On the road

It’s been quiet around here lately, not because I’ve been doing nothing but because I have been busy. Last weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife and I went back to revisit old haunts in Durham, although we stayed in York, it being easier to find a place on that busy weekend.

Anyway, I’m sure some of these things will come up over future posts, but today I wanted to talk about our visit to the Yorkshire Museum for their Vikings exhibit.

Some years ago I went to that fancy Vikings exhibit at the British Museum, and with all the respect in the world for the Yorkshire Museum, this was never going to equal that in scale. Still, I found it interesting.

Initially, I wasn’t too impressed. Perhaps it’s just that the exhibit is aimed at a slightly younger audience, which the British Museum one, with its slightly churchy atmosphere, definitely wasn’t, but for the first third or so I was feeling a little unmoved. Basically there was a lot of the same stuff you see in every exhibit about the early middle ages, and the Coppergate helmet, which is very nice indeed but not an exhibit all by itself.

But things turned around, pleasingly, and I found that the intro bit had been the least exciting — for me, but then, the intro bit is not usually for me. I was pleased by the way the process of discovery turned up in so many of the exhibits.

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Here’s the Gilling Sword, which is lovely, even if not technically a Viking artefact. I’m pleased that it was on display next to its Blue Peter badge!

It was nice to see various hoards and smaller artefacts. There were a couple of ordinary whetstones I found fascinating because I’m a weirdo.

I really liked the section on Vikings in popular culture, which included some Warhammer 40,000 models:

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Frivolous as that might sound, I actually think the Space Wolves are a pretty good example of how Vikings turn up in science fiction: they start as just regular folks with a slightly wolf-y gimmick, become full-on cartoon space vikings and then gradually turn into a more complex and nuanced culture, much as we might see the public perception of early medieval Scandinavians evolving over time but with a decade or so’s lag.

It was a fun exhibit, not huge but a good mix of things. I don’t know that I would have gone out of my way to see it, but I’m glad I got the chance to while I was in town.

On the road

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

(Contains spoilers for the ninth century.)

So it’s been quite a while since I last updated my ongoing account of watching Vikings. And in that time, well … a lot has happened. The fourth season is now wrapped up and things are pretty different from back when they started. Honestly, back in season one I assumed that the plot currently developing — the death of Ragnar and the invasion of England by the “Great Army” — was going to be the main plot of the whole series, but now we’re halfway through the second part of season four, a group of episodes that I still maintain is actually season five. So let’s get down to it.

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Now, I thought the first part of this season — oh heck, let’s call it season 4.1. 4.1 boldly hacked away all the plots no one gave a crap about, like Yidu and whatever Odo was up to, killed off the characters and forgot about them. But it looks like 4.2 is warming up to kill off all its main characters and replace them with an entirely new generation. Ultimately the show is gonna be about Alfred vs the Ragnarssons.

Now, that is very in keeping with the idea that this is a saga, isn’t it? A generational story full of revenges and curses and what have you. If you were going to make a Viking story, that’s the kind of story you would make, even if the details don’t marry up with any particular saga or any particular series of historical events.

But it’s an odd kind of television series. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s very close to its most obvious model, Game of Thrones, which has shed quite a lot of main characters and gained new ones along the way. Still, Game of Thrones does keep a number of its leads from its first series, while by the time this is done there’s going to be almost no one left in this thing. Like I said, interesting.

As always, the historical accuracy is pretty … approximate, and the costumes and sets are more Skyrim than early middle ages. It continues to look good — it’s well shot, and they’ve clearly spent some money on it. The writing still lags behind the production, although many of the performances are excellent.

Anyway, I have six or seven episodes to cover, so I will just give a quick overview of the points that caught my attention:

