Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Rollo

Warning: contains multiple spoilers for Vikings seasons 1-5!!!

Old Norse: Hrólfr, played by: Clive Standen

In Vikings, Rollo serves as a frenemy/adversary to Ragnar, his famous brother, only to end up becoming a French aristocrat. Part of this is even historically correct. Rollo was born either in Norway or Denmark around 860, i.e. five years before Ragnar’s possible death, was a Viking, and became the first ruler of Normandy (“the Land of the Northmen”). As Snorri’s Heimskringla mentions, when he grew up into adulthood his name was extended to Göngu-Hrólfr, “Rollo the Walker”, since he became too heavy to be carried by a horse. Remembering that Heimskringla is a Saga, I would also assume that he was the most handsome, wise, and brave of all the men who were too large to ride any horse.

Rollo is possibly the most… adapted of all characters in Vikings. First of all, there’s the problem of Ragnar and Rollo being brothers, despite the fact that Rollo was born in 860, when Ragnar was at least in his sixties. Second, I am almost certain I saw the TV Rollo on a horse. Third, we know for a fact that he existed, but in this particular case unpacking the differences between history and History could fill a book three times as long as this one.

The earliest historical event noting Rollo’s existence is his leadership over the Vikings who laid siege to Paris in 885-886. At this point I already get a headache, because it immediately throws the chronology of Vikings off the cliff. The series depicts Ragnar, Rollo, the invasion of Paris, Rollo’s marriage and subsequent leadership of the French, glossing over the fact that Paris was invaded twenty years after Ragnar had died.

Iceland 99 years ago

The reason why Storytellers will be released on March 28, 2019 is simple: the last words of the book are “March 28, 1920”. On one hand, this BEGS for me to wait another year. On the other, it allows me to swap “20” with “19” in the upcoming second trailer. (Watch the first one here.) 99 is a round enough number for my needs.

In 1920, Iceland was a very different country. Not just because it lacked airports and tourists. In addition to already looking like a different planet, Iceland was also following what seemed to be parallel history, where modern and traditional ideas regarding the genders were reversed, where the war was a fantastic development… and what else?

The Great War

In 1920, Iceland began to experience a major, unexpected financial crisis. The first World War was known in Iceland as “The Great War” – not just size-wise great, but the first time ever Iceland experienced true prosperity. While other countries were busy fighting, Icelanders did what they’ve always been doing – fishing, herding sheep, producing wool. Now, however, they were also exporting all those things, and the demand was huge. Once the war ended, though, the other countries began to rebuild their own economies. Almost overnight, at the end of 1919 and beginning of 1920, the prosperity ended.

Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Ragnar Lothbrok (and family)

This post contains spoilers for seasons 1-4 of ‘Vikings’. You’ve been warned.

I’ve been a big fan of the ‘Vikings’ series, and in particular of Travis Fimmel’s character, since the first episode. I spent a while grinding my teeth at inaccuracies until I had to remind myself that Þórr, according to Marvel and Hollywood, is a clean-shaven blondie who wears a costume with six nipple shields. Later on I acquired ‘The World of Vikings’ by Justin Pollard and Michael Hirst (the series’ producer). The book shows very clearly that Hirst is not only well educated in the Viking history, but also has enough wits to understand that sometimes history doesn’t make very exciting TV. After reading the book, which by the way I wholeheartedly recommend, I forgave the inaccuracies. Especially as knowing history spoils the pleasure of watching, and any departures from facts – of “facts” – provides extra excitement.

You’ve probably read one of the “10 Facts About Ragnar Lothbrok That Will Change Your Life Forever” articles on the Internet. My take on this is a bit longer, features less illustrations, and also is more accurate – if you find any mistakes in this post, please point them out for me to fix.

I want to steal his entire wardrobe. If such shocking theft ever happens, I was joking and you can’t prove anything.

Let’s start with the big one. When was Ragnar born? Ha. Gotcha. There is no proof whatsoever that Ragnar existed at all. In 1979, Hilda Ellis Davidson wrote:

Certain scholars in recent years have come to accept at least part of Ragnar’s story as based on historical fact.

Note the careful wording of ‘certain scholars’ and ‘at least part’.

In 2003, Katherine Holman disagreed:

Although his sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived, and he seems to be an amalgam of several different historical figures and pure literary invention.

Holman’s view seems to be the most accurate, at least with the knowledge we possess today. It’s also very Ragnar, so to say, to not even exist, yet have many sons whose existence is proven beyond all doubts.



Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) on a bad hair day

Ragnar’s first wife was a shieldmaiden named Lagertha (Old Norse: Hlaðgerðr). She wasn’t a delicate flower. Saxo Grammaticus:

Ladgerda, a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All-marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.

