The Historical Truth Behind Ragnar Lothbrok

While it is without doubt that Ragnar Lothrok is a legendary Norse hero who was mentioned in several Icelandic sagas and Old Norse skaldic poems, the character played by actor Travis Fimmel in History Channel’s television series ‘Vikings’ wasn’t quite depicted with utmost historical accuracy. This, evidently enough, stems from the fact that a TV series which is partly based on historical facts such as ‘Vikings’ needs to have a much more artistic dimension than a historically accurate one, so as to be better received by the public.

This is also why the TV series received many critics because of its lack of historical accuracy and thus several historians inevitably criticized the characters’ clothing, the depiction of the Norse society or the presumed ignorance of the Norsemen regarding the existence of the British archipelago.

Ragnar Lodbrok played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel.

Ragnar Lothbrok played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel in the TV series ‘Vikings’ on History Channel.

Concerning the depiction of Ragnar Lothbrok throughout the seasons of the serial which have been released to date, given the fact that his very existence has been widely debated among many historians, it is clear that a thorough historical portrayal couldn’t have been done that easily by the writers of the Irish-Canadian production ‘Vikings’.

Ragnar Lothbrok is indeed known to have been a legendary chieftain of the Norsemen during the Viking Age, but some historians tend to ascribe him for other historical characters from about his time. There are several so-called ‘candidates’ for the real Ragnar Lothbrok that are often associated with him.

The ‘candidates’ associated with Ragnar Lothbrok include King Horik I, King Reginfrid, Rognvald (also known as Ragnall ua Ímair — the leader of the Norsemen who managed to conquer Northumbria and the Isle of Man at the round of the 10th century) as well as a certain Reginherus, a Viking warrior in the service of King Horik who attacked Paris in the middle of the 9th century.

While the accuracy of the Norse sagas and poems remains a highly debated subject even to these days with respect to the existence or non-existence of Ragnar Lothbrok, it is known that all these written accounts are doubtlessly based on the tales and deeds of the former Norse kings and rulers of the early Middle Ages. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Norse folklore played a crucial role in ‘fathering’ some legendary characters, including Lothbrok himself.

Nonetheless, according to the most widespread version of Ragnar’s legend, he is renowned for being the scourge of both early medieval England and France, raiding on many occasions the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex along with the Kingdom of West Francia, culminating in the siege of Paris that took place in 845.

Moreover, he is also said to have been married thrice: firstly to shieldmaiden Lagertha, secondly to the noblewoman Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr, and last but not least to princess Aslaug (or Kráka, as she is equally mentioned in some medieval texts).

The legendary king Regner Lodbrog (Regnar Lodbrog, Ragnar Lodbrok, Ragnar Loðbrók), relief in Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød, Denmark. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

He is also renowned through the deeds of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba, the Norse chieftains who would subsequently lead the Great Heathen Army (a coalition of Norse warriors from modern day Norway, Sweden and Denmark) that would invade England, controlling and constituting it as a unified medieval state from 865 to 878, after which the Danelaw was created (a territory under Danish influence and rulership in early medieval Britain).

Ragnar’s sons would proceed by invading England as of the cause of the demise of their father at the hands of king Ælla of Northumbria, who, according to the legend, seized Ragnar at some point and decided to sentence him to death by casting him into a pit full of snakes.

Ragnar Lothbrok’s death, as imagined by Swedish artist Hugo Hamilton. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Known medieval works in which Ragnar Lothbrok is mentioned include the ‘Anglo-Saxon chronicle’, ‘Gesta Danorum’ by Saxo Grammaticus, ‘Ragnarssona þáttr’ (‘The Tale of Ragnar’s sons’) or ‘Ragnars saga Loðbrókar’ (‘The Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok’).

In the end, whether or not Ragnar Lothbrok existed is and will be a mystery, but even so, the TV series ‘Vikings’ still remains, just as described by Monty Dobson, a historian at Central Michigan University, a fictional show that could be a quite useful teaching tool, albeit having a considerable number of historical flaws.

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32 Responses to The Historical Truth Behind Ragnar Lothbrok

  1. Michelle says:

    I will never understand why the creators of these TV shows feel the need to embellish! Quite honestly the real stories are fascinating enough on their own. The blood, violence, everyday living, etc are mind blowing in comparison to our world today. Just like with Hearst’s show The Tudors; there was no need to use dramatic license! The story on it’s own is enough to keep people interested. I still watch these shows even with their inaccuracies but I find it very frustrating.

  2. Þorleifur says:

    The show Vikings is based on historical characters not on historical facts…
    And it is a show for entertainment.
    At least there are no dragons flying around flambering goats…

  3. Cindy says:

    He is also mentioned in a runic inscription in the 5000-year old mound of Maeshowe in Orkney: “This mound was raised before Ragnarr Lothbrocks her sons were brave smooth-hide men though they were.”
    I refer to his legend in my novel, Under the Mound.
    The problem with telling only ‘real’ stories Vikings in historical fiction in book or in film is that we really don’t know enough about them to flesh out a ‘true’ story. Viking sagas may have been based on facts, but within a generation few would have known where the fabrications were creeping in. How can we expect to know now. I love the show because it depicts Vikings as more complex than they have been up until now. That said, I do admire authors and film makers who do their utmost to be as true to the period as they can be. A lot of their people get their history through entertainment.

