Today I want to look at the way The Vikings series depicts combat, particularly the raids on Northumbria in the fourth and seventh episodes, because it fundamentally misrepresents how Viking raiding and Viking combat worked.
The Early Viking Raids
The earliest phase of Viking raiding began sometime in the late 780s or early 790s and lasted down into the second quarter of the 9th century. Since the show opens in the 790s, it ought to be depicting this period of raiding. During this period, the standard form of Viking raid, at least as far as the primary sources allow us to see it, was hit-and-run raids.
A group of Vikings sailed into a vulnerable region in a longship, which was perfectly designed for these tactics. Because a longship could be either sailed or rowed, and because it had a very shallow keel, it could operate effectively on both the open seas and in coastal waters, and even on moderately shallow rivers. This enabled the Vikings to scout around for a vulnerable community to attack, one with weak defenses or which could be taken by surprise, and ideally one that was some distance from the next closest community, so that response would take a while. Once they had identified such a location, they came in, beached their ship, and made a fast surprise attack, grabbing whatever wealth they could, and then returned to the longship and sailed away before a military response could be mounted.
That’s why Vikings liked attacking monasteries. Monasteries were typically isolated geographically, often being located on islands cut off from the mainland. The monks were not fighters, and in fact were generally pacifists, so they were unlikely to effectively defend themselves. And monasteries possessed lots of gold and silver in the form of liturgical plate like chalices, crosses, and patens. So they were easy, vulnerable targets that had a fair amount of wealth. (People often assume that Vikings attacked monasteries out of a hostility to Christianity. Far from it.)
This system of plundering made use of the particular capabilities of the longship, but it also was necessitated by the fact that the Vikings were nearly always going to be outnumbered on their raids. A longship might hold perhaps 60 men, although the more men that were brought along, the less space was left for plunder like livestock or slaves. Most targets they raided were likely to have many more people than that, as well as defensive structures like walls or towers that served to multiply the strength of the defenders; as a result, the Vikings had to find ways to counteract the fact that they were outnumbered, and attacking weak targets by surprise was the best way to do that.
As a result, in this first period of Viking raids, the Vikings generally stayed very close to their ships. If they left their ships to go significantly inland, they ran the risk of getting cut off from their ship. Once that happened, they had lost the element of surprise and the element of maneuverability, and the fact that they were likely to be outnumbered meant that they would probably to lose any ensuing fight. Again, the early Viking raids are hit-and-run raids, not land battles.
Contrary to the popular image, the Vikings were not particularly inclined to take risks. Like playground bullies, they generally took the path of least resistance that got them to their goals. They fought when they had to, but they preferred to attack defenseless, outnumbered targets. They preferred to attack from surprise, and retreated when a serious fight was likely to develop unless they were cornered. They preferred to ransom the captives and plundered holy books when they could, because ransom got them money without fighting.
It was only much later, in the middle of the 9th century, that the Vikings seem to have gotten more ambitious. They began to make more aggressive attacks on towns and travelled further inland, using horses to maintain their mobility. In some cases they even launched full-scale sieges of towns. Most famously, a Viking sometimes identified as Ragnar Lothbrok laid siege to Paris in 845 (remember, the series has probably put Ragnar half a century too early); Rollo sieged Paris in 885 (and remember, Rollo and Ragnar were not brothers because Rollo was a half-century later than the people Ragnar was based on).
The reasons for this shift in raiding tactics are not entirely clear, but it was definitely related to the break-down of political institutions under the pressure of these hit-and-run raids. Kings justified their rule by their ability to protect their people, and the Viking raids were undermining that claim in ways that made maintaining law and order much harder; political weakness made raids easier. Additionally, it’s clear that the numbers of Vikings were increasing, perhaps because of the successes of the early raids inspired imitation. More Vikings meant they could challenge increasingly large and better-defended forces. Eventually, in the second quarter of the 9th century, the Vikings begin ‘overwintering’, camping out on a defensible position like an island and spending the winter there so they could continue raiding the next year without having to sail home in-between.
The Viking Raids in the Series
The first raid, episode 2’s attack on Lindesfarne, is probably a fair depiction of what that event looked like. Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his men find a vulnerable, isolated monastery, force their way in, and kill many of the monks, taking a lot of valuable objects and several slaves.
