This time we’ll take a look at the developments in the first episode of Vikings since they left many viewers in shock. What’s up with that? Spoiler warning!
If you didn’t see the first episode, or if you plan on seeing it, don’t read any further. The development of Rollo’s storyline from the amusing wedding night to the brutal slaughter was summed up pretty well by a person reacting on Twitter who tweeted: “From cute to WTF in 20 minutes!”. Why did Rollo order the brutal slaughter of his own men? Was it a decision made by the writers to turn him into a villain and a worthy antagonist to Ragnar, or did it actually mirror verified historical events? Even though Rollo is a historical person, it’s important to remember that the Rollo seen in the tv-show is a blend of historical facts and fictional characteristics created by the writer and the actor, resulting in the Rollo we all know. So what we need to do is look at this from a broader perspective, including both fictional and historical points of view.
How did fictional Rollo view his actions? What we can imagine from watching the episode is that Rollo is quite content with his achievements in Paris and he is taken by surprise when Eirik comes to visit him with the news that half his men have more or less turned against him. They now consider him a nobleman of Paris and as such they refuse to side with him in a fight against Ragnar – if it would boil down to that. Rollo proceeds with asking Eirik how he feels about the whole situation, and whether or not he still is loyal to him. Tension lies in the air, but Eirik finally replies that he’s still loyal to Rollo. The entire purpose of Eirik’s visit is to get Rollo into the forest, where his men want to “speak to him”. When Rollo appeared on horseback alone at the camp, most of us surely felt that he was in trouble. The next thing we know is that the French appear from the woods and attack the camp, killing every last person in it, down to the last woman and child. In Rollo’s mind, the moment his men stopped being fully loyal to him, they stopped being his men. Thus he didn’t kill his own men, but rather future enemies who would have faced him alongside Ragnar. Was he in danger when he appeared at the camp? Would they have killed him? Neither Rollo nor we will ever know. All we know is that he chose to be safe rather than sorry (or dead).
Did historical Rollo betray Ragnar? There are no records of the historical Rollo’s family and he was definitely not the brother of Ragnar Lothbrok. So the entire brother vs brother plot is nothing that happened for real. Neither are there any records of historical Rollo turning on his own men as we saw in the slaughter scene.
Can the fictional plot be historically justified? Can the betrayal of Rollo be justified in any way when looking at how Vikings acted historically? Or is it merely a creation by the writers to fuel the brother vs brother conflict and to give the show a powerful villain? Actually there are several examples of Vikings fighting their own kin. Fact is that they fought as much among themselves as with others – and close relations wasn’t a guarantee from not making it happen. The wars and battles raging in Scandinavia between various factions of Vikings didn’t calm down until powerful enough kings had forged the nations of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. When it comes to Vikings in Europe, it was not uncommon to hire them to defend settlements, nations and kings from other marauding Vikings. They did after all leave home to earn silver. One good example is the legendary Viking Thorkell the Tall, whom we wrote about a while ago. When he lost control over his own men during the killing of Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury, he simply switched sides and took service under his old enemy, the English king Ethelred. When the Viking King Sweyn Forkbeard led his forces in a full-scale invasion in 1013, he was halted by stout defenders on the walls of London – there amongst Thorkell the Tall and his loyal men. The fact that Sweyn was his nephew didn’t stop Thorkell from fighting against him, and Sweyn didn’t think twice in trying to kill his father’s brother. This was not considered odd or out of the ordinary. War was politics, politics were business and as we know, business and pleasure don’t mix well. Rollo’s actions can be justified historically which the writers most likely have learned from their research. Many Vikings risen to Rollo’s position would have killed those threatening his rank – be they countrymen or not. Also, let’s not forget that those that left Scandinavia as Vikings did so out of ambition. A historically correct version could have had Rollo’s men happily staying in his service, moving into Paris from their forest camp and taking part in all the riches and benefits their leader’s position would have granted them. A Viking leaders’s ability to reward his men was after all one of the strongest incentives for others to follow him. But that wouldn’t have given the show such an exciting turning point.
Brothers and enemies – Rollo and Ragnar
Statue of the real Rollo in Falaise town square