  4. Valerie Emerson Theriault says:

    I enjoy the facts mixed in with the embellishments. It adds flavor to the story, more like a Docudrama. I’m intelligent enough to sort out, the fact from the fiction, and am certain; clothing and back drops and props are just that. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sort out, what is adlibbed, and what isn’t. And if you are going to be that picky turn the dam channel!

  5. Tom Skarzynski says:

    Not sure what’s worse: Vikings with horned helms or Vikings with no helms!

  6. JoEllen VanderWaal says:

    This is an amazing show, and of course poetic license has to be used. That doesn’t mean the characters didn’t exist at all. Many myths exist about Jesus, but most people believe at least some truth in them. The Vikings conquered and lived in many lands, and I’m guessing those places don’t remember that as positive, so the Vikings have been vilified, like Attila the Hun. They weren’t probably more brutal than other countries and peoples. I think the writers are marvelous! The series actually has a plot, which is hard to find on TV any more.

  7. Steven Gillespie says:

    It’s a TV show, not a documentary.

  8. Amanda Hawken says:

    Yes, there are a lot of historical inaccuracies but in this day and age companies make shows such as this for entertainment. And if it sparks curiosity in a viewer and they decide to do research and learn then there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like looking for a lost treasure. And to me, being a Odinist, getting the word out in any way about our Gods and Goddesses is perfectly fine with me.

  9. Sher says:

    Let’s see these latent critics do a Vikings show of their own and see how well they fare comparatively. It’s just a show. And a very good one at that. Enjoy it for the entertainment value it represents. Or change channels. No one is forcing you to watch…

    • Alaine deBreaux says:

      The Vikings on History Channel was as addictive as M.A.S.H. [for me[. It had its inaccuracies and a few eyebrow raisers, but no one can deny it must have cost Fort Knox to make, with hoards of seamstresses and hair dressers to create hairdo’s that were much more fetching than the current hurricane, weed whacker hair do’s from the “Hair Dressers of America” who do their best to make women, really, look idiotic in today’s society. The face makeup was superb. The locations, actors, horses and other scenes must have been huge undertakings. Travis Fimmel was amazing as Ragnar, as was Lagertha. Being descended from Danes, I have researched and read many histories and have never found one that, conclusively, proves Ragnar ever existed; rather, his legend was formed from the history of another warrior whose name has never been known, and probably will never be known.

  10. Brandon says:

    Travis Fimmel is the star of the show. They didn’t anticipate him being so popular and to have him in a pit of snakes would probably hurt ratings and that would lose money.

    • Charlene L says:

      Ooops – horrible how that turned out! Guess we’ll see if the draw of the sons will be enough to keep everyone tuning in.

  11. barbara keating says:

    This Viking saga, especially the portrayal of Ragnar Lothbrok by Travis Fimmel ( as well as the equally superb cast’s acting and the exciting, in depth images of Viking ships and battle scenes) really has piqued my interest in learning more about the Vikings. Heretofore, I thought they were a bunch of evil, coarse marauders.

    Kudos to Michael Hirst for his well-written and compelling writing and the entire production staff.

  12. Titina says:

    I can see you also forgot that Ragnar is from Denmark and was forth out of Denmark for then to move to Norway

  13. David C says:

    What the writers did is pretty much what the authors/transmitters of the sagas did a thousand years ago–take old stories, combine and embellish them. In some cases making the characters more rounded than those who regarded them purely as heroes would have. The sagas we have were first written down hundreds of years after the events occurred, and standards of historical research were rather low then–same need to entertain; need to flatter rulers who considered themselves descendants of the heroes.

  14. […] According to the saga, Egil lived sometime in the 10th century. He was born in the early part of the century, perhaps in 904 A.D., but specific dates are difficult to determine. However, those dates would make him about a century younger than the “real” Ragnar Lothbrok, who according to various Norse sagas and poems lived in the ninth century. Ragnar’s invasion of Francia depicted in Vikings Season Three is believed to have taken place in 845 A.D.. […]

  15. John Christie says:

    Vikings would have been much better if they had used the very good Novel, The Long Ships, (NOT the Hollywood abortion) as its base.

  16. Omotayo David says:

    Actually i love this movie
    especially his words when he was about to die

    ”i won’t enter into the gates of oding with fear”
    etc….”there my sons will joing me and i will bask of their triumph”

    ”how will the little piggies moan when they hear how the old boar had suffered”

    and lastly,i thank king of wessex for his loyalty to ragnar,by making him achieve his long dream for his people”

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