Justin Pollard is an archaeologist, author, screenwriter, and consultant who has worked as a historical consultant on a large number of movies and popular television programs, including the History Channel’s Vikings. In this short interview we discuss how he got into this line of work, his research, and the mythological and historic roots of Vikings. (Note: Check out the list of book recommendations at the end of the interview!)
Unbound Worlds: First things first: Among other things, you’re a historical consultant on a variety of great television shows. I’m envious! How did you get into this line of work?
Justin Pollard: I started out after Cambridge as a field archaeologist working for the Museum of London on Thomas Becket’s old monastery at Merton. After a year there the unit rather abruptly folded due to lack of funding and, combines with a tragedy in the family, I was left wondering what to do next really. I thought about going back into academe but I didn’t want to have to narrow down my frankly dilettante interests to one period or subject so I needed to invent a job for myself. This was the mid 1990s and a lot of US companies were starting to commission historical documentaries from London TV production houses so I started writing to lots of them offering my services as a historical consultant/ researcher/ writer. After a lot of polite refusals one company took me up on the offer and I’ve been fairly consistently employed ever since.
UW: How did you become attached to Vikings?
JP: That’s all thanks to Michael Hirst the writer and show-runner. I had my ‘break’ into movies in 1997/8 when I was asked to advise on a movie called Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. The writer was Michael and we got along so well that we’ve been working together ever since. It was working on The Tudors that Michael mentioned he wanted to write about the Vikings. I had written a biography of Alfred the Great, who we’d previously talked about making a movie of, and mentioned the somewhat obscure history of Ragnar and his sons. Michael took it from there.
UW: What kinds of preparation do you make when you’re going to start consulting on a program? Do you do field research, reach out to historians, visit the library?
JP: The research process has changed dramatically since I started. When I began you’d go to the British Library for a month and call up book after book, searching for those little individual nuggets of information that inform a scene – those small details that make it instantly believable but still strange and wonderful. These days much more is online. From my study in Dorset I have access to very large reference collections, the whole of JSTOR for academic papers as well as the usual online academic sources. Not only has having these available online reduced the need for library work but the search-ability of online sources has radically changed the time it takes to find things out. Failing inline sources I can now order a book over the net in minutes and have it delivered from just about anywhere in the world in a matter of days. I have a very eclectic library! The face to face work comes these days mainly from visiting museums and academics. I keep in touch with lots of great academics from around the world who are unfailingly helpful withe everything from small queries about 16th century etiquette to how to swear in Old Low Franconian.
UW: When you’re looking at developing an entertaining series based on a historical period, is there a point at which too much historical verisimilitude can ruin the entertainment value? How do you decide where to draw the line when it comes to advising a production?
JP: With historical drama it has to be the drama that comes first – what the writer puts on paper. Our job is to provide context – to suggest ideas, plots, scenes, props – anything that adds versimilitude but absolutely NOT to treat the script like a school essay and mark it for accuracy. These series are not documentaries, nor are they a time machine by which we can visit the past. It is drama based on the past. Taking Ragnar’s story and turning it into a series requires a lot of editing. There are many elements we have to leave out – some because we don’t think they’re very engaging, some because they’d be too expensive and some because they’d be too confusing. There’s also a huge amount we simply don’t know – this is the ninth century and records are thin and biased. In that situation we have to take a view on how much we interpolate and how much we ignore. This also involves conflating time in the series. Events are juxtaposed that really happened some time apart and obviously our Ragnar is played by the same actor for the whole series rather than being replaced each series with someone years older. These time effects are simply a product of taking a long life and compressing it into a few hours of television. We also sometimes ‘steal from Peter to pay Paul’ – so the details of the attack on Paris in Season 3 (set in 845) actually come mainly from a later Viking attack (885/6), simply because we have a good first hand account of that attack in the Bella Parisiacae urbis of Abbo Cernuus which provided detail and incident which we could use to make the scenes much more real.
