The video of Leonardo DiCaprio's speech to the UN popped up in my facebook feed this week. I watched, and listened to the message and found what DiCaprio was saying very compelling. If you haven't seen the speech you can find it here:
Because of the importance of the message, I am embarrassed to say that my biggest takeaway from the speech was Leonardo DiCaprio's hair style.
Because, to me, what this means is that the rumours about a Viking movie, possibly a trilogy, possibly about the life of Harald Hardrada, are true.
I am currently in my third year of the PhD, so it is comps year. It feels like I am reading literally everything. Everything everything. But at the same time, I have tailored my reading to fit my chosen dissertation topic: characterizations of Harald Hardrada.
Some might say it is risky to publicize a topic before it is written. I feel okay about it because, really, there isn't that much written about him outside of the realm of literature (not in the traditional history sense, where we like, as a society, to write biographies of 'great men,' a trap I hope to avoid, but also a gap I hope to fill). So if we are both, or all three of us working on it, I doubt we are going to come to the same conclusions anyway. If you were struggling to find a topic, you're welcome.
Of course, I wasn't really worried about maybe a few of us working on this until news of the possible movie came out.
In the imaginary world, where one dreams big anyway, they make this movie in three years time, I am already established as the expert, so the moviemakers have my book, and maybe ask me to consult (consulting on an historical film has been a dream of mine since I decided to pursue History/English as a career) and people buy my book (the pipedream of every academic) because it is relevant to the movie.
In the slightly more realistic world, though one still has to complete the PhD in good time. and it still has a bit of the fantastic too it (dream big in the real world too), the movie has come out by the time I can write my book. I have sort of lost out on the chance to consult on something I will have the most expertise in, as the Viking phase sort of dies down, and my book is kind of white noise in all the books that have been published in wake of the movie. This sounds like whining, because I mean, I would still try and find something to consult on someday, and I have a book published in this dream so I can't really complain.
But I can't deny my gut reaction to Leonardo DiCaprio's hair: I want to be involved in this project sooo bad.
Hire me as your pocket researcher. Don't hire me, just let me sit in a chair. Doctoral reading examiners being willing, all I am going to be doing next year is researching Harald Hardrada. As I find out things or come to new conclusions about texts, I could pass you little notes. I already have a degree in Norse and Viking Studies and one in Public History. I just wrote a paper about postcolonialism in American-made Viking movies. I have one paper under review which talks about a nineteenth century poet who wrote a poem called "The Death of Harald Hardrada." I just gave a talk about the Norwegian Invasion of 1066 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I spent four months giving tours of the L'Anse aux Meadows National Park site and dressing in Viking garb. I know what I am talking about! I am working on a book about the main character. Pleeeeaaassseeee.
My interest in Hardrada developed very naturally from a desire not to have to choose. I wanted to be an historian, but I couldn't choose between Canadian History, Medieval History or Maritime History. So I picked Vikings so I wouldn't have to. I did my MA thesis on oral storytellers, and their characterization, but I had to be specific to create the best argument. I read Harald Hardrada's saga in Morkinskinna and it had the most examples and was one of the most compelling stories. I love this character/historical figure, because through him you study the range and power of the Scandinavians in the eleventh century, starting in one of Norway's most crucial battles, through to the presence of Scandinavians in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, to the Rus in Russia, through to dynastic struggles and court life in northern courts, to the defining year of English history (1066). In addition, he is a poet and a patron of poets, and a sailor and a warrior and a king. I mean, what is not to be interested in. Plus, Gwynn Jones called him 'the last viking' which has stuck with him into literature. There couldn't be a more romantic figure.
So that is my rant, and my plea, and my secret hope that is a little embarrassing because of its grand scale, but the way I feel nonetheless. I am going to send these vibes out into the universe (and maybe tweet them to anyone I think might read them), and I am going to keep working on my dissertation. And keeping looking at Leonardo DiCaprio pictures to figure out what they are filming based on hair style.
