The French postmodern philosopher Baudrillard I believe would have found the History channel’s Vikings to be very interesting. Particularly in light of some of the ideas he espoused in his work Simulacra and Simulation. You see, Vikings foregoes historical accuracy in favor of dramatic effect, and yet is so evocative we cannot help but feel we are witnessing events which actually occurred. Baudrillard writes:
“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.”
- The Precession Of Simulacra, Jean Baudrillard.
What Baudrillard meant, if we apply it to Vikings, I think is this: Historical accuracy is not the primary goal of the show. In fact the show rewrites history for dramatic purpose. Many people now know more about Michael Hirst’s interpretation of history (the map) than they do history itself (the territory), which in turn will influence their interpretation of history. In the current cultural milieu, or (as Baudrillard called it) the Desert of the Real, hyper-real fictions matter more than the reality outside our door.
In light of such incisive postmodern criticism, Vikings is still a damn good show. Imagine our current predicament, the Desert of the Real. Being a desolate wasteland, it is like the midday desert, unbearably bright; a positive void filled by the light and noise from all these simulacra, these illusory conceptual constructs. In comparison, Vikings would then be a very dazzling hologram, alternating between the frenzy roar of battle and the quiet comfort of home.
The viewer is, like the captive priest Athelstan, slowly drawn into the world of the Northmen, which is portrayed as both savagely seductive and earnestly reverent (albeit in a somewhat idiosyncratic way). Vikings is a very difficult artefact of media to define. Instinctively or perhaps in a reactionary manner, one could call it a docu-drama. The show is not without some seeds of truth. There has no doubt been some degree of academic research involved, and a utilizing of the knowledge gained thereof. The breathtaking moments born of a strange blend of creative meditation and inspired impulse comprise the narrative. One could, likewise, also call Son’s of Anarchy a docu-drama. (Biker culture is Kurt Sutter’s well researched passion and no doubt is Michael Hirst’s medieval Scandinavia. The similarities between these two series don’t end there, and are worthy of future explication.
A docu-drama tends to focus on historical facts using drama to flesh out the work. In essence Vikings is the inverse of this, being essentially a strong drama interspersed with some historical nuances. By and large however Vikings works from dramatic license and conjecture.
That is not to say that the show is not incredibly addictive and compelling, but it’s a daydream through and through (a well-crafted and visceral one, albeit). One might dispute saying, “what is myth but not well crafted, captivating daydream?” Vikings stakes it mythic claims very early on. The first scene closes not long after the chilling appearance of Odin on the battlefield.
Many of the characters are analogues of characters found among the muddled folklore and history of the European Dark Ages. The series itself in the far flung future could become, a new meta-mythology entierly. Watching the show one does not doubt that its production aim was to create something as varied, grand, and succinctly lyrical as the Eddas.
Vikings invests heavily in setting and mood, forging dreamlike mythic quality. Exquisite spacious visions of Scandinavian nature juxtapose with visceral claustrophobic sequences of engorging battle. A scene I keep coming back to is from the first season and depicts the Vikings use of a shield wall. The scene is reminiscent of the use of a phalanx in 300, but there is something quite stirring in the way a small raiding party overwhelms the contingent of Saxon soldiers. There also seems to be trope forming as the series progresses. Around the close of each season there is an episode that showcases morbid depictions of some aspect of ancient Norse culture. In the first season we had Sacrifice, which dealt with the human sacrifices at Uppsala.
In the second season we had Blood Eagle, which dealt with a particularly artistic form of execution. These scenes are dealt with in contrast with the way in which death is portrayed at almost any other time in the series. Frenzied fast edits of splatter and carnage are traded for long cuts of lingering slow motion close ups that allude to more gore than they actually portray.
Another way in which Vikings conveys its mood is through its use of score, particularly the music of Wardruna. I have heard the shamanistic lulling of the triptych that is Løyndomsriss/Heimta Thurs/Thurs several times. Yet each time the score is different with great effect. What is interesting to note is that the viewing of Vikings enriches the aural experience of Wardruna as much as Wardruna makes Vikings all the more captivating and evocative.
Ultimately, this lends a lot of gravitas to the drama and dialogue, particularly that spoken by characters who share names and traits with the gods. The most blatant of these being the mischievous, flitting pyromaniac Floki and our protagonist Ragnar Lodbrok who himself claims the gods as his forebears. Even King Ecbert’s knowledge and preoccupation with Roman Briton is treated as being privy to other worldly wisdom and a power gained thereof.
Many of the main characters are either loose interpretations of relevant historical figures or analogues thereof (the fabled Aslaug, daughter of Brunhilde and Sigurd, for example). The same can be said for many of the locations and events, such as the character of Ragnar. (The subject of many poems may not have existed yet or at least is the culmination of many other raiders and rulers’ takes on folk history.)
All of these creative liberties, academic weaknesses, and historical flaws are the moments where we are drawn in closest to the hyperreality of the show, engorging ourselves in a heightened suspension of disbelief. Hopefully the seed of even the smallest amount of academic curiosity is sown within us.
Being an unashamedly, self-confessed member of what I will call the Pop-Asatru movement and a student of magic, my fascination with Norse culture is predominantly with its mythic and outright mystical qualities. This is perpetuated and informed by pop artifacts such a Vikings, Wardruna, Loki: Agent of Asgard, and Marvels continued use of Thor and Loki. Though I know some of Norse culture’s soul and dreams I do not know much about the actual events of the Viking age. However as the show progresses, my desire to know the territory is seeded. I would hope that a certain degree of lay research and discovery is as much part of the experience of Vikings for anyone else as it is for me, and look forward to the third season.
Hirst’s revisionist heathen history is just that. He infuses his saga with as much personal embellishment and contemporary notions as many claim the Christian convert Snorri Sturluson did when compiling his Prose Edda. Just as we keep this in mind when we read Snorri so we should take Vikings with a pinch of salt as we are drawn into its turbulently hyperreal yet quiescently natural world.