The True History Behind Netflix’s ‘Vikings: Valhalla’
A spin-off of the long-running series “Vikings,” the show follows a fictionalized version of Norwegian king Harald Hardrada
Harald Hardrada was perhaps the most interesting Viking in history. Imagine the 11th-century Viking world as a circle spanning four continents: Harald would have personally traveled at least two-thirds of its perimeter. At the very least, the Norwegian king sailed from his home country to Kiev to Constantinople to Sicily and back again before dying during a failed invasion of England in 1066. (English king Harold Godwinson defeated Harald’s forces, only to fall in battle against William of Normandy the following month.)
These deeds, as recorded in a variety of more or less reliable sources, provide enough content to fuel any work of historical fiction—including the new Netflix show “Vikings: Valhalla,” which envisions what might have happened if Harald (played by Leo Suter) were best buddies with Norse explorer Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett) and the lover of Leif’s sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Frida Gustavsson). In truth, Leif died when Harald was about 5 years old, and Freydís was roughly the same age as her brother, so the scenario is pure fantasy. Still, it makes for excellent storytelling.
“Valhalla” is a spin-off of the History Channel series “Vikings,” whose six seasons took viewers from the first Viking raid of England, when the Scandinavian seafarers attacked a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 793 C.E., into the early ninth century. If the goal of the first show was to tell a story about the creation of the Viking world, this new one portends the end of the era in 1066. Its name references Valhalla, a hall of slain warriors presided over by the god Odin in Norse mythology.
Like “Vikings,” “Valhalla” is less a historical drama than a series ripped from the sagas, with the writers compressing characters, historical events and narratives from a variety of sources and time periods to raise the stakes and keep the story moving. It worked for the first show, and it works for this one, too. Endless historical details are wrong, but the series doesn’t really pretend otherwise, and now that it’s no longer airing on the History Channel, it’s less likely to lead folks astray. More importantly, the best parts of “Valhalla” place the medieval Scandinavians in what Nahir Otaño Gracia, a scholar of medieval literature at the University of New Mexico, calls the “Global North Atlantic”—a diverse, complicated and interconnected network of cultures that contradicts the image of an isolated, all-white Viking world.
Streaming on Netflix this Friday, the show’s first season takes place in England and Norway in the early 11th century. At the time, Norway was technically united under one ruler, but infighting between petty kingdoms was common, and the realm was far from stable. Adding to these internal woes were incursions by the neighboring kingdom of Denmark, which seized intermittent control of Norway between 970 and 1035, relying on local nobles known as jarls to govern on its behalf. Small-scale religious conflict in the region was common, but full-out religious war was very rare. In England, meanwhile, Saxon kings wielded limited authority over the great nobles of the realm. Relations between the Saxons; regional powers; and the island’s Danish residents, who’d settled in an area known as Danelaw amid waves of Danish invasions of England, were often uneasy.
In “Valhalla,” the action begins with Harald leaving a goodbye party in England to meet his older brother Olaf (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and begin their campaign to reclaim the Norwegian crown from Danish King Cnut (Bradley Freegard). On that very same night, English King Æthelred the Unready (Bosco Hogan) orders large numbers of Danes in England murdered—an actual historical event known as the 1002 St. Brice’s Day Massacre. The real attack was likely a response to Danish raids. The series, however, suggests that Æthelred is trying to ethnically cleanse the island.
In response to the massacre, the show’s version of Cnut gathers a combined Norwegian-Danish invasion force. Harald temporarily puts aside his differences with Cnut to join the Danish king’s army and avenge the killings. The storyline is an ahistorical one, as Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, was the one who actually retaliated by invading England in 1003. (Cnut only came to power after Sweyn’s death in 1014, and Harald wasn’t even born until 1015.) Again, “Valhalla” compresses the past to present a plausible, dramatic sequence of events. As viewers can easily predict, Cnut is the Viking who will one day build a great northern empire. Olaf will be killed and later canonized, paving the way for his brother Harald to take the crown.
Into this mix, the writers insert a small boatload of Greenlanders, including Leif and Freydís. (While Norway was very much part of the richly connected north Atlantic world, Greenland was remote even by Viking standards and played no real part in the political dramas of the era.) The group comes to Norway, where Cnut is amassing his army, in search of revenge; after completing their mission, Leif joins Cnut’s army and befriends Harald, while Freydís decides to stay behind in the great Norwegian port city of Kattegat.
