The long-awaited “Vikings” season five, part two has finally picked back up. Although this will mark the first full season without its beloved hero, Ragnar Lothbrok, he’s still the most compelling character on the show, even in death.
Ragnar died at the end of season four, but he didn’t disappear. Lothbrok lives on in every episode because the show is now centered around the lives of his beloved sons, all grown up.
Like any good show, the characters reflect and reveal our own vices and virtues. The plot lines, however dramatic, remind us of the highs and lows in our own lives. In the spirit of one of the most compelling characters to grace the History channel in years, here’s a few things men could learn from a hardcore Viking men and women love.
1. Embrace Your Alpha Traits, But Also Your Feelings
If you’re at all familiar with Scandinavian history, you’ll know it’s pretty hard to identify specific people who lived a long way back. Such was the lack of note-taking and official records in 9th century Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
Still, the character of Ragnar Lothbrok, which “Vikings” fans adored, was pieced together from the work of the show’s historical consultant, a man who also offered his knowledge on several seasons of “The Tudors” and other shows with large historical components. This explains why Ragnar was such a complex, compelling main character; his weaknesses are magnified, as are his strengths.
Ragnar is a Viking––or Viking AF, as the cool kids might say––so he’s also alpha AF too. He essentially usurps the throne in the first season to become king, although he’s rarely referred to that way. While Ragnar wants power locally, he has a thirst for travel, adventure, and raiding that can’t be quenched sitting around in his native Kattegat. What makes a successful raider? A man who makes war and forces people into submission.
Ragnar is a warrior and a born leader, embracing those natural qualities that enable people to look up to him. However, he makes William Wallace look like a schoolboy out for a ride on his Scottish pony: At one point, Ragnar kills a man who betrayed him via the infamous torture method called “Blood Eagle”––where a man is strung up, his ribs are separated from his spine, and his lungs are pulled through until he looks like a spread eagle. (This is a real thing that existed and it’s why Vikings earned their reputation of pagan barbarians.) Ragnar is boss and nobody wants to mess with him. In real life, being the boss and even being ruthless can be a good thing, to an extent.
Still, alpha males (or females) can earn a bad reputation quickly: They are often all “guts and glory” and no “tears and hugs.” Except Ragnar. Ragnar isn’t all blood and grit and war and boss. He has this incredible soft spot in his heart for humanity, loads of empathy, a keen interest in spirituality, and almost always offers forgiveness, even for the most grievous sins.
Yes, he’s a warrior and a leader, regularly whooping his men into battle with him. Yes, he’s bossy to the women in his life. Most of all, despite his leadership qualities and penchant for killing anyone standing in the way of his thirst for adventure and invading foreign lands, Ragnar isn’t afraid to let his feelings show.
Ragnar shows kindness and tenderness toward his wives (no, he doesn’t have two at once), his children, and his good friends. He cries, and often. This doesn’t mean Ragnar has zero emotional regulation––that would not be a good trait for the king of any domain. But showing tenderness, kindness, and compassion towards people is never a bad thing.
At one point, after enduring the ups and downs of a friendship with Floki, the Viking responsible for building all the notorious ships able to both sail across the ocean and into shallow English channels, he tells him straight up, “I love you.” Floki cried. I cried. Who knew 9th century Vikings were so manly and compassionate? Real men cry, say “I love you,” and still conquer their foes and punish their enemies.
2. Seek God
It’s no secret Scandinavians adored their Norse gods. From fables about Thor and Odin to today’s modern films featuring Chris Hemsworth, you can hardly separate the Vikings from their intense faith in multiple, mysterious gods who control various elements of nature and people, and greet them in Valhalla, their version of heaven.
In fact, “the gods” are mentioned so often in every episode of every season in “Vikings,” I couldn’t help but think of the biblical injunction for parents to talk about God’s laws every day to their children “when they sit in your house and walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:8).
Ragnar Lothbrok is no exception to this rule. At first, the gods are so important he defers to them often––in story, in song, in joy, in agony. In every battle, every weather change, every illness, every major life event, thanks or angst is muttered to the gods. It’s clear that the gods are not just a ritual or a routine to Ragnar, but an actual belief system that infiltrates his life.
