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The Making of a Legend: The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and the TV series ‘Vikings’
By Dom Tromans
Published Online (2015)
Introduction: “Sigurd had a son named Ragnar, who was a large man, fair of countenance and keen in wit, great-hearted towards his men but grim to his foes.” Thus is Ragnar Lothbrok, ninth century Viking monarch and sometime dragon-slayer, introduced to his audience in legendary form in The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. Perhaps one of the more famous Norsemen from the ancient texts (this one written in the thirteenth century but likely with a much more antique oral provenance), his tale has since been adopted in by the Irish-Canadian television drama ‘Vikings’, written and produced by Michael Hirst, which has run on the US cable channel ‘History’ since 2013. However, although it retains its protagonist and the core of his legend, ‘Vikings’ strays from its originator in that it discards many of its more mythical aspects and places Ragnar front and centre in the raids on England that began the Viking Age in 793 AD, a good fifty years before his ‘historical’ debut is supposed to have taken place.
Thus neither The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok nor ‘Vikings’ are immediately recognisable as straight works of history, although they both have certain strongly historical elements to their content. This essay hopes to explore how the television programme relates to its source material and the historiography in terms of fidelity and historical accuracy (terms which, as we shall see, are not completely synonymous). It will also examine how the series is performed in some sense as a work of public history mediated by the conventions of dramatic fiction and the medium of film.
The Viking Age in which the programme is set presents numerous challenges. Much televised historical fiction focuses on well-documented people, or at least well-documented cultures. For instance, HBO’s ‘John Adams’ (2008) made use of reams of material and documentary evidence, including invaluable autobiographical work; whilst the Roman culture in Starz’s ‘Spartacus’ (2010 – 2013) is one of the best known of the ancient world, even if the eponymous protagonist is himself somewhat of a historical mystery.