Vikings, and Historical Accuracy

Yes, sorry, this is two “rant about TV shows” blog posts in a row, but this is bugging me. My problems with Almost Human last week were mostly based on the writers not trying very hard to make up a new, imaginary world, but my problem with the History Channel show Vikings is in some ways opposite, and far more damning: the world they’re portraying is not new or imaginary, but they’re getting it wrong ON PURPOSE.

Historical fiction is hard—it’s far away the genre I read most often, but it’s not something I’ve ever written, or am likely to write, because the level of research you have to put into it is insane. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think a viking is, but how many of you could describe, right off the top of your head, an authentic viking meal? Outfit? System of government? How much do you really know about their economics, their level of technology, or their day-to-day lives? The image we have of vikings is a very modern, romanticized one, and if you’re going to write a book or make a show about them you need to know these things. And yes, you can be forgiven for some inaccuracies, because a lot of what we know about the vikings is shaky at best—they kept no real written records, and most of what’s recorded about them was written a few hundred years after the fact, and usually by someone the vikings had attacked. These kinds of accounts are inherently, purposefully biased. If you get something wrong because of that, well, that’s okay. We understand.

What bugs me, though—and it really, really bugs me—is this quote from Michael Hirst, the creator of the show, in an interview with the NY Times: “We want people to watch it. A historical account of the vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions.” Let me say that again just to let it sink in: the creator of the show has deliberately chosen to get his facts wrong, because he believes that getting them right would turn people away. You see, there are many, many facts about viking culture, and the cultures they raided, that are NOT lost in history, that are verified by well-known evidence, and this guy has apparently decided to screw that crap because historical accuracy would ruin his show. This, I assume, is why his vikings live in frame houses instead of viking longhouses—a type of house so synonymous with vikings that they’re in the houses’ name. No one would ever watch a show about people who live in longhouses! Don’t be stupid! He had to put them in frame houses because he wants to reach millions of people, and that takes some sacrifices.

What else has he sacrificed in the name of viewership? Everything we know about viking government, for one thing. Vikings lived in a very democratic society: one man was in charge, but only because the rest of the men trusted him to lead them successfully, and if he failed in his job, they stopped following him and followed someone else. The vikings in the tv show live in some kind of feudal autocracy, beholden to an Earl (played, I must admit, with deliciously slimy aplomb by Gabriel Byrne) who orders them around and screws everything up and contributes nothing valuable to their society. Real vikings would throw that guy out on his ear—if he doesn’t lead the raids, he doesn’t get to lead anywhere else—but the tv vikings kowtow just like, well, like the feudal English warriors that the writers are presumably more familiar with. This error, honestly, I don’t suspect is a fault of their research so much as their storytelling: we’re so culturally accustomed to stories about oppressive rulers, especially in the last few years, that it was simply easier/flashier/more topical to write a show about one man fighting back against a tyrannical government. They could have put in the time and effort to come up with an equally compelling story about egalitarian viking politics, but they didn’t want to, and as a fellow storyteller I can kind of see that—it’s lazy, but it’s a good story, and that counts for a lot. But it drives me up the wall to hear them excuse their laziness by saying it’s the only way to make people watch. The hell it is. Don’t blame us because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with an authentic viking story for your viking tv show—that’s all on you. Write a good story and we’ll be there for it.

The list of historical inaccuracies goes on and on. They depict what is considered to be the start of the “Viking Age,” kicked off by an attack on Lindisfarne (accurate!), using advanced navigational tools (accurate!), but they bury it in a story about how that’s the first time the vikings ever discovered the saxon islands existed (woefully inaccurate by several centuries!). When the vikings pillage the Lindisfarne monastery (accurate!), they meet a monk who speaks norse (plausible! But completely nonsensical in their proposed world where the norse and the saxons didn’t know about each other!); the monk tells them his land is called England (inaccurate by almost a hundred years!); they run afoul of the local king named Aelle (inaccurate by about seventy years!); they fight Aelle’s men in a shield wall (accurate!), but rely on archers instead of spears and axes for most of their attacks (inaccurate and ridiculous!). At this period of history (approximately 793 AD, given what we know about Lindisfarne), the kingdom that would eventually become England was still split into four mini-kingdoms, and the one the vikings hit first was called Northumbria, and it was not nearly as clean or as advanced or as unilaterally Christian as the show depicts it. The process that united these kingdoms began with Alfred the Great, who is allegedly slated to appear in season two of the show despite the fact that he wasn’t even born until 849, and wasn’t king until 871, and that the entire purpose of his rule was to create England which their version of the show has already done, and that he still didn’t manage to create it until his grandson Athelstan finally united the four kingdoms under a single ruler in 924. What are they going to have Alfred do in 793? Make up some kind of crisis to separate the kingdoms, so he can reforge them again? The more they try to conflate these different elements of history, the more inaccurate they’re going to get.

