For history buffs, there is something just a little extra fascinating about those periods in human existence where a society’s written accounts begin to emerge, and where the fog of either nothingness or myth begins to clear into something like truth. In other words, that moment when there is recorded history, and the history is real. It happens at different times for different cultures, and much of what we know about the early Vikings comes from the more literate societies they raided. But in the 13th century, the Icelandic Sagas were written, and they dealt with events all the way back to the 9th century. As you might imagine for histories written 400 years afterwards and based on oral tradition, some of the facts are up for dispute. A figure like Ragnar Lothbrok—the Viking raider of the 800s and the central figure of the first four seasons of Vikings, originally broadcast on the History Channel—is today considered a kind of composite figure, the tales of him either rife with inaccuracies or flat-out myth. But the strange thing is, the men recorded as his sons are very real historical figures whose existence is not in doubt. How can they be real when the father is a legend? Maybe because they claimed lineage to augment their own fame, which was true of later kings, too. Or maybe Lothbrok was real.
We don’t know. What we do know is that less than 100 years later, when Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson explored and settled Greenland, and Erikson became the first European to land on the continent of North America, we are dealing with valid historical figures. The mist has cleared, and this is actual history. There’s something almost magical about it, this passage from myth to truth, and it’s that time jump that Netflix’s sequel series Vikings: Valhalla makes.
Created by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), the eight-episode Valhalla is the story of Erikson (Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson), mixed in with the conquest of King Canute (Bradley Freegard), the Dane who invaded England in 1015 and became king for almost 20 years. The story is exciting, though the history is, frankly, a mess—key events are conflated to make a tidy narrative, and figures like Erikson and Freydis are placed where they never seemed to have existed in real life. For one thing, Erikson is depicted as a young man during Canute’s conquest, sailing with the Danish king in order to save his sister’s life, when in fact he would have been just a few years from death at that point, and far away in Greenland. His sister Freydis, judging by the sagas, seems to have been a bit of a nightmare, with all of the murderousness that saw her father Erik the Red exiled over and over again, but here she’s devout and loyal (though equally fierce). For another, Canute’s voyage is portrayed as a revenge mission for the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, when the English king had Danish settlers put to death, but in fact his invasion came more than a decade after the fact.
In other words, if you’re looking for an accurate retelling of some of the most consequential explorers and invaders in European history, look elsewhere. The writers have taken this first period of Norse historical illumination and cast it back into shadow, clearly more comfortable with the storytelling freedom given to them by the age of myth, when there are no facts to stumble over. History, for them, provides a nice outline for the story, and within that they feel free to pick and choose which elements work and which are omitted, and when to simply make something up entirely.
This is not much of a critique, though. Despite the fact that the original series (created by Michael Hirst) was on the History Channel, none of this was ever strictly historical, and the judgment of Vikings was always more about whether it give a sense of the history, and whether the story was any good.
It does, it was, and it still is. Like its predecessor, Valhalla is a beautiful show, dark and gloomy and vicious, with all the adornments of warfare that make the Vikings so fascinating in the first place. The acting is occasionally over the-the-top in terms of emotional register, but within the context of a show that pursues historical bombast at each moment, it works. The one complaint here is that in order to appeal to an American audience, the Vikings—who are mostly Scandinavian actors—speak in English, and because the dialogue is tailored to make things easy for them, we lose a good deal of sophistication for roughly half the cast. The English are appropriately subtle and scheming, but too often the Norsemen come off as brutish simpletons for no other reason than the fact that they’re forced to speak broken English. (Perhaps, historically, they were brutish simpletons, but even then.)
Again, though, this is a trifling gripe, and by and large this show is extremely fun. The fighting is top-notch, the political intrigue is gripping, and despite the broad strokes that prevail in certain narrative areas, there are subtleties elsewhere. One of my favorite aspects of the first half of the season made available for review is the conflict between Christianity and Paganism, which the writers smartly depict as a conflict happening among the Vikings themselves. By the standards of the time, Christianity was a fire that was spreading everywhere—Erikson himself converted, and supposedly tried to get his father Erik the Red to do likewise, to no avail—and the depiction of the last days of true paganism as it tried to hold its ground against the rising (and often violent) tide of Christianity is a fascinating subplot.
In short, if you’re a history buff who enjoys fictional depictions of turbulent epochs, I would advise you to turn down the “history buff” volume in your brain and turn up the part that likes a good story. To view Vikings: Valhalla as targeting the spirit of the times rather than to-the-letter of the times is to enjoy on its own terms, and its own terms are ultimately fair. Maybe they keep the show from being truly great, but in terms of pure entertainment and getting you to click that “next episode” button, everything here works perfectly. Like Leif Erikson setting out in a viking longboat, sailing west from Greenland, finding solid ground is achievement enough.
Vikings: Valhalla premieres Friday, February 25th on Netflix.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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