Now back to the books.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Please Hire Me!: An open letter to Barrie Osborne, Warner Brothers and Leonardo DiCaprio from a Viking specialist
They think that we’re invaders, that we’ve come to take over their land’: Postcolonialism and the Viking Film in the United States
It is the character Professor Ivarsson, an American-Scandinavian archeologist, who becomes our guide to the Viking world in the Disney production The Island at the Top of the World (1974). When Sir Anthony Ross, former British ambassador, hires him to lead an expedition to the arctic, the troupe is surprised to find there an island that has remained green amidst the ice and snow. They are even more surprised to find it populated by Vikings. As an expert in Norse archaeology Professor Ivarsson is able to blur the margins between the two cultures, establishing communication between his fin-de-siècle comrades and the ‘lost colony.’ He explains to Sir Anthony Ross the reason that they are being taken captive is that the Vikings worry they are the first ‘of thousands.’ Sir Anthony responds with ‘preposterous.’ However, also on this expedition is Oomiak, an ‘Eskimo’ from Ellesmere Island who was kidnapped by Sir Anthony in order that he might lead them to this island. His presence validates the Vikings’ fears and reminds the audience of past interactions between a group of ‘invaders’ and a group of ‘indigenous peoples.’
To understand The Island at the Top of the World directed by Robert Stevenson it is necessary to understand postcolonial theory. For instance, Franz Fanon, describing the uprisings of populations under colonial rule, could explain why the Vikings have been depicted as having a culture that Viking expert Prof. Ivarsson recognizes: in the twentieth century, as populations tried to reassert their identity against a dominant culture traditional arts were renewed. The resulting perception is that any modernity is derived from the dominant culture and that the indigenous, subaltern, identity is, unfairly, something static and rooted in the past. Therefore the Vikings did not change for a thousand years and presumably Oomiak’s culture was only changed by invaders. In this film the plot, the word choice (like the loaded word invaders) and even the nationalities and occupations of the characters evoke the American colonial experience.
The film uses Vikings as stand-ins for an un-colonized indigenous population. Yet Vikings are European descendants, blurring the divisions that are usually made between the subaltern and the dominant cultures. The choice allows audiences that identify with the dominant American culture to sympathize with both the Vikings and the explorers. The film asks us to think about the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and between ‘civilized’ and ‘un-civilized.’ In these concerns The Island at the Top of the World is representative of American made movies about Vikings.
Colonialism is a main tenet or obvious theme of ‘Viking’ films from The Viking (1928) to How to Train your Dragon (2010). Like The Island at the Top of the World, these films revolve around the issues of cultural interaction as we understand them through the lens of our colonial past. While, all of these films engage in the subject from the point of view of the dominant, invading culture, yet the films differ in their depictions of both Vikings and the time and place where two cultures overlap.
The corpus of American-made Viking films in question is generated out of Kevin Harty’s list of Viking films in The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages. Harty’s list includes country of production; the United States was deliberately chosen as a limit for this study because of the preponderance of the productions, the availability of the material, but also for the interesting relationship the United States and Hollywood have with the medieval past. As Joseph Sullivan has shown, country of production is often an arbitrary distinction due to the international nature of many productions (Sullivan, 2011, 57). Yet the number of productions attributed to US companies is relevant, and slightly ironic for the discussion of postcolonialism.
The United States has had an interesting, possibly unique, experience with colonialism, being both the colonized and the colonizers, and being both postcolonial and still having several subaltern cultures. Native American populations would not characterize this as a postcolonial period, though it has also been postcolonial since 1776. Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle discuss the difficulty with the term postcolonial, since it is an imprecise term to discuss colonialism as it is still occurring or neocolonialism which is often categorized by the oppression of cultures not through traditional forms of power, but through capitalism and corporations. The specific difficulty here of calling these films postcolonial is that they are often looking at the moment of cultural interaction, maybe even the first moments of colonialism, rather than the colonial period or the period afterwards. In fact, of all the films in question, only Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke (2007) and How to Train your Dragon (2010) deal directly with a colonial situation. However, as Young states,
if colonial history, particularly in the nineteenth century, was the history of the imperial appropriation of the world, the history of the twentieth century has witnessed the peoples of the world taking power and control back for themselves. Postcolonial theory is itself a product of that dialectical process (Young, 2001, 4).
The films represent a dialectic between the twentieth/twenty-first century and its colonial past. They are using colonially inspired language and visuals to talk about the moment of cultural interaction, when the margins between two disparate cultures collapse. And while cultural interaction is not necessarily colonial, our colonial experience has influenced the way we talk about that interaction. David Lloyd gives an example in his discussion of colonialism:
we can refer to India as a British colony only at the point where British governmental administration rather than East India Company mercantile practices dominates and the process of administrative rationalization occurs by ways of metropolitan decisions and concerns: retrospectively, we can see the work of the East India Company as a phase of colonialism, though the word itself may not have been used (Lloyd, 1999, 7).
