Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Church of the Axe

As many of my readers know, much to my shame, I’m a bit of a TV watcher. Why “to my shame?” Because, like video games, television can be an unforgivable time suck that isolates one from the world and people around you, and yet does not allow the mind or body to rest. Of course video games can be actually ACTIVE and ENGAGING…the television just force feeds your brain whatever the producers deem appropriate.

I realize that’s a bit harsh, and that watching some television shows can actually stimulate conversation or become a “group-bonding” activity…like sporting events or the Academy Awards…and that other shows on television can be educational, inspiring, and teach us things about life, ourselves, and others. But that’s not usually the case. Fact is, there’s a lot of crap on TV…and watching a guy shoot arrows into bad guys while his sister bangs the local meth head (that’s the basic plot of Arrow) isn’t doing a lot for MY brain except providing some fun, superhero-style entertainment.

It is what it is, folks.

Yet, intellectual snob that I am, I can usually hold myself down to just a handful of “regular” shows (thank God we got rid of HBO! Prior to the birth of our child we were watching pretty much everything they were putting out)...and the occasional (terrible, terrible) Mariners game. And (besides Arrow) I try to limit myself to shows of the “quality” variety…Downton Abbey and Mad Men, for example, or Parks and Rec (for funny). Such “sitcom crack” as Friends and Sex and the City have fallen by the wayside.

But now I’ve got Vikings.

Gosh, what a great show! I was up till 2am the other night catching up on the most recent episodes…and to put that it in perspective, my dogs get me up anywhere between 4:30 and 5:30am every morning, rain or shine, weekends or work days (on week days I usually go back to bed until 6ish, when I get up to ready myself for a 7am start time). Sleep is at a premium in my home (it’s not often I get to bed before midnight most days), and my main luxury these days is taking a two or three hour “power nap” on the weekends when my son is having his daily siesta…assuming I don’t need to run errands or blog or write books or something.

But for Vikings…well, it’s “axe crack” people. And I’ve blogged before of my love of axes.

Vikings is a new show airing on the History Channel, and is pretty much better and more interesting than any single television drama currently airing on TV, with the exception of Mad Men. It has great acting, great writing, and beautiful production value…and damn if it isn’t pretty damn historically accurate (I say this as an amateur armchair historian of Norse culture, so take that with a grain of salt). And it’s different…O so different…from any Viking show or film I’ve ever seen. I mean, it takes pains to really try to portray the mindset of 8th century Norse culture.

[BTW: I know the show has received some criticism for being historically INACCURATE with regard to clothing and the Danes lack of knowledge of “the West”…that’s not what I’m referring to. Just hang with me for a bit, okay?]

The show depicts the life and exploits of Ragnar Lodbrok, one of the most famous heroes of the (real life) Norse sagas, including everything from his family life to his raiding expeditions to his political rivalries. For myself, the series is most fascinating because of its portrayal of the Norse personality. Often, Vikings in film are simply cardboard berserkers or violent thugs or parodies…individuals with modern, western values that just happen to do the barbarian thing for a job (think of the Capitol One commercials, or the characters portrayed in the film Erik the Viking). It’s like Scottish highlanders…the concept has been so romanticized and caricatured over the years that it’s difficult to find a historically accurate depiction of their brain. Vikings, I feel, does a better job of this than anything I’ve ever seen.

Not a nice man.
Ragnar, for example, is the hero of the show. Ragnar has all the classic virtues of the Norse people: he is courageous, he is clever, he is honorable, he is dutiful to his family. He is also a complete raging asshole and murderous bastard by our present standards. Let there be no discussion about it…the Norsemen had a real “us/them” mentality, and sailing into someone’s country and butchering unarmed folks (not to mention raping and pillaging) was all considered “fair play.” Ragnar is not a very nice person, at all and in his culture there really is a premium value placed on strength…Ragnar and his crew have nothing but contempt for the weaklings they raid, and Ragnar holds the loyalty of his men first and foremost due to having proven himself a strong warrior. His ambition and cunning combine to elevate him above his station of birth, but his brethren would not follow him for these reasons alone (his ability to get them rich plunder is a definite plus towards earning their loyalty and respect as well). At times, he exhibits a degree of compassion and curiosity that marks him different from his fellows…it’s obvious that he is unusual and marked for greatness…but neither one of these traits trump his “Norse nature;” when it’s time to fight there’s no hesitation.