UW: A related question: I know that a lot of what we believe about the vikings are based on the observations of their enemies, and sagas that weren’t put to parchment until centuries after the era had ended. Our knowledge of their religious practices are rather scanty. How does one work through what is conjecture, and when you’re advising on a series like Vikings, is conjecture and making best guesses just part of the nature of the beast?
JP: All history involves conjecture and best guesswork – the record we have of the past is incomplete and even it it were complete we are not people from that era and can never, however hard we try, actually know what it was to be them, nor can we share their worldview or know what they knew (or more importantly not know what they didn’t). In the case of the Vikings we have the archaeology but almost nothing by way of contemporary Old Norse account. We rely largely on what we know of Germanic mythology (sometime even from Roman sources) and much later Saga sources – which are often 13th century Christian works. We look in those for echoes of this distant time but the conculsions we come to are absolutely conjecture.
Fundamentally I believe that, as L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country – you cannot go there, you can only reconstruct what it might have been like and that reconstruction will always be flawed. I find it very sad when some reviewers review historical movies as though they ‘know’ what living in a particular century was like and ‘mark’ the film accordingly. They don’t and often what they claim to know to be true is simply another interpretation of a scant historical record.
Writers who write historical movies want to say something about the present as much as about the past. First and foremost they are storytellers and their story is what the show is – it is not an escape into the past. Our job is to let film makers know when they have diverged from what is known, to suggest ways of achieving scenes within an historical context and ensure that the little detail which we know about is ‘right’. Decisions as to the fate of characters and the direction of the plot are creative decisions for the writer – provide he or she is in possession of the facts. So, perhaps surprisingly, I’m happy with major changes in narrative where they help tell a story but unhappy about getting trivial details wrong.
UW: I understand that at least some degree of the characters and events in the television series are based on (as best we know) history, or at least what we know of the sagas. Is this true? While I know you didn’t create the program or write the scripts, could you perhaps point to one or two of these characters and tell me where they might be found in the literature? Are there any sagas or tales that our readers might want to check out?
JP: History was the starting point for the series and what little we know of the real Ragnar came from my research for my history of Alfred the Great (Alfred the Great – The Man Who Made England). I spent a year before writing that book reading every single course I could find written in the ninth century in Europe. The fact that I could read them all in a year tells you how sparse the evidence for the period is. Ragnar himself is a very elusive character who appears fleetingly in chronicles which often only consist of one sentence for a particular year. Where we get the detail is in the later sagas which, though heavily fictionalised, give us a vivid glimpse into their social world (even if it is one written over 3000 years after the events.
For Ragnar we have two such works the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars saga Loðbrókar) and the Tale of the Sons of Ragnar (Ragnarssona þáttr). A version of him also appears in Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa. You can find Rollo in Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s De moribus et actis primorum Normannorum ducum. Aslaug makes appearances in Snorri’s Edda and the Völsunga saga as well as Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and Lagertha is recorded in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum.
UW: I’m always interested in reading more about days past, particularly about the viking era. Can you recommend a few books or other resources?
JP: One the best books I know on the Vikings is actually exclusively about Iceland but deals brilliantly with their culture – that’s Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland. A wonderful read. Graham-Campbell’s Cultural Atlas of the Viking World and Campbell’s Anglo-Saxons provide great introductions to the period. Personally I like to get back to first hand accounts where I can. For what it’s like to be attacked by Vikings read the Asser’s Life of Alfred and Abbo’s Bella Parisiacae urbis of Abbo. For a lively account of a Viking funeral try ibn Fadl?n’s Risala. Michael drew extensively on other saga sources for creating our Viking world and particularly the mythological backbone to it. In particular Heimskringla and the Prose Edda.
Where can people learn more about you?
I’m on Twitter at https://twitter.com/justinpollard
On the QI website at http://qi.com/people/elves/justin-pollard
I have a website (which I need to update) at www.visualartefact.com
Looking for viking reading? Pillage the shelves of your local bookstore for these great reads!