  • I do like the way that they have sort of split up elements of Ragnar’s personality among the sons: Ivarr the devious little bastard, Bjorn the warrior, Ubbe the politician, Sigurd and Hvitserk the … other ones. UPDATE: I guess Sigurd is the sensitive one.
  • The geography of the show continues to be maddeningly unclear. In this season they talk as if they’re from Norway, but I could swear that in previous seasons they were in Denmark. Hedeby is undeniably in Denmark, despite its icy mountainous landscape. They talk about Sweden as if it’s the moon — people have come from as far away as Sweden! — but didn’t they go to Sweden back in season 1?
  • Egbert remains simultaneously interesting and infuriating as a character. Writers often want to make a character devious but struggle with the external constraints that would make that deviousness work, since that kind of worldbuilding is not considered to be good television.
  • I like the way Lagertha’s shieldmadiens have turned into a sort of elite corps/personal bodyguard in an army that otherwise includes both women and men.
  • I assume Ivarr wears a scarf over his face when riding his chariot to hide the fact that he’s a stunt double most of the time?
  • Harald’s love interest(ish) is called “Elisif,” which I always thought was a Norse way of saying “Elizabeth,” which is weird in a pagan culture, no? Also, is it just me or does that plot go precisely nowhere? It’s not like the narrative isn’t pretty crowded already.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard has been the high point of pretty much each season, and nothing changes in this one.
  • I do like the idea that political and military turmoil back home happens when the army is off invading places — this was a very real feature of medieval warfare.
  • Aelle is, once again, a circumstantially convenient idiot. He’s totally taken aback by the size of the Ragnarssons’ army, because … his guys who spotted the attacking force don’t know how to count ships and multiply them by the number of dudes in a ship? Again, the “heroes” get to look good by the simple expedient of having their opponents take a dive like idiots. See also breaking formation to do a wild infantry charge at approaching cavalry.
  • Rituals and magic continue to be eerie and interesting. Is this the first time this series has had genuinely supernatural omens? I mean, Harbard was left ambiguous as best I remember, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention after he turned out not to be a trash-talking magic ferryman like the actual Harbard.
  • The destruction of the Winchester sets we’re so familiar with is surprisingly moving.
  • In terms of defensive strategies in a town made of wood and thatch, starting a huge fucking fire seems like it should be toward the bottom of the list, but filmmakers are obsessed with the idea of lighting things on fire.
  • Aw, poor old Torve. Didn’t see that one coming ha ha j/k they gave her a line about how she would definitely see Bjorn again. What did we think was gonna happen?
  • Hey, it’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers! Playing The Sex Bishop! That’s not what I think of when I think of Saint Heahmund but to be honest I have never really thought of Saint Heahmund until this very minute, so.
  • Main character death count so far: Aslaug, Ragnar, Helga, Egbert. Not-main-but-important characters dead: Aelle, Torve. Who-gives-a-shit characters dead: Egil, Elisif, whatsername (aside: if this show was gonna have only one Muslim character, I don’t know about making her a war orphan / suicide knifer, no matter how richly Helga deserved it). Are the only characters left alive from Season 1 Floki, Rollo and Lagertha? I mean, OK, Bjorn was in Season 1, but different actor. Was Aethelwulf in Season 1? I don’t remember.
  • Perhaps all my criticisms simply amount to “it looks good but don’t think about it too hard.”

 

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

So it’s been a few weeks since the last time I wrote about my continuing … love-hate relationship isn’t right. Enjoyment-bafflement relationship? … with Vikings. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on since then.

So Lagertha and Aslaug are set up as rivals this season, a rivalry that gets off to a good start when Lagertha imprisons Ubbe and Sigurd and takes Kattegatt back from Aslaug. In the meantime, Ivarr and Ragnar get shipwrecked on the English coast. The irritated crew mutiny, but Ivarr stabs them up to reinforce the point that he is not to be messed with. Bjorn, together with Halfdan and Harald plus Floki, rocks up to Rollo’s castle to meet the kids. Rollo decides to tag along on Bjorn’s Mediterranean adventure because, I dunno, he longs for the old days of sailing the wide world etc.

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Anyway, Ragnar and Ivarr arrive in Winchester only to find out that Ecbert isn’t home, the one thing they were not counting on. Aethelwulf does what Aethelwulf does and has them locked up. Aslaug gets one of yer Viking funerals that everyone loves so much while Lagertha gloats. Ecbert comes home and gets Ragnar out of the dungeons to do some devious Ecbert stuff with him. Young Magnus shows up for the first time in his older version, and Ragnar says he never had sex with whatsername, which messes things up a little. There are a lot of children of dubious parentage at the West Saxon court, aren’t there?  Anyway, Ecbert has a good old jaw with Ragnar about the absurdity of religion or destiny or something, or maybe just their shared love for Athelstan. Ragnar sets up his plan to introduce — dare I say it? — the main plot of the series! And only 40-whatever episodes in.

