An interview with the show’s creator and writer Michael Hirst
This article was written about Season 3 because that’s what is airing in the UK now.
HISTORY EXTRA – With its gripping mix of gory battles, religious conflict and compelling characters, the epic historical television show Vikings attracts millions of viewers worldwide. With the third season in full swing, we spoke to the show’s writer and creator Michael Hirst about the challenges of adapting historical material for the screen and why the world has been gripped by ‘Viking fever’…
Q: Vikings has proven to be incredibly popular with audiences across the world. Why do you think there is such an appetite for the Vikings at the moment?
A: Well, let me tell you a story. After I’d written and made Elizabeth [the 1998 film about the life of Elizabeth I, starring Cate Blanchett], I was commissioned to write a screenplay about Alfred the Great, who fought against the Vikings. I started researching the Vikings’ culture and gods and democratic ways – loads of really fascinating things I didn’t know about before. But when I told people about it, their response was pretty half-hearted. Fast-forward to when I began working on Vikings [which premiered in 2013]. Now, when I told friends what I was writing about, they were incredibly enthusiastic. Something had changed and Vikings were suddenly in the zeitgeist.
When I was researching the series, I was definitely aware of a new interest dawning. People are interested in the Vikings now in a way they weren’t interested 10 years ago, not even in Scandinavia. There’s no real satisfactory answer to why this is the case, but it’s true.
But there’s also some correlation between a successful show and a historical interest. I was shown round the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo recently and the curator told me that since our show began, admissions had doubled. So to some extent the show itself has also created an appetite. There must be some deeper explanation that I can’t help you with, but I know it exists!
Q: In many ways the morals, beliefs and value systems of Viking culture are completely alien to modern audiences. How do you make characters from such a different society relatable?
A: People told me I wouldn’t be able to make a successful series with Vikings as my lead characters, because the Vikings are always seen as the ‘other’ – they are seen as the hairy, ignorant savages who come in the dead of the night, break your door down, rape your wife and daughter and steal your goods. Just mentioning the word ‘Viking’ would summon up these prejudices and received opinions. But while there are elements of truth in this reputation, it’s largely a cliché.
Viking history was not written by the Vikings themselves but by Christian monks who has a vested interest in inflating these horrors, because the Vikings were pagans. I’d already done some research on the Vikings and knew that there were many more subtle, interesting things about them. They made incredible technological advances in boat-building and navigation, and their treatment of women was far more enlightened than the Saxons or the Franks – Viking women could divorce husbands, own property and rule. Scandinavian society also was far more democratic than that of the Franks or Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, the Vikings were family people – family mattered to the Vikings more than anything else. There were plenty of things like this that I knew didn’t fit with the stereotype.
The other challenge was finding a hero – a lead character that could be sympathetic. I decided on Ragnar Lothbrok because Ragnar believed that his family was descended from the god Odin. Odin was not only the god of flame warriors and Valhalla, but also of curiosity and poetry. He had sacrificed an eye to look in the well of knowledge. As a descendant of Odin, my character Ragnar is therefore driven by curiosity, rather than by the desire for plunder, rape or murder.
More generally, my whole career has really been an effort to connect the past to the present. I don’t recognise a discontinuity between the two. You do have to recognise that the nature and character of historical periods are distinct, but I’ve always tried to make the issues humans face in their particular societies resonate with contemporary audiences. Elizabeth, for example, was essentially the story a young woman who inherited her father’s business and found it very difficult to run. Although the Vikings believed in different things and lived in a different age, they were human beings struggling with issues – such as family problems, or thwarted ambition – that we can relate to.
Q: How do you begin adapting historical material for the screen?
A: Everything I do starts with historical research. My historical advisor Justin Pollard provides me with a lot of material and I read a lot – not just historical accounts but also the poetry and music of the period. Out of this, storylines and characters start to emerge. Then it’s a slow process of getting attached to these people and trying to understand something about them.
With Vikings, one of the most compelling things we found were the Sagas. As a writer, the Sagas are an absolute treasure trove – they’re pretty weird but just amazing. The other thing that immediately stuck with me was the Vikings’ pagan belief system and the clash between paganism and Christianity, which is at the core of the show.
I’ve always been interested in spiritual and religious matters – a lot of The Tudors was driven by the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism. But I’ve been very surprised by the public reaction to this issue with Vikings. I always assumed people would respond most to the visceral elements of the show – the battles, fights and physicality. But what I’ve discovered is that it’s Vikings’ religious and spiritual aspects – the clash of religious ideas – that really fascinates people. I’m deeply grateful for that response and I wonder whether it’s a sign of the times.
Q: Historical sources on the Dark Ages are rather scarce, and it’s a period of history that most people know very little about. How did this compare to your previous work focusing on, say, the Tudors?
