Vikings creator Michael Hirst on the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, his legacy and Season 4B

Ragnar Lothbrok, played by Travis Fimmel, in Michael Hirst’s Vikings on the History Channel

History Channel’s Vikings started out being about legendary Scandinavian leader Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his meteoric rise to fame, but has been about so much more after his ascension reached its apex as a near god-like status.

Ragnar has since become humbled with life’s failures and reminded of regretful decisions.

It’s also about the saga of his sons Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig), Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (David Lindström) and Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Anderson) eclipsing their father’s fame and branching the Viking Age out to unimaginable boundaries.

It spotlights the fascinating women in Ragnar’s life, including Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Queen Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) the loyalty of his friends Athelstan (George Blagden), Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) and Helga (Maude Hirst), and the passion of his foes King Ecbert (Linus Roache) and brother Rollo (Clive Standen) to name but a few.

It humanizes the Viking Age, their culture, society, rituals, influence and warfare while exploring the responses of civilizations they conquered.

There are conflicts of personality, ego, legacy, and most of all, religion. Vikings presents different religions and their varying influences on society in an intelligent, provocative and challenging manner that is above all other attempts on television. That may be its crowning achievement amongst so many others.

Behind it all is one man, one writer, Michael Hirst, who has built a career on making history compelling.

Michael Hirst, who also wrote and created historical hit The Tudors

We caught up with the Vikings creator as he was finishing writing the fifth season, (yes, he’s that far in advance) to speak about the second volume of Season 4 or 4B as it’s being referred to amongst cast and crew.

We talked about the complexities of Ragnar Lothbrok as a character and historical figure, religion, and the characters that will make this season and future ones come alive.

We also talked about some other things that we can’t share yet, but stay tuned for more in the coming weeks. Until then, enjoy our lengthy conversation with Mr. Hirst.

Ernie Estrella: Michael, let’s start with Ragnar who is the vehicle at which we’re entering your world of the Vikings. He’s a protagonist that is challenging for viewers because he does so many great and admirable things but has done just as many questionable things.

Michael Hirst: When I started research, it was right at the beginning of the Viking Age. I was really thrilled to find a character who had a lot of sons.

At least two of his sons became more famous than he did, which was actually one of his fears. I knew that I had a real saga on my hands.

I had history, a story of great character from myth and legend, in time giving way to his sons Bjorn and Ivar. To me, it was always a saga about Ragnar and his sons.

EE: But Ragnar is so different to many characters on television. He’s thoughtful, unpredictable, open-minded. He is progressive but very complex.

MH: I didn’t want a traditional Viking who was loud and hairy. I actually wanted a quiet, introverted hero who was more interested in exploration than in rape and pillage. I wanted to upturn and challenge all of the clichés about the Vikings.

I couldn’t get away of course from the fact that Vikings were aggressive, they were warriors. They were people who raided places and I had to deal with that as well.

If you think about nearly all the major characters in big successful TV shows within the last few years, none of them are good. Being good is not very dramatic. They’re gangsters, criminals, drug dealers…

The point about them is that they’re eminently watchable and that they’re interesting. They’re fascinating characters and morally challenged.

EE: That’s true. You’re probably referring to characters like Tony Soprano or Walter White to name a few.

MH: Ragnar is no different. He’s done things that weren’t particularly appealing and he became a drug addict.

From a Viking point of view, the worse thing he ever did was that he lost a big battle. Normally speaking, because Viking society was a meritocracy, he would’ve been killed.

He would’ve been replaced immediately by a more powerful leader. But because Ragnar was so famous, he couldn’t be replaced immediately.

So that gave me the opportunity to have a pause where his sons could grow up and they talk about his father’s legacy. Ragnar comes back into the show because he is concerned about his legacy.

He knows he has unfinished business in England. In some ways the show answers your question of legacy, whether Ragnar was a good or bad person, whether or not he was a good leader, and we explore that in this season.

EE: I’m not sure if it was planned but every season you’ve managed to reinvent Ragnar and repurpose him. In Season 1, we saw the explorer, the farmer and the upstart. In Season 2, we saw the makings of a king and the ruler. In Season 3, we begin to see his ambition and greed. He’s a drug addict in 4A and, as you said, fallen on the battlefield. It looks like in Season 4B he becomes a father to the child he wanted the least, which is great poetry by the way. How much does the purpose of Ragnar serve the story vs. history.

MH: It was slightly more organic than that. I’m not sure I thought it through. I knew I wanted to start dramatizing Ivar because he historically becomes almost the most famous Viking of all time, and who knew the most famous Viking would be a cripple.

I knew he would be a major character. Somehow I had to connect him to Ragnar because he tried to kill him as a baby.

I wasn’t looking to gain sympathy for Ragnar, because he looks after him, actually, as you know, Ragnar gives Ivar a hard time. He’s recognized something in Ivar that perhaps no one else has seen.

He does recognize that Ivar is the best vehicle for his revenge for his own death. Ivar is special even though he’s crippled and he has a huge future. I was just winging it, I was just exploring it — putting them together.