This show has a real problem with deviousness, which I think is a combination of budget concerns and the influence of Game of Thrones. See, in Game of Thrones, everyone is always going into negotiations with uncertain allies and then getting assassinated. This is because the setting of Game of Thrones is a functional medieval society that is now falling apart. So people keep relying on outmoded concepts of law or political influence to protect them and discovering that they no longer apply, while a new breed of bastard and/or hero thrives.

But we’re supposed to believe that this is pretty much how things work in Vikings. And logically, all the characters should know that. That being the case, why doesn’t anyone act like it? Lagertha makes a peace agreement with Aslaug — who is, remember, widely believed to be descended from a literal god — and then shoots her in the back as she walks away. In front of everyone! That has got to be a blow to her reputation, surely.

(Does that mean that when Aslaug was sleeping with Harbard she was having sex with her own grandfather? Ick.)

Anyhow, my point is — given that Ubbe and Sigurd presumably know that anyone could turn on you at any time, why would they just walk into a trap like a couple of idiots? If Aslaug knows (and remember, she’s supposed to be the politically savvy one) that Lagertha, a famous general with a full-sized army, can march into her town without anyone knowing until she’s forming a shieldwall at the city limits, then why on earth would she allow Bjorn to sail off with all the warriors? (Unless Bjorn’s in on it, of course, which would be kind of neat, but still.) Over and over, this show sets up a political dispute and then has it resolved by someone getting knifed in ways that make dramatic sense but little real-world sense.

Now, I’m not saying people don’t get assassinated or massacred in real life. But successful assassinations and massacres as means of ending conflicts are probably quite rare. Usually killing one guy or even one group of guys doesn’t solve the problem like you’d hope it would. Whack a Viking warlord, and you may find that they have uncles, cousins, brothers, followers, whatever, who will come back to haunt you. Those people (usually) don’t exist in this show because of principles of narrative economy, but I dunno, it feels like a cheat. I’m aware I’ve said this before.

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

TV Tuesday: It’s Vikings again

After a long hiatus, Vikings Season 4 returns. Can I … before we start, can anyone explain to me in what sense this is not Season 5? It’s as long as a normal season, it has the schedule of a normal season, and it’s way more different from Season 4 than Season 4 was from Season 3. I mean, I don’t really care, I just don’t understand.

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Anyway, when last we left our cast, Ragnar had been spending some time at the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary but had finally returned to grumble at the replacement cast of characters and act all whimsical, only now with a sense of regret. He’s also catching up with the viewers in terms of the knowledge that he’s going to die. I do like the way Sexy Fimmel of Season 1 has turned into Looks Like an Old Leather Couch Owned By a Family With Dogs Fimmel in just a few short years. I’m sure Actual Fimmel remains a fine figure of a man, but he must be spending longer and longer in that makeup chair every season.

Meanwhile, the young Ragnarssons are doing their patented line in being everything from Not That Much of a Bastard (Ubbe) to Your Average Level of Bastard (Sigurd) to Rotten Little Bastard (Ivarr). I have to say that for all he used to be Action Hero Dude, Bjorn is pretty good in this. Alexander Ludwig does this thing where he mimics Ragnar’s body language, and it’s clever.

What else, what else? Season 4 ended with a savage purge of extraneous plotlines, killing off Whatsername, the other Whatsername, her brother Whatsername’s Brother, and probably some English people too. This season continues the trend by, for a miracle, confining its action only to the towering peaks and rocky fjords of … southern Denmark. No Wessex, no Paris, no those two Norwegian guys, no nothing. Which is fair enough; with five or six new characters to introduce (the girls get pretty short shrift here, so I don’t know if they’re going to be recurring) it would be ridiculous to go back to the other plotlines.

Now, I don’t know if this means that the show has decided to stop trying to be Game of Thrones and go back to trying to be Sons of Anarchy, or if they’re just easing us back in to the upcoming Alfred the Great plotline one step at a time. I would like to see Rollo again, but it’s hard to imagine how other than Bjorn’s side plot.

Sexy Sexy Murder Alert: I was pleased to see that Ivarr didn’t kill the blonde girl (Margret?), which I was assuming would be his Rotten Little Bastard characterisation moment. Instead, he has a good old cry and she comforts him, which is a pretty kind way to treat someone who was trying to strangle you a moment ago. I hope that this is just her trying to survive in a tough situation rather than genuine empathy. Maybe she was just sleeping with all the brothers until she found the one she could manipulate? Frankly I hope she becomes his psycho Lady Macbeth character; we need more female political characters now that Aslaug seems not to be doing much. Well, it’s early days yet.

