The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Been Watching Vikings

I got into the Northern thing back in high school...quite a natural progression, given my intense interest in Tolkien, Norseness being one of his primary inspirations. Anyway, I started reading everything Viking that I could lay my hands on.When, long about the age of fifteen or so, I started writing my own horror and heroic fantasy (you might have caught a flick with Peter Reigert and Alexander Gudonov called the Runestone which was based on one of my teenage efforts), I incorporated all sorts of Viking biz. There was a whole lot of that in Zorachus and The Nightmare of God, for example. I made a point of watching Viking movies too, such as well, The Vikings, The Long Ships, Prince Valiant, Alfred the Great, and a whole slew of Italian flicks like Erik the Conquerer. I'd say The Vikings is the single coolest Viking movie out there, with its  fabulous Mario Nascimbene score, and wonderful Norwegian and French locations, lensed by the great Jack Cardiff; the final swordfight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis  is absolutely classic. You might notice it gets rotoscoped into rat combat at the climax of The Secret of Nimh. But...

While the movie gets some things right, it gets a lot of other things very wrong...we have a great big stone castle in Viking age Northumbria, the clothes and trapping are your typical furry Hollywood barbarian fantasies,etc. Jack Cardiff actually helmed The Long Ships, which bears virtually no resemblance to the novel it's based's a lot of fun but it sure is nonsensical, and the historical details are almost all bosh. Prince Valiant is a handsome production based on the nifty Hal Foster comic strip, and there's plenty of Viking action, but it has its Norsemen all wearing horned helmets, etc, and living in big stone fortresses. I only saw Alfred the Great once; it involves Alfred's campaign against the Danish Great Army, led by Guthrum and Ivar the I recall, most of the historical details were plausible, although the movie struck me as rather inept and boring. I suppose I should also mention a Charlton Heston movie called The Warlord, which is about Normans having it out with Viking-like's one of these things where the guys who made it were going to give you gritty lowdown on the Middle ages, and virtually everything about it is historically inaccurate...still, I love the damn thing, and the action scenes, staged by mega-genius Yakima Canutt, are among the best sequences of their sort ever done. Why it was deemed necessary to have the Vikings turned into Frisians simply beats me, but oh well.

All right then, when I heard the History Channel was mounting a Viking series, I was really looking forward to it, and on the whole, I thought it was pretty good, although the series finale, which I just watched last night, was rather anticlimactic. The single coolest element is actually the opening credits, nifty music over shots of dead Vikings sinking to the bottom with longships visible up above, speeding under oar. And for what it's worth, the representation of the Viking Age is the single most accurate depiction that I've ever seen. Certainly, the guys who it made seem to have been unusually serious about their historical responsibilities. The writers have read Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas played him in The Thirteenth Warrior, a wacked-out we're-giving-you the-gritty-lowdown, wildly anachronistic version of Beowulf), and Saxo Grammaticus's account of pagan shenanigans at Uppsala. However...there's a lot of preposterousness too, some of which is is truly insisted upon. I can't imagine that most people would be as annoyed as I was, but they're not writing this blog, now are they?

First off. the show's about Ragnar Lothbrok (Hairy-Breeks), the same fellow played by Ernest Borgnine in The Vikings. He might've been a real guy...according to legend, he raised a lot of hell in Northumbria before the Northumbrian king Aella caught him and threw him into a pit full of vipers, whereupon Ragnar's sons, Guthrum and Ivar the Boneless, descended on England and went about making a big nuisance of themselves with the aforementioned Great Army (probably no more than five hundred men or so), before Alfred took them down. Now. Ragnar and his boys were Danes...but because Denmark is kind boring dairy country, the producers of the show have them operating out of Norway, with Canadian Pacific Northwest locations standing in nicely for that. Can't say I'm too upset...Ragnar et all were depicted as Norwegians in The Vikings as well. Makes for much better visuals.