(Yes. Saxo was sexist. I hope this isn’t surprising. In his defence, he died approximately 800 years ago.)

Lagertha wasn’t particularly into Ragnar, even though he hadn’t begun to wear his hairy breeches (see below) yet. As he courted her, impressed by her courage in battle, Lagertha gracefully invited him over for tea and light refreshments. Her idea of hospitality involved setting a bear and a great hound upon him. Ragnar killed both beasts, which impressed Lagertha so greatly they ended up with three children: son called Fridleif Ragnarsson, and two daughters whose names have not been recorded. None of those three children are mentioned in the TV series.

Lagertha did not bear him a son called Björn. While Lagertha existed as a historical figure, most of the stories surrounding her are considered to be Saxo Grammaticus’s inventions. Saxo, of course, did not approve of the idea that a woman does anything else than giving birth, cooking, and crying as her husband goes away to war, therefore Lagertha served him as an example of how horrible heathens must have been. Ragnar divorced her later in order to marry Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr (not pictured on TV).


Lothbrok = Hairy breeches

The story behind the name ‘Lothbrok’ is a variation on Polish and Russian folk stories. (Aside: Vikings spent surprising amounts of time in Poland and Russia.) The origin of the name comes from Ragnar’s desire to marry Þóra. Her doting dad, Herrauðr, presented her with a small lindworm (according to Wikipedia – “wingless serpentine monster”). This struck me as a somewhat odd gift, especially when the lindworm grew uncontrollably, eventually trapping poor Þóra in her dwelling. Herrauðr promised her hand in marriage to the man who would slay the serpent. The sources do not mention what Herrauðr would have done if the beast was slain by a woman, but a man who literally surrounds his daughter with something that serves as giant phallic symbol probably never spent too much time thinking of shieldmaidens and Valkyries. In the story, Ragnar put on trousers made of fur, then covered himself with tar in order to kill a snake. The snake must have been somewhat bewildered by the sight of tar-smeared Travis Fimmel, yet the trousers proved to be great defense against snake venom. Ragnar, in his excitement, decided those pants were suitable for all occasions and made a habit of wearing them. I suppose, however, that Þóra was happy enough to be able to go for a nice, serpent-free stroll and allowed her husband to continue donning such a handy protective garment. Unfortunately, once Þóra gave Ragnar two songs, Eiríkr and Agnar, she died of illness.

You will note none of the people mentioned in the passage above appear in the TV series either, and if I remember correctly neither do his hairy breeches. As a side note, none of his wives changed their surnames to “Lothbrok” for the simple reason that it wasn’t his surname, but a nickname.

Lagertha didn’t get over Ragnar all that fast, which was very helpful when he fought a civil war in Denmark. At the time she was the queen of Norway and sent over 120 ships to help her ex. Upon her return home, she killed her husband and became the ruler of Norway. This was pictured in ‘Vikings’. I think it’s safe to say Lagertha did not have much luck in love. What Saxo had to say about this was quite predictable: she “usurped the whole of his [her husband’s] name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him”. How presumptuous of the dame!



Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) looking awesome and magical – like always.

The third wife of Ragnar was Aslaug, daughter of legendary Sigurd, slayer of a dragon, and shieldmaiden Brynhildr. None of her parents is considered to be a real historical figure, as the slaying of the dragon might have already suggested. There was no exciting rivalry between her and Lagertha, since Lagertha was busy killing her husband and ruling Norway. But there’s more to Aslaug’s story.

Her foster father, Heimer, was concerned about the girl’s safety. He decided to make a harp, inside which he hid the little Aslaug. It is hard for me to understand why he thought a harp would be the best place to hide a child, but I suppose a piano would have been even harder to carry around. Upon their arrival in Norway Heimer stayed over for the night in the house of peasants Áke and Grima. Grima, who was certain the harp must have been filled with valuables – after all, what warrior would feel like carrying a harp around – made her husband kill Heimer. Grima must have been quite disappointed to find a girl instead of gold and jewels, nevertheless they renamed her Kráka (Crow) and raised as their own.

