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.