporary fear that underlies intolerance: if a belief system is not fiercely defended, it will be annihilated.
The faith of some extends to martyrdom. It’s a feature of many religions, even today, that those who die in their defense or according to their rules will reap rewards in the next life. While we see none of the zealotry that tends to be a feature of the former in this episode, the title definitely references the latter. Torstein meets his fate head-on when he all but begs (or as close as a Viking gets to begging) Rollo to drag him to the battlefield so he can die fighting, thus earning his way into Valhalla. His faith (and the content of that faith) is highlighted because his death in the beginning of the battle is in counterpoint to Burgred’s surrender at its end. Of course, while we are intended to see that surrender as cowardly, it also marks out an important difference between the two belief systems: the attitudes of each towards fate and free will.
While Christianity embraces the idea that God already knows the day on which we will die as well as that about humans enjoying free will even to the point of rejecting God, few adherents live as the Vikings do. They instead believe the gods more actively select a day on which they will die, and since that day is set, they are free to act as they wish because nothing they do or fail to do will alter the time of their death–this is what Ragnar reminds Floki of after the battle when he points out that their mutual friend’s death was on his own terms, not those of his king. And if you were looking for a formula more likely to produce brave warriors, it’s hard to imagine one that would so thoroughly remove fear from the equation: if it’s not your day to die, nothing can kill you. Combined with the promise of Valhalla, it’s hardly surprising that the battlefield ferocity of the Vikings still fascinates us a thousand years after the last one died.
Beliefs which are alien to us tend to be seen with a clarity which is not applied to our own. At the end of the episode, there’s a bold spectacle in which Lagertha and the other farming Vikings perform a blood sacrifice using a bull. The sheer amount of that blood is highlighted against the white gown the Viking Jarl wears, as well as in juxtaposition to her pale skin. As television viewers, we are not as disturbed by the images as the Saxon nobles who look on. They insist to the king that “unless they renounce their false gods and heathen ways, we should no allow them to stay any longer.” But our reaction is more muted: after all, we are separated by over a millennium from the reality this is supposed to represent and thus can safely see such a gory sacrifice as quaint and uncivilized, knowing that we have come far since those days.
However, in doing so, we ignore that, today, the second largest religion in the world—Catholicism–actually enacts something that might seem far more horrific to some: the Eucharist and the miracle of transubstantiation. It’s important to remember that this ritual is not, according to the dogma of the Church, symbolic. They literally believe that the wafer becomes the flesh and the wine the blood of Jesus Christ, making the act cannibalistic. And Protestant and Catholic alike believe their salvation to hinge on the sacrificing of both human and divine Jesus. Only our familiarity with these concepts makes them palatable—in some cases, literally.
Luckily, it is also true that there are those who believe that, where zealotry and pragmatism come up against each other, the latter must prevail. In the end, what most of these scenes (and others in the episode) do is highlight exactly why Ragnar and Ecbert are in the positions they are. There is no doubt that Ragnar does believe in the same gods as Floki, nor that Ecbert practices some form of Christianity. But whatever their difference in religious beliefs, they agree on the principle that those beliefs take a backseat to the larger welfare of their people. Ecbert faces an England that is still a patchwork of kingdoms constantly in conflict. Expanding and defending his borders is, as he points out to his nobles, vital to the security of his land. Ragnar (or at least his character in the series), in turn, understands that the Viking culture is headed for oblivion without a more sustainable lifestyle based on agriculture. Neither can afford the luxury of being theological purists if they are to succeed in saving their people. While everyone around them may see religious differences as a recipe for disaster, Hirst does an excellent job in Warrior’s Fate of showing us just how alike Ragnar and Ecbert–and their motivations–really are.
The irony being, of course, that whatever the similarity in their attitudes toward religion, it is their more pragmatic rationales (and their shared attraction to Lagertha) that will lead to conflict between them and the cultures they represent. And that’s going to be fun to watch.