Vikings, Monks, and Cultural Biases

Lagertha, a shieldmaiden, Ragnar’s wife.

I bailed on Game of Thrones. I watched the first episode, liked parts of it (Jon Snow, obviously), but decided not to devote the necessary hours. Ditto the books. Generally, when I open a book and read something like . . .

“My lord!” blurted the messenger. “The Zardakar have landed at Dragon’s Gate!”

. . . I put it back on the shelf.

So why (two years after it started) did I rent the TV series Vikings (a/k/a The Adventures of Ragnar Lothbork), which started  running in 2013?

Maybe it’s a test of the relative strength of adopted Paganism versus one’s historic culture.

First, some people rightly point out that the initial plot point — Ragnar wants to raid “west,” i.e., the British Isles, while the earl does not believe that such lands exist — is impossible. The Norse knew where those lands were. My contribution to the Anachronism Sweepstakes is the glimpse of an Irish wolfhound at the Thing in Episode 1. The tall, leggy Irish wolfhound is a Victorian invention, like most “ancient” dog breeds. They never saw a wolf. The “origin stories” of dog breeds contain many tons more bullshit than the origin stories of Witchcraft traditions, all put together.

Back to the story — As a little kid in the backseat at the drive-in theatre, I watched Kirk Douglas in The Vikings — and they were the good guys. I would go on to cite that movie in a paper for my Old English class at Reed College — and got it past the professor, since it was a pop culture reference.

But in that same Old English class, we read The Battle of Maldon, where the English, who lose, are the good guys and the Norse the bad guys.

Yet they were the same culture in some respects. Byrthwold’s last words to the outnumbered and surrounded English fighters would come naturally to a Viking in the same situation:

Byrhtwold spoke, raised his shield –
he was an old retainer – shook his ash-spear;
full boldly he taught warriors:
“Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.”

Except by then the English were Christian.

My education was largely Anglo-centric, so Alfred the Great was the good guy, turning back the Norse, restoring London, uniting peoples, etc. And in my calligraphy class, the Lindisfarne Gospels figured prominently. (I had a fondness for Dark Ages fonts.)

I knew that the History Channel’s Vikings would be raiding Lindisfarne, as happened in 793. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it (translated): “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

I thought of an English professor whom I know, proudly Pagan since birth (he says). Once he and were walking through his city, and he pointed out a medieval church badly damaged by German air raids in World War II. I looked at him as he spoke, and his eyes were full of tears.

Does cultural patrimony some times outweight religious allegiance?

So when the Vikings waded ashore, I tried to stay neutral. They hacked down the monks, then, looking at the gold and silver crosses, chalices, etc., asked why such precious things were left unguarded.

That was probably true to life. Contrary to some of today’s Ásatrú, I do not think that the Norse ever conceived of the Lindisfarne raid as a blow against institutional Christianity. They were there for the plunder.

So maybe this is another series like Breaking Bad or The Americans where you don’t try to pick out “the good guys” but just let the story unfold.

(CGI ravens? Meh.)

One thought on “Vikings, Monks, and Cultural Biases

  1. Pitch313

    For me, the notion that I actually have some links with the Northern European cultures/histories that my recent ancestors departed holds less and less significance. I am, for better or for worse, a Northern Californian. That’s my home culture. And that’s the cultural soil that my Paganism has sunk its deep roots in. Movie-wise, for example, The Maltese Falcon reveals a lot more about who I am and where I come from that any movie set in European history.

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