But in episode 4, Ragnar’s crew does something entirely different. They come ashore from their boat (again, that’s probably wrong; they would probably have beached the boat), fight a battle against King Aelle’s reeve and his men in which they slaughter all but one man, who gets away, and then walk inland for a day, camping out near a small walled town. They wait until everyone is at church the next morning, then they go in, capturing everyone in the church, and loot the town. Then they walk back to their ship, where they find that they have been cut off from their ship by a group of Aelle’s men. They fight a full-out battle that they win, and sail off with their plunder.
There’s a lot wrong with this. The second time they go raiding, Ragnar completely abandons the successful tactics of the first raid to do something far more risky. After the fight with Aelle’s reeve when they landed, Ragnar ought to have gotten back in his ship and gone looking for another remote monastery to attack, because he’s lost the element of surprise. The second fight on the beach is entirely predictable, because the survivor from the battle was obviously going to go and alert King Aelle (Ivan Kaye) or the local thane, who would have time to raise a force that would outnumber the raiding party. And that’s exactly what happens. The episode wants to emphasize Ragnar’s cunning, by marching inland and waiting until everyone is at church on Sunday morning. But in fact it demonstrates Ragnar’s stupidity in not leaving after he’s been discovered.
Instead of leaving, Ragnar leads his band at least half a day’s walk from the ship. As I said, this is supposed to be an example of his cleverness, but it overlooks the fact that local residents are likely to spot the longship anchored out at sea (another reason to beach the ship instead, since it would be less visible) and tell the local thane exactly where the ship is.That means he’s almost guaranteed to get cut off from his ship.
Sure, waiting until everyone goes to church is clever, if the Anglo-Saxons are too stupid to leave guards watching the walls during church. This only way this raid on the town succeeds is if the Anglo-Saxons are terminally stupid. Remember, they know there is a party of raiders in the area; the survivor from the fight on the beach has alerted the authorities. And even if Ragnar has somehow managed to outpace messengers on horseback, the town wouldn’t leave itself that defenseless. So Ragnar is being clever only because the script is giving him terminally stupid opponents.
Also, note how inconsistent the episode is about the importance of church attendance to the Anglo-Saxons. It’s so important that all the town guards attend the service, but it’s not important enough that several other people stay behind. Sure, one of them is a bed-ridden old man (they couldn’t have carried him?), but one of the Vikings finds a woman to rape. Why isn’t she in church? Because the script needs her to be standing around waiting to be raped so that Lagertha can intervene and kill the rapist because that will drive the plot forward.
The Second Fight on the Beach
When Ragnar and his crew get back to the beach, they discover what was entirely predictable, that there is a modest force of Anglo-Saxon soldiers waiting for them, and yet they’re surprised. Again, while trying to demonstrate Ragnar’s cleverness, they’ve actually revealed him to be dumb as a post.
Take a look at the scene:
When confronted by the Anglo-Saxons, Ragnar and his crew respond by drawing up into a modified form of a shield wall. A shield wall was a basic tactic in early medieval warfare. A group of men form a tight line with their shields up against one another. The formation is reinforced with additional rows of men behind them, to help keep them in formation and so that if a man on the front line goes down, the man behind him can step in and replace him quickly. That was entirely conventional, and if that’s what Ragnar’s men had done, it would be entirely plausible. (Incidentally, this tactic has been revived by modern-day riot police.)
But instead they form a testudo, a shield wall in which the men in the back ranks put their shields up over their heads to protect the unit from missile fire. But this formation has serious weaknesses. It can only move very slowly and it’s vulnerable to being surrounded. Attacks against it can slowly pick off the men in the front ranks (who are particularly vulnerable to attacks on their unprotected legs). Actually fighting in a testudo is extremely difficult. So it was a formation that was used to protect soldiers from missile fire while they were closing in on an enemy line, not a formation to actually engage in combat in.
