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Valhalla – why we’ve got the Vikings wrong — Tastic Film Magazine

As Vikings: Valhalla premieres on Netflix, Luke Walpole explores how images of marauding pagans are misleading – despite being part of the popular imagination since the 8th-Century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
You’ve probably heard the story by now. It’s the late 8th Century, and just off the coast of Northumbria in England, Lindisfarne Priory acts as a beacon of Christianity peering into the North Sea. Yet soon, according to lore, that tranquillity will be replaced by blood and thunder. The year is 793 AD and the Vikings are about to explode onto the historical stage.

Reflecting on the year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a compendium of historical documents that underpins our understanding of medieval England – notes: “This year came dreadful fore-warnings… terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament.” The image of the Vikings that would continue in the popular imagination was established then. As the Chronicle continues, soon after, “the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter”. The Vikings were here in all their terrifying, pagan glory, and would remain key to the history of western Europe until the late 11th Century (even if the name “Viking” itself was not coined until well into the 19th Century, likely drawing upon the Old Norse word Víkingr and the Anglo-Saxon word Wicing). Etymology aside, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s depiction of Vikings has stuck. Later, in 865 AD, “the heathen army” arrived in Thanet, “stole up the country, and overran all Kent Eastward”. From here, they went on to establish dominion across swathes of the midlands and East Anglia – thereafter known as Danelaw.

By the 13th Century, much of the contents of Vikings’ oral storytelling tradition had been written down by Norse settlers in Iceland, even if this cohesive sense of “Vikingness” is a much more modern imposition. These tales – initially recorded in poem collections called Eddas – lyrically describe the pantheon of Gods, such as Odin, Thor and Loki, who have recently become wholly sanitised by Marvel.

The Icelandic Sagas are less flowery in language – though still full of fantastical elements – and were designed to capture the epic deeds of Viking forefathers. The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, including the delightfully named Ivar the Boneless, play a huge role in them, and the Ragnar Saga Lodbrokar formed the basis for The History Channel’s wildly successful show Vikings, which lasted for six seasons from 2013 to 2020. A sequel, Vikings: Valhalla, premieres on Netflix this Friday – continuing the story of the Norsemen while introducing real-life heroes such as Leif Erikson, who is believed to have travelled all the way to North America. According to The Wrap, “Vikings: Valhalla has a narrative elegance and drive without sacrificing the pillaging, passionate sex, pagan rituals and political intrigue”.

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