Two Historical Fiction Authors Review #VIKINGS, S3. Ep 9: "Breaking Point"

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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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Lissa: Did you enjoy watching Lagertha go all Navy Seal like I did?

Sandi: That was pretty darn awesome, seeing the Shield Maidens go all Navy Seal, yes. Was it an entirely feminine force? If so, I wonder why? Smaller? Better swimmers? I have no idea.​

Lissa: I would guess it was because they were more stealthy. The Viking men are great at "berserker" type attacks, but they're a bit... lumbering. Lagertha and her girls are more fleet of foot. And if a man turns and sees a woman's face, he might hesitate just an instant, giving them the advantage.

SandiSagaThing on Twitter said, "The Age of the #Vikings kicked off with the Lindisfarne raid of 793, but the siege of Paris proved no European near navigable water was safe."

With capable swimmers as well as brilliant navigators, it was no wonder that Paris was on alert.

Lissa: Ragnar is still suffering serious debilitation from his injuries. He's urinating blood, and coughing it up, too.

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Sandi: We discussed whether this was plague related or due to his injuries. The blood in the urine would indicate an injury, but there are historical notes that indicate Ragnar came home from Paris with dysentery. Dysentery doesn't usually lead to the kind of bleeding we saw, but I just thought I'd note that, here.​

Lissa: They decide to try a stealth attack at night, and Lagertha and her shield maidens lead the way. They head in, swimming across the river to slip into the city under cover of night. From shadow to shadow, they flit on silent feet, reaching deeper into the castle. They slit the throats of the guards who are atop the walls, inexplicably still wearing their battle helmets at night, and thus suffering from limited peripheral vision.
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Sandi: ​The Northmen did wear helmets on occasion, but not nearly so often as the City Dwellers of this time. And though the fortified cities were not often conquered, they did wind up paying the Northmen a great deal to be left in peace for a season or two. So...did the helmets help or not? ​

Lissa: When the alarm is raised, a pot of that incendiary oil is dropped on one of the women warriors. They must keep it boiling at all hours, which as you noted is a huge investment in fuel and effort... But I digress.
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​​Sandi: ​Should we add this to the Boot Sole file? ;-)

Lissa: Lagertha lights it on fire and it burns away the doors. They kick down the weakened panels to admit Rollo and a team of Viking men who rush in, axes swinging.

​​Sandi: ​​I'll get you to write a Viking novel yet, Lissa!​

Lissa: Count Odo orders the release of some weird spiked Barrel of Doom, which rolls down a ramp into the Viking horde... well, actually into the Frankish troops. But still, it was kind of a neat idea.

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​​​Sandi: ​​We were not the only people who tweeted a shout out to the Indiana Jones franchise. I did a quick bit of research and was unable to find anything of this sort that was made in the 9th Century, which is when this show is taking place. There are, however, many spiked weapons used for hand to hand combat that were wicked.​

Lissa: Of course, once the spikes get all clogged with guts, it becomes sort of useless. But still, quite wicked looking. I can't really call it anachronistic, because I don't know of any time period in which that sort of thing was considered a practical weapon. It strikes me more along the lines of those things Leonardo Da Vinci sketched for the French king, who nodded and said, "Yeah, sounds really cool," but never actually got around to building.

​​​​Sandi: ​​I could totally see that.​

Lissa: Gisla passes out knives to the women of the castle, telling them that the barbarians are breaching the city and they mustn't be taken alive... Then she goes downstairs to watch the battle from the distance of a few feet.

Perhaps someone let her know that Rollo was fighting with his shirt off again.

​​​​​Sandi: ​​My goodness, Lissa, do I hear a sneer in your words? ​I think what Gisla is trying to do is provide motivation for her people to keep fighting, even against such frightening invaders as the Northmen. 

Lissa: Yeah, maybe a bit. "Use this blade for suicide. No, don't stress your pretty little heads with the idea of trying to defend yourselves. Just kill yourself on the spot." What a thing to lay on a girl! Yes, being a captive could be awful, but to give the women only the option of death if the "barbarians" broke through the lines isn't exactly inspiring much hope.

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Count Odo goes into the chapel where the king is praying and begs him to go down to the battle. The king tries to demur, but Odo insists it will inspire the troops. "I am not my grandfather; I am not Charlemagne," the king says. Truer words were rarely spoken.

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​​​​​​Sandi: ​​Very true indeed. And his reluctance to put on the proper face of the ruler is duly noted. His own daughter understands these leadership functions better than he does.​

Lissa: Back at the Camp, Ragnar sees Athelstan come to him, bathed in an eerie light. He smiles and extends a hand to Ragnar.

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We see Ragnar curled on the ground in a fetal position, lying in a pool of brilliant red blood.

​​​​​​Sandi: ​​​To me, this said a couple of things. One, that it was an image of being born again - something Athelstan would of course be in favor of - as well as a violent death from some kind of intestinal or internal problem, due to the way Ragnar was huddled over himself.​ Seeing Athelstan was good, and it gives some ambiguity about Ragnar's actions later in the episode.

Lissa: One of the Vikings was captured - he was the man Ragnar showed to Athelstan, the one who could speak the language of the Franks. He pleads to act as a liaison and his life is spared. Odo asks him about the "bear-like" Viking man who stopped the Rolling Spike Barrel of Doom.

​​​​​​​Sandi: ​​The informant/linguist/crossdresser (not judging, just making an observation) ​seemed to be ill at ease both with the French and the Northmen. I am in hopes that he will be better treated with Ragnar's people, though, since he wasn't actually brought in bound.

Lissa: In Wessex, Ecbert speaks to Judith and tells her he can protect her.

