For Better or Norse: The Real World of the Vikings

by Natasha Wolff | February 26, 2014 1:07 pm

“If you walk outside your office for three blocks, you’ll pass at least 70 Vikings.” That was the pitch that award-winning writer Michael Hirst made to the History Channel—and it worked. Executives took the chance that a dramatic series on the lives of people who fought and loved more than 1,000 years ago would hook us today.

Vikings[1], back for Season Two on February 27, became the No. 1 new cable series of the year in its first season, averaging 4.3 million viewers. The fan base proved rabid about the series’ stars Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig and George Blagden.

Travis Fimmel and Clive Standen as the Brothers Ragnar; photo by Jonathan Hession

What makes Vikings stand out in the throng of historical films and television series is the simple yet compelling storytelling of Hirst, its creator and sole writer. This is far from his first foray into the past. Hirst wrote the screenplays for Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, both starring Cate Blanchett, and then went on to create the very popular Showtime series The Tudors, which ran for four seasons.

We caught up with Hirst to find out what fuels his passion for authenticity, whether it’s a chaotic battlefield or quiet moments between husband and wife.

In the first season of Vikings, the theme was strength—both physical and psychological—and how that gets you power. In the second season’s first four episodes, the storylines all seem to revolve around trust.

Yes, trust and betrayal. It’s very much about trust, and the fact is that you can’t trust anybody.

This series was an immediate hit. Were you expecting it?

I was completely surprised. As writers, you work in the dark, spinning these tales. I didn’t know people would be excited. As we began shooting and I saw the first rushes, I thought, “Well, maybe.” It’s honest. No one’s trying to just do it for effect. It’s a wonderful crew, a wonderful cast, and everyone’s doing it for the right reasons.

What drew you to the Vikings in the first place?

I discovered the Vikings many years ago and became fascinated by their culture. They had such bad press. They were always depicted as savages, and then you realize it was because their culture was written about by their enemies—Christian monks. When you dug a little deeper, you found they were more of a democratic society. Their attitude toward women was much more egalitarian. I love their gods and their understanding of nature and the world. I started thinking, “These guys are fantastic.”

Why do you turn to people of the past for television drama?

One, it’s just the way my mind works. I had a very academic background; I was 10 years in university. The research part is a great joy to me and watching storylines come from it.

The Vikings had a huge influence on Western culture. I grew up in Yorkshire, England, and it was a Vikings town. We’re shooting on the beaches of Ireland where we know the Vikings came ashore. That’s the difference between my show and Game of Thrones. This happened. These are all real people. It’s not just entertainment.

A scene from Vikings; photo by Bernard Walsh

How about writing these battle scenes?

We say, “Let’s do it in a more imaginative and interesting way, as if you were in a battle.” It’s not CGI people running up and down. If you look at a movie like Thor, the battle scenes are CGI. It’s all fake. We do the battles. All of the actors—men and women—love it.

 One of the reasons The Tudors took off was that Henry VIII was played by such a charismatic actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It’s happened again, with Travis Fimmel, though he didn’t have as many acting credits as Rhys Meyers did when you cast him in The Tudors. Why choose Fimmel?

When we started, we didn’t have a lead actor. We had to go into production. People were putting pressure on. I’m the show runner so in theory I have some power, but I don’t really have all the power because it’s not my money.

Eventually they told me we have to make a choice now, and we’ve chosen this actor. So I sat down around midnight with my wife to watch the test reels of this guy. My wife said, “I couldn’t watch this guy as the hero. He’s very handsome, but he’s very conventional and as a woman I wouldn’t want to watch him.” I took a deep breath and phoned them and said, “I know this sucks, but I don’t approve. We go on searching.”

Breakout star Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, star of Vikings; photo by Jonathan Hession

It was seven, eight days later that Travis sent his own reel in. He had shot a couple of scenes in his kitchen in a farmhouse in Australia. He hadn’t bothered to dress up like a Viking, as many of the other actors had done, and he hadn’t bothered to sound anything but Australian. But he got the depths and got something about the character. It was exciting.

Fimmel always surprises me with his reactions to what’s happening.

