Interviews

Meet the Man Who Makes Sure ‘Vikings’ is Historically Accurate

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.

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?

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.

How did you become attached to Vikings?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

I’m always interested in reading more about days past, particularly about the viking era. Can you recommend a few books or other resources?

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

Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justin-Pollard/8397106340

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!

9780140455076

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness translated by Paul Lund and Caroline Stone

Like Justin said, this contains the one and only description of a Viking funeral that we have today, and it’s even more wild than you’d believe! As an aside, Ibn Fadlan’s account of the vikings was fictionalized as Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead and the movie The 13th Warrior.

Between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, Arab explorers journeyed widely and frequently into the far north, crossing territories that now include Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Ibn Fadlan’s chronicles of his travels are one of the most important documents from the period, and this illuminating new translation offers insight into the world of the Arab geographers and the medieval lands of the far north. Based on an expedition to the upper Volga River in 922 AD, Ibn Fadla-n and the Land of Darkness provides a rare and valuable glimpse of Viking customs, dress, table manners, religion, and sexual practices, including the only eyewitness account ever written of a Viking ship cremation.

9780140447552

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson and Jesse L. Byock

This is the great grandaddy of Norse mythology, and if you’ve ever read a story about Thor, Odin, and Loki, this is where it came from. If you’re more interested in poetry, then you might want to try The Elder Edda.

Written in Iceland a century after the close of the Viking Age, The Prose Edda is the source of most of what we know of Norse mythology. Its tales are peopled by giants, dwarves, and elves, superhuman heroes and indomitable warrior queens. Its gods live with the tragic knowledge of their own impending destruction in the cataclysmic battle of Ragnarok. Its time scale spans the eons from the world’s creation to its violent end. This robust new translation captures the magisterial sweep and startling psychological complexity of the Old Icelandic original.

9780141000039

The Sagas of the Icelanders (various)

Iceland’s Norsemen were brave seamen, noble warriors, and cunning politicians. These are their stories. This particular volume is described as a “literary Stonehenge” and contains some of the best-known tales of these daring men and women

A unique body of medieval literature, the Sagas rank with the world’s greatest literary treasures–as epic as Homer, as deep in tragedy as Sophocles, as engagingly human as Shakespeare. Set around the turn of the last millennium, these stories depict with an astonishingly modern realism the lives and deeds of the Norse men and women who first settled Iceland and of their descendants, who ventured further west–to Greenland and, ultimately, the coast of North America itself.

9780140447767

Not ready to commit to a hefty volume of Icelandic sagas? Interested in the ancient history of the Americas? Check out The Vinland Sagas translated by Keneva Kunz.

The all -time bestselling of the sagas in Penguin Classics, The Vinland Sagas are published here in a vibrant new translation. Consisting of The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, they chronicle the adventures of Eirik the Red and his son, Leif Eirikson, who explored North America 500 years before Columbus. Famous for being the first-ever descriptions of North America, and written down in the early thirteenth century, they recount the Icelandic settlement of Greenland by Eirik the Red, the chance discovery by seafaring adventurers of a mysterious new land, and Eirik?s son Leif the Lucky?s perilous voyages to explore it.

9780141393681

The Saga of the Volsungs by Jesse L. Byock

This is an utterly thrilling saga: Magic swords and rings! Odin! Dwarves! Dragons! Is it any surprise that this inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?

Based on Viking Age poems and composed in thirteenth-century Iceland, The Saga of the Volsungs combines mythology, legend, and sheer human drama in telling of the heroic deeds of Sigurd the dragon slayer, who acquires runic knowledge from one of Odin’s Valkyries. Yet the saga is set in a very human world, incorporating oral memories of the fourth and fifth centuries, when Attila the Hun and other warriors fought on the northern frontiers of the Roman empire. In his illuminating introduction Jesse L. Byock links the historical Huns, Burgundians, and Goths with the extraordinary events of this Icelandic saga. With its ill-fated Rhinegold, the sword reforged, and the magic ring of power, the saga resembles the Nibelungenlied and has been a primary source for such fantasy writers as J. R. R. Tolkien and for Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

9780140291155

Viking Age Iceland by Jesse L. Byock

Want to know more about viking culture? You can’t do much better than a personal recommendation from Justin himself!

The popular image of the Viking Age is of warlords and marauding bands pillaging their way along the shores of Northern Europe. In this fascinating history, Jesse Byock shows that Norse society in Iceland was actually an independent one-almost a republican Free State, without warlords or kings. Combining history with anthropology and archaeology, this remarkable study serves as a valuable companion to the Icelandic sagas, exploring all aspects of Viking Age life: feasting, farming, the power of chieftains and the church, marriage, and the role of women. With masterful interpretations of the blood feuds and the sagas, Byock reveals how the law courts favored compromise over violence, and how the society grappled with proto-democratic tendencies. A work with broad social and historical implications for our modern institutions, Byock’s history will alter long-held perceptions of the Viking Age.