At the same time, the Norse are more than just axe-wielding maniacs. They have a great sense of humor, a great sense of pride, that practicality and peculiar melancholy that marks Scandinavians even today…and an intense reverence for their own gods and religion. Man, it is so refreshing to see, when so much of today’s “historical fiction” films and shows tend to gloss over or ignore religion.  For most of our history, humans have lived in worshipful fear and awe of our God or gods…something conveniently forgotten in our production of otherwise high quality, historical films.

[as an aside, this is why I find the recent Clash of the Titans remake so incredibly stupid. The idea some Greek, even a hero like Perseus, would dare stand in defiance of the gods? Utterly asinine in a film full of asinine bullshit]

Vikings (the show) doesn’t ignore the fact that humans have ambition, nor that they are as prone to foibles and frailty as we ever have been, but the underpinning of the earth and reality is the divine, and it’s something that needs to be respected at all costs. Prayer…whether to Odin or to Christ (Christians are well represented on the other side)…is often-used, both in supplication and thanksgiving, and while the heathens may question the validity of the Christian God as much as the Christians condemn Odin, neither side dares profane their OWN religion.

There’s a great bit in the most recent episode wherein one of Ragnar’s men agrees to be baptized so that the English feel more comfortable bargaining with the heathens (the English are trying to pay off the Norsemen to leave them alone). Rollo, Ragnar’s brother agrees to do so, mostly for expedience…he doesn’t actually believe in the Christian God and considers the whole thing a joke. However, when it’s pointed out that his “joke” is probably an affront to Odin (if not outright blasphemy), he quakes in mortal terror…and Rollo is a big guy and pretty bright and ambitious besides. Here's the thing: for a culture that believed in heaven as “Valhalla,” snubbing Odin is a good way to get yourself left behind…plus, the concepts of “divine blessing” in the old Norse culture really boiled down to “being lucky” and he might have felt he’d just signed up for a big heaping helping of bad luck.

To make up for it, Rollo goes apeshit the next time he has a chance to kill some Christians.

Much of the action of Vikings takes place in the old English kingdom of Northumbria, where they happily pillage and raid, and unlike other Viking-centric shows, the people of England are given plenty of time in the program as well…these aren’t faceless victims, cardboard extras existing only to be axe-fodder for the program's protagonists. Neither are they set-up as simple “antagonists” to “heroic Ragnar” nor “poor me Christians” falling to the Viking swords. Again, the series attempts to treat them in the same neutral light…they have their Christian humility and piety, but they also have their selfishness and arrogance. The king of Northumbria offs a guard captain that failed him (in Darth Vader-like style), but tries to rescue his brother from the clutches of the Vikings, and he exhibits his own cunning and ruthlessness (only fitting, since the sagas say he's the one that eventually kills Ragnar). Religion again comes to the forefront: King Aelle is not Henry the VIII to throw off the dominion of Rome and start up the Anglican Church…back in the 8th century there was only ONE “holy, Catholic, and apostolic church” and you were going to HELL if you didn’t do your time on Sunday (a fact rudely exploited by Ragnar in one of his early raids).

There’s another good bit where the English lords are debating whether or not the Vikings have been sent by God as punishment, or by the devil as a trial, or are simply barbarous men, and the ANSWER to that question is IMPORTANT to how they deal with and respond to the threat (this is part of the reason for the baptism deal). When they invite the  Norsemen to dine, they are affronted that the Vikings dig-in to the victuals without waiting for grace to be said, and the contrast is stark between the two cultures. And yet the English king praying at his chapel for strength and guidance is no different from the Vikings' earl praying at a shrine to his gods in an earlier episode. These are not just religious “touches” like the scant attention paid to the gods in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator…this is a statement of the way these people were: devout, reverent, concerned with the fates God (or the gods) had set in store for them, doing what they could (through their bishops or shamans) to determine what their deities’ Divine Will was.