However, Ragnar’s not the only one who believes in the supernatural. When he meets Athelstan, a monk, while raiding a monastery in season one, his life is forever altered. He spares Athelstan from death and takes him back home as his slave. To Athelstan’s credit, he does not abandon his faith while serving these pagan overlords, but remains faithful (Save for a brief stint with a married woman in England later. Sigh. No one is perfect.).
Because Ragnar is open-minded, curious, and intellectual, he seeks to understand Athelstan’s faith in the “Christian God” and over time, begins converting to Christianity, although he never has an Apostle-Paul-like conversion moment in the show. It’s unclear how much this happened in the real 9th century Scandinavia. However, Alfred the Great, said to be the purest character in history, did convert Viking king Guthrum, to Christianity. In the storyline of “Vikings” Alfred is, of course, the son of Ecbert and Athelstan, the king of Wessex’s daughter-in-law, a conception that occurred in a one-night stand for which Athelstan felt forever guilty (and for which the King’s daughter-in-law Judith lost an actual ear).
Converting to Christianity in real life may have been somewhat forced, as part of the treaty between the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. However the show depicts conversion with the accuracy of what a real life conversion may have been like: Ragnar is truly wooed by the Christian God––by His love and sacrifice and authenticity.
Like many modern-day Christians, Ragnar wrestles with the traditions of the Vikings and his newfound faith which seems to offer him so much peace. Even when he is slowly being tortured and killed at the end of season four, Ragnar pretends to give homage to the gods, while holding fast to his Christian faith passed on from Athelstan. Hobbies and work occupy many, but faith offers the firmest foundation to get a man through really tough times.
3. Learn From Mistakes, and Accept Their Consequences
One of the most endearing things about Ragnar as a character is really how human he is, and how many mistakes he makes just in one episode. One of Ragnar’s many vices is that he is a womanizer, plain and simple. He is handsome and lusty, and women love him right back.
At the beginning of the show, he’s married to the beautiful blonde, Lagertha. The two make a great couple, and are as passionate as they are equally matched, both in wit and fighting prowess. (She is a shield maiden.) Still, that doesn’t stop him from eventually cheating with another woman, whom he eventually marries after he gets her pregnant. Lagertha leaves him because of it. The other woman, Aslaug, bears him several sons and, for this, Ragnar is happy.
However, just like real life, love and sex and babies and vows and mistakes impart real joys, real pain, real rewards, and real consequences. While Ragnar never admits he should not have eventually married Aslaug, he regrets cheating and the way the new union formed. His mistake hurt a woman he loved dearly and he owns that, living forever with the consequences. He loves Lagertha and their son Bjorn, who becomes a great warrior, until his death.
During a tender moment with Aslaug, Ragnar begins actually braiding her hair (eek!) and says:
We both know love is not what brought us together. But you have endured me. You suffered my words and my neglect. But you never turned our sons against me. I am sure there are times you have hated me but you never poisoned their minds or stopped them for loving me…For all of that I am grateful to you.
It’s as close as Ragnar comes to an apology. Men: When you wrong your woman, apologize like a man. If you touch her hair while doing it, bonus.
Likewise, even though Ragnar wanted many sons in order to have adequate heirs for his kingdom (and he seems to enjoy being a father when they are young), he is not a present father during their adolescence. On a raid to try to enter France, Ragnar’s only brother Rollo assimilates into their culture, and marries the French king’s daughter. Determined to eventually conquer the French, Ragnar returns only to be defeated by his own brother, who has betrayed him.
Unable to cope with this loss, Ragnar leaves Kattegat––his kingship, his family, and his people––entirely behind for years. He eventually returns when the boys have grown into young men, and nearly all of them are resentful and hurt. He doesn’t apologize immediately, like one would hope. He taunts them but later begins to apologize with his actions and rebuilds his relationships, especially with Ivar, his crippled son (who becomes the star of the fifth season).
It was not unusual for Ragnar to make mistakes yet also accept the consequences. All men and women make mistakes that last a lifetime. Learn from them, accept what comes as a result of them, and become a better person.
