Vikings creator Michael Hirst on violent warriors, historical drama, and pagan religions
On Sunday, History Channel is finally ready to set sail with Vikings, an ambitious attempt at a top-tier historical drama that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Showtime's The Borgias and HBO's Game of Thrones.
Series creator, writer, and showrunner Michael Hirst has long had an interest in using entertainment to counter cultural misconceptions about Viking culture. "If you're in America or Europe, walk for three blocks and you'll pass about 14 Vikings," says Hirst. "Their reach was immense."
Vikings follows protagonist Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), a young and ambitious Viking warrior, as he clashes with his lord Jarl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) over the future of their people. (Watch a trailer below.) For Vikings, which premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m. EST, History Channel is pulling out all the stops: The nine-episode season had a reported budget of $40 million, and the series was promoted with a splashy ad that aired during the Super Bowl. I spoke on the phone with Hirst to discuss his central role in launching History Channel's first foray into scripted drama. Here's the (slightly edited) transcript.
You've built your career on historical dramas, from the two Elizabeth movies to TV series like The Tudors and Camelot — but Vikings seems like an interesting detour from the rest of your work. Why make a drama about the Vikings?
I've always been interested in the Vikings. After I'd written and made Elizabeth, I wrote a screenplay for a movie about Alfred the Great. Alfred the Great fought against the Vikings, so I read everything I could — which isn't a huge amount, because it was the Dark Ages — but I was really fascinated in their culture and their gods. Unfortunately, or fortunately, nothing happened with that script, so I put it in my back pocket, and waited for the opportunity to use it. I've found in my career that it's better to wait for people to come to you then to go on the road and try to sell them things. And suddenly, MGM popped up with the idea of doing a Vikings show.
Why has it taken so long for Vikings to grab a significant foothold in popular culture?
One of the reasons is a kind of laziness. You have to dig a lot; there isn't much. When I did The Tudors, there was massive information available and a ready-made market. For Vikings, you have to work harder. The people who wrote about the Vikings were mostly Christian monks, after Scandinavia was Christianized, so they got a bad reputation upfront. So to deal with them — to write something from a Viking point of view — it would have been considered almost impossible to make them sympathetic in any way. They went around, they smashed churches, they killed monks… There was a big aspect of this [era] that was a fight between the pagan gods and the Christian God, and that's a very important aspect of the story. With Vikings, I had the task of making these people interesting, and to a point, sympathetic.
How did you make Viking protagonists sympathetic and relatable for modern audiences?
I felt that a lot of Viking culture had been caricatured and misconstrued. After all, they were far more democratic than the Saxons and the Francs, who were exercising really hierarchical social structures at that time. The Vikings had popular meetings where everything could be discussed. Their attitude toward women was much more emancipated: Women could divorce their husbands, they could own property, they could rule. And their technology; they were building these beautiful wonderful boats when no western society had achieved anything like that. And of course, they discovered North America hundreds of years before Columbus. There were lots of positive things to say about them. At the same time, you can't neglect the fact that they were formidable and violent warriors. They were known for it.
How did you settle on Ragnar — a character who seems at least partially inspired by the legendary hero of the same name — for the series' protagonist?
[The historical] Ragnar was an extraordinary leader. He claimed he was descended from the god Odin, and Odin wasn't just the god of slain warriors; he was the god of curiosity. He willingly sacrificed an eye to look into the well of knowledge, and he hanged himself from a tree to find out what dying was like. [The series'] Ragnar, it seemed to me, would have the same kind of curiosity. He would go on these raids, travel to far-away countries, and sail across the open ocean. And not just to find treasure and raid — those one-dimensional things that people say about the Vikings — but to find out what was there. He was curious.
The pilot opens with a brutal fight on a battlefield, as Ragnar sees — or possibly imagines — the slain Vikings being carried up to Valhalla by Valkyries. How literally should audiences read the more fantastical elements of the show — especially since it's on the History Channel?
I use [those elements] sparingly, and they only crop up once or twice more in the entire show. One of the things I wanted to say was that we are seeing the world through Viking eyes. Their gods permeated their world, and were alive in nature — very different from a Christian idea. I wanted to show that. The danger was that people would then think I was doing a fantasy, or that Vikings has elements of fantasy. But if I was writing a drama about Christ, and I showed the risen Christ, would that be considered fantasy? No, because people would say that's what Christians believe. That's "real" to Christians. When Ragnar thinks he sees these things on the battlefield, it's not magic; it's his reality. I think there's enough room to maneuver, to say, "He may not have seen them." He's exhausted. He's been fighting for hours. But it's what Vikings expected to see on the battlefield. That's how Odin was always represented to them. It's not a fantasy. It's real.
Travis Fimmel, the actor who plays Ragnar, hasn't been on TV since he costarred with Patrick Swayze in A&E's The Beast in 2009. How did you select him to star in Vikings?
We got lucky. It was very difficult to cast. I didn't want an orthodox hero. I was looking for someone who you could see they were thinking behind their eyes — that they were intelligent. [Travis Fimmel is] compulsively watchable, and his face can register lots of different emotions at the same time. But he kind of came to us out of the blue. We were rather despairing. I kept turning down people that seemed very suitable to everyone else. But Travis was the only person who did the reading for real. He didn't try to act; he just was Ragnar. In retrospect, we took a risk, because he didn't have much background. We were staking a lot on this role. We got lucky.
What do you hope viewers get out of Vikings?
I hope that they get involved with the characters. I hope that they care. It's about a man and his relationship with his wife, his children, and his brother… very personal themes. As a writer, that's what you want most of all; you want people to care about the characters as much as you do. And secondly, but by no means a minor thing: If people get interested in the period, and the Vikings, and the series drives them to look at Viking culture, to read books, to think about it — fantastic.