Vikings' Ragnar: Nordic glory anthropomorphised or the twilight of Scandinavian pantheon?

(‘The son of Odin’ acrylic on board, Komal Mahmood)

Brewing with metaphysical questions and the search for the concept of God is Michael Hirst’s production 'Vikings’, starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, and Alexander Ludwig as the leading northmen. But the show has a lot more to offer than just a well suited cast.

Based loosely on the beloved Norse classic 'The saga of Ragnar Lodbrok’, the show is led by the eponymous Ragnar through his quest for betterment of the lot of his people. Starting off a mere farmer and plunderer, he goes against the wishes of his earl and decides to sail west…and that is just the beginning of his tale which is to spread far and wide across Europe and the Mediterranean.

But what had me hooked to the show, specifically the first four seasons was how well the writers managed to portray the conflict of a curious and intelligent mind once it has met and spoken with yet another equally curious and intelligent mind but of another faith. The most incredible dialogues that had me glued to the screen were indeed between Ragnar, Athelstan, and Ecbert; three men from dynamically different psycho-social strata.

Ragnar is the prodigal descendant of the norse god Odin, and thus his initial journey is indeed informed by omens of Odinic appearances. However, a young farmer curious yet oblivious to what lies beyond his domain of knowledge, he gradually experiences a decline in faith when he comes across different cultures and their gods.

Playing the role of a religious antithesis to Ragnar is King Ecbert of England. Apparently a thorough Christian but behind closed doors, a thoroughly flawed human being. Ecbert gives us the image of a secular man who believes in the segregation of the divine from the mundane and therefore feels less conflicted when he clearly goes against his Christian injunctions: he betrays the northmen by destroying one of their settlements; has an affair with his daughter in law; has illicit relationships outside of wedlock. The parallel between him and Ragnar is not coincidental: it’s a definite portrayal of the grey shades in man. For the latter, when we observe him morally, is more a family man than the former. Although Ragnar makes mistakes and has moral lapses as well. But these are topics of moral relativism and not the point of discourse here.

The question of God however becomes the centre of discussion between Ecbert and Ragnar and the former states in a very Voltairesque manner that if there is no god, then they must invent it: as was evident during the peak of the French Revolution when in his speech to the Convention on 18 Floreal, Robespierre emphasized the value of a Supreme Being who will ensure justice and moral virtue. ‘The foundation of society is virtue’, Robespierre had said, and virtue when rewarded by an approachable yet an all encompassing entity will only then be worthy of consideration by man. Otherwise immorality will prevail.

It is undoubtedly this debate between reason and God that is pivotal to Ragnar’s character development.

What is more revealing, is the characters being symbolic personifications of historical events. Athelstan, introduces Ragnar to Christianity when during a raid Ragnar’s interest is piqued by the monk because the latter secures (despite other treasures about) the gospel of St John. The Scandinavians of the seventh century were not a very literate people, but that has nothing to do with the search for knowledge. The myth of Odin hanging from the Yggdrasil tree and sacrificing his eye to ‘know more’ is a parable for how far and wide one should endeavor to learn. Ragnar is no different: he obtains a compass and desires to use it for navigation; he encounters a priest and desires to learn about his God; he learns of the riches of Frankia, and desires to know what culture awaits him there.
But in the lifespan that we are shown of Ragnar, despite his failings, he represents the might of the northmen and the pinnacle of their glory.

He is destined for greatness but as the seer tells him, it is a destiny sanctioned by the gods and if they will, they can withdraw it. This quaint set-piece delivers more than what we are shown; the laws of man are malleable and worthless, the laws of God however, are beyond our mortal reach. And it is precisely the former that Ragnar endeavors to defy. Yet his quest which has him seeking validation of the gods and building a name for himself, also finds him questioning every dogma and theory to the point that he begins to feel that his journey was pointless and that there is no Valhalla. In his final exchange with Floki, Ragnar tells him that he is not certain if that indeed would be his destination post death. Towards the end, the only axiom of his motivation is the revenge for his settlement destroyed by Ecbert and a selfless wish for the perpetuation of the Vikings.

(The death of Ragnar Lothbrok: the one brilliant blue eye is a clear sign of Ragnar’s ultimate affiliation with Odin. Perhaps at the brink of death, Ragnar had been acquainted with the immortals of Valhalla and his beliefs had been affirmed.)

