So, how can Thor, Odin, and the rest have been results of pillaging, rape, and raids? This post has some comments on Vikings (the series), culture, creativity, audiences, and cultural resources…
Well… the above sentence is highly reductionist, but there is some truth to it. While watching this captivating (mostly) series (Vikings), I frequently thought about culture and its components. I also thought about mobilizing the past (with some creativity and slight of hand) to support statements in contemporary public life.
Here are some of these thoughts, along with a few quotes from the show I really liked (hated).
Your environment makes your culture
Being an ‘epic saga’, “Vikings” is bound to portray (and reflect on) the culture of the people whose stories are being developed. However, an interesting relationship between the environment and the culture quickly starts to emerge.
So let’s do this mental experiment. Let’s assume you – like the vikings – live in a very unforgiving place, with adverse climate and tough conditions. You barely survive, and it is quite hard to establish proper and sustainable economies.
Over time, your people have learned that raiding neighbors, stealing their goods (and stealing… them.. personally = slaves ) is actually easier than other endeavors. As other people accept fishing or farming, these guys accept raiding as a proper way for generating income.
Considering this, let’s think about Vikings culture. What do you imagine the values of your people would be? what kind of religion do you imagine flourishing under these conditions?
Would the values of benevolence, morality, humanity, and gentleness be popular? Would a religion that preaches non-violence and compassion naturally/organically thrive?
Your values would have to be courage and strength (and beyond)… You will also value social cohesion, and strong ties with those who are near (somehow) to you (family, clan,…). Your ‘gods’ would be warriors… Even your afterlife would (in a very unimaginative twist) be never-ending quarrels that repeat and reset, punctuated by eating and drinking [!!!].
Here all these cultural elements (values, social structures, myths, religion, heroes, rituals, gods,…) were a result of the environment, and they fit within the major social/economic structure. They are tools to justify the lifestyle that happened to be popular… They are – in a sense – results of the bad environment.
Culture and Behavior
A similar observation can be made about some pre-Islamic nomadic Arabs in the desert, who sometimes had to attack traveling merchants to steal their goods, otherwise they would perish. Naturally, their values shifted towards ‘courage’ and strong family/clan ties.
In both these communities, raiding and conquering were considered legitimate methods justified by the need to survive.
However, neither would call their acts simple “stealing”.
The mix of the environment, history/tradition, and culture keeps shaping people’s behavior. People soon construct elaborate rituals, mythologies, and arts around the seeds of this culture. Amazingly, these cultural elements and stories can – with ease – control people’s thoughts, and even make them sacrifice themselves gladly.. In the case of the Vikings culture, the stories and myths, especially in times of need and danger, don’t just remain stories: they become a tangible reality that people personally feel everyday (“I felt Thor’s rage, and heard his hammer!”).
Nationalism & Audiences
That being said, you can let your imagination, based on the evidence we have, and based on picturing the environment, try to construct how the people of the time would live and interact.
You can try to think about the evolution of some concepts like democracy, rights, and even nations.
The presentation in the show (and similar others) is probably a very embellished image (to say the least). Why?
well… partly to be able to relate to modern audiences and modern consumers. Consumer’s expectations have a lot of influence on creative decisions in the cultural industries, and consumers don’t like things that strongly challenge their expectations. However, that’s not the whole story. The producers have to, additionally, appease the people who take pride in this culture and these groups. After all, many people ‘identify’ with the Vikings, and define themselves as descendants of Vikings… Naturally, they also constitute a substantial part of the audience too, and this affects the light in which these people are portrayed in the series.
Cultural Resources Reshape History: The Vikings Culture and reality
I say all this regardless of how accurate the show is. I checked a few historical references, but that’s not the point. What matters the most is what people remember… What does the average person know? This will determine the ‘overall’ image of a certain culture.
Interestingly, we should also care about the ‘practical’ side of history. What does it mean? How does it shape people’s actions now?
Cultural Resources, like the series itself, define these things. They make history ‘actionable’.
History, like other cultural elements, helps us make sense of the world, and tells us what line of action is best. Through the (re)telling of stories, we reconstruct people’s images of themselves, their past, and their own ideals.
Take the theme of feminism for example, which I thought was really overplayed in the show, beyond what is remotely believable for the time and culture in discussion.. I’m sure it was for a good cause (and I even read one online review which complained that the female roles were too dependent…!), but how much is too much when it comes to twisting history?
Whether feminism was really (really) overdone in the show, or whether democracy was inflated too, is beside the point. The re-writing of history, and the creative rebirth of culture usually injects contemporary themes into the past… It always has.
Contemplating Beauty: The Slow Moments
This comment is pretty subjective, but had to mention it here. There are certain instances in the show where the visual beauty of the scene takes over as everything slows down… These ‘slow’ moments really give the viewer time to contemplate and reflect and empathize. The control of rhythm and tempo is always a valuable component of great art.
Quotes from Vikings (Spoilers..? Maybe)
“Everyone will always underestimate you. You have to make them pay. Be ruthless.”– Ragnar to Ivar
This is a key quote in the formation of Ivar’s character later on. Simple words from a figure of authority and admiration can have great consequences that keep growing with time. A simple word of advice might be persistent and shape someone’s personality. Also, why ‘be ruthless’? simply because if someone underestimates something, they deserve to be attacked by it. This is the natural order of things. Morality has no place here.
In the show, Floki the boat builder, is a very interesting character with a really beautiful story arc that shows his growth, maturation… and disappointments. Frequently he says wise things…
Always take stones out of your shoe. That’s good advice.Floki when asked by Ube if he has any advice
Ubbe: Are the gods here? Have you seen them?
Floki: Don’t bother me with that. What business is that of mine. I’m an ant, toiling on the forest floor. I see only the leaf above my head. That leaf gives me some relief from the son.Conversation on the Beach
Ubbe: People love you.Conversation on the Beach
Floki: What does that mean exactly?
“I feel trapped in all this happiness.”
“The space between life and death… That’s where we’re most alive.”Floki
“In my mind, I wish I had never left the farm.”Ragnar to Lagertha
After he has discovered a new world, and after he became an earl, then a king… After great adventures, the shadow of an ideal past always lingers… becomes an ideal. “No regrets, but at the same time, all the regrets…”.
“You’re a brave man Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me, you were fearless because you dared to question.”Ragnar
“Happiness is nothing.”
“I’m not going to stand around all day watching you try to be normal. You never will be. Once you realize that, that is when greatness will happen. Now crawl!”Ragnar to Ivar
Again with the formative statements. One of the beautiful things in this series is the evolution of the characters in a meaningful and poetic way.
“Dry sterile thunder but no rain. Ice without water. Sterile land. Godless land. Unreal.”
Ubbe: The Gods must be here.
“They avoided this place between one world and another. I have roamed far and learned much… This vast place, without solace, without even ghosts.”
Ubbe: We have to leave this place…
“If you can… but listen to the thunder. He who was living is now dead. We who were living are now dying…. I mean all of us. We are dying, and this is not a place we found by mistake. This is not a place at all. It is a state of the soul…!”Ubbe talking to the Seer’s ghost
The real heroes in life are those creative individuals who expand our view of the world and our understanding. Sometimes the loss of a few individuals can be catastrophic to a complete culture…
The sterile place (Greenland) is (poetically) portrayed as the image of the soul of the people after they’ve lost their heroes, and after the age of hopes and creativity is gone!
Their gods themselves will die off soon… This is (partly) because the brave creative explorers have died!
The extension of the discussion
For another recent discussion on culture from the perspective of stories and fiction, see this post which discusses Ursula LeGuin’s beautiful novel “The Left hand of Darkness”.