Two Historical Fiction Authors Review #VIKINGS Episode IX

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Welcome 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 first book in the series, Éire's Captive Moonhere.)

Lissa: Athelstan translating Caesar for Ecbert was a lovely scene, with Ecbert pacing and analyzing Caesar's battle strategies. I like his character more with every episode.

Sandi: I confess I wonder about his motivations, but I cannot help but honor a man who seeks to learn about the history of his land, for whatever purpose he may intend. He treats Athelstan well, too. I know I tend toward suspicion, so I'm trying not to be too paranoid about King Ecbert's plans, but so far Athelstan seems to be benefiting by the arrangement as well.

Lissa: Horik isn't interested in talking with Ecbert.

SandiIn this, he is very much a man of his time, I believe.

Lissa: He wants battle and he wants revenge. Ragnar and Björn have a talk that evening where Ragnar reveals part of what the Seer told him about Björn's future... That he would marry a princess and sail a tideless sea. He didn't tell him, however, that he was destined to outshine his father in fame and glory. It gives Björn a little boost of confidence to know he's not destined to die in this battle.

Sandi: I very much enjoy the times that Ragnar spends with his children. This father/son moment is no exception. As you say, Ragnar withheld some information from him, but I'm cool with that; a man has his pride and there is no reason to encourage cockiness in a mostly untried warrior.

From mithrandy on Tumblr
Lissa: Horik seems to be hinting around to Floki that something needs to "happen" to Ragnar. Floki smiles at him, but I wonder if Floki is being a bit of a trickster, here. After all, he has seemed willing to go along with dastardly plans in the past, only to be revealed as truly faithful.

SandiWell, this is a weird place for the character to be. Floki has demonstrated his dissatisfaction with Ragnar to Helga, in private, in such a way that I have no doubt that he feels that way. And Horik is playing up to Floki in a lot of different ways, encouraging the divergence between the friends. But then, Horik kept referring to Loki, in the old story, as "The Sly One" which leads me to believe that we the audience are being reminded that Loki is a trickster and that Floki could be one as well. A very interesting character to play, I'm sure! The majority of the evidence, though, is currently pointing to Floki being a malcontent who is at least letting his mind react to Horik's blandishments, even if his heart hasn't entirely given way, yet.
From queensansastark on Tumblr

Lissa: But the battle does not go well. Aelle's forces plus Ecbert's are too much for Ragnar's men and he has to order a retreat, leaving a gravely injured Rollo behind.

SandiThe way this was presented was wonderful. The division of the Northmen's infantry as Horik clearly was expecting all the troops—his, Ragnar's, and Lagertha's—to follow him into the fight. But the jarls chose to hold back and make their stand a bit apart from the king's. And then in comes the Wessex cavalry, all with their shiny plating and big horses. The kings, Ecbert and Aelle, barely have to do a thing but kick back and watch. I almost expected popcorn. The contrast between the dirt, mud, and blood of the Northmen to the pristine cleanliness of the kings was vastly understood.
From mithrandy on Tumblr

Lissa: Let's discuss a bit about medicine of this era. Rollo seems to have a gut wound of some kind. (I'm glad he wasn't left to the tender mercies of English medicine! "Bleed him. And if that doesn't work, we'll bleed him again. And then give him a purgative.")

SandiThe study of medicine outside of Rome wasn't highly structured at this point. The universities of Europe weren't a settled thing until the 11th Century, really, so medical practices were as varied as the people who were considered physicians in the lands of Wessex and Mercia - and Scandinavia, too. A gut wound was generally considered fatal, but the healer would often check for that by having the patient drink something with a large amount of garlic (or something equally noisome) to see if the odor could be detected as coming through any bandaging and indicating that the stomach or intestines were compromised. If so, there wasn't a lot that could be done, at that time. If not, the patient was often given poultices and teas and hoped for the best.
From robb-stark on Tumblr

Lissa: We didn't see too much of it, but later, it was cauterized, which I asked you about in our Twitter discussion. Cauterization didn't seem like the best choice, here. What did the Vikings use for infections?

SandiBurning was actually considered one good way to deal with infection. It was accompanied by a poultice, generally, that would have included what we now consider antibacterial herbs. Burdock, garlic, goldenseal - these are among remedies that would be used to treat an open wound in a topical manner. After a cauterization, a poultice of burdock would have been considered wise, but it would have been alternated with the wound being allowed to scab over, too. A messy, time-consuming process.

Lissa: We also see another scene of a "Viking funeral" of a pyre set alight and sent out to sea. Both you and I raised a brow at that, because it seems highly unlikely they would pause in the midst of defeat and what had to be a hasty re-entrenching to do such a thing.
Ship burial
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sandi: I concur. After a retreat such as they had just made, taking the time for a full-on funeral would not have been the usual practice. However, it seems clear that they hadn't taken the encampment down or planned to high-sail it (see what I did, there?) back him to Kattegat, either. Still, I think burial would have been better, even for warriors going to Valhalla. The burning of valuable wood which could have been used in weapons-making, is out of character for a people who are accustomed to shepherding their resources wisely.

Lissa: I'm not sure if you and I discussed this before, but the "flaming-boat-on-the-water Viking funeral" is mostly a myth. Vikings were usually buried, though there are a few accounts of cremation on land, with mounds built over the ashes. Brunhidla - Aslaug's mother - immolated herself on her husband, Sigurd's, funeral pyre. There are also some burials where the deceased was actually buried on a ship (the famous Oseberg burial is one of those).