But what are we to make of the notion that the vikings knew next to nothing about England, and were desperately afraid of sailing out of sight of land? This, of course, is pure twaddle...for one thing, Scandinavians could simply sail south along the coast and hang a right. Depending on where they hung this right, it sure wouldn't have taken them too long to get to Blighty. So there's that. But as I said, the show also has Norsemen skeptical that there even is an England to be plundered, even though so many folks from Denmark had wound up there during the Anglo-Saxon conquest. The invaders themselves are even referred to as wicings, Vikings, in Anglo-Saxon accounts. The Angles were from what is now Denmark, and the Jutes gave their name to the Peninsula, Jutland. The Anglo-Saxon national epic, Beowulf, takes place, of course, in Denmark and Sweden. In the show, Earl Haraldson is completely skeptical about Ragnar's plans, and a lot of conflict reality, none of this would've happened. In all likelihood, he would've put some money into the enterprise.

The show takes place at the dawn of the viking era proper, the late eighth has Ragnar attacking the great monastery at Lindisfarne. Now while the assault on Lindisfarne was the very first eruption of the Vikings into recorded history, Ragnar had nothing to do with it...if he existed, he was from a later period...that's if he ran afoul of Aella. I don't suppose anyone cares...we're talking maybe fifty years here. In Hollywood terms, it's not The Thirteenth Warrior, for example, you have Ibin Fadlan rubbing shoulders with Beowulf, which is kinda like Billy the Kid showing up in Braveheart.

But back to the show.

Some of the names are just plain wrong. Ragnar's brother is named Rollo...he should be named Hrolf, Rollo being the Frankish form of the name, as in Rollo, the fellow who founded Normandy. Earl Haraldson is peculiar too...Earl Harald would've been a better idea. Later on, we run into a  nobleman called Jarl so-and-so. Well, are these guys Earls or Jarls? Jarl is, of course, the Norse form of Earl. The writers should've stuck with the real title, or the translation.

There are scads of innaccuracies in the costuming, sets, etc. It's not like watching Xena,  but a lot of the gear is hopelessly unreal. For one thing, Viking-period folks (the vast majority of Norse people weren't Vikings, by the way, the term being pretty much synonymous with pirate) didn't dress too sumptuously or flashily. Their garments were pretty basic, not at all exotic...most of their bling would've been jewelry, things like brooch pins, armlets, stuff like that. Also, the Norse didn't quaff their grog from horns or goblets...they drank from funnel-shaped glass beakers, which were set in separate bases. The Norse had all sorts of imported glassware, by the way...they did a lot of trading with the Franks. Most of their swords were made by Franks, for example.

The show's geography is  frequently ridiculous...among other things, our protagonists go on foot on a pilgrimage to the pagan center at Uppsala, which is depicted as being right across the mountains from Norway or pseudo-Denmark, or wherever they're supposed to be...but Uppsala was located all the way in the east part of Sweden, near the Baltic...that would've been some hike. The show's goings-on at the temple have some basis in fact...the priests used to kill nine of each kind of animal, including human beings, during this one festival every nine years. But I believe the humans were slaves and criminals...the show has one of our guys just deciding he wants to be a sacrificed for no particular reason. It's very odd. Many of the details of the priesthood are purely invented, by the way...the priests are freaky pale wierdos with shaved heads, facial tattoos, and black lipstick.

Actually, the entire characterization of the Norsemen themselves is kinda off. They're all very solemn and grim. In actuality, if one can judge by the sagas, they were always cracking jokes and engaging in admittedly very violent hijinks. To give you an example...when the Jomsvikings all got drunk, decided on a whim to attack the Norwegians, and got trounced at the battle of Hjorungafjord, the Norwegians were going down the line beheading the prisoners...but one of the Jomsvikings had a last request. He was very vain about his hair, you see, and didn't want to get it all hacked and messy, so he requested that someone hold his hair out over his head as the axe fell. Well, this was considered reasonable, and someone poor schmuck held the guy's hair out...whereupon the Jomsviking jerked his head back at the last moment, and the axe cut off the Norwegian's hands.

The Norwegians thought this was so funny that they let the Jomsviking go...