A: You’re right, compared to the amount of material I had about the court of Henry VIII [for The Tudors 2007–10] there is a very limited amount of real information on the Dark Ages. For me, that’s both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, of course I would love to know more – I wish they could find a fully laden raiding Viking ship at the bottom of the sea so that we could discover more about that side of things! But on the other hand, although I begin everything with historical fact, I have to take those facts for a walk and develop characters beyond the historical record, because sometimes the historical record is very thin.
I tried very hard not to be too inventive. We wanted everything to remain as authentic as possible. One of the questions I ask Justin [Pollard, historical advisor on Vikings] when I’m developing a character or a storyline is whether it’s plausible. You can’t always say whether it’s accurate, because nobody knows, but you can ask whether it’s plausible. Then, as a writer you need to ask yourself whether it seems truthful. I’m not writing fantasy – this isn’t Game of Thrones; I don’t have dragons. I can’t just make it up – it has to seem real. One of things I’m proudest of is that most of what we do is for real – our guys actually fight, row and ride horses. In the last season they had to hoist two-tonne boats up cliff faces, and they really did it. I think the reality of it shows.
Q: You mentioned taking inspiration from the Sagas. In the Sagas, the lines are very blurred between history and legend – Ragnar Lothbrok is often seen as semi-mythical. How did you go about unpicking that?
A: I think it’s fair to call Ragnar a ‘legendary character’ – he’s the first great Viking to emerge out of myth and legend. But academics and historians generally acknowledge that there was a real person called Ragnar. There’s little doubt he was a living person and had lots of children; he was just so famous that the Sagas put him in many places at once. To be a son of Ragnar Lothbrok was the biggest calling card in the Viking world for a long time – Björn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless were sons of Ragnar.
Q: Have you ever reached a point where history and narrative have come into conflict? Or has the historical material always been strong enough to generate great narratives on its own?
A: One of the things I love about working from historical material is that there is so much of this stuff you just couldn’t make up. I think if I ever got to a place where history and narrative were in conflict then I would realise that I was barking up the wrong tree. I’d be writing the wrong thing and I would need to unpick it.
By the time we finish shooting season five in a couple of weeks I’ll have written 70 hours of Vikings, and I’ve not for a moment been lost for material or been scratching around for a storyline. There was no difficulty with the raw material because it’s a very rich area of history. We’re dealing with the explosion of the Vikings into western Europe, and onwards into Iceland and Greenland and the Mediterranean. The show grows in the same way that the Vikings grew, as their raids got bigger and their presence grew stronger around the world. For example, in season three we recreate the Vikings’ first huge attack, on Paris [in 845], with hundreds of boats and thousands of warriors.
There’s still a long way to go. Personally, I would like to carry on until the Vikings discover America. But that may be another story…
Q: You use a variety of different dead languages in the show. How did you approach this?
A: Yes, we’ve resuscitated four dead languages – how many American network shows can say that? The first thing I decided was that I wanted the audience to hear what these people actually sounded like. And then it was a question of using these languages – starting with Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Latin – without everything being subtitled.
As Vikings was written for an American audience, the principle language had to be English. The main players – the Vikings – needed to speak English, but they do talk with a slight Viking intonation. Our first director, Johan Renck, was Swedish. When everyone asked me how to speak, I told them to speak like Johan. So we got a flavour of the Scandinavian tone. One of the first multi-lingual exchanges I wrote was a scene where the Vikings arrive in England and meet a group of Saxon soldiers. It’s an actual historical event that was about misunderstanding – these two peoples met on a beach in Northumberland and they couldn’t understand each other, which led to violence. I wanted the audience to grasp that, so I had the Saxons speaking Anglo-Saxon and the Vikings speaking Old Norse with subtitles.
Things got really interesting when Justin asked academics to translate the scripts into these dead languages. For example, when the Vikings attacked the Franks, we realised that the Franks spoke a language that no longer exists, called Old Frankish. It doesn’t sound like French at all, it sounds rather Germanic. You cannot imagine how excited the academics were to recreate Old Frankish! It just delighted them, and they disagreed completely about how it would have sounded.
While we include just a small amount of the real languages, it’s nevertheless very important. It’s all part of the texture of the show, like trying to make the costumes and music look and sound as authentic as possible.
Q: So, do you think ‘Viking fever’ is here to stay?
A: Yes, I hope so. I hope that the series has sparked a whole new interest. It was difficult for the Scandinavians to boast about their Viking heritage when everyone had this idea that the Vikings were evil bad guys. But now it’s acceptable to be proud of this and to celebrate it – they have come out of the closet and reclaimed their history. There are also lots of new digs of Viking settlements in Canada and across Scandinavia. Somehow I think it will last.
The things I write aren’t supposed to be educational, but if the series opens people’s eyes and leads to them developing an interest about the Vikings then that’s fantastic.