The #ShieldGeeks Discuss #VIKINGS "Mercy"


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The Shieldmaidens of History (Protecting the Innocent from Anachronisms) welcome you back to our review series on the History Channel show Vikings. 


Historical fiction author Sandi Layne is with me again to discuss the historical aspects of the show. Sandi has written her own series on Vikings, both well-written and carefully researched. (You can read my review of the third book in the trilogy, Éire's Devil Kinghere.)


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We began the episode with Björn still on his vision quest. He's setting a metal bear trap. A bit of an anachronism, here... The first mention of iron jaw traps like the one Björn used dates to about 1305 in the work of Crescentiis of Bologna. Björn's trap probably would have been a torsion trap of wood and sinew. But we'll add this to the "boot heel file" and move along, because it was a very interesting episode, and I'm sure our readers don't really care much about the history of iron animal traps.


Sandi: For any newcomers, our "boot heel file" is where we tuck away anachronisms we find on the show. Such as modern soles on 9th Century footwear, punitive measures against unfaithful wives, and, er, advanced bear traps. Hard metals were difficult and expensive, in this time and place. Metallurgy included smelting and such, but the techniques were not well advanced until about the 15th Century. Björn must have had a lot of matériel under those furs he was wearing in the first episode, to be able to produce all that he has. Either that, or the hunting lodge was very well supplied.

In Kattegat, Floki is screaming in torment as the icy water drips on him in his prison cave. Helga - as Sigyn did for Loki - holds a bowl above his head to catch the water and ease his suffering. Her arms tremble from the effort, and when she goes to empty the bowl, she collapses in exhaustion, sleeping on the icy stone for just a few moments, until Floki's cries of pain rouse her again. It's a hellish punishment for the two of them. Maude Hirst's acting was just remarkable in this episode, and the costuming/makeup departments did an extraordinary job, as well. She looked like a woman a hair's-breadth away from utter breakdown.

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Sandi: I saw and read commentary last week about Floki's position here being almost Christ-like in appearance. I don't think that was the intention, as the I'm sure that the writers were seeking to imitate the Loki/Sigyn story more than anything. But it was certainly ironic, intentional or otherwise. Many ancient societies used the stretched-torso method of torture, as it wore a person down in a surprisingly small amount of time. To add the water was just awful. Ragnar was certainly on target with his punishment here. 

 In Hedeby, Lagertha is making love with Kalf. He rolls over afterward and tells her he loves her, and he always has. He thinks she's still young enough to give him a child, and then his happiness will be complete. Lagertha doesn't tell him of the Seer's prophecy. She remains silent throughout it all.

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Kalf announces he needs to heed the call of nature - though not so poetically - and then heads outside.

Sandi: I am so not thrilled with the Kalfling. Wait, he's getting older, too. Does that make him a bull instead of a calf? We know what bulls are full of, don't we? I've so had it with this man, I have to say. He's pretty, but I don't trust him. Not a bit. He says one thing to Lagertha's face and another to someone else. A politician? Certainly. Lagertha's face fell when he mentioned having children by her. I imagine her pain at not being able to produce another son for Ragnar—a sad situation that began the dissolution of their wonderful marriage—is combined with the prophecy from the Seer for her, here. 

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He is met by the Princeling, Erlendur, who tells him he's heard that Bjorn is out on his own in a cabin - a perfect time to kill him. Kalf thinks that's a fine idea. They decide to send a berserker to do the dastardly deed. He's a very large, scarred man with a brutal-looking axe, who seems to communicate primarily with grunts and growls.
Sandi: This does a disservice to berserkers, in my opinion. Not the scars. They'd totally have them. But a berserker was a keen warrior who could be perfectly civilized when not in berserker mode (due to mushrooms or nakedness or whathaveyou). What I want to know is how long Lagertha would make Kalf's demise last if she knew he was plotting to kill her only son? And if Kalf is not truly thus plotting, how long until the Princeling hamstrings him and feeds him to a bear?

Meanwhile, Björn is tracking a bear - or rather, seeing signs of the bear here and there, and catching glimpses of it. He has some bear-murderin' on his mind, there's no doubt.