Kráka, who was a beautiful lady, didn’t quite fit in the household, therefore Grima decided she needed to be rubbed in tar and dressed in a long hood at all times. Upon meeting Kráka Ragnar immediately 1) fell in love (he had experience with tar, which might have helped), and 2) decided to marry her. However, fickle as he was, he decided to marry Ingeborg, a daughter of a viceroy named Eysteinn Beli. Very unimpressed by his undecisiveness, well-informed Kráka decided to share the information about her noble origins with Ragnar. It is not known how she knew she was a noblewoman, but possibly the harp contained her birth certificate as well. Eysteinn, understandably, was not impressed by this change of mind. He died at the hands of…


Ragnar’s sons

Four out of many sons of Ragnar (from left: David Lindström as Sigurd, Alex Høgh Andersen as Ivar The Boneless, Jordan Patrick Smith as Ubbe, Marco Ilsø as Hvitserk)

Speaking of sons, Aslaug and Ragnar had five: Ivar the Boneless; Björn Ironside; Hvitserk; Rognvald; and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Sigurd was born with the image of Ouroboros (or perhaps the Midgard Serpent) in his eye due to Ragnar’s impatience to consummate the marriage despite Aslaug’s insistence to wait a bit longer. Aslaug prophecied the mark in Sigurd’s eye. She also prophecied that Ragnar’s invasion of England wouldn’t go well due to the fact his fleet was in bad shape, and she was right. Ever so careful Aslaug provided her husband with a magical shirt, which would prevent him from snake venom. Somehow, the shirt was removed after Ragnar was cast into the snake pit, and only then did he die. I assume his breeches were too worn out at this point for him to continue wearing them. Big mistake. Huge.

King Aelle looking sepulchral (Ivan Kaye)

As I mentioned, it is not known whether Ragnar actually existed at all, was an amalgam of stories of multiple other warriors, or simply a mythological figure. The confusion is aided further by the multiple stories describing his death. As we’ve seen on TV, King Ælla decided to throw him into a snake pit, but according to sources Ælla did so not knowing he was dealing with Ragnar Lothbrok himself. Ragnar must have felt rather aloof, refusing to inform Ælla about his credentials even as he was already in the snake pit. This clashes with the much less romantic version of the story, according to which Ragnar died of illness in France. He did, however, kill a lot of Franks first.

To sum things up:

– ‘Vikings’ TV series skips one wife. I’ll admit Lagertha and Aslaug are quite a handful without Thóra’s help.
– None of the children he had with Thóra and Lagertha are featured in the TV series.
– Björn Ironside was the son of Aslaug, same as all the other ones featured in the TV series. The departure from sources was necessary to create a very exciting conflict between him and (TV) Aslaug’s sons.
– While it is accepted that Ragnar’s sons existed, there is a theory (see Ben Waggoner’s book) that multiple warriors called themselves “Ragnar’s sons” in order to scare their opponents or make themselves look more important.
– As shown on TV, Ragnar demanded that Aslaug shows up in his camp “neither dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor eating, and neither alone nor in company”, which strikes me as rather demanding seeing as he wanted to marry her, not the other way round. Honestly, Ragnar? Your way of dealing with the ladies should not be an example to any of the people reading this post. Actually, your habit of killing tons of people wherever you go shouldn’t either.

Travis Fimmel, who has no business looking THAT good

I can also exclusively reveal that Rollo, Ragnar’s brother in the TV series, never actually met Ragnar, not to mention the fact they were not related. More on Rollo soon, because any excuse is good to post photos of pre-awful-haircut-and-handlebar-moustache photos of Clive Standen.


All photos used are promotional materials for the ‘Vikings’ TV series, property of History Channel.


Subscribe to my newsletter and receive a free e-book (released March 17 with the next newsletter) – Vikings: from history to History, featuring rewritten and greatly expanded versions of the posts from the Deconstructing ‘Vikings’ series. The book includes chapters on Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha, Áslaug, Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Ivar’s brothers, Flóki, Harald Fairhair and Halfdan the Black, and Athelstan.

Other posts in the series:

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Rollo

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Flóki

Deconstructing ‘Vikings’: Harald Fairhair and Halfdan the Black

Photos: promotional materials of History Channel

About my novel, or: why all the Iceland?

I am currently in Reykjavík, Iceland. The sky is fully covered by clouds, which doesn’t stop us from hoping to see Northern lights just one more time before we depart. Yes. I’m greedy like that.


But how did all this happen?

It all started with a dream I had many years ago. I dreamt of a fishing village, where three brothers – one of whom was a pastor – fell in love with the same woman. There was more to the dream, of course. Blood, gore, fire, drama, and that final scene where the pastor confesses his sins to all the parishioners, and gets chased out of town, as the church burns in the distance.

It was the most cinematic dream I’ve ever had. It was also, frankly, quite ridiculous. Entertaining, but ridiculous. So I thought I would forget about it, same as all my dreams before, but I didn’t. I carried it in my head for years. Every now and then I would see or hear something, and then be reminded of the dream. My writer’s mind – I’ve been writing since I was 7, blogging for 15+ years with thousands of readers who followed me when I moved on – kept on adding and removing details. Expanding on them. It became one of my multiple “yeah this might become a novel one day, I mean look at those horrible books that get published nowadays lulz I could do so much better if I only tried”. But I never tried. Who’s got time for that?