This formation has become popular in recent films; off the top of my head, I can think of examples in Troy and 300, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones. But this is an entirely false detail. The testudo was unique to Roman and early Byzantine forces; I know of no evidence that it was employed by the Vikings. There are a couple of reasons for this. First the testudo isn’t very effective with round shields like the ones the Vikings used; there are too many gaps. The Romans used oblong shields that worked much more effectively in this formation. Second, and more important, using a testudo requires an enormous amount of training as a unit, something that was unknown among the Vikings. While a shield-wall is a fairly basic tactic (form a line and stand so close to your neighbors that your shields touch or overlap), the testudo is much more complex (the men have to know which men put their shields forward, which put their shields up and where, and how to maneuver in that formation.) The Romans can achieve it because their soldiers are full-time, highly trained fighters, whereas the Vikings are only part-time amateur fighters with haphazard training. The idea that a random band of Vikings with no special training could pull off a testudo using round shields simply strains plausibility.
And Ragnar’s unit uses the testudo in a way it can’t really be used. They fight in that formation. When one of the Anglo-Saxons sticks his spear over Ragnar’s shield, Ragnar grabs it, orders his men to open a gap in the wall, pulls the man through, and then kills him. That’s pretty much impossible. Opening a gap in the ranks gives the enemy a chance to shove a spear through and risks allowing the enemies to force the gap wider.
Additionally, the scene requires the commander of the Anglo-Saxons to be an idiot. First, instead of leading his men from the front, which was expected among the Anglo-Saxons as much as among the Norse, he stands back and just directs the fight. That might explain why his men lose; he’s not inspiring them with his own example of bravery. Worse, he orders his men to charge the testudo. What an actual Anglo-Saxon leader would have done is form up his men into his own shield wall and wait for the Vikings to force the battle by charging, because the side that charges a shield wall typically loses unless they get lucky. So Anglo-Saxon warfare often took the form of two opposing shield walls, each taunting the other to try to get the enemy to break formation and charge. In this specific scenario, the Anglo-Saxons have the upper hand; the Vikings are in hostile territory and have to get back to their ship before further Anglo-Saxon troops arrive. So a smart commander would have formed up his own shield wall and waited for the Vikings to charge out of desperation; if they retreat, he just uses his archers to pick them off.
Furthermore, he has more troops than Ragnar does, and his troops are more mobile because they’re not in a testudo. He has archers, so he doesn’t even need to get close to hurt the Vikings. Instead of ordering his men to charge, he should either have continued the missile fire, slowly picking off the Vikings, or ordered his men to flank the testudo, killing the men behind the shields with arrow fire. And even if he orders his men to charge, they ought to be able to flank the testudo because they outnumber the raiders. So the only way Ragnar wins this fight is if he has the advantage of being the hero and therefore gets to wear a whole lot of plot armor. Ragnar wins purely because his opponents are written as total idiots and he’s allowed to pull off pretty much impossible battle tactics.
The Next Two Fights
In a later episode, Ragnar and company return to Northumbria. Aelle sends out his brother Aethelwulf and a unit of men. They find the Vikings making camp, and the men want to attack, but Aethelwulf inexplicably insists on waiting and watching. That night, the Vikings attack, catching the Anglo-Saxons off-guard because they have apparently not left any guards or watchmen, because, as is becoming clear by now, the Northumbrians are a kingdom straight out of Idiocracy, too stupid to put guards up when they know their enemy is camped nearby. Aethelwulf is so pious that instead of rushing out to fight, he spends the whole battle praying. And this man is apparently the skilled military leader of the kingdom.
Much of the rest of the conflict revolves around the ransom negotiations for Aethelwulf. That’s plausible. The Vikings, as I said, preferred ransoming because it was safer than fighting. There’s some interesting stuff with the Vikings dining at Aelle’s hall, but way too much is made of the linguistic barrier between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons. The show again wants to highlight Ragnar’s cleverness in learning Old English, but what the show doesn’t understand is that Old English and Old Norse were so closely related linguistically (remember, the Angles came from southern Denmark) that the two languages were mutually comprehensible; they sounded like very heavily accented versions of the other language. For example, the Old English word ‘shirt’ and the Old Norse word ‘skirt’ both refer to the same thing, a long tunic that hangs below the waist. Similarly, what the Anglo-Saxons called a ‘ship’, the Norse called a ‘skip’ or a ‘skiff’. So the Vikings and Aelle’s court would have been able to understand each other more or less without an interpreter.