Just moments before his tragic fall into the snake pit, Ragnar in a paroxysm of Viking power, delivers a very beautiful speech which sums up his creed:

It gladdens me to know that Odin prepares for a feast. Soon I shall be drinking ale from curved horns. This hero that goes into Valhalla does not lament his death. I shall not enter Odin’s hall with fear. There…I shall wait for my sons to join me. And when they do…I will bask in their tales of triumph!

The Aesir will welcome me. My death comes without apology! And I welcome the valkyries to summon me home!”

This was a scene of tremendous cinematic brilliance, indeed Travis Fimmel delivered this speech with such awesome power that his voice rang for days in my ear. And when the words are rerun later, albeit behind a different shot, when lord Odin himself comes to deliver the news of Ragnar’s death to his sons, the value of these words increases twofold. What does the arrival of great Lord Odin himself mean for the afterlife of Ragnar Lothbrok?

Besides the cinematography, what is superior about this entire episode is how it has me questioning till this day; what DID Ragnar believe?

Ragnar’s commute to the execution site was a time spent in discussing the question of theodicy. Ragnar squarely states his lack of faith in the gods:

You see I guided my fate. I fashioned the course of my life and my death. Me. Not you. Not the gods. Me!”

At this point the blind man claims he sees Ragnar and the latter realizes that the prophecy has indeed come true: “You will die the day the blind man sees you.”

Is Ragnar’s faith in the gods then restored? No one can say for certain, but his declaration of faith upon death can mean one of two things; a)he dies a believing Viking b)he devised a clever ruse to keep his coming generations believing that he did indeed die a Viking.

Regardless, Ragnar dies…

and with his death at the end of Season four, we have his five sons to continue his legacy. But they are five very different young men each possessing in singular the traits Ragnar possessed as a whole.

Really it is only three of them, Bjorn, Ubbe, and Ivar who are doing anything worth doing. There’s a reason Sigurd was killed off early (his artsy tendencies did not suit the Viking lot) and as far as Hvitserk is concerned; even Sigurd had more potential than him. The only thing even remotely alike between Hvitserk and Ragnar are their junkie moments....and I digress.

Given that the sons feel a moral duty to continue in their father’s shadow, even the better ones of that lot of five minus two (the three I pointed out and the one deceased and the one intoxicated) are still individuals. They each have their own perspective, desires, and a different approach to fulfilling their duties. This can never compete to the one man who possessed the traits required for the greater cause and a singular outlook on life.

My point being, Ragnarssons are trying to carry on their father’s mission, but how potent are they? Whether it was a deliberate choice or really just a decline in the quality of writing, the sons are little more than caricatures of their father. Their only claim to fame is that they are "the sons of Ragnar", and I do not think they can carry on this way.
This could be because ultimately the show has to climax with the rise of England and Byzantium as Christian powers. That is a fact. The twenty first century man knows it axiomatically that Christianity (despite its breakdown into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) ultimately prevailed and the ‘pagans’ were reduced to isolated fringes of the continent. However mighty the Vikings may have been, they failed to flourish with their gods beyond the obscure territories of Northern Europe and Vikings shows it, it shows it with the end of Ragnar (a death for sure but not a downfall).

In a similar vein, Athelstan is the embodiment of the rising Christ. Athelstan, just like Ragnar, begins to question his own faith, but while Ragnar may have died a disbeliever, Athelstan is killed at the point of rapture; he relishes in the realization that he has found God. But how does a dead man represent the rise of Christianity in Europe? As Jesus died on the cross for the sins of man, Athelstan dies in order for Christianity to flourish, and his death is deeply intertwined with the loss of Ragnar’s faith in Odinism. Their friendship could simply be a metaphor for the deep connection between faith and disbelief.

Athelstan is even nailed to the cross at one point whereupon Ecbert rescues him and it is the son of Athelstan who in a diplomatic stroke of genius reconciles the Northmen with the Christians. Although later seasons have attempted to show that the earlier friendship between Ragnar and Athelstan was really just a foreshadowing of the future alliance between Ubbe and Alfred, there can be no denying that inspite of this alliance, there never came that mighty future for the people of Scandinavia…one that Ragnar envisioned and gave his life for.

Regardless, Vikings season finale is scheduled for a late 2020 release and a spinoff series starring Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn is also rumored to hit television soon, we can only speculate how the writers will take liberties with legend and history and bring closure to the peoples that is the Vikings.

(Alexander Ludwig in his more Ragnar than Ragnar, overt portrayal of Bjorn Ironside. He needs to tone down on the Travis Fimmel channeling)

Philosophy and History Geek, Literature Freak, Sophrosyne