Because that was important. If you come from a culture that believes God is All-Powerful, than you better try to figure out what He wants for you…otherwise, you’re likely to misstep and get yourself and/or your family/tribe all bloodied and butchered. It was yet another hurdle in a life already fraught with uncertainty and danger…a hard life of war and suffering and starvation. A shared spirituality was part of the foundation of a community (in addition to language and cuisine).

I’ve been reading up on Joan of Arc (again) with an eye towards continuing my series on subclasses and filters (I think ol’ Saint Joan makes a good model for the paladin class…along with Roland and Galahad). The fact that she was entrusted with leading the French army in battle as a PEASANT GIRL is amazing, no matter how eloquent or charismatic a speaker she might have been. Even winning a few battles, or being brave enough to lead the charge from the forefront, isn’t incentive enough (IMO) to say, 'okay, the Maid of Orleans can be our general.' It speaks volumes to A) the inherent spirituality and faith of the culture coupled with B) Joan's ability to convince that culture (including the worldly king, lords, and fighting men) that she was an actual instrument of that God and faith. And that was the 15th century…several centuries removed from the ("less sophisticated") time period of Ragnar and Co.

Do folks see where I’m going with this? This is, of course, a gaming blog…not a religious blog, nor a television blog, nor a Viking blog (though people might be forgiven for mistaking it for the latter). And in fantasy role-playing games, especially D&D, there is a tendency to secularize even our pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds. “Oh, yeah, there are gods…that’s where the cleric gets his powers. But I don’t have to worry about that aspect of the game world.” You don’t? Why not? What “divine right” gives your fantasy world ruler the authority to be king? You better find out if you want your character to be king someday, otherwise you’ll never be more than a pretender. What power do you think it is chooses whether or not your adventure ends in success or terrible, terrible death?

Even if you, personally, don’t believe in creationism, what better setting for a radical, supernatural means of world creation than the setting of a fantasy RPG? Even if you, yourself, don’t believe in the power of God and fate, why wouldn’t your character? Part of role-playing is playing a role, right? If Ragnar the axe murderer can say the occasional prayer or make appropriate sacrifice or find reverence for the rituals of his culture, why can’t Bork the Barbarian or Roderick the Fighter or Zimsum the Magic-User?

There are, of course, other things to be taken from the Vikings television show for use in a role-playing game: examples of adventuring, of how people with high moral character/integrity can still be villainous rogues in action, examples of "what we're doing this all for anyway" (family, personal ambition, romance, etc.), as well as how to handle political intrigue and inter-party conflict...interestingly, the latter are both handled the same.

With an axe.
: )


  1. I guess I get to wait for DVD. :) Thanks for the review. I was curious.

  2. I am very fond of this show. I am especially happy, as you are, with the way that it portrays the religious life of the characters.

    I missed Sunday's episode, and have been forgetting to watch it on my cable company's video-on-demand service, so thanks for reminding me!

  3. @ Faol: I never have a chance to watch TV during "regularly scheduled times" (except for sporting events), and I'm often catching up one-two weeks at a time. However, the most recent episode was pretty good...I really like contrast between the English and Norse. And personally, I don't think the arms and armament are too "off" from historic accuracy...for my "D&D mind" there's a lot of good eye candy!
    : )

  4. On that note, allow me to add that Ragnar's hair is actually accurate (as far as we know). there is a carved depiction of Ragnarr dating from around the time of his death that shows him with a neatly trimmed beard and teh sides of his head bare.

  5. Related to this...have a look at the Vikings book for Mongoose RuneQuest II. Absolutely brilliant piece of work, well researched, makes you want to play RQII even if you don't like the system.