Why are Vikings usually portrayed in such a positive light

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Could it be that the medieval series “Vikings” is better than “Game of Thrones”? There is even more blood flowing, but the dramaturgy is more sophisticated and the initial question more radical: Who determines our fate?


© History Does he believe in all gods, in no god - or in the one who grants him the greatest freedom? Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel) from the series “Vikings”

TV series are the new serial novels, this thesis has long since got around and no longer astonishes anyone. However, it has not yet been fully clarified why certain styles and themes have become particularly prevalent in recent years. Why, for example, do zombies play such a big role in the new productions - does this reflect a vague fear of the affluent citizen of hidden dangers that cannot be killed, the fear of the strange in the familiar?

Perhaps the most popular theme in the series over the past few years is another one: power. Which is actually strange, because of the millions of viewers who watch series such as “House of Cards” (2013ff.) Or “Game of Thrones” (2011ff.) On all possible channels and media, very few really know their way around with it and its mechanisms. Do we have it in the case of the “Power” series, which also include “The Borgias” (2011-2013), “The Tudors” (2007-2010) and “Marco Polo” (2014-2016), so with a form of compensation or relief television to do? Accordingly, the powerless Otto normal would be fascinated by the opposite side of his everyday life; He goes through the ups and downs of the powerful, although they have nothing to do with him, and, since power usually ends badly, can go to bed after several hours of watching TV with a clear conscience that he has made nothing of himself , but at least has nothing to do with all the intrigues. Do viewers think “power” films are so good because they are so powerless themselves?

© Allstar Picture Library / Netflix Probably the most generous throne in the history of series television: Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan in the Netflix series “Marco Polo”, which, as we hear, was discontinued due to high production costs

From a dramaturgical point of view, series that are about maintaining power are manageable insofar as they basically draw from two sources: Shakespeare, when it comes to the individual ruling figure who is gradually falling into madness, and Puzo / Coppola's “The Godfather” with his main themes “Family”, “Succession”, “Loyalty” and “Dialectic of Ascension”, the downside of which is the impossibility of leaving. In Coppola's mafia epic, most of the motifs of the “power” series television are already pre-shaped, which are represented in varieties of sex, betrayal, lies and annihilation - all of these motifs are of course ideal for sequel stories. Because thanks to them, you never know what will happen next and which new opponent will bring movement into the game.

The will to expand

This unpredictability has taken the HBO series “Game of Thrones” to extremes and elegantly interwoven it with Elizabethan rhetoric. On the other hand: Why try the fantasy that ultimately predominates here, when world history still has so many unbelievable materials and historical bogeymen in store for detailed design? The Mongols in Beijing, for example, or the Vikings in Paris, both led by men of power who fit perfectly into the “godfather” scheme: Kublai Khan (“Marco Polo”) and Ragnar Lodbrok (“Vikings”, “The Last Kingdom”) who, however, is more of a legendary hero. Both power people are united by the will to expand and the challenge of uniting conflicting interests and empires against the forces of persistence. While in reality unions threaten to disintegrate, the - albeit bloody - counter-program is successful on television.

© Screenshot HistoryThis throne from the last season of “Vikings”, on which the shield maiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) has settled, is very similar to the Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones”

The many parallels between the Canadian-Irish series “Vikings” (2013ff.) And “Marco Polo” are all the more astonishing as both productions were largely planned and shot at the same time. It is curious that characters who convey culture - Marco Polo in the kingdom of Kublai Khan, the monk Athelstan with the Vikings - play a prominent role in both series. In addition, in both series, the viewer is forced to deal with all kinds of war equipment and siege strategies, more so than is normally the case on television, which is made easier for him by loving, sometimes downright lavish equipment.


But what makes the series “Vikings”, roughly speaking about the rise of the Northman farmer Ragnar Lodbrok to the Scandinavian king and discoverer of the western world, beyond all these parallels, what makes this series really incomparable?

First of all, the four seasons of “Vikings”, which can currently be seen on Amazon Prime, are much weaker than the medieval reference series “Game of Thrones”. The actor ensemble consists of a crude mixture of differently talented former models, muscular limbs and a few Shakespeare and Hollywood actors. In addition, there is far less sophisticated rhetoric than with the throne players and - despite the supposedly free love among Vikings - only conspicuously prudish sex scenes, especially in the first season.