A few years ago I had enough to do. I was working at the forge aiming to become a full-time professional blacksmith, I was renovating and selling an apartment, getting married…and somewhere in the middle of all this I lifted a piece of IKEA furniture, something snapped in my back, and that was the moment my blacksmithing career was over, although I didn’t know it yet.


Enter Ásgeir


Someone sent me this video. There are two people who could have sent me this song. Both insist they heard about it from me. I listened, then again, and fell in love with the song, but didn’t like anything about the album. I dismissed it as muzak. Then, a while later, I noticed husby was playing something really beautiful. I asked “what’s that?” and he answered, “oh, it’s this Ásgeir guy”. My jaw dropped, and I listened. And listened.

In The Silence would later become my album of the year for both 2014 and 2015 (nothing better came out). I’d buy the regular CD, Icelandic version (Dýrð í dauðaþögn), the vinyl, the 3CD special edition, acquire (thanks Jens!) the 7″ picture disc for Nú hann blæs, cry my eyes out during the concert in Amsterdam – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Once I realised who translated Einar Georg Einarsson’s – Ásgeir’s father’s – lyrics into a language I understood, I fell hard for John Grant. A little book called “Bad/Good sides of Iceland” lists John Grant as the only celebrity who moved to Iceland and bothered to learn the language. (Which didn’t stop him from singing “I hate this fucking town” about Reykjavík, but that’s a different story.) I listened to the music, the dream marinated quietly in my head, until one day something in my brain sort of clicked.

A thought appeared: “I wonder if they used to have fishing villages like ‘mine’ in Iceland?” Had I known the timing of this thought would prove to be important, I would have written it down. But back at that point all I knew was that Ásgeir’s Dýrð í dauðaþögn sounded divine, the English translations were beautiful, and everything about the music largely describing freezing cold felt like home and warmth. Which was something I needed a lot at that time…



I spent most of 2016 in horrible pain from the back injuries. I tried, and failed, and tried, and failed to return to the forge. 30 minutes of work would result in three weeks of pain. I started dreading going to the forge, already wary before leaving the house of the pain that it would cause. Finally, I gave up. (And tried again, and gave up again, because that’s how I roll.) I missed – still do – the smell of hot iron and burning coal more than anything in the world, but still not enough to voluntarily cause myself massive suffering.

I survived this year because of the love of my husby and friends; music; sheer stubbornness. But it got close, very uncomfortably close. Maybe that was why on January 1, 2017, I opened the laptop and started typing in my story of three brothers in a fishing village. The date wasn’t a symbolic gesture. I was mildly depressed, in a bit less pain than usual, had nothing better to do. People with spine injuries don’t party too hard on New Year’s Eve. So I sat on my profiled pillows, and typed. For two weeks. Averaging 12 hours a day. I finished the first draft, 180 pages of text, in two weeks.



When you write a story down, you start seeing the problems with it. The weaknesses, parts that simply make no sense at all, but also the research and problems you’ve just placed in front of yourself. To begin with, I didn’t actually know if villages like the one I needed existed at all. I couldn’t place it right in time – it had to be historical-ish, but I never really read much about this period. I hated things that had to do with war, shooting each other (what’s wrong with a good ol’ axe???), digging trenches, throwing grenades, and writing letters to your beloved one back at home. I had a story about people, and this story required the right timing, place, backdrop… and Ásgeir continued providing the sonic landscape.

I did not do a bit of research until this first draft was finished. I didn’t even check whether Iceland would work for me at all. But when I bought ‘Wasteland with words’ by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon it felt like magic. I received answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Mostly, though, I was shown very clearly that Iceland was the right setting for my novel to take place. Better than right. Perfect. Reading ‘Wasteland with words’ resolved problems I didn’t notice I had. Sigurður Gylfi’s book allowed me to write down a list of all research questions I needed to do before proceeding.


I read a lot and I started work on the second draft in March. At this point I was already trying to contact historians and church officials in Iceland, asking on my Polish blog whether somebody could perhaps help me with some things (my blog readers are magical). I talked husby and my dear friend Ulf into going together for a few days in June. But no blacksmiths or historians responded to my queries, and I gave up on the idea I would get to talk to anybody. Weeks before our departure I heard from Helga Maureen at Árbæjarsafn – yes, she would be happy to meet up and help me find answers to my questions. Bart the Leatherman, whom I met through my blog, helped me figure out where to go and what to see. In disbelief, I watched my dream coming true.



This first trip in June 2017 would give me new friends, new adventures, and turn Iceland from a place suitable for my novel into a full-blown obsessive love that began as the plane was landing, and I saw the shape of the island.

More to follow…

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