Finding historical Vikings in the 9th century to base a whole TV series around is no easy matter. In the first place, none of the Vikings of that early era left any written records whatsoever to tell of their exploits. What we do have are the scant chronicles of the people they attacked and the much later saga legends which embroider their history to the glory of the Scandinavian people.
So when starting Vikings we first had to pick through these records and decide on a character. It could never be a complete historical reconstruction, nor would we have enough data to base our hero on a single character, but a hero must have a name and we chose one whose shadow haunts the pages of 9th-century chronicles before re-emerging in later centuries as a sparkling saga hero. That man was Ragnar Lothbrok.
There is debate over whether or not there is a single Ragnar
Ragnar is the first real Viking personality to emerge from the hazy accounts of the period but in many ways, he still belongs more in the fable-filled pages of the sagas than amongst the sober entries in the chronicles. That there even was a single Ragnar is still a matter of some debate due not least to the eagerness of contemporary writers to kill him off – something which is dutifully recorded a number of times, at a number of dates and accompanied by a number of different reasons.
He first sails out of the realm of Norse mythology and into something like history in 845. At that time a leader of this name, or perhaps the similar sounding ‘Ragnall’, is recorded as leading a fleet of 120 ships up the Seine to besiege Paris. Here, in one account, his men were beset with a plague of heaven-sent dysentery and, so the annalists would have it, Ragnar himself succumbed, thus marking the beginning and ending of his career in one event.
The problem is that Ragnar then crops up again and again, over the next decade, prowling the seas off the coast of Scotland and the Western Isles, before apparently settling in Viking Dublin. Here he once more met his death, around 852, at the hands of other Scandinavians, either in battle or tortured to death depending on which traditional tale you read. He is recorded dying again at Carlingford Lough at the hands of rivals, then again during a raid on Anglesey and finally in Northumbria where he was said to have been thrown into a pit of venomous snakes.
Ragnar takes on different forms in different stories
Clearly no one man, not even a Viking hero, could die that many times and it must be questioned as to which if any of these Ragnars were the same person, and which of these were real. To put any flesh on the oft-buried bones of the Ragnar of the annalists we are forced to turn to what later Scandinavian poets recorded in the Saga of Ragnar and the Tale of the Sons of Ragnar. These are not history in a modern sense of course, but the dramatic fictionalised stories of long dead heroes whose connection to reality might be little more than a name – that essential hook which allowed poets not only to tell a wonderful tale, but also to claim in hushed tones that it was a true one. Theirs is a Ragnar who killed a ferocious dragon and hence won the hand of a beautiful maiden; he is a hero not a villain and his sons are, as the runic graffiti in the chamber tomb of Maes Howe on Orkney says “what you would really call men”.
That these early pirates should become folk heroes is not as surprising as it might at first seem. The currency of the emerging Viking leaders was not bullion but fame. To command a great army a Viking leader needed fame – fame to bring men to his side, fame to persuade them to follow him to danger and perhaps death, and fame to put fear in the hearts of his enemies and his rivals. Reputation made and broke Scandinavian warlords and tales of their achievements were vital to their success. No doubt these were often greatly exaggerated even at the time and then further embroidered with each retelling so by the era of the saga writers such leaders had often become impossibly heroic. And of all these heroes the archetype was Ragnar. It is only to be expected then that many who followed would be called ‘Sons of Ragnar’, a title which was often as much of a mark of honor or aspiration as a statement of genetic fact.
The appearance of these early Viking heroes across the seaboards of northern Europe also betrays something of the nature of the threat they presented. These bands were highly mobile mariners, using the seas and rivers to launch lightning raids. Raiding on the coast was effective as it made predicting their landfall extremely difficult thus forcing defenders to spread their forces thinner than they might otherwise have wanted. But it was really the Viking riverine expedition that showed this new enemy at their best. In a Europe and an England still split into many competing kingdoms and principalities the great rivers often formed boundaries between states – formidable barriers between peoples. To Vikings however, they were quite the reverse – highways – up which their shallow drafted vessels could sail, taking their threat into political heartlands and, with different kingdoms often on each bank, splitting the defenders’ forces and their loyalties. Many a petty kingdom gloated when a Viking force rowed up their river to disembark on the opposite ‘foreign’ bank. Their joy was usually short-lived however. Viking fleets were also highly responsive to the changing situation their presence brought about. When one area looked ripe for raiding Ragnar and his like could make up a fleet of whichever mercenaries and pirates came to hand and quickly head there. Equally when an area became impoverished through raiding or dangerous through a more organized defense, they could melt away back to sea, only to appear again later in richer and more vulnerable places.
Our Ragnar is part the Ragnar of the chronicles, part the saga hero but most of all he is the embodiment of the extraordinary effect the arrival of Viking raiders had on the ninth century European mind. From the Chronicles we have taken the fear, the surprise attacks, the ruthless, merciless savagery. At home we have drawn on the later sagas to portray a real man behind the monstrous image conjured by monks, a man with a family and problems of his own. Our Ragnar is a combination of all these things – the ghostly remembrance of one of the first great Viking raiders, the swashbuckling hero of the sagas and above all, the fear of the arrival of ‘outsiders’.