Sunday, December 16, 2018

Winter Solstice with Lee Liberman — a vikings mashup: THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS

A raft of streaming films on all things Nordic have storied us with Vikings — near 300 years of Scandinavian pirate raiding notorious for brazen killing/thieving and ships engineered to slice through the sea. Then the Vikings quietly assimilated into countries where they had landed.

THE LAST KINGDOM and VIKINGS are two versions of the same era — one told from the Saxon view in England and the other by the Scandinavian perpetrators. Vikings entered written history in 793 when a raid along the coast of Northumbria menaced the monastery, Lindisfarne, in which servants of God were murdered or captured as slaves and the abbey emptied of its treasures. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 ended the period of their notoriety.

Vikings is in Season 5 on the History Channel and also on Amazon Prime Video; its events are based on Viking-age Norse poetry and sagas, in particular legends of Ragnar Lothbrok (above) and his sons who raided Francia (France) and Anglo-Saxon England during the 800’s. Ragnar is not documented outside of myth (Vikings traditions being more oral than written), although his sons are. But the sagas offer fertile ground for imaginists like Michael Hirst (below, writer of The Tudors and Elizabeth, the Golden Age) who has authored every episode of the series (season six is filming) calling it “… a rich and wonderful culture…I just fell in love with their paganism and how democratic they were compared to other societies.”

Better documented than Ragnar in history is Rollo, (Ragnar’s older brother in Vikings but unrelated in fact) who first besieged Paris in 885-6, later defended it against Vikings, married a French princess (Rollo and Gisla below), converted to Catholicism, and fathered a line of kings including William the Conqueror.

His descendants became the Normans of (French) Normandy who conquered England in 1066, Rollo becoming an ancestor of today’s royal family.

Hirst mixes and matches Ragnar and Rollo timelines to immerse us in Viking culture, its violent history and religious ritual (human sacrifice on the menu) wrapped in imagined rivalries, battles, and affairs.

In Seasons four and five its world-wide trading and assimilation have begun with Rollo (Clive Standen) settling in Francia and Ragnor’s oldest son, Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig), venturing as far away as North Africa (below). Bjorn later gained repute as a Swedish king.

Australian actor, Travis Fimmel (second photo from top, above), runs away with Ragnar Lothbrok, a man of few words, glowing eyes and annoying grimaces, though the tics slacken as the seasons progress and Fimmel/Ragnar grows into the roles of leader/king.

In Season one Ragnar is a farmer with two children and warrior wife, Lagertha, played by Canadian Katheryn Winnick, an actress with life-long martial arts training and blond tresses twisted into complex braids. Lagertha is a modern woman’s fantasy — she and her fellow shield maidens fight and lead. She gets put down but she has rights, she rebounds, she takes revenge, she kills. By the third season, their son Bjorn Ironside is grown, they each have different partners, Ragnar gaining many sons with his wife Aslaug, and Rollo, portrayed in Ragnar’s shadow, comes into his own, later to surpass all in reputation. (Below, Ragnar with two wives, Aslaug, l, and Lagertha.)

Vikings organized themselves democratically, and their ‘middle class’ fought for their leaders, mostly about land and resources, routinely procuring human slaves. The harsh landscape and climate led Ragnar to obsess about golden lands rumored west across the sea where living was easier, earth more fertile; he commissioned eccentric boat builder, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård of the famed acting family, below) to build a craft to brave the unknown. Floki split wood along seams making his boats uniquely strong and flexible; a shallow bottom made access easy to shores.

Hirst puts Ragnar, Rollo, and Floki at the Lindisfarne assault of 793. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says: In this year fierce foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those that same year [on June 8] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

There, Ragnar captures young monk Athelstan (George Blagden, star of Versailles) and takes him home, where they begin to grapple with each other’s gods and beliefs — Hirst using their bromance to foreshadow the eventual blending of Vikings with Christian culture.

Initially the Christian god was a harmless addition to the Northmen’s pagan stable, but Scandinavian culture itself turned Christian by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (Heaven offered salvation to both women and men, whereas Valhalla only welcomed male warriors. Too bad women lost ground in Christianity.) Years later, harboring rage at King Ecbert of Wessex (a terrific Linus Roache) for his destruction of a Viking farming community that he had invited, a burned out, aging Ragnar plans his own death to take revenge on Ecbert. Returning to Wessex with his crippled son Ivar (charismatic Dane, Alex Høgh Andersen), Ragnar invites capture and Ivar is sent home to rally his brothers to revenge his death. Ragnar tells King Ecbert: ‘A man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. It was my idea to come here to die — me’ (see bottom photo for Ragnar’s grisly end, reported in the Sagas).