As far as I’m aware, this is an entirely fabricated story. Leif was born in Iceland, grew up in Greenland and—according to the Viking sagas—accidentally found himself in “Vinland” on the shores of North America sometime around the year 1000. Freydís appears in both accounts of the voyages of the Greenlanders, in each case joining a second expedition to North America after her brother’s initial trip. In one saga, she orders the deaths of her rivals, personally massacring the women among them with an ax. In the other, she frightens off an attack from the Indigenous inhabitants of the region by baring a breast and slapping it with the flat of a sword while taunting her comrades’ manhood for running away. (If “Valhalla” plans to dramatize these two texts, known collectively as the Vinland Sagas, it will have to wait for future seasons, which will hopefully find Leif and Freydís heading west and Harald traveling to Constantinople and Sicily.)
The Leif-Harald invasion plot is typical Viking fare, with great battles, backstabbing, politicking and sex. It’s the Freydís in Kattegat storyline that accomplishes something new. The show features Black actress Caroline Henderson as Jarl Haakon, the fictional pagan ruler of Kattegat. (She’s loosely inspired by the historical pagan ruler Haakon Sigurdsson.) The city itself is depicted as an entrepôt, or node in the vast trade networks that spanned the 11th-century world.
“We know from DNA and such that the Vikings were travelers; they traveled to northern Africa, Asia, all kinds of places,” Henderson tells Den of Geek. “Obviously, they brought back slaves and knowledge—but [they] also fell in love. Most likely, people of color have [always] existed in the [Viking] community. I think it’s amazing to bring that to [Haakon’s] story, because that’s closer to the [historical] truth, I think, than what we’ve seen [in Viking stories] so far.”
While Haakon is portrayed as wise and relatively tolerant, her domain is no simple paradise. One of the first shots of Kattegat shows enslaved people of various races being sold in a market. In another scene, an equally diverse group of merchants hawk their wares as Haakon walks Freydís through the city. With the sun shining down on richly dyed fabrics, Haakon describes her African Scandinavian descent to Freydís in a matter-of-fact manner.
By chance, I watched this scene the same day that the Medieval Academy of America awarded Otaño Gracia a prize for a 2019 article that situates late medieval literary production in places like England and Iceland in the context of a multiethnic, multiracial and multireligious world: the Global North Atlantic. Otaño Gracia says the phrase—which she credits to a chance conversation with Geraldine Heng, a groundbreaking scholar of race in medieval Europe—offers a way of exploring how Vikings understood and were “changed by interactions” with the broader world.
“As I understand the Middle Ages,” she explains, “The center was the Iberian Peninsula, ... the Mediterranean. The north, if they want to show themselves as beyond a local perimeter, had to understand themselves as part of the Mediterranean.” And so they did. Sometimes, in their writing and art, Vikings made connections between themselves and people who lived far away, drawing on both their imaginations and their travels. Other times, they engaged in what Heng and others might call “race-making,” defining differences and turning their foes—especially members of different religions—into racialized monsters to justify violence. Though the Global North Atlantic was a connected space, it was a far cry from modern ideals of pluralism and acceptance.
In “Valhalla,” as Harald and Leif invade England, a religious war between Christians led by Olaf and pagans led by Haakon breaks out back in Scandinavia. Religious change in the region was a slow process, but the strict divisions highlighted in the show aren’t wholly grounded in history. Mostly, faiths overlapped in a more or less easy coexistence, with gradual movement toward Christianization. But violence could break out, especially when rival claimants to a throne had different religious identities.
The series tries to stage a Christian versus pagan holy war while recognizing the multifaceted nature of religious life at the time. Even Olaf, who seeks to become the Christian king of Norway by allying himself with Christian terrorists (berserkers who kill any pagan pilgrims they meet on the road, massacre and decapitate entire villages, and burn temples to the ground), makes it clear that he wants to maintain Kattegat as an open port city—a gateway to the world.
“Vikings: Valhalla” dabbles around the edges of some pretty big ideas about the Viking world. The show challenges simplistic, often white supremacist histories of the north as a purely white space. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from exploring the ways in which contact between different groups might just as well lead to hatred and othering as to tolerance and cultural change.