The colonial experiences of the nineteenth century characterize the way we view the past.
Viking films contribute to this debate because they build on the scholarship about the Vikings inherited from the Victorians and onward. One prevalent interpretation of Vikings is as marauders and as barbaric invaders. John Aberath traces this interpretation to the medieval sources outside of Scandinavia, particularly from places which recorded higher numbers of Viking attacks such as northern England or northern France (Aberath, 2004, 30-1). The Vikings are thus the ‘other’ against which local populations were defined.
However a competing, some would say revisionist, version of Vikings was made popular around the Victorian Age. The earliest translations of Viking Sagas, such as the Vínland sagas which describe a voyage of Viking Age Icelanders to what seems to be North America, occurred in the eighteenth century, usually in Danish, but were more widely translated by the second half of the nineteenth century. Writers including William Morris translated many sagas into English (Hammer, 2002, 139). These presented a wider picture of Vikings as farmers and merchants, as well as marauders.
Vikings also feature in discussions of colonialism because of the dramatic expansion, which also gave them a reputation for barbarity. Early Medieval Scandinavians settled as the Rus and become Russians, were mercenaries in medieval Byzantium and raided and settled in the British Isles as well as northern continental Europe. Settlers from Norway colonized Iceland, then Greenland, and then, according to both contemporary sources and archaeology, arrived in North America.
Victorians, especially in the United States, visualized both the explorer and the democratic nature of the Viking Age Icelanders. Especially in New England, work on nationalism and the ‘science’ of ethnicity that resulted from colonialism lead thinkers to use the Vikings to define the role of race in the American colonial experience. As an extreme example, in 1877 Marie Shipley wrote The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or, Honor to Whom Honor is Due. In it she stated that the founding of America was one of the greatest achievements in all of world history, and if North America ceased to acknowledge Columbus, but instead acknowledged the Vikings, all the corruption of Catholicism and its most devout followers, the Spanish, would disappear from American culture (Shipley, 1887, 177). Emphasizing the comparison with Columbus demonstrates how much, the Vikings have been identified with colonialism, even though they did not leave a direct colonial legacy. It is against this backdrop that American film depicts Vikings.
The collection of essays edited by Kevin Harty emphasizes the heterogeneity of representations of Vikings on film. Alan Lupack notes how different the Vikings are in The Vikings (1954) directed by Richard Fleischer and those in Prince Valiant (1954) directed by Henry Hathaway (Lupack, 2011, 46). It will be apparent how heterogeneously the films deal with both the colonial moment and colonialism. Discussing the themes of colonialism that bring these works together does not take away from the diversity of the films. Several scholars in that collection have already noted the way Viking films can be framed in postcolonial theory. Laurie Finke and Martin Schichtman see Orientalism as defined by Edward Said in the depiction of the Grimault in The Saga of the Viking Women and their voyage to the waters of the great sea serpent (1957): ‘the Vikings are for the most part pale blond northerners; the blonder they are, the more leadership qualities they seem to possess … The Grimault warriors, by contrast, are dark and swarthy, sporting hats reminiscent of Mongolians that give them a faintly oriental look (despite the entirely white and American cast)’ (Finke and Schichtman, 2011, 155).David Marshall makes a very clear link between the themes of colonialism and Outlander (2008). Elizabeth Sklar has shown how the acceptance of diversity amongst cultures is a central feature of The 13th Warrior (1999). Kevin Harty’s contribution to the collection demonstrates that the films that depict Vikings in North America are deliberately engaging the colonial narrative that puts Europeans in North America. He shows how the films engage in the debate about alterity, and about who or what is savage or civilized, who is the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ of the cultural interaction, and the blurring of those lines or margins (Harty, 2011c, 118). It is just this idea of savagery, of alterity, which also makes Vikings a great vehicle through which to explore colonialism
Nickolas Haydock, building on Benedict Anderson and Jacques Lacan, coins the term the Imaginary Middle Ages. Aberath, Haydock and Harty have all commented on the way the medieval film, or to use Harty’s term the ‘reel’ Middle Ages, reflects on both the ‘otherness’ and the continuity of history. Medieval films often project characters that have our values and engage in political debates that are relevant to contemporary audiences. The retrospective view makes such debates seem essential to the human condition, and broaden the implications of the conflicts we hold dear. Both Harty and Haydock note that the Middle Ages on film has been a particularly useful image to talk about national identities (Haydock, 2007, 112). The Middle Ages is our past, but also is removed from us by cultures and time. They are us and are not us. They represent an ‘other’ we are meant to see in ourselves. Chinua Achebe notes that we find it difficult to see the rituals and customs of our own culture, because we are not removed from it (Achebe, 2010, 1613). Depictions of the Middle Ages allow us to see the rituals that were once a part of our own culture and to ruminate on how much we are still like these people on screen. Combine this with the fact that the Vikings were ostensibly the first Europeans in North America, but didn’t leave a colonial heritage, means they are both us as the dominant culture, and are not us as they are not as directly related to our transplantation out of Europe. Vikings are appropriate for an exploration of cultural interaction and colonialism, not just because of their traditional scholarship, but because depictions of the Middle Ages are a great proving ground of contemporary politics or values.
