In a History Channel drama, the original Vikings set sail for a new destination: the truth.
Many Minnesotans can recite exactly how many yards Adrian Peterson gathered last season, how many interceptions Christian Ponder threw and how many Big Macs Jared Allen can pound down in one sitting. But when it comes to talking about the original Vikings, a hard-scrambling squad that took the field around 793 A.D., even die-hard fans are bound to fumble the facts.
The History Channel, which traded away the Emmy-winning “The Kennedys” before scoring last year with “Hatfields & McCoys,” is betting big that viewers are ready for a proper education. Starting Sunday, the network is investing nine hours and a reported $40 million on “Vikings,” the first pop-culture effort to debunk the notion that the medieval Norsemen who invaded Europe and visited America a half-millennium before Christopher Columbus were little more than drunken barbarians who raped and pillaged their way into history.
“The popular cliché is almost completely wrong,” said “Vikings” creator Michael Hirst, whose credits include writing the feature film “Elizabeth” and the Showtime series “The Tudors.”
Not that the Vikings could be mistaken for pacifists.
Ragnar, whose real-life exploits as an explorer who dared to go west to England is at the heart of this series, is introduced to audiences as a blood-soaked warrior, vanquishing four foes in the North Baltic, then watching as ravens peck at their carcasses. His idea of a romantic line to his wife: “Last night I dreamed you fed me blood pudding, which means you’ve given me your heart.” Cue violins.
Most of his fellow Scandinavians look like they could use a shopping spree at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Their idea of negotiating with the enemy is letting the poor souls decide whether they want to die with an ax to the head or the chest.
But Hirst and his team went to great lengths to present three-dimensional Vikings, ones who were devoted to their gods, families, shipbuilding and even a primitive form of democracy. In one courtroom scene, a murderer is sentenced to death — but not before the attendees raise their hands in unanimous agreement on his guilt.
“Don’t get me wrong. They weren’t very peaceful men. They didn’t say to the English, ‘Would you mind awfully much if we came over?’ ” said George Blagden, who plays a Christian monk, Athelstan, kidnapped by Ragnar. “But there’s definitely a more human aspect to their story that hasn’t been told before.”
Pulling the horns
Some other stereotypes that the series debunks:
• Those horned helmets? Rubbish. This popular image came about because Vikings were buried with their drinking horns, which early archaeologists mistook for part of their attire.
• These Vikings don’t hoot and holler as they slay their enemies. According to Clive Standen, who plays Ragnar’s hotheaded brother, that would seem childish and a waste of energy. They celebrate when victory is secure.
• Viking women may not have been the inspiration for Ms. magazine, but they could fight alongside men, own property and even divorce.
• The Vikings may have been illiterate, but they were far from stupid. Lena Norrman, who teaches Norse history at the University of Minnesota, points out that Viking boats were engineered to handle heavy seas, thanks to ingenious layering that allowed air to pass through and make the craft more elastic.
Perhaps the most striking visual in the miniseries is that of Ragnar as a strapping, blue-eyed, scruffy-faced figure — a significant contrast to our Minnesota football mascot, who looks like a former ZZ Top roadie who spent too much time in the beer garden.
“I suspect the original Vikings were slim and fit; otherwise they couldn’t fit into a ship,” Hirst said. “I’m not claiming my Ragnar is what he looked like, but it’s closer than the Minneapolis version.”
One reason Vikings’ history has been as unreliable as a Brett Favre retirement is that much of the documentation came from Christians scornful of the Norsemen’s pagan ways, worshiping several gods, including Odin and Thor. (The real Ragnar claimed to be a descendant of Odin.) But Hirst also blames modern culture’s lack of interest in proper history, especially here in the States.
“There’s a certain laziness in America where you can’t be bothered with the facts,” he said. “Lots of shows are based on fancy, with this what-the-hell attitude: ‘Let’s just have lots of special effects.’ ”