SandiRulers might have been set alight in a longship, but that was largely before the era in which VIKINGS takes place. In Éire's Captive Moon, I do have a burning boat for a funeral, but that was for wealthy, high-ranking people in their own home who had died defending their land. It was still more common to bury folks or to set up a pyre. But again, that fire takes wood and wood was a valuable commodity.

From robb-stark on Tumblr
From sikanapanele on Tumblr
Lissa: When Rollo sees Athelstan, he tells him if he had the strength, he would kill him. He sees Athelstan as a traitor. When Athelstan is sent to present King Ecbert's offer to the Vikings, he encounters a great deal of suspicion. Floki mocks his priestly garb. Ragnar offers to walk part of the way with him, and they are tracked by a mysterious figure with an arrow notched to fly. Athelstan confesses that he still retains a belief in the Norse gods as well as the Christian faith. Ragnar expresses the wistful hope that the gods can all become friends. It's obvious that Ragnar still retains a lot of affection for Athelstan.

SandiRollo may or may not have known that Athelstan was likely the one to whom he owed his life. A man of this era wanted to die in battle—it was an honor and a privilege to go to Valhalla (since we all know Rollo did not accept his Christian baptism with a real belief, and he is still a follower of the Northvegr). So even if he knew Athelstan had "saved" him, he might still be mad because he, Rollo, hadn't been allowed to die.

From alittleboxoftreasures on Tumblr
The reunion was understated, but I got all "Awww..." when Ragnar gave Athelstan his arm ring back. That he had kept it, had it burnished clean, and was ready to return it without hesitation speaks worlds of Ragnar's faith in his friend. Athelstan was not as comfortable accepting it, but he understood the negative implications wearing it might have with King Ecbert & Co.

Lissa: King Ecbert makes an offer to Ragnar, Lagertha, and King Horik. He will give them 5,000 acres of land and treasure, as well as returning Rollo to Ragnar. Princess Kwenthrith will also employ any Viking as a mercenary. Lathertha and Ragnar immediately accept. Horik seems less well-pleased, but what could he do at the moment?

SandiThe rapid acceptance astonished me, I confess. It served, though, to unite Ragnar and Lagertha against Horik in terms of goals and expectations, which cannot have been misunderstood by anyone at that table. That Horik didn't storm out surprised me, too.

Lissa: Princess Kwenthrith upsets me. This show has been great with keeping its characters in line with their roles in society, belief systems, and customs... Then comes this girl. I characterized her as an English Messalina in the last episode. It's worse than that. No princess would have ever behaved like that, groping men in public. As in any era, the rich and powerful can get away with a lot more than the average person, but this is preposterous. It's crass, and it's a blight on an otherwise enjoyable show.
From sakuram0chi on Tumblr

SandiYeah... Her Royal Majesty of Mercia irritates me as well. In the prior episode, her predilections were displayed more or less in private. This made her strong and using the weapons (as it were) at her disposal without being more than a Messalina-type of character.

Lissa: Exactly. We all know that what went on behind closed doors could have been entirely different than the pious face presented to the public. But a female of that day, even a princess, would have been under the control of a man. Even if the men in her immediate family (father, brother) were dead, she would have had some male relative or godfather that assumed guardianship over her until she was safely married. Becoming femme sole (an independent woman able to make decisions about her life in her own right) was a status usually only accorded to elderly widows.
From The Mary Sue recaps

A princess of her wealth and power probably would have been married off very soon after her father/brother died. Eleanor of Aquitaine faced this when her father died in 1137 (about 200 years after this story takes place.) He had no legitimate son, and so Eleanor - who may have been as young as twelve - was a great heiress. She was married within a couple of months of her father's death to make sure no other lord kidnapped her to force her into marriage.

SandiBut her behavior in front of the mercenaries was crass and out of character in my opinion. One, the Northmen would have had no respect for any female who was so blatant in her public behavior. She would have been seen as loose, a prostitute, a woman of little value.

Lissa: As free men, the Northmen would have objected to being handled like slaves. They might have been all right with her admiringly stroking their muscled arms, but rooting around in their smallclothes?

SandiAnd Ecbert seemed to ignore her behavior, which I didn't quite understand, either. I'm not sure what the writers have planned for her, but at this juncture, who would respect her? Not me and likely not the men whom she's hired to go fight for her.

Lissa: Perhaps Kwenthrith's motive in the story is to make herself as unattractive a marriage prospect as possible with her behavior, but even in that era, her wealth and title would have made her attractive enough, and her husband could have locked her away.

Back in Kattegat, Aslaug has set Porunn free. Coming right after the girl expressed a desire to be like Lagertha, I have my suspicions it wasn't out of the goodness of Aslaug's heart. Is she trying to get Lagertha's son to marry beneath himself, to diminish his dynastic importance?

Lagertha at right, NOT HAPPY
From freezing-burzum on Tumblr

SandiThis is possible. Aslaug hasn't really said Word One about the fact that Ragnar has a firstborn son who could become jarl after Ragnar himself. And a woman in that time and place mostly exerted political power through the men in her life (Lagertha being a recent and notable exception). So if Aslaug's sons do not take leadership, then she will not be in such a nice place if they all live that long. Discrediting Björn by having him perhaps marry for emotional reasons a woman who was merely freed and not adopted, say, into a family of status, could injure Björn's reputation as a leader. Well, at least before he was given the name Ironside. ;-)

Lissa: One episode left! Can you believe it? This season has just flown by!

Sandi: It has! I cannot wait to see the finale!

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