Modern Medievalism in the History Channel's "Vikings"

Curator's Note

This trailer for the History Channel’s Vikings, created by Michael Hirst (2013-2020), begins with the image of a gnarled tree accompanied by the calming sounds of running water and chirping birds. Then a historical setting is established: “Eastern Baltic, 793 A.D.” Scattered across the grass are testaments of warfare—bodies and weapons strewn—as the focus shifts to the bloody face of the show’s protagonist, Ragnarr Loðbrók. A haunting song, “Laukr” by Wardruna, then takes over the soundscape.

The audience soon learns that the fighting persists, and scenes of battle are juxtaposed with bedroom scenes—signaling to viewers that the series will feature both sex and violence. Indeed, it is the concatenation of violence which unites the four-minute sequence: everything from human sacrifice to brutal melee combat. Moreover, the prominent role of women warriors known as “shield-maidens” in the trailer corresponds to their prevalence in Vikings, especially Ragnarr’s wife, Lathgertha (Old Norse: Hlaðgerðr).

In one scene, a vǫlva “seeress” known only as the “Angel of Death” performs a human sacrifice dressed in notably anachronistic garb. She dons the winged helmet traditionally associated with the Roman goddess Victoria but transposed onto images of Vikings and popularized during the Victorian era and thereafter. This is probably as homage to the tradition but undermines historical accuracy.

Viking longboats make numerous appearances, frequently approaching target locations, thereby demonstrating their ingenuity and craftsmanship. Vikings are repeatedly shown fighting the “Anglo-Saxons” who are better equipped, wearing signature helmets and byrnies and riding on horseback. Nevertheless, Viking spirit and battle ferocity is shown to (rather easily) overcome these technological advantages when the Vikings are repeatedly depicted as massacring their adversaries.

The trailer ends with Odin, god of war and magic, wandering across the battlefield as glimpsed by Ragnarr, while ravens circle above, ready to descend and glut themselves upon the slain. This ominous closure highlights a trend in much of modern “historical fiction” set during medieval or ancient times: mysticism flourishes in ways that would appear ridiculous to modern audiences if included in treatments of more recent periods.

The series strives for cultural relativism by humanizing the Viking protagonists, often cast as villains in the annals of medieval chronicles. On the other hand, the glorification of warrior ethics has the potential to inadvertently valorize white nationalists, who have increasingly turned to Viking culture to validate and weaponize their white supremacist ideology.

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