Take a voyage in the wake of warriors
Vikings’ rich culture is exposed in a new TV drama, writes
FROM the creator of The Tudors, Michael Hirst, comes the new historical drama Vikings, which chronicles the exploits of the fiercest warriors of all time, the Viking tribes of Scandinavia circa the eighth century.
The story follows young farmer and warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel) as he struggles against the traditions of his people to break away and explore new lands in search of riches and wisdom. Michael, with previous projects such as The Tudors and the film Elizabeth, you’ve had actual people, actual events as a foundation for your storytelling. Vikings’ central character, Ragnar, is a historical figure but did the scope of this story pose a bigger challenge than you’ve faced before?
That question raises very interesting and profound thoughts in considering how one can turn historical material into drama. In The Tudors, there’s an immense amount written about Henry VIII alone.
Similarly with Elizabeth, there’s a great amount of material to work from. When it comes to my research and reading I’m looking for a hook, a way into the material, and I remember very distinctly when it came to Elizabeth that no one knew about her as a young woman before she became this great queen. And with The Tudors, I determined it was as much about his wives as it was about him.
With Vikings, their era spans 400 years and so it was partly about finding a hero. Ragnar became an obvious way in because he was the first of the great Viking leaders to emerge out of the mists of myth and legend – he was around when the Vikings came west for the first time. Ultimately he did amazing things – he invaded Paris – and he had this wonderfully complicated love life and
Vikings incredible sons. I always write about people, about families, and Vikings is a family saga as well. While there’s a challenge involved, I imagine it’s also enjoyable having such a wealth of history to draw from?
Selection and shaping material is what writers do, giving material a dramatic shape. I started off writing movies and didn’t know I could even write series television before The Tudors. But I found I loved doing it; I love spending time with these people. The idea that I can stay with them, develop them over time, explore them and keep finding out new things about them is wonderful. It’s one of the reasons I write all of Vikings myself – I don’t want to give it away!
The word Viking summons these rather nasty, violent images. But their culture was written about by hostile witnesses and most of us have grown up with the idea of these brutal raiders and pillagers. I discovered it wasn’t altogether like that. They were warriors, of course, but their culture was richer and more interesting than one might imagine. They were very democratic. Their attitude towards women was enlightened when compared to other cultures at the time. They were clean!
And I loved their religious and spiritual outlook . I knew the battles would go down well but the paganism, the religious rituals, was another matter. That aspect of Vikings has been well received by viewers. In my research, I read about a Viking who believed he was descended from Odin, who was not only a fearsome god but also a god of curiosity – Odin sacrificed an eye to look into the Well of Knowledge.
And I thought Ragnar would have the same curiosity. When he raids, it’s not only for plunder – it’s to satisfy his curiosity about what the rest of the world is like. So in casting him, I wanted someone with stillness, depth and as physical presence. I wanted a real man – someone convincing wielding an axe but intelligent as well. When you look into Travis’ eyes, you see a mind at work.
Vikings: Thursdays, 8.35pm, SBS1.
Travis Fimmel stars in What was it about Viking culture that made you want to bring it to the screen?