In Viking films not all of the ‘Vikings’ are even meant to be historical Vikings. Historical accuracy is not necessarily a useful concept in this context since ‘the purpose for making them [medieval films] in the first place is not to engage sober academic reflection but rather to lay the framework for the film’s reality effects and to authorize it as a site of what Lacan calls ‘imaginary identifications’ for a mass audience’ (Haydock, 2007, 7). The mention of Vikings is meant to evoke a past age, and to remind us of people who both are and are not us in an even more meaningful way than the depiction of aliens. An idea of historicity is important to the audience’s reaction. Lupack tells us that the shorthand imagery, like the horned helmets used in How to Train your Dragon, allows the audience to enter a state of willing disbelief, regardless of the actual historicity of the imagery (Lupack, 2011, 51).
For the researcher, The Viking (1928), is the most accessible of the silent era films about the Vikings. It is by no means the only one. Kevin Harty describes the Vikings in The Viking Queen (1914) and The Oath of a Viking (also 1914) as decidedly Victorian (Harty “Introduction” 4). By this Harty is referring to the more sympathetic Viking that nationalists created following the pattern of Richard Wagner (Harty, 2011a, 4). The film invites a postcolonial reading from the first title card which sets the movie in the context of the arrival of Europeans in North America: ‘[a] thousand years ago, long before any white man set foot on the American shore, Viking sea rovers sailed out of the north and down the waterways of the world.’ Leif Ericsson, the anglicized version of Leifr Eiríksson, is one of the main characters. In the Vínland sagas Leifr Eiríksson leads the first expedition that establishes a base in Vinland, a place that has come to be associated with North America. The film is about Leif Ericsson’s conversion from his barbaric ways to Christianity, and the weight Christianity has on his decisions. Before Christianity it is assumed Vikings are barbaric, as they take the English Christian Alwin captive. But when Alwin usurps Leif’s place in his beloved Helga’s heart it is Christianity that stays Leif’s hand. Though Alwin and Helga’s romance, and the evil Halfdan’s machinations are major focuses for the viewer, the colonial narrative overlays all other considerations. People’s worth is determined by how much they are interested in seeking out the new land to the west. That is how Leif knows that Alwin is good. More than once the voyage to the new land is characterized as ‘the greatest adventure by sea that man had ever known.’ Leif’s strength, compassion and Christianity form the nobility of his European soul. When he gets to the new land he shares his nobility with it, planting the cross on the beach, building a tower and hanging the cross around the neck of the native inhabitant: ‘let this cross and the tower I have built be the signs of peace and friendship between us.’ It should be noted that this movie is made before any archaeological proof was really found. It is hard not to see this as adding to the national spirit of this movie. The whole effect is to indigenize northern Europeans to North America, and legitimate their claim to the land by showing their reasonableness, nobility and even right to the land. At the end of the film the Star Spangled Banner is played, suggesting this is a specifically American colonial tradition of nobility, strength and adventure.
No one would argue that this depicts colonialism from any point of view besides the dominant one. The film is building a national myth based on an heroic as well as a paternalistic past, which is seen by the laying of the cross around the neck of the Native. This is a text of a colonial period, of a pre-World War II era in which we were still forming our ideas of dominant and subaltern cultures. This paradigm, however, is taken up as late as 1978 in The Norseman directed by Charles B. Pierce, which positions noble Vikings against savage Natives, though The Norseman is less intent on the ideological stance.
