Two Historical Fiction Authors Review Vikings: S.3, Ep. 8 "To The Gates"

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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.)

Lissa: Ah, raiding Paris. Good times! I once raided Paris, but I didn't bring an axe or do much conquering. I drank too much champagne and swam in the Seine, though.

​Sandi: went inSeine, eh? Sorry. I had to. I have never raided Paris, but I've been to Lake Perris in Riverside, California. I don't think that counts. But! Boats were involved.​..

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Lissa: Floki's floating siege towers were a marvel, but the Parisians are fierce defenders of their city walls.

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​SandiFierce on both counts, Lissa. Floki might be having a rough time right now, but he proved that Rollo's decision to have him in charge of making things to make the invasion happen was the right one. Floki performed brilliantly. And the Parisians defended brilliantly as well. Their crossbows were wickedly effective.

Lissa: After barring the gates, they use archers and boiling oil to repel the Viking advance. We were both a little skeptical about the usage of oil, especially when it instantly burst into flame when hit by a burning arrow. They didn't have petroleum oils at the time, and most oils from plants won't instantly burst into flame when merely touched by a burning arrow. They will burn, but it takes a bit more coaxing than that, and usually a tinder source for a wicking effect.

I did a quick search and I found a mention of incendiary oil being used in the 12th century (a mixture of cannabis, nut, and flax oils) but as I noted during the episode oil was a very expensive item to use during a battle. Boiling water works just as well to injure/disable troops scaling the walls, and is easier to heat.

​SandiThey might have been thinking of the legendary Greek Fire which was basically burning naphtha.​ Which has largely been a term used for crude oil. It's been around for perhaps two thousand years (Ancient Greece!) but it requires distillation. Boiling water would have been far more predictable to use, less dangerous to those who were using it, and also easier by far to acquire.

Lissa: Gisla sets out to inspire the troops defending Paris. She gathers up a scarlet banner embroidered with a burning flame and hurries it to the bishop praying in the cathedral. It's the banner of St. Denis, she explains, and if he blesses it, it will rally the troops and give them the strength to overcome their enemies.

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​SandiThe belief in symbols at this time is huge. Today, we might be more inspired by a living hero rather than a dead one, but then, just a banner that was rumored to have a saint's blood on it was hugely empowering ​to the people.

Lissa: The real banner of St. Denis (the oriflamme) first makes its appearance in the 11th century, so it's a bit anachronistic. There is a mention of a scarlet or saffron-colored banner being used at the battle, but it doesn't seem that it was the same as the oriflamme. However, holy relics were of deep importance to early Christians. According to a monk who wrote about the Viking siege of Paris, the relics of Sainte Geneviève were brought into the cathedral for safekeeping during the battle, and it was those holy relics which rallied the troops.

​SandiWe read of Chaucer, centuries later, who mocked the men who would sell supposed relics to common people. They were taken advantage of because of their beliefs. It goes to show, though, that the beliefs were very real and the faith in relics lasted for hundreds of years. Today, they are still revered by many, though not in the same Defend the City! kind of way.​

Lissa: I mentioned I had a bit of a nerd-gasm at the scenes in the cathedral. There were no pews, which I though was one of those lovely little Easter eggs that Michael Hirst inserts just so he can watch us geeks squeal during the episode.

​SandiThe cathedral scene was well done. Not too many cathedrals in the ninth century, so I am guessing that the church they were in was the Basilica of Saint Denis, which was built in its original form in the 7th Century. No seats! It was perfect. Yes, we have our nerd-gasms and ​they're wonderful.

Lissa: Gisla goes out and gives a stirring speech to the men on the ramparts, hoisting the banner high. The whole scene is strongly reminiscent of Jehanne D'Arc, who also used holy banners to rally her troops for battle against the English. She urges them to fight to the death to defend their city.

​I also appreciated that she felt empowered enough to stand in plain sight, without armor or weapons. That took courage and faith, I think.​

Gisla watchin' Rollo
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Lissa: The Vikings break through the gates and Lagertha is with the men making the initial charge, but Kalf grabs her by the shoulder and tells her to wait. When she tries to break away from him, he slugs her in the chin, and drags her dazed form back from the front lines. Turns out he was right... The Parisians launch bolts and arrows, taking down a good number of the Vikings.

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​SandiNow, I don't know about you, but I was really surprised by this turn of events. We know that Kalf has a thing for his former leader, but when he usurped her earldom, that would have seemed to have taken priority. Still, he's clearly in pursuit of her, to some degree, and she hadn't yet had him neutralized. The woman has patience. It was good to know that Kalf was indeed acting on her behalf at this juncture, rather than his own. At least, I hope he was!​

Lissa: In the fray, ​Björn  is injured, and so is his father. But Ragnar manages to drag Björn back to safety and his wounds are tended in one of those lovingly filmed scenes with lush cinematography.
Seriously, I don't know how they make these bloody scenes look so gorgeous, but gosh, they do.