Ragnar builds a fortified camp, which is something the earliest raiders didn’t do, because the moment you set up a fortified camp, you’ve lost all benefit of surprise and mobility and are vulnerable to being overwhelmed by manpower. Eventually, Aelle’s men attack, charging in on horseback and being tricked by the fact that Ragnar has cleverly concealed a spiked drawbridge.
Here’s the scene (skip over the unrelated scene of Ragnar’s duel with Haraldson; the scene in Northumbria starts about 0:45)
Once again, there are big problems here. First, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t employ cavalry. They used horses for transport, but not to fight from. Exactly why they made this choice isn’t entirely clear; we know that in the early 11th century, they actively resisted cavalry training, but what the issue was in the 8th century is less obvious. Presumably they felt that fighting from horseback was too difficult or that horses were too expensive to risk in combat, but perhaps they felt it was unmanly.
But even if they had used cavalry, it would still be silly, because Aelle doesn’t have to attack at all. All he has to do is set up a guard to keep the Vikings from getting food and then slowly starve them into surrender. Alternately, since he has archers, he can encircle the camp with archers and pick off the Vikings until they come out to attack. Sure, Ragnar is holding Aethelwulf hostage, but if Aelle has decided to attack, he is clearly willing to sacrifice his brother to kill Ragnar.
Nothing I’m saying here is particularly cunning tactically. These are basic ideas that any even remotely competent military leader would have known. But Aelle apparently has all the tactical awareness of Homer Simpson. So again, what the show presents as Ragnar’s cunning is actually just Ragnar’s stupidity being outmatched by the stupidity of his opponents. But it’s easy to win when you have so much plot armor you can’t possibly lose.
The Deeper Issue
One reason I’m harping on this so much is that it demonstrates an underlying trend in action films, one I’ve mentioned before. The historical reason the Vikings were so effective is that they had superior technology (by which I mean the longship; their weapons and armor were no better than anyone else’s) and they employed that technology to its maximum effect. They made extremely good use of hit-and-run tactics in ways that their opponents found hard to respond to, and as much as possible they avoided actually fighting equal opponents, because a pitched battle meant they ran a serious risk of losing, and Vikings were generally risk-averse.
But Michael Hirst, the series creator and main scriptwriter, doesn’t want to show that because it would make Ragnar seem a lot less heroic by contemporary standards. Instead of being a daring warrior, Ragnar would basically be leading a gang of opportunistic, semi-cowardly muggers who run away from a fair fight. It’s hard to look heroic to modern Americans when you spend your time avoiding battle. But that’s because what the Norse found heroic isn’t what modern Americans find heroic. The Norse valued cleverness over brute strength, and modern America, or at least modern Western cinema, values brute strength over cleverness. Modern audiences are trained to want heroes who are extremely strong physically, very aggressive, and above all convinced of their moral rectitude. They win their fights because they know they are right; their enemies have wronged them, and that means that in the fight between good versus evil, good wins because good just wants the victory more and fights harder.
As a result, having been stripped of all the reasons that the Vikings were actually successful, Ragnar wins his fights because he has more heart and determination than his opponents do. But that means the fights don’t actually make any sense, because he’s winning even though he’s outnumbered, pinned down, and facing opponents who have better equipment (the Anglo-Saxons are typically wearing better armor and carrying longbows half a millennium too early). So the show has to resort to rampant idiocy to explain his victories.
This becomes even more problematic when you stop and notice that Ragnar isn’t actually the good guy in these fights; he’s merely the protagonist. Ragnar and his men are viciously attacking peaceful, innocent men and women, killing them, stealing their property, and in some cases enslaving them. They’re ravening wolves attacking bumbling toddlers and being celebrated for it.
The show is clearly following the lead of anti-hero shows like The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad in which the series follows the exploits of criminals operating within American society and examines the moral complexities of their characters. On the surface, The Vikings is the same kind of show. But these other shows are explicitly set within a context of crime, in which it is clear to the viewers that the protagonists are violating the law and making choices within a range of evils. Walter White has to die for what he’s done, and Tony Soprano either gets whacked at the end or lives a life in which he is forever looking over his shoulder for the people who will eventually kill him. In other words, these anti-hero shows make it clear that on some level the protagonist is a bad guy who will eventually get his just punishment. The shows establish a moral standard even while they watch their anti-heroes deviate from it.