If The Viking and The Norseman are deliberately positing the nobility of the first Europeans to engage in the American colonial experiment, The 13th Warrior wishes to remind us that our ideas about who and what is noble or human are flexible. Our protagonist is Ibn Fadlan, who asserts his civility in the face of the Vikings, but also his brotherhood with them as fellow humans. Young sees this as part of the way the dominant culture understands colonialism: ‘today’s repeated stress on the multicultural identity of the Commonwealth is in part designed to counteract the legacy of the historical fact that it was originally intended to be a whites-only affair’ (Young, 2001, 39). The 13th Warrior turns our gaze away from the Vikings in North America, back to Vikings in Europe. Nevertheless, cultural interaction, framed through postcolonial eyes, is as central a tenet of this movie as it is of The Viking, The Norseman and The Island at the Top of the World. Attempting to posit an historically viable version of Beowulf based in turn on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, the ability for cultures to interact with each other, respect each other, while maintaining their own integrity, is one of the overarching themes of the film (Sklar, 2011, 122). Ibn Fadlan’s attempts to understand and fit into the Viking culture are met with some playful derision, but ultimately with respect. In contrast it is ultimately the culture of the Wendols, the Neanderthal cannibals that are hunting Hrothgar’s people, who cannot be respected as a separate people with their own ways. It is significant that the Fadlan character says that the Wendol are not men. It posits a complex view of colonialism, but ultimately embraces plurality, while acknowledging that plurality cannot include those who approach cultural interaction with a destructive intent. Marshall has noted that ‘post-Colonial encounters framed by feud are, in fact, a common theme in adaptations of Beowulf … a fact not surprising, since issues of colonialism are not foreign to the original poem’ (Marshall, 2011, 143). This analysis plays out in Beowulf (1998) directed by Graham Baker, which suggests Grendel as the result of violence by the incoming masculine Scandinavian colonists on the feminine indigenous population, and also in Beowulf (2007) directed by Robert Zemeckis, which suggests that the demons Grendel and Grendel’s mother have a long standing adversarial relationship with men when Grendel’s mother says ‘they have slain so many of our kind.’
Outlander is another Beowulf adaptiation, positing the action in 709 AD Norway. Unlike The 13th Warrior, which is supposed to be historically plausible, Outlander is not, being also a science-fiction story. However, the action that takes place in Norway isn’t outside the realm of what may have been possible, if we accept the premise of the film that Earth was in fact a seed colony that was abandoned and that aliens exist. Attention is then paid to details of Viking life. Marshall has already shown how the overarching theme of the film is rooted in postcolonialism. Kainan is from another planet, and crash lands on earth with two Moorwen on his ship. Kainan must fight and kill the monster, however, part of the reason for the monster’s monstrosity is that Kainan and his people, as Kainan says ‘are no different from yours, hungry for land.’ He describes the genocide of the Moorwen as atrocious, attributing more sentience to the Moorwen than we have yet seen: ‘we told ourselves they were nothing, just animals, beasts, so we killed them all with fire.’ Ultimately it is a condemnation of the colonial experiment, with no resolution for us, besides to make the best of the mess that we have made.
Pathfinder (2007), directed by Marcus Nispel, is another film set at the time of Viking arrival in North America. These are overrepresented in the corpus, but it is of interest to American audiences. With no less complicated a textual history than The Thirteenth Warrior, Pathfinder is based on the film Ofelaš, which is based on the Sami folktale (Davidson, 2011, 96). The People of the Dawn, a supposedly ‘pre-written history’ Native American nation, are the humans in this. The natives speak English and we see their social structure. They even have faces, which the Vikings do not, hidden as they are behind their monstrous masks and make-up. Colonialism is deliberately invoked not only by the subject matter, the resetting of this tale in the context of North America, but also by dialogue. The desired outcome for the Vikings is genocide; they want the land. The Vikings’ violence includes torturing Natives by pulling them apart with horses or holding them upside down over fires. The reason this is still seen from the dominant culture’s perspective is that the audience is tied with the main character Ghost, the Viking boy left behind on an earlier raid, who has to try to combat the violence and come to terms with this tendency of his ancestors. The movie does not give him the symbols of native power in the end, but it does state that his presence forever changed the people. This is loaded with meaning. We must make our home in this place that our people ravaged with violence. The film asks are we, or are we not, extensions of them and that violence? According to Davidson, Pathfinder finds ethnic identity to be self-constructed (Davidson, 2011, 100). By making the Vikings, the European invaders, into the faceless savages the film asks us to reinterpret our colonial past along more contemporary political lines. Yet it does fall into the trap where white men are saving brown women, though in this case it is from other white men (Spivak, 2010, 2122). It tries to pull itself out of these negative racial implications by making Starfire the leader of The People of the Dawn at the end. Pathfinder demonizes colonialism. The Europeans and the Native group are essentialist versions of good and bad. And yet it does offer us a way to be good descendants of Europeans, speaking directly to a settler colonial audience.