He’s counter-intuitive. If you think he’s going to look serious, he grins. I would say that Johnny Rhys Meyers is compulsively watchable, or at least he was on The Tudors. Whoever you put in a room with Travis, you want to know what he’s thinking.

His character Ragnar Lothbrok is a family man. Perhaps viewers weren’t expecting that from a show called Vikings.

I cried when I wrote the scene of Ragnar talking to his dead daughter. Travis delivers that scene so well because he believes totally in Ragnar’s commitment to his children. Travis and I have bonded in our take on children, but Travis has no children, and I have nine.

NEXT: Horrifying histories, religion’s role and takeaways from The Tudors[2]

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha and Fimmel; photo by Bernard Walsh

Ragnar’s wife Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, is a personal favorite of mine. In this season, though, to be honest, I am alarmed by what’s happening to her in the first few episodes.

I talked to Katheryn for a long time and she said, “Lots of women are following me because I’m strong, but now I’ll seem too weak.” I said, “Wait and see. I’m putting you in in a situation that will make you even more strong.”

I’m also completely intrigued by Athelstan, the monk played by George Blagden whom the Vikings kidnap during a raid in England. Is he based on reality?

Yes, it’s recorded incident. Two monks were captured and taken over, probably as slaves, to Scandinavia. One of them came back and fought with the Vikings.

I can’t give it away here because it’s a spoiler, but something happens in Episode Four to Athelstan that is truly horrifying. Is that taken from history too?

It’s based on something that happened to a monk, yes.  I feel better writing about it that I haven’t made it up. That’s the way I work. I don’t think I could write a totally original screenplay. In fact, I’m not interested in writing one. I like it to be rooted in reality.

Vikings creator Michael Hirst

Vikings creator Michael Hirst

In the first season, the episode “Sacrifice” delved into Viking religion, specifically animal and human sacrifice, in a profound way. I feel that a thread running through all of your work, starting with Elizabeth and continuing through The Tudors and now with Vikings, is religion.

That is part of my own journey, and you’re right, it’s very much rooted in the experience with Elizabeth: the Catholic and the Protestant. I am drawn to these subjects. There was an article on the Huffington Post[3] that said Vikings is one of the few mainstream shows to take religious beliefs seriously. I was like, “Wow, you get that.”

The Tudors was criticized for too much bed-hopping, but in Season Three you tackled the little known but important Catholic rebellion, the Pilgrimage of Grace.

As far as I’m concerned, no critic has ever talked about Season Three of The Tudors in terms of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Reformation. It was the first time a mass-market form of entertainment really addressed that. Even in my own country, it was ignored. I found that very hurtful.

With the character of the Princess Mary, who would one day become the queen cursed with the nickname “Bloody Mary,” what was it like to write her evolution?

It was fantastic. Because Sarah Bolger grew up in front of my eyes.  She became this person that because of her experiences and her mother’s experiences, she represented Catholicism, just as Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer[4], represented Protestantism, both of them in a good way. Great actresses. They were talking about very deep things.

With Vikings, if you had to choose between writing a scene showing Ragnar and Lagertha talking and a scene showing Vikings’ fighting, which would you choose?

I like the scenes that are very domestic and about human things that I can imagine me and my wife talking about. There is a scene I wrote at the end of Episode Seven—everyone tried to stop me from writing it. It is the most extraordinary scene that I think you’ll ever see on television. I am very proud. If you can wait for the last scene of Episode Seven, you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t know if I can wait. Now this can be described as torture!


Vikings returns to the History Channel on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 10 p.m. ET.


Nancy Bilyeau is the executive editor of DuJour and the author of two historical novels set in England, The Crown and The Chalice.



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  1. Vikings:
  2. NEXT: Horrifying histories, religion’s role and takeaways from The Tudors:
  3. Huffington Post:
  4. Natalie Dormer:
  5. Black Sails’ Luke Arnold on Being John Silver
  6. 4 Must-Read Historical Fiction Page-Turners
  7. Bonnie & Clyde’s Emile Hirsch on Life Outside the Law:

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