And you know what? It all comes back to Michael Hirst’s lame excuse. They could tell an accurate story if they wanted to: they could depict the Vikings, and the Northumbrians, and the clothes and the buildings and the rulers and everything else, completely correctly if they wanted. It would not be any harder or more expensive than the show they’re currently making. And they’ve chosen not to do that, and that’s their choice, but to blame it on the viewership just gets me so mad. What kind of audience is he imagining that would refuse to watch a show because they call it Northumbria instead of England? What’s so amazing about his laughable shield wall tactics that’s going to expand their audience from thousands to millions? Why should we trust a show from a man with so little faith in real history he thinks he has to screw it up on purpose or no one will watch?

I complained about this on twitter, and many of you agreed, and many of you said “I don’t care, that show’s awesome.” And you know what? The show is awesome, and I’m enjoying it, and even though I sit there and point out all the inaccuracies to my wife while we watch it (a habit I get from my Dad, who does the same with World War II movies), I will probably keep watching it. But my plea to the universe, or at least to the makers of TV shows, is the same now as it was with Almost Human: yes, your show is fun, and yes, it’s entertaining, but can’t it also be good? Can’t you get your science/history/laws/physics/whatever right? Do I really have to ignore hundreds of years of well-known history just to enjoy your show?

Can’t our entertainment be awesome AND great? Why should we settle for less?

15 Responses to “Vikings, and Historical Accuracy”

  1. Paul Genesse says:

    I see your points. The issue is, as you describe, history is very complicated and does not translate well to TV and movies that have a broad appeal. If movies and TV shows were perfectly accurate we wouldn’t need books, or college courses. It’s easy to be a Monday quarterback, but the reality is that we wouldn’t be watching Vikings if it were perfectly historically accurate, (not really possible without time travel) because the show would never have gotten made. The History Channel bought the show, but this is just a shade of real history and is intended to be entertaining. I’ve written historical fiction and to make it the best story possible liberties have to be taken with the history we know. That’s just my opinion, but that opinion allows me to enjoy all sorts of art, even if I know “better.”

  2. admin says:

    See, I just don’t buy that an accurate show would be an inherently unpopular one. Why? Why would the show have never gotten made if they (for example) chose to show the vikings practicing outlawry instead of execution? Why would the show have never gotten made if they’d gone with a more egalitarian viking government? They could still do all the political infighting they have now, and they could even keep Gabriel Byrne as the chief weasel, just tweak it here and there to make it accurate. Liberties need to be taken here and there for reasons of cost and logistics, but for storytelling? I don’t see it.

  3. Paul Genesse says:

    I think the Vikings would be seen in a very negative light. Raping and pillaging and doing vile things. The show is fairly tame in how the Vikings behave, and their looting is toned down. Ragnar vs. the Earl, one on one combat was high drama and awesome. Voting the Earl out as a group doesn’t play as well on screen, in my opinion. It just wouldn’t be as dramatic. I believe that films and TV shows mostly succeed if they get the spirit of the source material right. I feel like that’s often the best that can be done when budgets and broad appeal is taken into account. The guy who wrote the show is brilliant, (have you seen, The Tudors?), and he knows how to make great TV drama. We can nit pick the decisions made, but I have this suspicion that if we were in his place we’d do a lot of the same things. That’s just my opinion.

  4. Maria Diana says:

    I have have the habit of saying out loud, even when I am alone, “WRONG!!” when I see history based film or TV, or converted form books. The only way I am able to actually watch is to convince myself the story is set in an alternate dimension. But still, it’s hard.
    Regarding “Vikings” I guess I nitpick overly mush as I am Norwegian, an having an English dad and being a history buff dos not exactly help the matter.
    I totally agree with all of Dan’s points. I do believe TV makers dos not give the audiences enough credit, we are not dumb! And yes, the historical literature about the Vikings were written several hundred years later, but there is a lot of info. When developing and writing a show on this scale you should be expected to read the sagas, and get to know the vikings mindset.
    For instant, vikings did not know the consent of sin, right and wrong yes, but not sin. In Njåls saga the wife’s of Njål and Gunnar hate each other and starts killing of peoples of the others household. After each murder Njål and Gunnar pays the fines for murder cording to the status of the victim.
    Would it not be a more interesting and alluring show if the vikings were portrayed accurate and therefor more alien to our own mindset?

  5. Alan says:

    So in what season, do you think, will the vikings learn how to train their dragons?

  6. Jordan says:

    Here’s hoping the BBC will make Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon books into a series at some point. Perhaps, if it ever happens, they’ll be more concerned about getting those details right. Until then, I will still enjoy Vikings.

  7. Teri says:

    Would it be safer if this were an HBO show instead of History channel? To portray the writer’s blatant lack of interest in historical correctness, it seems more fitting not to be on a channel that would be best seen by viewers as a documentary channel with the odd historical film aired. The fact that this show is on the History channel and was picked up by them is actually hard to believe when you sit down and watch it. The quality and what not runs and appears like an HBO series, at least that is what I have found. I enjoy this show, though I know literally nothing of the history so it’s far easier for me to overlook the fact that its mostly incorrect; however, now that I have read this review I’ll more than likely be picking it apart hahahaha

    Good review though man :) Well said.

