Given the popularity of the history drama Vikings – now filming its sixth season – it might seem strange that when screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst first came to the topic, he was cautioned by some that he couldn’t possibly write a successful show about the Scandinavian warriors.
“They were the ‘other’,” he explains, “because they were the people who came and broke into your house at night and raped and pillaged.”
“Many years ago,” Hirst continues, “I was writing a film script about Alfred the Great, who fought against the Vikings. I was fascinated to discover that a lot of what I thought I knew about the Vikings was wrong. I knew nothing about their attitude towards women, which was much more progressive than most other societies.”
Hirst found Viking society surprisingly democratic, “and their engineering and boat-building skills were phenomenal,” he says.
“We were all brought up on clichés about the Vikings that they are brutal, mindless savages. They were certainly brutal when they needed to be, but they weren’t savages.”
Inspired by the sagas
It’s important to Hirst, who’s also behind the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth (1998) and historical television drama The Tudors (–2010), that the show’s characters and stories are grounded in real history. One of the initial sources for Hirst and his historical advisor, Justin Pollard, were the Norse sagas, a collection of tales largely written in the 13th century, telling the histories and semi-mythical voyages of Viking heroes from around 930 to 1030.
‘Vikings’ creator and producer Michael Hirst considers Viking artefacts for ‘The Real Vikings’. The new documentary considers the real history that inspired the drama, including the roles of women and the pagan beliefs and warrior culture in Viking society. (The Real Vikings/History UK)
When Hirst came across the figure of Ragnar Lothbrok in the historical record, he knew that he’d found his protagonist. According to Norse legend, poetry and sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearsome raider and warrior who was famously recorded as the leader of the Viking Siege of Paris in 845 (an event which the show explores in season three).
“There’s still some controversy about whether Ragnar was real or not,” Hirst says, though Lothbrok is also said to have fathered many famous Viking figures including Ubbe, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless. Two of these figures – Ubbe and Ivar – were part of the coalition Norse Army that invaded the British Isles in 865.
While the extent to which Ragnar was a historic figure or legendary character remains unclear, Hirst explains that, on balance, he concluded that Ragnar did exist. “His name does occur in several accounts, which would have been written by Christian monks in France and Ireland and England. His name crops up, often in different places at the same time, so there is substantial evidence.”
“In any case, even if he didn’t exist it was necessary that he did for the story, for my saga that I was going to tell.”
Fact vs fiction
Though there are some elements included in the show which could be considered to give the drama a fantastical tone – such as Viking gods appearing to characters in premonitions and hallucinations – Hirst is clear on the boundaries of fantasy within his show.
“I allowed myself the opportunity of showing the god Odin briefly on the battlefield in the very first episode of the show, because I knew that’s what the Vikings believed. After a battle, they believed that Odin would walk around the battlefield choosing people to go to Valhalla [the place in Norse mythology where warriors travel after their death]. To me, that wasn’t fantasy because that’s what they believed.
“Also, Vikings believed that their gods were capable of shape-shifting, so they could appear in the shape of a raven, or an owl, or a wolf. The Vikings thought of their landscape as a living organism, filled with god-like presences. I thought it was legitimate to occasionally show ghosts or spirits, or things do with the Vikings’ spiritual world, which I find fascinating. But I would never have a dragon in a show of mine.”
A still from ‘Vikings’ series 3, episode 1. (VIKINGS © 2016 TM Productions Limited / T5 Vikings IV Productions Inc. All Rights Reserved. An Ireland-Canada Co-Production.)
The Vikings and women
Since the earliest seasons of the show, Hirst says, he has experienced some criticism regarding the character of Lagertha, a shield maiden and Ragnar Lothbrok’s first wife (played by Katheryn Winnick). Some have found fault with the idea that women would have been warriors or fighters during the Viking age.
Yet in September 2017 it was widely reported that the archaeological find known as the ‘Birka warrior’ could be a woman.
Found in a 10th-century chamber in Birka, Sweden, in the 1880s, the remains have been long presumed to be those of a male due to its burial with weapons and other status symbols, which suggested the grave of a professional warrior. However, a team of researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University reappraised the find in 2016 and found, through genomic testing, that the bones lacked a Y chromosome.
While some historians, including Judith Jesch, an expert in Vikings and Norse history, have pointed out the gaps in the theory – Jesch writes in a blog that “the emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument” – the new research challenged the assumptions that were made when the remains were first unearthed in the 19th century, and rejuvenated interest in gender roles in the Viking period.
“Having fought for the idea of a female warrior,” says Hirst, “I suppose I felt very vindicated. I don’t look at social media on the whole, but people draw my attention to it occasionally and there were still people posting things such as ‘you’re still wrong, women aren’t strong enough to fight’. The misogyny that still exists is incredible.”
The full interview with Michael Hirst, in which he discusses Vikings, The Real Vikings and also his next project The Caesars with Martin Scorsese, features on the History Extra podcast here.
Documentary The Real Vikings aired on History UK in 2018, in which experts revealed the archaeology and history that inspired the show.