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Sandi: Which is good, since he has the ultra-modern trap, no? I get that he is on his I'm a Man journey, but I can't help but wonder if he'll meet someone other than the scarred and growling hitman while he's up in the Greater Whiter North. 

In Paris, "I Forgot How To Princess" Le Pew is causing embarrassing scenes again.

Sandi: This girl just doesn't know how "to adult", I think. Still wondering why she's been written this way. (I know. I could go on for days on proper comportment of the medieval royal female... I'll try to restrain myself.)

Her father brings in a relic of Saint Eulalia - it must be her feast day, December 10th. Chuck the Simple tells Gisla the story of the saint. It's sort of an "As you know, Bob," moment, because Gisla would probably be very aware of this saint. (The real Prudentius wrote about her, as an interesting tie-in.) Girls of that era particularly venerated virgin martyrs. In any case, Gisla remarks that her horrid husband is just like the pagans who slaughtered Eulalia, and he'd probably like to burn her alive, too.

Sandi: This type of thing is actually something one can see Eleanor of Aquitaine saying—but only at the height of her influence and power. Gisla has potential, but she's unwise as yet.

Rollo munches on some chicken, oblivious for the most part, to his wife's sniping. When she stands up and dramatically demands a divorce, Rollo stands, too. He says, "My woman," and takes her arm. Gisla shrieks she'll never be his and throws a goblet of wine in his face before storming out.

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Sandi: Rollo has a hard job, here. He knows his wife has taken him in aversion. He doesn't yet speak the language, he's doing his level best to conform—knowing that it has cost him men from his own place and people, and knowing it will effectively cut him off from Ragnar forever—and he's trying, here. Trying to read her cues if not her words. And he gets publicly humiliated. Again. Granted, he's not Mr. Perfect, but he is trying.

Her personal feelings for her husband aside, Gisla has to know how badly they need Rollo as an ally. We've mocked her for not behaving with the decorum of a princess of her age, but more important is her complete lack of regard as a politician. She wanted her father to respect her political mind, but she can't seem to stop herself from going out of her way to publicly humiliate and insult a crucial ally. It's my opinion the show would have served her character far better by showing her struggling to behave herself in public, and perhaps unleashing on him in their private quarters. I'd have respected her far more, in any case.



 Rollo drinks the rest of his own goblet, then drops it to the table. He then proceeds to walk over the table and starts out of the room.

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But the looks the courtiers are giving him are too much for him to handle. He turns around and roars at a young girl and she screams in terror.

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Sandi: . . . Yeah, well. Not perfect. He's probably figured out some of Gisla's more colorful and derisive vocabulary at this point. "If they're going to call me a beast, I can act like one!"

 Chuck and Darth Odious are alarmed by this turn of events. If Rollo leaves, as he seems bent on doing, they'll be defenseless when Ragnar returns.

Chuck sends Odious to try to soothe Rollo. In his chamber, Rollo manages to use a combination of mime and pointing to books to show Odo that he wants to learn how to speak French.

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 Odo promises to get him a tutor, relieved that Rollo will stay at least long enough for lessons.

Sandi: The quick conference that took place between Darth Odious and Rollo was really well done, in my opinion. No translation was given, as I mentioned last night. 


That Odo was determined to get Rollo to agree to a joint action was absolutely obvious. That Rollo tried hard to make himself understood was equally certain. But as to how they actually communicated? That remains to be seen. How much was truly understood?



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Back in Kattegat, King Ragnar strides into Floki's prison cave. He asks Helga if she's told Floki yet... and of course Floki wants to know what he was talking about. Helga has to reluctantly inform Floki that Angrbo∂a has died. Floki's cries of agony increase.
Sandi: I feel as if Ragnar was wreaking as much vengeance/punishment as he could from this situation before he takes a final action concerning Floki. That Ragnar uses, in essence, the death of little Angrbo∂a to further inflict anguish upon Floki was cruel—especially as he used Helga to do so. (Which does make all kinds of proper sense, but it was also harsh.) 

In Mercia, Aethelwulf is transporting Queen Kwenthrith and her baby, Magnus. She begs him to stop and light a fire, because little Magnus is freezing. He gives her a chunk of raw meat. She says the boy can't eat it, and he tells her that she must eat it and survive. Which is a very interesting development, since his father told him that Magnus was the one whose survival was important in this scenario. Choking back her disgust, Kwenthrith gnaws on the meat-cicle.