  8. Impudent Observer says:

    Great, enlightening (to me) points by Dan Wells and good discussion all around. Wonderful to see a rare place on the Internet where people can disagree without being disagreeable (to put it mildly).
    I would tend to side with Dan: A brilliant writer/storyteller can still produce fascinating television just as easily using historically accurate material (with a few departures, as Dan allows).
    I liked how Dan laid out his points and examples, yet didn’t feel obliged to trash the show.

  9. Dani Stani says:

    Yeah, TV/Movie produces are completely gutless and always will be. Real history is riveting – full of intrigue and suspense – and there is absolutely no need to dilute it down to the level we currently get. Look at the Tudors. The life of Henry VIII has everything – and yet the producers of that show changed major details never once improving on the original plot. Same with Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so many more historical films and programs. Everything is about marketing – so dumb it down to the lowest common denominator – that’s the name of the game. The Vikings show is interesting but it could be so much better. As well as all the issues mentioned in the article here – the VIkings have 21st Century attitudes, outlooks, relationships, incentives that just serve to reduce history to a Soap Opera. Of course, you can’t reclaim history completely but why not try? Why not try to depict Vikings with something close to medieval personalities – products of their time and place – with some attempt at accuracy. Why change costumes and architecture just to coddle the masses – why not educate? Stop being so gutless!

  10. Scott Hornbuckle says:

    I agree very much with Wells. I’ve gotten very pissed that Michael Hirst said that dumb statement in an interview and I think that people kind of need to stop listening to the series in terms of historical accuracy. I saw someone today who said he loves the show; he then went on to say that the show perfectly depicts Scandinavian society during that time period as being about “brutal sex and rune magic.” Such things make me want to slap Hirst across the mouth. Man, if he were going to make a historic fiction show and have it not be accurate, then he shouldn’t have still brought out these little “Viking facts” and made the show seem, to people ignorant about the Viking Age, historically accurate. Great! Now people believe that Vikings were primitive savages who had tyrannical leaders, performed capital punishment, and wore “barbarian leather.” See, Hirst? This is the sort of thing that happens when you lazily proclaim historic facts to be boring. Great. Now the audience thinks that Vikings didn’t know about the Brits before 793.

  11. Jade says:

    Thank you!! Yes! This!

  12. Alan says:

    The writer makes great TV but forget historical accuracy where he is concerned. The Tudors was inaccurate the point of being nothing like realistic at times, all in the name of drama so we shouldn’t,t expect any difference with Vikings. Hirst made the same ludicrous excuses with the Tudors too claiming that he had to change facts to make it interesting. From an historical accuracy point of view the man is a disgrace to his countries history. Great tv though!

  13. Blasphemous says:

    … I don’t get it.

    Ragnars actual existence is up for serious debate.

    You want a historically accurate TV show about a, quite likely, fictional Viking character?

  14. pamela says:

    I like history. I find it interesting, and love watching shows like The Tudors and Vikings. Do I assume its historically accurate though? No. Why? Because its made for TV. Yes they could have done so much more with it, I would have liked them to have been as historically accurate as possible. Could they have? On some things, yes..eg Longhouses,.. well they lived in them so why not show them living in them? On the other hand, to be historically accurate completely would be nigh on impossible, if “learned scholars” can’t agree on who lived when, who did what to whom, who travelled where first etc,then how is a mere tv show writer supposed to be able to? Eg Ragnar is believed to be a “folk hero” based on several people, but his sons are supposed to be based on his real sons-who if their father didn’t actually exist how could they?, so some license for effect would have to be taken. I too agree about the time lines, clothing, food, society etc,its called the History channel,so hey (novel idea here)..how about learning a little history while being entertained! Al in all though, I do like the show so am not really complaining, it is what it is.

  15. Scott Hornbuckle says:

    I honestly think that the show is interesting. It would have certainly, in my opinion, been very hilarious. I really mean it. Looking at how they miserably failed in doing research (from what I’ve heard from interviews, it was basically just Michael Hirst and his “historical advisor” flipping through a history book), they just won’t stop getting things wrong. Even in season 2, Hirst apparently thought “oh, crucifixion cuz f u” even though there aren’t any recorded crucifixions past the reign of Roman emperor Constantine. He got more wrong than that in the second season. And if you know about Vikings and watched the first season, you’ll know that Michael Hirst messed up a LOT more than that. In fact, in my view, there wasn’t anything that was without error. It WOULD be absolutely hilarious if it weren’t for the large audience, the fact that many of the audience take the show seriously, and that some of the actors are actually claiming historical accuracy, because (and I literally pulled this from an interview) “zippers didn’t exist back then.” Well, zippers didn’t exist until a millennium later, and we all know how much fashion trends change in the course of a millennium.

Leave a Reply