Quite possibly one of the biggest surprises in recent television is the popularity and success of History Channel’s Vikings. Many attribute the success to its cinematography, acting, and detailed focus on factual history in relating the story of Ragnar Lothbrok and his clan. Indeed all of this would be true. It is rare to see such talent and storytelling, and when it happens it washes over us in awe.
Still others might say that there is too much violence or that the raw paganism is a bit too glorified. I understand those criticisms, however I might argue that one of humanity’s greatest storytellers would say otherwise. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was fairly critical of others who wished to do away with the myths and legends of past cultures, most especially the cultures he came to love, those of the English, Nordic, and Germanic. He felt it was mistaken to throw out the histories of pre-Christian culture, not simply because they are part of human history, but because the more we can learn about the prophecies and experiences of our ancestors, the more we come to appreciate culture for what it is, a coming together of a people to define their meaning and allow the arts and lifestyles to flow from that ultimate end. So the question might be asked, “What would Tolkien have thought of Vikings?”
Tolkien had a great love for the ancient poem Beowulf. In fact, just recently his translation of the work has been published for the world to enjoy. And I would highly recommend a reading of his essay “The Monsters and the Critics”. In this essay Tolkien makes a strong case that Beowulf, much like his own magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, has a fusion of actual history and literary parable meant to educate, engender the virtues, and expell he vices. In his view, the gods of the old myths offered two types of edification, the first being that the gods most often revealed the evil and the good within the hearts of men. The other, especially as Christianity came onto the scene, the gods and monsters began representing a fight against the Christian God, thus enlightening their listeners that there is indeed a war going on, one of powers and principalities in which man makes a decision about which side he will fight for, the side of truth and light or the side of darkness and despair. Ultimately, Tolkien felt that mortality, the reality that we will die, which was one of his central messages, was innate to mythic literature and to human experience. We find ourselves in the lives and stories of the ancients, both the fallen within and the love and familial need we all crave.
History Channel’s Vikings offers a unique opportunity for its viewers in that through the medium of some of the finest directing, storytelling, and cinematography, it offers the astonishing history of real lives and beliefs of an age gone by. While The Lord of the Rings is surely an act of imaginative flight, Tolkien treated his story much differently in that he felt it was a true story, revealed to him, which happened long ago. This is why we’re so entranced with the characters of his epic; they were revealed as real people and became relatable as such. So, in relation to Ragnar Lothbrok, his brother Rollo, the ever-impressive shield maiden Lagertha, and the many other characters of Vikings we find a similar quality.
One of Tolkien’s biggest arguments on the enthusiastic support of Christians reading a poem like Beowulf was that it conveyed the message of “man at war with a hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.” Ultimately our time here on earth in short and enigmatic. We never know when our life might end. He felt that the poem offered the undying virtues of ancient culture–courage, devotion, an inability to give up in the face of defeat—and fused it with the Christian faith. In the end, readers find that which is good, true, and beautiful within the pagan culture and follow those markers to Christ.
In Vikings, we experience something analogous to such a blend of culture and faith. We experience that the world is indeed hostile, most often represented in the desires of the gods of the Nordic world. The gods, not much different than humans in their nature and personalities, desire their followers to give so much of themselves, not so that they might be filled with life as we see in the Christian God, but that they might avoid punishment. The afterlife offered by the Nordic gods, Valhalla, isn’t much more than what the world can offer, it just happens to be never-ending. And thus, the Vikings find themselves in between a battle of principalities which requires a full assimilation into two very different modes of morality. The battle is very clear: either the Christian God wins, meaning the gods of the past must die, or the enchantment of self-sacrifice is trumped by the allure of overt self-interest. Both require blood, however the Christian God has already spilled his own to fulfill the desire of a hostile world, while the Nordic gods crave the blood of their own people to fill their sinister strategies.
The show also does an amazing job of presenting the cultural virtues, which Tolkien loved so well, most often set within the context of war and family. The pride of heritage, the gall of courage, and the sacrificial nature of seeing future generations in all actions done, are fine examples of a culture which finds itself in line with the good, true, and beautiful. Obviously, Tolkien would argue that pillaging, a deeply embedded aspect of Viking culture, would offset a few of the meritorious aspects of these virtues, however I think he would argue that were the Christian God to win such a battle within a tenacious people, we would find some of the greatest missionaries the world has ever known, as we see in the history of Ireland or in the great figure of Bohemond I, the Norman convert who became the pope’s right hand man during the Crusades. I would say that Tolkien would find this clear display of virtues, set inside a story of spiritual war, as worthy of tribute.
One of the arguments against Vikings has been the level of violence portrayed. I would reply by pointing to two other pieces of literature: Scripture and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien most surely wasn’t averse to violence and neither were the authors of Scripture, most especially those of the Old Testament. What they were concerned with is, what end will this violence portray? They were concerend witht he fine line between barbarism and heroism. G. K. Chesterton said, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” The violence portrayed in Vikings, while gut-wrenching at times, finds value in its ultimate concern, that of the spiritual realm. Thus we have Vikings fighting Christians, Christians fighting Vikings, and Vikings spilling the blood which their gods require to tempt the fates on to their side.
Tolkien was as much a Catholic realist as he was an imaginative genius. His most admirable feature was that he was less interested in the problems of modern society and more interested in how the fallen aspects of man might point towards the golden gates of heroic virtue, either through self-denial or fighting for what it good. While many might feel Vikings glamorizes a barbaric culture, Tolkien might have accepted that while the vicious acts might be off put, if we bring light to their virtue and mix it with the tenacity of Christ, these barbarians may not become flower children but knights of the Church, leaving the gods of death and embracing the God of life.