In the second episode of the new TV series Vikings, the seafaring Norsemen make their first-ever voyage across open water, reach the coast of Britain and raid the monastery at Lindisfarne, murdering monks and burning manuscripts. Discovering one young monk cowering behind an altar clutching a bible, our hero Ragnar Lothbrok is intrigued. He wants to know why, surrounded by bejewelled chalices and candelabrum, this odd man would chose to save a book.
"What drives these guys across open oceans? … What is driving Ragnar?" asks Michael Hirst, the British TV producer who created the show for the specialty channel History. "He doesn't just want to rape and pillage, he wants to discover."
Rape and pillage are, of course, our central associations with the Vikings, those fierce Scandinavian warriors who conquered not only the North Sea in the eighth century but eventually sailed the Atlantic. But Hirst, who was also the cunning mind behind The Tudors and The Borgias, says these tough guys got bad press.
Yes, they were ferocious fighters who raided other peoples by land and by sea, but they were also more democratic and more egalitarian than their Saxon and Frankish contemporaries. They made community decisions at meetings where votes were held, and they permitted women to both divorce and own property.
They travelled through the Baltic Sea as far east as Russia and even reached Constantinople; westward, they sailed to Britain, Iceland, Greenland and eventually Newfoundland. But they weren't just bloodthirsty raiders; they were farmers trapped in a coastal geography that offered them little land for a growing population. In battle, they combined life-saving pragmatism – they would simply turn and run if things were going against them – with a religion that embraced death and offered respite in the mythical palace of Valhalla.
"I find their culture, their gods and their rituals absolutely fascinating," Hirst said, joking that he has considered converting to paganism. "Part of the point of the series is to communicate how rich their culture was."
He has been interested in the Vikings for years and, after the success of his 1998 movie Elizabeth, began a script about Alfred the Great, the English king who fought the Vikings. Nobody bit, however: "I put my interest in my back pocket … and I just hoped some day someone would cotton on to the Vikings."
If he encountered only shrugs a decade ago, today Vikings seem to be floating about in the zeitgeist. Hirst can't think why interest has suddenly been sparked, but he speculates that many people might be intrigued because they would have Viking blood in them.
"Vikings are in just about everybody's ancestral blood – they didn't just conquer, they assimilated," he said, adding: "People want to access them, but how do you do it?"
Enter Lothbrok, played in the series by the Australian actor Travis Fimmel, a character based on a real Viking leader about whom some historical information is available – alongside many legends.
"He thought he was a descendent of the god Odin," Hirst said. "He was not only the god of war but also of curiosity. Odin sacrificed an eye so that he could see the future."
So in Ragnar, Hirst said, history handed him a character who has a positive and dramatic characteristic – a questing intellect: "He's not just driven by bad impulses. I thought I could marry my interest in the Vikings with a relatively sympathetic character."
Ragnar is portrayed in the series as a family man who is faithful to his wife, the ferocious Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick), and protective of his children. He rebels against the local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), a dictatorial overlord who insists the men go every summer to raid the equally impoverished lands to their east. Ragnar is convinced there are riches to the west, breaks ranks, gets a boat built and heads out to unknown territory, leaving his wife and children behind.
It's a dramatic enough family saga, and Hirst discovered as he wrote that he couldn't abandon Ragnar and start skipping forward a few centuries to the cross-Atlantic voyages that are the historical culmination of the Viking's seafaring exploits. Like The Tudors before it, the show is an Irish-Canadian co-production with several Canadian performers (including both Winnick and Jessalyn Gilsig as the Earl's wife.) Nobody, however, is going make landfall at l'Anse aux Meadows, the site in northern Newfoundland where archeological remains of a Viking settlement have been found.
"I might have killed off Ragnar in the first season, but I couldn't because I was too interested in the character," Hirst said.
He wanted Ragnar, his wife and his dictatorial boss to be characters with whom contemporary audiences could empathize, rather than "museum people," so he read both Norse sagas and modern Icelandic novels to find a plausible rhythm for the dialogue. He has created a language that is slightly heightened or archaic, yet also very earthy, with regular reminders that these are, as he puts it, "real guys."
"We can offer you a chance to shine in battle and impress the gods and to bring back such plunder as you have never seen before," Ragnar tells the men he is trying to recruit to sail west. "Have you got the balls to join us?"
Of course they do.
Vikings airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on History.