Stream On: Hairy history with the Vikings and Saxons

By on September 27, 2019

Ragnar Lothbrok addresses his clan and allies as they prepare to sail to England in Vikings. (IMDB.com)

 

The following shows, often lumped in with Game of Thrones, actually have little in common with the popular series. While GoT is high fantasy, Vikings and The Last Kingdom are grounded in history, which supplies abundant drama without resorting to dragons.

Vikings

“You can’t rule the world without a fight.”

Vikings (2012) is the story of the family of Ragnar Lothbrok, a historically dubious warrior, farmer and king of Denmark and Sweden, known from Viking Age Old Norse poetry and sagas. While the Vikings were not keepers of written history, their vocal history persists, and Ragnar was a huge presence in it.

We meet Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) on their return from battle in the Baltic lands. He has discovered a new navigational tool that might enable trips to the west, and falls afoul of his ruler Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants to continue raids to the known east.

This History Channel saga surveys three generations of Rothbroks. When Ragnar and Rollo finally make it to England, they slaughter the monks at the monastery of Lindisfarne, plundering it and taking some prisoners as slaves. Ragnar, who is a curious warrior and a natural leader, befriends one of the captured monks, Athelstan, and frees him, seeking advice about the Saxons. This strange friendship is the center of the early seasons and their dialogs (between horrific action set-pieces of Viking warmaking) illuminate questions of faith and loyalty. It’s a testament to the writing that the Vikings warrior mindset and customs, incuding human sacrifice, are made palatable to the modern viewer, largely through the eyes of Athelstan, who is a proxy for the audience.

The Viking occupation of York provides drama and shifting loyalties ensures its persistence. Later seasons spotlight Ragnar’s sons, especially Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen in a breakout role), born crippled but compensating to the point that he becomes a warrior to rival his father. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Tudors) has an entertaining and intense turn as Bishop Heahmund, an insane Saxon warrior-monk. Here is a one-minute trailer. Vikings can be seen on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

 

Uhtred of Babbenburg, born a Saxon but captured as a child and raised by Vikings, seeks to reclaim his land in Northumbria in The Last Kingdom. (IMDB.com)

The Last Kingdom

“Destiny is all.”

The Last Kingdom (2015) embodies the contradictions of Saxon and Viking life in one character, Uhtred of Babbenburg, introduced as a Saxon child. The Netflix series is adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” novels, and while Uhtred is a fictional character, he interacts with historical figures, notably Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, whose ambition was to see a united England whie resisting Viking invasion.

The feisty young Saxon earl Uhtred is captured with another child, Brida, after his family is killed by invading Danes led by Earl Ragnar (not the same character from Vikings). He and Brida are adopted by the Earl and grow into attractive young “Viking” warriors, who must, in the course of the series, prove themselves to both sides, being seen as foreigners by Saxon and Viking alike.

German actor Alexander Dreymon, who plays Uhtred, has an arresting and charismatic screen presence, reminiscent of Errol Flynn. His character seeks to reclaim his birthright in England, finally pledging his fealty to Alfred, who is criticized for having this Viking-raised warrior heading his army. Uhtred is passionate and hotheaded, making almost as many problems for himself as come from others. Through alliances with Saxons and Vikings, including his adoptive brothers, he looks to reclaim his ancestral land. Father Beocca, a priest who knew Uhtred as a child, becomes his main advocate in England, and a rescued nun becomes a shield-maiden, a warrior, who along with the Saxon soldiers led by Uhtred, adopts Viking tactics and techniques.

The swashbuckling nature of both series doesn’t detract from the moving drama in each. Questions of family and loyalty are central to both. David Dawson (Luther) is outstanding as Alfred the Great, a sickly but highly intelligent figure with whom Uhtred has a complicated relationship as Alfred seeks to create the legacy of a United Kingdom. Here is a one-minute trailer.

Next time I’ll continue my survey of lesser-known streaming TV shows. Email me here and follow Stream On OBX on Twitter.


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