EE: What’s an example of this exploration?

MH: There’s a wonderful scene when they sit on the thrones in the great hall in Kattegat, and Ivar says: “I came here many nights to think about you, to curse you and hate you because you left me.”

That’s human. What I’m consistently interested in is what is human between these people. I want a contemporary audience to understand that these are human beings, these are people who feel like we do.

So those scenes are gold dust to me when characters open up about their feelings. Ivar gets Ragnar to open up about his feelings.

He actually humanizes Ragnar quite a lot this season. Because his condition is so challenging that he won’t even let his father off the hook. He just pushes and pushes him the whole time.

I think that’s so normal. That’s how that relationship might be at any time and any place. But it just so happens that we have two great actors to do it for us.

EE: Michael, we must talk about religion because it is one of my favorite things you deal with on the show in no way that we’ve seen on television. To me, it’s one of the best shows period that talks about religion in a mature and open way and we have the Vikings as Pagans, but as we know, Christianity is sweeping across Europe at the time. How much of that becomes a part of this upcoming season, because we’ve seen some prominent religious characters have gone by the wayside?

MH: It continues to be absolutely central to the show. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t like to write it. When the Huffington Post said Vikings was one of the few network shows on television that takes religion seriously, I thought that was right.

That was really good insight. It continues to be true. Religion continues to divide the characters.

We also touch on some different religions as well with Bjorn getting to Muristan, we come into contact with Muslim religion and Buddhism.

That whole part of the show is so fundamental to my understanding of it. We know in the long term that Christianity triumphs over Paganism, but that was within a span of 300 years or so. There was a lot of tension between Christians and Pagans.

EE: And you illustrate this tension by dividing the Vikings into two camps, right?

MH: There were two wings of the Viking party. There was a liberal wing, which wants to find places to farm and find places with rich farming land, which may mean that you have to compromise your religion.

Ragnar’s kind of from the liberal wing. Bjorn is as well. Floki is not, who says that if we start compromising, we lose our gods. So we can’t do that.

I’ve just finished writing episode 516, I’m way ahead, I’m 70 hours into the story and that tension I can tell you is still there. That dialogue, that conflict is still there, further down the line.

EE: Wow, that’s the richest stuff to me. I know that there are fans who get into the battles and the raiding, but I just want more of Athelstan, the conflicted Anglo-Saxon monk Viking, who was my favorite character. I keep watching hoping there’s a way we see him in a flashback or as a ghost.

MH: [Laughs] Yeah-yeah. I agree. He’s mine too. Fondly enough, when we go to Comic-Con with all the really rabid fans, most of the questions are about the religious aspects of the show, which I find really interesting.

EE: When you stumble upon someone who doesn’t have as much written about them, say Lagertha for example, is that something that is more liberating to you on a creative level or is it more frustrating to you because you have to go hunting for facts?

MH: We know some things about Lagertha, but it’s true, there’s a lack of evidence. Whatever I do, I have to run past my historical consultant to see if it seems authentic. Is it plausible?

But in terms of the character, I think Katheryn is amazing and the show now has a huge female audience because of her.

It’s not because Travis is so handsome or Clive is a big hunk, it’s because of Lagertha that women like the show. There are other strong female characters I’m happy to say in the show as well.

But what I’ve done with Katheryn, perhaps unfairly, is to throw her into a lot of situations which I think will speak to a lot of women today.

So she’s a very strong self-reliant woman. She’s a warrior as well but is still betrayed by her first husband, gets involved with an abusive man, and she still has to struggle to keep her Earldom.

As I told Katheryn from the beginning, I’m going to put you in all of these terrible, difficult situations because I think women will identify with and respond to them.

So although we’re dealing with the 8th Century, 21st Century women will see it the same, I think that’s true. I think Katheryn / Lagertha does speak to contemporary women.

Look, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, but their totally gratuitous use of women is terrible and I would never do that. The female characters in Vikings are all interesting, and I’m very, very proud of that.

Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha, who Hirst says is as popular as Ragnar among fans

EE: As the show gets more popular, fans have become inspired to dive into the history books to seek out more. We’ve seen the History Channel produce their companion show Real Vikings supplement to the show where we see how close the show is rooted in historical events and study. Have you gotten more outside scrutiny to stick closer to what’s considered historical fact?

MH: No actually, I have to tell you it’s been so wonderful for me. When I wrote Tudors I was attacked, especially in England, because Henry the VIII was such an iconic figure and everyone thought they knew more about Henry the VIII than I did.

When I’ve been writing about Vikings, it’s the Dark Ages and nobody knows very much. Before we broadcast them, we screened the first three episodes for the Head of Scandinavian Studies at Harvard.

He’s a Swedish professor and I was on a radio show with him. I thought he was going to chew me up and spit me out. He said: “This is the first time my culture has ever been portrayed intelligently and sensitively.”

That’s been the response all across Scandinavia. Vikings is the second-biggest show in every Scandinavian country.

