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The new age of 'Vikings'

Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), center, prepares to lead

Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), center, prepares to lead his crew. (Jonathan Hession / HISTORY) Credit: Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), center, prepares to lead his crew. (Jonathan Hession / HISTORY)

In recent years, TV has featured historical series with monarchs, knights, gladiators, gangsters, cowboys and a pope.

Starting Sunday, you can add Vikings to the mix.

The History Channel is making its initial foray into scripted series - it aired its first scripted miniseries, "Hatfields & McCoys," last year - with this epic look at the Norse warriors and explorers.

Created by Michael Hirst, who also created "The Tudors" and "Camelot" for TV and wrote the films "Elizabeth" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "Vikings" follows the real life figure Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) as he grapples with the chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) over where they should raid. But the show is not all action. It also delves deeply into family issues.

amNewYork spoke with Hirst about the show.

Why Vikings? I may be wrong, but I feel like it's the time to do Vikings. The only way I know that is, whenever I'm asked what I'm doing, I say 'Vikings' and everyone's face lights up. ... There is this instant interest. Obviously the thing that's interested people is telling the story from the Viking point of view, which no one has tried to before.

How much research did you have to do? I did lots of research and we have a historian who is attached to the show. Here's the thing. First of all, it's called the Dark Ages. It's called the Dark Ages because not a lot is known about what happened at that time. Plus, the Vikings themselves never wrote anything down. They were non-literate pagans. All we know about them are reports from Christian monks and from later on and the occasional report with Arab traders who described some of their rituals. But essentially, we know very little. The other thing of course, is I'm not writing a documentary, I'm writing a drama, so what I always say to this question, is it's absolutely based on historical reading and fact, Ragnar, the character, was a real person. We know he was married twice, he had lots of sons, we know how he died, and all these things are the fabric of the show. But of course we don't know what Vikings did to each other, we don't know a lot of things. It's a work of drama. But if it drives people to reading about Vikings and reading the history books, that's great. You know, the Tudors inspired this huge Tudor's industry and I'm very pleased. I'm very pleased if anything I write does lead to renewed historical interest.
I would recommend anyone to go and read some of the Norse myths and the myths of the gods. There's a very good Penguin book about that. And there was a fairly recent book called 'The Hammer and the Cross' which is by Robert Ferguson, it's a Penguin book. And what that was saying was that there was an almighty struggle between Christians and Pagans. We keep finding out more, there's more evidence dug up. What was assumed to be a Viking princess was dug up from the frozen wastelands of Russia a few years ago, a young woman, and she was wearing the most beautiful jewelry. And it's so wonderful to think that the Vikings were Pagans, they were iron age people, but the women wore this beautiful jewelry. So of course I put that on my characters. They all wear these beautiful jewels.

There is a cliché that Vikings are barbaric warriors. Is there truth to that? One of the main impulses of doing this show was to confound and contradict these clichés. The Vikings are always the bad guys they're always the guys who come and smash your door down in the middle of the night and abduct your daughters and rape your wife and steal your treasures and kill you. That's a convenient fiction, which is based on the propaganda of Christian monks writing about them. For example, their treatment of women was completely progressive compared to what was happening in England with the Saxons or the French. ... There was the beginnings of democratic systems. Their boat building was a century ahead of anyone else.

What about the horned hats? They didn't wear horned hats. There is no description of the horned hats. What is true is the "Berserker." These Vikings ... that were usually used in the front ranks of the army, they would have no body armor. They were usually naked up top, they would probably take drugs before they went into battle, they were completely wild and they frightened people who they fought against. And that is a cliché that I suppose is true. The most important things was, one, the lead character in your show, it doesn't matter if he's good or bad, it doesn't matter if you agree with him or you like him or if you share his morals or outlook on life. What matters is you have to have is someone who is powerful and you have to have someone who is completely, compulsively watch-able. So I think with Jonathan Reiss Meyers in Tudors, no matter how tyrannical and awful he became, you never stopped wanting to watch him and see what he did. And I think Travis Ragner in Vikings is also going to become compulsively watch-able. He's actually slightly unusual as a hero, I think he's slightly more complex. So that's one lesson, that's a very specific lesson on how you should run these shows. The other lesson, what matters in the end is not the historical period or details, it's where the people engage with the characters. You have to get people to care. The readon they switch onto the next episode or put on the next DVD is that they really want to find out what happened and that's the art of making these shows. It's just a simple, human, basic truth is that we're all interested in human beings.

How did you arrive at casting Travis for Ragnar? We had great difficulty casting Ragnar because I knew I did want someone unusual.[Travis] wasn't trying to be this character. He was himself. He made sense of the scenes. It was an amazingly magical moment just to say, "Yes, we found our Ragnar."

Who would have known that was an amazing moment. I love the past. My problem is I have a lot more problems with the present. I'm doing other historical stuff. I'm doing stuff set in the 60s and it doesn't seem like the past, but it is the past, and I remember some of it, or at least a little bit of it. And it's very exciting to go back there. There's always this thing that even though you think you remember things, actually you don't remember things. It's like, if you say, 'This Viking show, is it authentic?' it can never be authentic because all of those people are dead and we only have actors and we have or best shot at it, but it will never be authentic because authenticity is real-life. And even when I look at stuff in the 60s which I think I remember, I realize I've remembered it totally wrongly. It wasn't like that at all. And that's the kind of mystery of the past. It's just a place I like to go to in my own sad way.

Most important question: Who would win in a fight, Vikings or zombies? The thing the Vikings always had going for them was that they didn't mind dying. A fight was a great opportunity to die, because then you would go to Valhalla and you'd have a great time drinking ale. But zombies don't care about dying, presumably, either. So they would just really enjoy fighting each other.

On TV: "Vikings" premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m. on History.

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