Entering a new world

In other areas, however, the “Vikings” are unusually radical: The uninhibited sword fight is the most common means of expression of their main characters, the blood-splattered warrior's head is the ubiquitous emblem of the series - on the other hand, even “Dexter” (2006 to 2013) is harmless. Behind this, of course, there seems to be a calculation that goes beyond clumsy tension-making. Because, on the one hand, the silent endurance of agony among the Vikings is a prerequisite for acceptance into the divine Valhalla - and the Norse religion, which also includes human sacrifice, takes the series really seriously - and on the other hand, the viewer is supposed to be here in a way Shock therapy can be confronted with the archaic. Whereby the past is deliberately presented as an experience that cannot or should not be easily updated. The past should remain strange.

© Screenshot History Ragnar's brother Rollo (Clive Standen) usually fights with a bare upper body and thus allows a lot of blood to clot on his skin.

So it remains permanently shocking for the viewer, with which self-evident and with which breadth the Vikings seize power again and again by killing others in cold blood. On the other hand, this procedure follows an archaic logic, which should at least be made plausible by narrowing the perspective. How, the film asks, will a bunch of armed men and women who have no understanding of the shape of the world, who know no maps and hardly any laws, proceed when they step onto the coast of a country they do not know - and encounter opponents ? In the design of this constellation, an early form of adventure tourism is dramatically combined with a situation that many video players are very familiar with when they once again enter a new virtual world.

The screenplay by Michael Hirst, who also wrote the two “Elizabeth” films with Cate Blanchett as well as “The Tudors” and “The Borgias”, should not be underestimated. It keeps the mind awake. Hirst's strategy is basically to play off a psychology expected by the viewer against the belief in fate of the Vikings. And they are basically only concerned with the consistent implementation of a divine will, which, apart from determination, does not require too much art of expression from the Viking actors over long distances - perhaps also to justify the casting.

© Screenshot History The blind seer (John Kavanagh) designs the future.

A kind of superordinate authorial narrator acts as a shaman, whom everyone only calls a “seer”, whose prophecies often only come true because the characters believe in them so fervently. For example, if the seer predicts Ragnar's first wife, Lagertha, that she will no longer have a child, then, having unexpectedly become pregnant, she sees no more reason to take care of herself and her unborn child during a war campaign - and this is one of the reasons why she loses her child. And maybe Rollo (Clive Standen) would never have thought of betraying his brother Ragnar to the Franks if the seer had not predicted a bright future for him beforehand.

The real power

And then there is the figure of Ragnar himself, for whom it remains unclear whether she still believes in the old gods. The later Viking king was not only baptized for tactical reasons, but also had very demanding religious discourses with the English king Egbert. With all this one gets the impression that his curiosity and his strength arise precisely from the skepticism towards a divine predestination. If he were a fatalist like everyone else - would he still have sailed his ship to the unknown west?

On the other hand, Ragnar cannot avoid recognizing the Nordic divine power, simply because his environment is shaped by it. And since, from the point of view of the Northmen, power lies with the gods, whoever loses happiness has been abandoned by them at the same time - and can no longer hold out even as ruler.

In the end, Ragnar loses his political power, but he realizes that the real power lies in the legacy he leaves to his family and especially his sons. In this way he can indirectly force them to achieve his ultimate political goal.

© Screenshot HistoryRagnar's son Iwar wants to take revenge in special armor - and outwardly approaches the fantasy genre.
© Screenshot History Nice punchline: When the Viking brothers Halfdan and Harald see their leader Iwar in full gear for the first time, they have to laugh as if to say: what a crazy show!

To return to our opening thesis: Yes, the plot in “Vikings” actually turns out to be more demanding than that of “Game of Thrones”. The use of violence and power motives does not primarily follow the maintenance of tension, but overriding existential questions. In “Game of Thrones” you never know what will happen next, with the “Vikings” you never know which contradiction in life Hirst will pull out of his hat next.

However, as it says in the lyrics of “Element of Crime”: “After a hundred episodes, all adventures are boring” - and so it threatens to end up with the “Vikings”. The fourth season already indicated it, the trailer for the fifth season, which was announced for this year, suggests a further adjustment to the dramaturgy of “Game of Thrones”. On the other hand, it would come as no surprise to a screenwriter like Michael Hirst if the “Vikings” could also avert this fate.

The trailer for the fifth season

Keywords: The Godfather, House of Cards, Marco Polo, series understander (7), Vikings
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Serial listener: "Vikings"

By Uwe Ebbinghaus

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