Posts Tagged ‘Vikings’

British TV history

February 11, 2018

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

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“Vikings” in Luann time

February 5, 2018

About a year and half ago I wrote about something I call “Luann time”, meaning a narrative time frame in which the characters age much more slowly than real time. My examples were, first, the eponymous comic strip, and second, the Inspector Lynley novels of Elizabeth George. In  both cases all the characters are fictitious, and the passage of time is measured by publication time, as well as by references to outside events and by the progress of technology.

In the TV series Vikings, many of the characters are historical or semi-historical, so that time may be measured by known historical events. An actual date is given early in the first season, namely the year 793, historically the year of the first recorded Viking raid, on Lindisfarne in Northumbria, England. The raid, as depicted in the show, is led by one of the series’ protagonists, Ragnar Lothbrok, married at the time to another protagonist, Lagertha; their son Bjørn (later known as Bjørn Ironside) is then around twelve years old.

No dates are shown in any subsequent episodes, but we know (as well as such things can be known, from contemporary chronicles) that the killing of Ragnar by King Ælla of Northumbria, and the subsequent invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army led by Ragnar’s sons, took place in 865. So that by this time Ragnar and Lagertha would be centenarians, and Bjørn an octogenarian.

In the show,  meanwhile, at this time not only is Bjørn shown as being in the prime of life, but so is his mother Lagertha, who is now the the ruling queen of a kingdom in Norway called Kattegat (in reality the name of the body of water between Denmark and Sweden).

Now, the Luann-like distortion of time is far from the only historical distortion practiced by the show’s creator, Michael Hirst. Kings Ælla of Northumbria and Ecbert of Wessex are  presented as ruling throughout the series; in reality Ælla was king for only a few years in the 860s, while Ecbert ruled from 802 to 839, so that most of the series’ events (the later Viking raids on England as well as those on the Continent) in reality took place during the reign of his son Æthelwulf (839–858), followed by four of the latter’s sons (the last of them being Alfred).

But in the show Æthelwulf is ever the prince, with Alfred as his only son (and biologically not even his) by his wife Judith, the daughter of Ælla. The real Æthelwulf did have a wife named Judith, but she was a daughter of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald, and he married her — when she was about 13 — when his sons (by a Saxon noblewoman named Osburh) were already grown.

The political machinations involving the kingdom of Mercia are altogether fictitious, while the fourth kingdom — East Anglia — is completely ignored.

And then there is Rollo, who in the show is Ragnar’s brother and, after betraying him (not for the first time) by going over to the Franks, is given the duchy of Normandy by king Charles (presumably Charles the Bald, since he identifies himself as Charlemagne’s grandson) and marries Charles’s daughter Gisla, begetting several sons with her.

The real Rollo (originally Rolf or Hrolfr) ruled Normandy from 911 to 927; he may or may not have married a princess named Gisela (a daughter of Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald’s grandson), but the mother of his children was a Frankish noblewoman named Poppa.

All this quibbling aside, Vikings is a compelling drama, and my wife and I watch it devoutly. But we have wondered if it really belongs on the History Channel.