The Vikings, in contrast, is about a bunch of violent men and women who live in a society that actively glorifies stealing from, killing, and enslaving those too weak or too stupid to resist. Ragnar is doing exactly what his society thinks he should be doing. In fact, given Aelle’s viciousness and the monk Aethelstan’s eventual conversion to the Norse way, the show actually asserts that the pagan Norse way is morally superior to the Christian Anglo-Saxon culture the main characters are preying upon. It is actively championing the predatory ethos upon which being a Viking was based, and then occasionally showing how these Vikings are a little less bad, because they occasionally kill rapists, spare old men, and love their sons.
I find this incredibly problematic. On some level I believe it’s immoral to offer literal rapine and murder and present it as morally superior. A show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad can explore the moral ambiguities of the mafia lifestyle or meth-dealing precisely because it’s clear that on some level the show acknowledges the immorality of the characters’ actions, and that acknowledgement of the immorality creates the nuance on which the show plays. Skyler White comes to function as the voice of morality, forcing her husband to eventually acknowledge the growing evil of his actions, just as Dr Melfi pushes back against Tony Soprano and ultimately terminates her work with him.
(As an aside, I suspect that’s part of the reason that so many fans decided Skyler was a horrible bitch. After all Carmela Soprano was in some ways far more shrewish but never became the object of such intense vituperation and vicious internet memes (although she received a lesser degree of hatred). Carmela is ultimately a venal figure, accepting Tony’s crimes as the price of her life of luxury. But rather than giving in to her baser instincts, Skyler ultimately forces Walter to admit that he is doing evil things purely because he enjoys them. Her character’s moral stance explicitly criticizes the criminal behavior that so many of the show’s fans wanted to revel in, reminding them that they were taking pleasure in something clearly immoral. As a blocking character, she essentially confronts the viewer as well as her husband.)
But The Vikings has no analogous character. Far from pushing back against Ragnar’s actions, Lagertha directly participates in the murder and theft. After his capture, Brother Aethelstan never tries to articulate a Christian critique of his master, and by the end of the season has abandoned Christianity entirely. The blocking characters for Ragnar are Earl Haraldson and King Aelle, both of whom are presented as being more evil than Ragnar is. Haraldson is a villain from start to finish, while Aelle is ruthless; he kills one of his commanders for being defeated, is willing to sacrifice his brother Aethelwulf, and negotiates in bad faith, whereas Ragnar is presented as caring about his men and his brother and negotiating in good faith.
Without any sort of moral standard, the series cannot generate very much ambiguity. Murder, theft, and enslavement are good as long as you’re the hero of the story, because that’s basically the only perspective we’re given to empathize with. About the only ambiguity in the series is the question of Ragnar’s treatment of Rollo and, in the final episode, Ragnar’s disloyalty to Lagertha. And from a moral perspective, I think it’s a serious problem with the show.
I like films and tv series that are willing to explore moral complexity and ambiguity; not all problems have obvious moral solutions, and few people are all good or all bad, so I appreciate main characters who are not entirely moral or immoral. When done well, as with The Wire, or Breaking Bad, or The Sorpanos, moral ambiguity can challenge viewers to reassess their own moral positions and beliefs. But The Vikings is an example of a show that does moral ambiguity poorly, and the result is a series that teeters on the brink of being flat out immoral in my opinion. I’m not suggesting that we need to return to the moral absolutism of the Hays Code, or even 1980s television. But I do think Michael Hirst needs to seriously reassess the way he’s approaching the series. He may be aiming for moral ambiguity, but he’s wound up somewhere much uglier.
Want to Know More?
Vikings Season 1 is available on Amazon.
There’s a dearth of good works on Norse weapons and tactics that both based in sound scholarship and accessible to the general reader. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques is probably the best option available. There’s also Paddy Griffith’s The Viking Art of War (Greenhill Military Paperbacks), but I don’t recommend it, unless you really want to dig into what little has been written on the subject regardless of quality.