Sandi: We see here a flare of of what Amy Bailey—the wonderful actress who plays Kwenthrith—said last week: Call them "Kwenthelwulf". Magnus must survive, said Ecbert, but his son is developing a spine of his own. His relationship with Judith is strained at present (oh, how they've grown up and cynical, you know?) but he is seeking this for himself, not his father. And, too, it is very practical to encourage the adult to care for herself first. It goes against the grain, for a mother, but even on airplanes today you have the "take care of your own breathing mask first, then the child's next to you" directive. 

Rollo has his first language lesson, and it doesn't go all that well. He tries repeating the phrases the monk says to him, but the accent is difficult for him. He ends up grabbing the monk and hurling him across the room, flipping the table in his frustration.

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Sandi: You and I discussed briefly last night that the French accent can be a challenge! And Rollo has a proper tutor, maybe, but the phrases aren't the best. I think I'd start by having him learn war terms. "This is a boat. This is the Seine. Here is how we protect the city." And so on. 

Björn's vision quest turns into a one-man frat party. He opens a keg of mead and gets "tin-roof rusted," as the saying goes, howling like a wolf at the Northern Lights.


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Sandi: As silly as this might have been, it was amusing. And also, I think, very real. A young man, who has lost so much and seen his own vulnerabilities in very physical ways, might indeed be out to prove himself as Björn is, here. And he'd act in ways that he wouldn't do with the parents around. How many college freshman spend a lot of their first year way from home drunk or hung-over? And I loved the howling. Really, it was a much needed bit of levity in this episode. 

He passes out in the snow, never a good idea, but after he wakes (and pukes) Björn finally sees the bear face to face. It's a huge, fierce creature, roaring at the sight of him.

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Björn lights into it with a knife, finally finishing the creature off with an axe, but not before he takes a claw swipe to the shoulder. He roars in victory, and it's heard all the way back in Kattegat by Ragnar, who looks up at the sound. Later, we see him cauterize the wound, and he roars again, though the people of Kattegat don't hear that one. (And you'd think they would.)

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 During his last scene, we see Björn taking a dip in the lake through a hole in the ice.

A bit later, Ragnar is cleaning fish while talking a story of Thor meeting with a strange ferryman. His sons are enthralled by the tale. The stranger turns out to be a man named Harbard. "Did you ever meet him?" Ubbe asks. No, Ragnar says, but perhaps Aslaug has.

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Aslaug glares at him. Her face is still bruised from Ragnar's slaps in the last episode. She takes the boys inside for dinner.

Sandi: Ragnar can spin a fine yarn, to be sure. Here, he does so for double-purpose: instructing and entertaining his sons AND taking aim at his wife. That bruise out in the light of day was ugly. Another good move by the Vikings make-up team. 

Judith is continuing her painting lessons with Prudentius. He tells her the story of Ragnar's invasion of Paris, but with a pious Christian twist. he says the Vikings were all stricken with disease because of their blasphemy. She asks if there was a monk named Athelstan among them. Prudentius says if there was, he hopes Athelstan would be crucified for it.

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Judith later relays the story to Ecbert, who is amused by it, though they both regret not getting any news of Athelstan. Judith appears in his room that night and says she'll be his mistress again, but he has to swear to respect her and treat her as an equal. Ecbert swears it, on the life of Athelstan.
Sandi: May I say here that I am hoping that the plot will soon settle down to two or three places rather than all that are now in use? Kattegat, Mercia, Wessex, Hedeby, Paris, Hunting Lodge in Bear Country... We spend, sometimes, very little time in each locale and it's distracting. Okay. Anyway. I had to say that.

Back to Judith and her men. Judith seems, by her facial expressions, her invasion into Father Sommelier Prudentius's personal space, and her careful movements near him, to be planning a seduction. Consciously or subconsciously.



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 I can't help but think that this is, of course, due to the good father's resemblance to the lamented Athelstan. Then, she goes on to try to negotiate an "equal" adulterous relationship with King Ecbert, who pretends not to hold it in any hugely important regard. I wonder what Judith is planning—for surely she cannot be naïve enough to think that he's taking her entirely seriously with her talk of freedom and equality. There are always strings with Ecbert. Always. 