4. Ragnar Tried To View Women As Equals
For all the fuss and debates today about a patriarchal society, America in 2018 doesn’t even come close to representing the power of the patriarchy that existed in countries in the ancient past. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say that Ragnar and all the other men in “Vikings” treat women with respect all the time. Often, they do not. Rape and crime happen, and it’s disgusting.
In fact, in several episodes Ragnar cultivates such a bizarre relationship with a slave girl I’m not even going to try to explain it here. I never did understand or appreciate it and found it sick and twisted.
Ragnar is human and flawed. He yells at women, then apologizes; he lusts after them and then commits to them. He doesn’t understand them and he knows this. However, give him some credit for the fact that he exists in the 9th century, well before any kind of feminism, and that he often fought alongside Lagertha. In fact, the show’s depictions of female characters are almost as compelling as their depiction of Ragnar.
The strength women must have had to endure that era was remarkable. There have long been stories of shield maidens that existed in Scandinavian times. Historians argue about whether this was pure myth or myth based on history, but there is at least some proof that women in Scandinavia defended themselves and for this, were given much respect among the men in their countries.
According to the 12th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, “whose writing is sure to make every modern woman livid”:
There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills…They courted military celebrity so earnestly that you would have guessed they had unsexed themselves. Those especially who had forceful personalities or were tall and elegant embarked on this way of life. As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill…
Ragnar often consults with the women in his life, although he doesn’t always listen to them. Still, like any sensitive, yet strong man steeped in the patriarchy does, he wrestles with his conscience when he treats a woman poorly and is at his happiest when he is selfless and respectful, while also harnessing his strengths as a leader.
This is true of men today. While women are not equal in innate wiring, they are equal in value and compatibility and should be treated as such. Happy are the men and women who embrace this fully.
5. Cultivate Relationships With Many Types Of People
One of the most underrated aspects about Ragnar, especially in this partisan society we now inhabit, was his ability to cultivate so many different types of relationships. From slaves and Christians, to women and kings, Ragnar was open-minded about the people he met and always seemed curious to learn more about another person’s culture or faith. Many of us could benefit from this kind of open-mindedness, particularly if the negative aspects do not rub off on us.
The best example of this is Ragnar’s relationship with Ecbert, the king of Wessex. Unlike Ragnar, there was an actual King Ecbert (sometimes spelled Ecgberht). In the series, he is fascinating in a subtle, charming way. Like many kings, though, even though he has power, he isn’t satisfied. Power is isolating, and he has no peers until he meets Ragnar.
Ecbert isn’t as afraid of the Vikings as he is protective of his lands. Still, he is curious and instantly realizes that in this Viking pagan, there is a peer he can respect. For several seasons, the two men vie for land, power, and even women (Ecbert develops a brief crush on Lagertha after she leaves Ragnar, which is just as weird as it sounds.)
The two men strike a deal that if some Scandinavians can settle on English land, they won’t continue to raid and pillage. However, Ecbert, ever the shrewd negotiator, secretly betrays Ragnar and wipes out the entire Danish settlement, violating the peace treaty. Ragnar never forgets this and, in the end, has his vengeance.
Still, despite the deep grievances between the two men, they still confide in one another as equals (fascinating since the two men––one pagan, the other Christian, one sophisticated, the other barbaric––could hardly be more different). Also a warrior, Ragnar remains enigmatic to Ecbert. Likewise, Ragnar is interested in this man of power who is also somewhat of an English gentlemen, what with his forks, knives, plates, and Christian God.
Despite their differences, Ragnar finds in Ecbert a kindred spirit, a man who understands him, and a man from whom he tries to learn. Even in this complex relationship, there is betrayal and forgiveness. In the end, Ecbert watches Ragnar give a final speech before his death, offering his support as a friend and witness, even though he could not save him from his fate.
Ragnar develops relationships with many other unique characters, all of whom are vastly different from him. In a world that has become so partisan, divisive, and obsessed with groupthink, it’s wise to cultivate relationships with people who are different, unique, and represent a unique perspective on the world.