So yeah: I like the new kids, all brittle and insecure and dangerous, I like Lagertha being all stately with posh hair, it would be nice to see a little more … narrative economy this season and it looks like we might get that. There isn’t much history-lesson stuff in this episode, which means there isn’t much totally risible history, so that’s nice.

TV Tuesday: It’s Vikings again

Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

In the original version of this review I referred to the guy who plays the big Viking as Not Actually the Guy from Amon Amarth, but it absolutely is The Guy from Amon Amarth! I’ll be danged.

… and that should tell you what kind of a movie we’re dealing with before we even get started.

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Anyway, Northmen is not based on a particular historical tale, but I’m running low on directly historical movies I can actually summon up the enthusiasm to watch. It’s your basic adventurey survival tale: some Vikings get shipwrecked, capture a princess, team up with a monk and try to get home. There’s the Nice One, the Backstabby One, the Gruff Mentor, the Big Guy (that’s the Amon Amarth guy), and so on. The princess’ dad sends a bunch of Stormtroopers out to look for her. There are fights and castles and whatever.

It’s an OK way to pass the time, or maybe to have on in the background while you’re doing something else, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. It’s 100% an “if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this kind of thing” effort. It does have some pretty fun fight scenes, with an appropriate sense of over-the-top badassery.

Obviously, it’s set in Skyrim, like most Viking movies, from the beautiful landscapes (Germany, I guess?) to the patchy leather armour to the grime and blue light everywhere.

What is interesting is that in the opening voiceover and during the movie itself, the main character, Asbjorn, quotes a poem talking about how Vikings need to always be on the lookout for enemies and should “never sleep in a house.” I knew it sounded familiar, but despite having sort of echoes of the Havamal, that’s not what it is at all. I recognised the rhythm, although the translation is slightly different than the one I’m used to. Anyway, I remembered some of the rest of the text and was able to look it up.

The poem is from Fridthjof’s Saga, by Swedish writer (and later bishop) Esaias Tegnér. This long poem is an adaptation of a genuine medieval Norse saga, but as far as I can tell, the section being quoted, “The Viking Code,” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the original, which, as is the way of sagas, does have a fair bit of poetry in it.

The relevant passages are this sort of thing:

Now he floated around on the desolate sea, like a
 prey-seeking falcon he rode,
To the champions on board he gave justice and law;
 wilt thou hear now the sea-viking’s code?

“Make no tent on thy ship, never sleep in a house, for
 a foe within doors you may view;
On his shield sleeps the viking; his sword in his hand,
 and his tent is the heavenly blue.

See how short is the shaft of the hammer of Thor, but
 an ell’s length the sword blade of Frey;
‘Tis enough, for your weapon will ne’er be too short if
 you dare near the enemy stay.

“When the storm rageth fierce, hoist the sail to the top,—
 O how merry the storm-king appears;
Let her drive! let her drive! better founder than strike,
 for who strikes is a slave to his fears.

It is the usual combination of medieval chivalry, Romantic foofaraw and some actual Edda material, and it goes on for quite a bit after this. Can you imagine someone from an actual seafaring culture talking that bollocks about it better to founder than to set the appropriate amount of sail for the wind? Ships ain’t free, y’know. Ironically, the bit in the film this is quoted over does in fact end with the ship foundering and most of the crew being drowned, so, y’know; maybe take Asbjorn’s advice with a pinch of salt.

And you might not think it, but for a while Fridthof’s Saga was the big thing in Swedish literature. It was a huge success in the 19th century and into the early 20th; Kaiser Wilhelm had a huge statue of Frithjof set up in Norway, people talked about its expressions of primal spirit, all that kind of thing.

Which I guess is no more than to say that the Hollywood Viking world is very much the world of Scandinavian nationalism and Romanticism; those ideas have seeped so far into how we see the middle ages in general and the Vikings in particular that it’s really, really hard to get away from them.

Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season finale

As it happens, I thought the finale was not too bad. It was fun to see Ragnar and Rollo go Full Anime, no matter how silly, and it reinforced one of my favourite themes, which is that numbers and tech tend to beat a straight-ahead attack full of spirit and vigour.

But obviously the big news is the last chunk of the series, which does something that Vikings has done a few times already, leaping forward a few years to catch up with the next phase of the saga. Ragnar’s sons are already grown up and ready to take their place as the main characters of the story, which is sort of the idea, after all.