In one of their final conversations, Ecbert and Ragnar verbally spar with respectful hostility. Ragnar says: what if our gods, yours and mine, do not exist? Egbert replies: nothing would have purpose or meaning. Ragnar counters: Everything would have meaning. (It is tantalizing of Hirst to inject atheism and free will into this superstitious era.) In Hirst’s narrative, Athelstan falls in love with Egbert’s daughter-in-law; she gives birth to an ethereal child, Alfred, who will become Alfred the Great, teeing up a move over to Netflix for The Last Kingdom (TLK).

Based on a beloved book series by Bernard Cornwell, TLK is set later than Vikings and includes Ragnar’s reported grown warrior sons, especially Ubbe, plus the mature Alfred, a particularly pious and scholarly leader, jibing with Hirst’s version of Alfred’s paternity by monk Athelstan.

Cornwell (cameo’d as a Viking, above, in episode 7 of TLK’s new season, above), invented warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who is a provocative upstart in screenwriter Steven Butchard’s hands.The war between God and Gods, Christianity and paganism, plays out within Uhtred, who is born to a Northumbrian Saxon nobleman but captured and raised by Danes. Uhtred is always at odds, pulled between his Saxon birthright and pagan upbringing. He and captive Brida (Emily Cox), adapt easily into their Dane household until the adults are murdered, uprooting them and beginning their trials to avenge the murders along with their Danish brother.

But Uhtred’s Saxon pull drives him to recover his ancestral estate, Bebbanburg, lost to his usurping uncle when the Danes defeated and killed his father, Uhtred, and took the boy captive. Uhtred sees Alfred (a quietly marvelous David Dawson, below, left), as the means to eventually recover his land, coinciding with Alfred’s ambition to rid England of the Danes and needing Uhtred’s warrior genius to do it. Uhtred’s service is grudging but effective and loyal. Alfred’s ambition is to unite all the kingdoms into one; he becomes “the Great” because he made the template of an England, building civil governing institutions (dying before his dream was realized). Alfred and Uhtred’s is the essential emotional conflict that ends with Alfred’s death and Uhtred’s commitment to help Edward, Alfred’s son, grow into kingship. (Netflix now funds the series, produced by the Downton team; more seasons are likely. See a 2015 BBC posting about the show by clicking here.)

Both TLK and Vikings offer smash bang adventure, the former being more emotions driven, the latter excelling in the sweep of the Viking saga itself. Hirst short-changes by not giving us more of Lagertha and Ragnar, their bond outlives their marriage but we are kept on the fringe of their love and regrets. Not one spousal relationship is worked through emotionally — intimacy does not seem to be Hirst’s thing. But you’ll like Vikings for its far-flung adventure and the charisma of Ragnar the curious; Floki, the eccentric gods-freak; and Ragertha, commanding Queen. Add devious King Ecbert of Wessex; crippled Ivar, the magnetic, psychopathic son of Ragnar who slithers and rolls like an alligator; Athelstan the sensitive; and warrior monk Heahmund, presaging Templar knights (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, reprising his ‘Tudors’ association with writer Hirst). But most of the lesser players are screen not heart-fillers. (Rollo’s bride, played by Morgane Polanski -- yes, daughter of, and she resembles Roman -- is immature and mechanical as Princess Gisla.)

Stephen Butchard makes you invest personally (just as he did in his BBC/PBS film A Child in Time, revealing the qualities of strength that emerge in those who have endured loss). Butchard’s aim is to create empathy; he says if people can’t identify with the characters, a story becomes just a series of events. Uhtred loves many women beginning with Brida; below they grieve a miscarriage. He is a bit of a brat, defiant, dismissive of Alfred’s government protocols, scholarship, and religiosity (he should be on his horse not his knees) and feels unappreciated for his warrior deeds. Alfred, sickly and pale, brilliant and ruthless, manipulates him into service but stews at his pagan ways and questions his loyalty. Uhtred kills a thief and Alfred is furious the case was not brought before the witan (court) — the public should see the laws at work. They go through too many cycles of anger and grudging forgiveness after Uhtred pulls off one miraculous win after another. You feel the depth of their bond of quiet rage. Alfred’s wisdom is palpable; you watch the King force young Edward to shoulder the burden of decision-making and the prince become kingly before your eyes. Alfred’s final meeting with Uhtred before dying is magnetic and all heartbreak.

My own preference for TLK hangs on writer Butchard’s skill at making his characters’ struggles your own and in truly enjoying their company including many idiosyncratic support characters, while Vikings satisfies with its sweep of story-telling and its poignant reveal of cosmic themes that stun when they appear intermittently.

Either or both will serve as appetite quickeners for next year’s finale of Game of Thrones.

This post is written by 
our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

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