With the release of Vikings Season 4 Part 1 on DVD and Blu-ray, we spoke to creator Michael Hirst to discover why there’s no “intrinsic opposition between facts and drama” and why historians have no reason to be fearful of the hit Medieval drama.
1. The research comes first on Vikings
Everything that I write and am involved with starts with historical research. I spent a long time in universities so, for me, the research part of it is a joy and I read as much as I can about whatever subject I’m dealing with. I read it with an open mind essentially, allowing characters and storylines to evolve or, as the poet Dryden, said, “The act of creativity is ideas and thoughts tumbling over each other in the darkness.”
2. There’s a guy who’s job it is to check this stuff
I have a historical researcher called Justin Pollard who’s attached to Vikings and he provides information, background and whatever else I need, so every idea starts from a fact. It wouldn’t be true to say that I’m interested in accuracy because it’s not a documentary, and I’m not sure that you can be historically accurate because if you could then all historians would agree on everything. What you’re looking for, even in drama, is authenticity and truthfulness, so as the stories evolve I will always check with Justin whether it’s authentic, appropriate or reasonable to take the stories in a certain direction.
3. Every Vikings set starts life in a museum
The sets are sourced from museums around the world that contain Viking artefacts, and the stories begin life within history. Of course, if you think about Vikings, it is the Dark Ages and there is a hell of a lot we don’t know. I take the characters for a walk and develop dramatic storylines but I never take them too far from what is known about them. But of course writing drama sometimes means you’re selective and have to condense things. Creativity is about shaping raw materials; if it isn’t dramatic no one is going to watch it.
4. Historians think Vikings is awesome
When we were working on the first season of Vikings – seems a long time ago now – we showed some of the first episodes to the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard University, who is a Swedish professor. I assumed he would eat me alive but he said actually this is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently,
5. And so do
real Vikings Scandinavians
Vikings is the second biggest show across all Scandinavian countries. It’s very highly regarded and has reanimated an interest in Viking studies across Scandinavia and encouraged a lot more digs. The curator has told me that we’ve doubled the number of people who visit the Viking ship museum in Oslo because of the show and people are now proud of their ancestry again. I do have cause to think that it’s a pretty authentic show given that it’s a drama, and I’m very proud of that.
6. Drama drives more interest in history then documentaries and dig sites
What is important is that historical drama will reach more people than documentaries about the same period. Vikings is now the fifth biggest show in the world so millions and millions and millions of people are watching it. They don’t have to all think “this is real” but what I hope and what I know happens is that it can develop a taste for the subject. People can go back to the books and start researching themselves; I know that’s happening in Scandinavia. A similar thing happened with Tudors. I got loads of letters and emails from teachers around the world saying my pupils are now very keen to study the Tudor period, keen to go to England to see these places and we have lessons where we show bits of the show and then we discuss whether it’s real.
7. If Vikings makes stuff up, then they’re only being true to tradition
Ragnar comes out of the sagas and out of history as a semi-legendary, semi-mythic character. His death is reported in different places and his sons were too numerous to account for. We actually know more about the sons, and I’ve recently been on the archaeological dig in Repton where the Great Heathen Army, which was led by Ivar the Boneless, wintered. After much thought, I deliberately chose a main character who was semi mythic and whose reputation survived down the ages and was part of the oral tradition of Viking life. You want someone like that for a lead character. You want someone who is immensely charismatic, who’s important and who other characters in the saga talk about. In a sense, I’m writing a saga about Ragnar Lodbrok, who becomes a legendary character in the show.
Vikings: Season 4 – Part One is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from 24 October 2016, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. For more amazing tales from Medieval history, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.