I was at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo recently and the curator said: “I want to thank you because we’ve doubled the amount of visitors to see us since Vikings aired.”

Vikings is authentic as it can be. It can never be accurate because you can never be accurate anyway, but it’s as authentic as it can be. It’s about real events, real people that changed our world.

We need to be as accurate as we can be and we are. All the departments research the costumes, the design of the villages, etc. We are as authentic as we can be.

But from my point of view, there are two things I have to do — be authentic and be entertaining.

If no one is watching then it doesn’t matter if it is 100 per cent accurate. [Laughs] Who cares? It really is about real things.

EE: You shared at Comic-Con your participation on the archeological dig of the Vikings boat that was found, where you found two arrowheads, a rare feat at that. So first, congratulations. How did going on that trip directly affect this season and your passion for this show?

MH: One of the things it did was confirm what I’ve been writing. I had been writing scenes about the Great Heathen Army wintering in this particular place, Repton. I’ve been writing scenes about that but there was only so much evidence that they had been there.

Then I was helping to unearth real evidence so they had been there. The other thing that was exciting was that when I uncovered these two Viking arrowheads, the grave I was digging up might just be the grave of Ivar the Boneless.

So can you imagine the connection between my real life and imaginative life and that these two things were coming together?

The great frustration was that we only had a window of about four weeks to do this excavation.

We didn’t get to the bones, and we won’t be able to do that until next year but, hopefully, Ivar the Boneless is down there.

EE: This season we have a focus on the sons. We’ve already seen what a brilliant strategist Ubbe is when Floki was a fugitive. We know great things are in store for Ivar, but can you talk about what is in store for each of Ragnar and Aslaug’s sons?

MH: The sons of Ragnar are all different but they all carry a part of Ragnar’s DNA. One of the things about the sagas and his sons, is that Ragnar will continue to stay alive on in the show through his sons.

Ubbe looks more like Ragnar did as a young man. He is a lot like him in a lot of ways, he bought into Ragnar’s dream of trying to find agricultural lands. He has picked up on what Ragnar’s fundamental dream was.

Talking again about those two wings of the Viking party, Ubbe is very much on the liberal wing; he’s prepared to compromise his religious stance in order to facilitate good things for his people.

Ivar is a fundamentalist, he likes war, he wants to go to war, he likes the things we usually associate with Vikings — warfare and great tactical victories and so on — basically taking over England and parts of Frankia, which is astonishing.

Hvitserk and Ubbe, the two oldest sons of Ragnar and Aslaug, we remember when they were young they almost committed suicide by jumping into the ice.

Ragnar’s sons Hvitserk, Ivar, Ubbe and Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye

They’ve always been close, and yet something happens which divides them dramatically. It’s something that’s such a big deal, certainly for Hvitserk, that he’s going to spend a long, long time trying to work out why he did he what he did and whose side he joined. So Hvitserk is a conflicted character and really interesting.

Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye is a young guy who feels pushed out by his more powerful brothers. He’s always trying to prove himself. He becomes a bit of a loud mouth, and is challenging to everyone, but you can understand why.

He’s surrounded by these very powerful, very charismatic people. He ends up being very challenging to Ivar, because Ivar picks on him. This is brothers at their worst.

We see a lot of examples with the brothers being brotherly and being good to each other and supportive of one another. We also see how badly brothers can behave towards one another.

That’s particularly true with Sigurd and Ivar, which has tragic results, but we’ll see that in due course.

EE: How has it been expanding on the roles for Helga and Torvi, portrayed by your daughters, Maude and Georgia, as they become more prominent characters on the show and are two very different voices with different experiences in Viking society?

MH: I literally try not to think of (Helga and Torvi) as my daughters. They have different trajectories. Their fates takes them to very different places in 4B. I don’t want to give you any spoilers but for one of them 4B is a huge season.

They’re both developed and I suppose it’s as characteristic as the whole show, but even characters you think you know can change and develop.

Floki could go through a huge elemental change in season 4B. This season really nails everyone.

All the major characters are fundamentally different in one way or another at the end of the season than they were at the beginning.

EE: Ragnar was the vehicle at which we entered this world, but has the show become more of an ensemble?

MH: It certainly is, yeah. I could see major characters that people love. I’m sure that everyone thought that Ragnar is the lead character but in popular regards and on social media, Lagertha is equal to Ragnar.

Bjorn is a huge character and now Ivar is a HUGE character and Ubbe will become [a major character too]. So yes, it is more collegiate, it is more collective, but you still get these peaks, these stand-out characters that I think people are rooting for or are fascinated by and care about.

There are probably three or four characters that everybody who knows the show is really caring about.

EE: How tough is that for you to manage when suddenly more characters become popular?

MH: It is (tough) I guess, but if I ever got bored of writing the show I’d stop. I’ve never been bored for a moment.

These new characters and the ones that have survived so far continue to engage and amuse me. I just love every morning getting back to work with them.

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