That night, Ecbert wakes, startled out of sleep by some unknown force. He goes into the library. In Kattegat, Ragnar wakes too, and walks out into his silent hall with a torch, looking around for whatever it was that roused him.


Sandi: I still want to know. I mean, we saw how it played out, but this sequence might be showing that somehow, these men are still connected. Through their mutual regard for Athelstan? It was a powerful sequence of scenes, I think.

Ragnar sits down on his throne and someone enters, carrying a bowl of warm water. The stranger pulls back his cowl, and it's our Athelstan. He tenderly washes Ragnar's feet. Ragnar is enraptured by the sight of his beloved friend. "Mercy," Athelstan implores. "Mercy."

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At the same moment, Ecbert feels a gust of wind which scatters the pages of the documents Judith was illuminating. Athelstan enters, but he does not approach Ecbert. He glides by as Ecbert calls for him to come back.

@LissaBryan Jesus washed his disciples' feet just before his final Passover. His death and resurrection. Interesting to do, here.#VIKINGS
— Sandi Layne (@sandyquill) March 4, 2016

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Sandi: I was so pleased to see Athelstan. We've missed George Blagden on Vikings and, even if it's a visionary experience, I was happy that he was there. In these paired experiences, it was interesting to me to see how the different visitations were treated. Athelstan washed the "pagan's feet" yet he scattered the "Christian's manuscript" with his presence. The former is tender and caring, the latter disruptive. And he speaks to Ragnar but doesn't approach Ecbert. This is, I'm sure, meant to be a wordless commentary on their behaviors since his death. The plea for Mercy, I cannot help but think was heeded. At least to a degree.

As Ragnar reaches out to him, Athelstan vanishes, just as Ecbert's apparition vanishes.



In the morning, Ragnar goes to Floki's cave. He tells Helga she has suffered enough, and cuts Floki's bonds, tossing the hatchet aside as he walks out of the cave.

Sandi: And the plea for mercy is heard. He tosses the hatchet but, as was asked on twitter last night: Did he bury it? Did he, then, leave all thoughts of future retribution behind him in the cave when he left it? 

Ecbert goes to find Judith. He tells her of his vision and says he's convinced Athelstan is dead. Judith bursts into tears and says she loved him.

Sandi: Is it odd to anyone else that she accepts this immediately? Utterly? She loved him; I believe this. But she never even questioned Ecbert's declaration here. No moment of, "No! It can't be! How can you be sure?" None of that.



Ecbert says he loved Athelstan, too, and embraces her as she sobs. They're soon called outside. Aethelwulf has returned with Queen Kwenthrith and her son. Ecbert tells her she's safe now and takes her inside for food and a bath. Aethulwulf asks Judith why she's crying. She says it's because she's happy her husband has returned home safe. Aethelwulf, the poor fool, seems to be touched by that.

Sandi: I think it's because he knows he's got Kwenthrith on the brain and he is not innocent of adulterous thoughts, even if he had yet to go to Kwenthrith's bed, he was thinking about it at this moment. So he doesn't have the high road, anymore, and perhaps he has a bit of fellow-feeling for his wife. Mercy, eh? 

That night, Kwenthrith lies sleepless. Her face says she doesn't really trust Ecbert's assurances of safety. Her chamber door opens and Aethelwulf comes inside. Kwenthrith pulls back the covers and invites him into her bed.



Sandi: And . . . Kwenthelwulf is full on happening. Yep. I wonder when—or if?—this will be discovered and what the responses from involved and affected parties will be?


So much to wait for next week! I hope you'll join us @LissaBryan and @sandyquill! 



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Thanks for joining us! Tune in next THORSday for another episode!

Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!

Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways! – Vafþrúðnismál 4





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1 comment:

  1. Gonna be a very full season.

    I don't think Bjorn's cry was literally heard in Kattegut, but Ragnar saw a raven, which has always had meaning in his life. It was a nice way of switching scenes.

    I, too, wonder why Gisla is written this way, for all the various reasons. Sure, it's amusing, but I'd rather see Rollo win over a strong woman. Wonder how much he misses Siggy in his quiet moments?

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