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Goodbye.
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Hello!

Now, this is all well and good — Older Ivar is particularly enjoyable — but there’s a risk that this can be a problem in a show where “unfocused” is already the major criticism. They sort of seem to know that — look at the last few episodes, where they killed off Yidu, Erlandr, Odo, Young Siggy and probably some other characters that no living human gave a shit about. The trend continues in this episode with the strangling of Baron Whatsisname and his sister, Lady Who Cares. It’s not that those characters couldn’t have been interesting, it’s that they never really got the chance to be more than generic politico-sexual intriguers like every other character who got unceremoniously swept off the board this season.

Now, on the one hand I approve of this narrative streamlining. On the other hand, this show’s fixation on violence in the Viking age has somehow missed the idea of a blood feud, which is not only a great source of violence and a threat to social cohesion but also the reason why you don’t do this kind of thing. Every episode asks us to believe that there is someone who has ascended to high social rank without having even one powerful ally, heavily-armed relative, incriminating secret or other reason that you wouldn’t just straight-up murder them. And this is how people think politics worked back in the day, is it? A series of sterile intrigues at the court of a ruler who can just have you stabbed up any time he feels like it without consequence?

I’m skeptical. And I think it’s ever so slightly cheating for the show to draw conclusions to plots starting on premises that are based on its own sense of narrative economy. It’s as if the detectives in a cop show knew that there were only seven or eight people in New York in any given week.

That shots with the boat was cute, once again reinforcing my belief that this show looks better than it thinks. Still, this at least suggested that something interesting might be happening, which would be a nice change from the housekeeping of the first half of the season.

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season finale

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9

I keep feeling conflicted about Vikings, and it’s episodes like 8 and 9 that do it. The key plot here — in addition to the usual West Saxon malarkey and some politics back in Paris and of course Harbard — is that Ragnar is taking his ships and portaging them upriver so that he can attack Paris from the side not defended by Rollo’s forts. Clever! And the show uses its budget well to show what an immense and complex technical and organisational undertaking this is. Also great!

And then in the same breath it just does all this stuff that’s so dumb that I have to wonder what’s going on. Like: Bjorn enquires whether Harald and Halfdan killed a local family — because otherwise they might tell the Franks they’re about. Bjorn, you have cut down like a thousand trees, effectively built a road, and there are thousands of you dragging dozens of ships at a snail’s pace while simultaneously shouting at the top of your lungs. How could they possibly not notice you? But I bet they haven’t.

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Similarly, they have to portage their boats “over the mountains.” The … mountains? This show is set in a world where there are just mountains everywhere, I guess.

Aaaaanyway, Ragnar kills Yidu as well, an end that goes nowhere to a story that was never anywhere to begin with. Presumably this will have some later effect, but maybe not; there is a definite sense that they’re just marking time. The Alfred the Great origin scenes are well done. This series continues to look great, but I can’t help but feel that the looks are guiding the writing perhaps more than is healthy.

Plus all kinds of people die, including whatsisface, further developing the idea that politics in this show is useless and only violence matters, which is fine and all except it’s weird that no one has noticed. Like, why would whatsisface say to himself “well, I have Sheepy’s vulnerable son, so she won’t do anything to me. Of course, we’re in France, so she could just stab me to death or have her famous warrior boyfriend who’s twice my size do it, and then I’d be screwed, because why would any minions I had watching the kid effectively sacrifice their lives out of loyalty to a dead jerk? Well, enough thinking about that, I’d better hand her a loaded gun.” Like, surely all these people have noticed that no one ever benefits from devious political negotiation except Floki, who has the Script Immunity of the Gods?

Also yay, Cwenfrith is dead. I wish that I thought that this show was getting rid of superfluous smexy smex, but whatserface is still in it, and I also wish that getting rid of the plots that posit that the richest man in the country can’t get laid didn’t mean just knifing or drowning a bunch of the female characters. I guess we’re getting some superfluous gay sex plot, which is fair enough, but naturally it just cuts to a tastefully dozing Roland instead of three minutes of candlelit chest hair.

Something is going on back in Denmark, with young Sigurd emerging as an unlikely hero while Aslaug falls apart. She even drowns little Siggy, the daughter of Bjorn and Thorunn. I feel like the cleaning-out of superfluous characters is getting a little obvious here.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9