​​​​​​​​Sandi: ​​That miserable excuse for a poetic seduction was just...ew.​

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Lissa: He knows what his son is capable of. But there must be "recompense" for his protection. Judith goes to his chamber that night, and Ecbert does a bit of poetic hemming-and-hawing before getting right down to business and telling her he wants Judith as his mistress. She asks him if he will protect her little Albert. Ecbert tells her to get into the bed, which isn't really an answer, but Judith obeys.

Sandi: ​​SagaThing on twitter said, here: Well, that at least is historically accurate--Judith was indeed married to father & son kings of Wessex!​

What I'm seeing is that Ecbert will perhaps protect Alfred — who grows up to be The Great and all—but there are no promises for Judith. Indeed, he humiliates her and his own son, later.

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Lissa: His son comes home soon after and tells his father he was successful in his mission in Mercia. He didn't fall victim to the seductive wiles of Kwenthrith. Ecbert praises his piety and chastity and asks Judith if she's grateful as well.

Judith replies that she is, but wouldn't be so hypocritical as to say so. Æthelwulf tells her that he now sees that Judith's affair with Athelstan was God's will. He has to ask his father, though... was it part of his father's plan that Kwenthrith should kill him?

​​Sandi: ​​I was very much in favor of this question last night. Ecbert is unscrupulous, playing everyone off everyone. And have you noticed, he's become less "polished" around the edges in the last few episodes? I don't know if that's purposeful or not, but it's working for me.​

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Lissa: Ecbert reacts with wide-eyed horror at the suggestion and says his intention is to leave his throne peacefully to his son, something that has not yet been accomplished in history, and not only the throne of Wessex, but the throne of "England." Which wasn't really a concrete concept yet. Given Ecbert's Roman preoccupation, he probably would have referred to the island as "Albion."

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​​Sandi: ​​Indeed, Ecbert is way overreaching in even bringing up leaving "the throne of England" to anyone. Powerful kings (and queens!) are still forces with which to be reckoned all over the island. Not only Queen Kwethrith the Poisoner and Fratricide of Mercia, but also King Aelle ​of East Anglia. There were also the kingdoms of Essex, Sussex, Kent, and Northumbria. This doesn't even count Wales or the kingdoms of what is now Scotland. 

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Lissa: In Kattegat, Aslaug has a problem brought to her in the great hall. A Christian man has insulted the Norse gods. He explains to her that the Norse gods are false as the crowd jeers at him and pelts him with rocks.

 Aslaug proposes that he demonstrate the power of his god, and the man agrees. The next day, he is given a red-hot iron to carry across the grounds. The man first envisions himself crossing the expanse with a beatific smile on his face as it glows in his palms, and dropping it at Aslaug's feet to lift unblemished hands to the sky.

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Real life sees him screaming in agony as the metal burns his tender flesh. He only makes it a few feet before he has to drop it. His hands are a bloody mess.

Afterward, Aslaug is asked what they should do with him, and she says in a cool, impassive tone to kill him.

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Sandi: ​​I am not sure why this particular scene was brought into the episode, to be honest. The life of a Christian missionary to the lands of the North was harsh and often ended in martyrdom for the missionary. I will be interested in knowing if what happened here is reflected in what happens in the season finale next week. Otherwise, it seems to have been included just to make sure Aslaug gets her moment.​

Lissa: Back in Paris, Odo suggests to the king that they should offer treasure to the Vikings to get them to lift the siege, because things are getting bad inside Paris. The people are falling ill and they're swiftly running out of food.

Plague often broke out during sieges. Sanitation was pretty much limited to "dump your pot in the street," and with so many people crowded together, water supplies were bound to get contaminated. Secondly, scarcity of food brought in rats and mice, and their fleas carried all sorts of nasty illnesses.

Sandi: ​​The images of the aristocracy wading through the clusters of plague victims was well-done. Gisla in particular looked squicked out. Still, they did make themselves visible. Again, that leadership function thing.

Lissa: Gisla doesn't want to treat with the barbarians, but the king eventually agrees it's a good idea.

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Ironically, she's of the same opinion as Bjorn, Floki, Rollo, and Lagertha - they think the city is about to fall. Why else would the people be so eager to bribe them to go away?

But Ragnar insists on meeting with the king's men.

Sandi: ​​Ragnar's attitude is, to me, a bit sad, here. He's clearly ill/wounded to a dire degree and everyone knows it. Therefore, as was common for centuries, those who were immediately under him in the hierarchy all faced off to see whose word carried the most weight. Who will succeed the leader? Who will be king after this one dies? 

Ragnar's response to this nonverbalized competition is to state—loudly and with far too much emphasis—that he is king. That he's in charge. That he's the one who will make the decisions. Thing is, a leader who IS wielding full power doesn't have to say so. Only the weaker king does.

So, this made me sad. His mortality is showing. :(​

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Lissa: At the meeting, he surprises everyone by approaching a priest. He says he's a dying man and he wants to be baptized immediately so he can go to the Christian heaven when he passes.

He splashes right into the nearby Seine, and the priest dutifully performs the ceremony. Floki arrives right at the end and is horrified by what he sees.

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Sandi: ​​Ragnar's wish to "see his friend" will be immediately understood by those closest to him, even if they're appalled. But is that the real reason for Ragnar's baptism? The man is a plotter—he always has been. 

I am eager to see the finale next week to see if his plots bear fruit. The preview, though, showed me I'll need to bring a handkerchief with me.​

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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

1 comment:

  1. Preview for next week scares me. I know Michael Hirst has said that the show can go on with Ragnar's sons at some point, but I hope not yet! And I think ratings would suffer if Ragnar died now. Travis is so captivating in his performance.


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