​SandiThe lighting and everything are perfect, here. I so appreciate the filmmakers' skill. How to make a dim, close room totally accessible yet still feel right? They do it every time.​

Lissa: The siege towers are burning, and the Viking dead are piling up around the walls. Floki has a meltdown in the midst of the fray, retreating under a burning tower to pray. He can't understand why the plan he lovingly crafted has gone awry. Have the gods forsaken them? Was it his sin which caused them to abandon the Vikings?

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​SandiWhat struck me was that he was STILL blaming Athelstan! Floki did seem to rather lose it here, for a bit.​

Lissa: My friend Jill Peterson wondered if perhaps Ragnar had placed Floki in charge of the battle itself knowing the losses would be high and it might shake some of Floki's faith that his actions are especially blessed by the gods. The look Ragnar gave Floki as he retreated under the siege tower seemed significant. Confidence and faith are good - fanatical arrogance is not.

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​Sandi: I think that's an excellent observation!​

Lissa: As the battle cools, he wades out into the Seine and gets himself a healthy, heaping dose of hypothermia. As he shivers in the water, he sees Helga wade out to him. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, "It's not always about YOU, Floki." She leaves him sobbing in the water, afraid he has lost her.

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​SandiOh, also we have the sense that Helga is not accepting of the murder/sacrifice her husband committed in slaying Athelstan. She was appalled when he told her and she still seems to hold it against him. Her rejection of his entreaties left him devastated.​

Lissa: In Kattegat, we see Porunn standing on a hill above the village. She looks back one last time before walking away. As we discussed last night, I don't really understand her motivations. She's a Viking. She knows the price of battle, and she earned her scars in honorable combat. But perhaps, as you said, she romanticized being a warrior, and the price has been too much for her to bear.

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​SandiPorunn was fine for a concubine for the son of a king, but she was not wife material for a young man of his standing at that point in time. Marriages were arranged for the betterment of families, lands, and finances. I feel bad for Porunn, and it's terrible that she abandoned her child—albeit to Queen Aslaug, who has proven herself to (mostly!) be a fine mother (who might appreciate a daughter amidst all her sons)— and I wonder how Björn will react to that.

Lissa: In her lodgings, Lagertha is bathing her scratches when Kalf comes in. He tells her how much he desires her as he takes the cloth from her hand and runs it over her skin. Lagertha responds to the caress, even as she tells him how much she resents the fact he stole her earldom from her. She tells him she will enjoy the pleasures of the flesh with him, but she will kill him one day. If he's okay with that, they can proceed.

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Kalf either doesn't think she's serious about the "you are a dead man" comment or he is willing to pay with his life for time in the furs with her, because he takes her into his arms.

​SandiThis scene completely surprised me. Maybe it shouldn't have, but it did. And that's all I have to say about that. ​

Lissa: Ragnar makes his way in to visit his injured son. He's hurting a bit himself, having fallen from one of the towers and hitting every single obstacle he could on the way down.

Björn asks him what he intends to do about the siege, and Ragnar says he has to talk to an old friend about it first.

​SandiI was really impressed with Ragnar when he was speaking with his son. So often, we see Ragnar as either the fond father of small children or the harsh father of his adult son, but here? He did just right, I think. He treated Björn as an equal, or near enough, and neither patronized nor criticized. He supported and confided, to a degree. Well played, all.​

Lissa: When he scoffed at Rollo saying Björn should never have been allowed to climb the siege tower, I sensed a shift in their relationship. "He is a man. Treat him like one." Björn, it seems, has finally "grown up" in his father's eyes, and now he will treat him as an equal, not a child. It remains to be seen, however, as to whether his jealousy over Björn's superior destiny will rear its ugly head once more.

He goes outside and sits on the forest floor, looking up at the sky as he speaks to ... Athelstan.

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​Sandi​I so appreciate that Athelstan hasn't been forgotten. Ragnar truly did seem to be confiding to his friend, even about his concerns regarding Floki.

Lissa: I'm still not over the loss of the Tiny Viking. :(

​SandiMe either. But what a marvelous character he was and continues to be!​

.¸¸•.¸¸.•´¯`• (¯`•ღ•´¯)•´¯`•.¸¸.•.¸¸.

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


  1. Poor Porrun... she was heartbreaking. Athelstans legacy and spirit are going to be a big factor for the rest of Ragnars life. He truly remains such a magnetic character... beloved of kings and princesses alike. Shirtless Rollo.. even pious princesses (with bizarre accents!) Wanna get some of that!

    1. You're absolutely right about Athelstan and his powerful influence over Ragnar and Ecbert, and that it will linger with them. I just wish events had transpired differently!


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