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.
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).
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.
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.
Documentation sources and external links:
- Ragnar Lothbrok | Viking Hero on www.brittanica.com
- Ragnar Lodbrok on www.englishmonarchs.co.uk
- Ragnar Lodbrok on www.wikipedia.org (in English)
- Ragnar Lothbrock, scourge of England and Normandy on www.danishnet.com
- The Real Ragnar Lothbrok on www.nancymariebrown.blogspot
- The chronicle ‘Ragnars saga Loðbrókar’ (‘The Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok’) online in PDF format on www.turbidwater.com (translated in English by Chris Van Dyke)
- Ragnar Lothbrok, the Fearless Viking Hero of Norse History on www.mythologian.net