It is tempting to see The Viking and Pathfinder on opposite ends of a scale, the former that valorizes colonialism through Vikings and the latter that very literally demonizes it. The image is complicated by the fact that the Vikings at the very beginning of The Viking are engaged in violence against the English and the fact that Ghost is linked intrinsically with his Viking past. However, the break from barbarity symbolized by Leif Ericsson’s Christianity and Ghost’s choice to break with his violent past and to become a part of the Native culture allow us to maintain these two as extreme ideological stances to colonialism. They reflect their culture’s values and political stances on colonialism. But both are similar in the way they engage the discourse from the point of view of the dominant culture. Both propose actions that allow us to continue living in a ‘postcolonial’ America; The Viking proposes we be proud and Pathfinder proposes that we acknowledge our violent past, try to stop the violence, and attempt forms of hybrid culture.
How to Train your Dragon, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, engages explicitly with a colonial narrative in a very interesting way compared to the other films. Unlike the Vikings in Island at the Top of the World, these characters are not afraid of becoming subalterns and losing their culture to a dominant force, they are already a dominant culture dealing with a particularly aggressive subaltern group. The fact that members of the subaltern group are slightly sentient animals makes an interesting statement about colonialism for a postcolonial audience. For a society that sees, at least in our politically correct media rhetoric, all humans as absolutely human, to make the subalterns unhuman reminds us that this was not always the case. Unlike the Moorwen in Outlander, the sentience of the dragons is made apparent to the audience by the particularly expressive eyes of Toothless, the Night Fury. The relationship between the two groups has been characterized by violence. Hiccup, our protagonist, explains the history of his village, showing that they are colonists who have been there for seven generations, and that since that time they have been at war with dragons. The vocabulary of war, as opposed to environment management, is also indicative of the dragons as a competing people. When Hiccup befriends Toothless, and they work out an arrangement that is mutually beneficial, he exclaims ‘everything we know about you is wrong.’ This is a narrative about trying to understand other cultures. At a climactic point in the movie, Hiccup is trying to change his father Stoic’s mind. Stoic reminds Hiccup about the danger of this indigenous group, that they have killed hundreds of the Vikings. Hiccup retorts that the Vikings have killed thousands of the dragons. He advocates not just trying to understand another culture, but also trying to understand the negative aspects of that culture. The language used positions this conflict in the history of colonial conflicts, advocating hybridity and understanding. Just like in The 13th Warrior, those cultures that can achieve hybridity and a mutual understanding, must team up to face those forces that cannot or will not choose hybridity, and that devour (through genocide) the cultures they encounter. In this case, a great monster, not even called a dragon in the film, is the focus of a joint effort by both Vikings and dragons. How to Train your Dragon 2 (2014) targets people who prolong colonial conflict for monetary gain, playing on the same colonial themes as the first movie. Seeing these movies as commentary on colonialism is complicated by the fact that the dragons become pets in the context of the village, reminding us again that we are dealing with dragons and not another people. Nevertheless, this is the most cohesive argument espousing understanding as a way of life amongst peoples who will continue to live in a colonial situation, as is the case in the United States.
These are Viking movies where the colonial narrative is central to the film. These films are deliberately working through the colonial experience, though from widely different viewpoints and with widely different results. This represents a good majority of the corpus, though not its entirety. The most famous Viking film made in the United States is The Vikings (1958) directed by Richard Fleischer. This also represents cultural interaction, but it is not necessarily positing one culture as dominant and one as subaltern; nor do the choices of cultures evoke colonial situations for a modern audience. The two cultures in The Vikings are a small English kingdom and the Vikings. While the Vikings did set up colonies in England, this is not what is being evoked, nor is it assumed that is common knowledge to 1950s audiences. So colonialism is not being directly invoked. However one of the primary concerns of the film is the difference between barbarity and civility. This is particularly seen through Ragnar, the Viking King played by Ernest Borgnine. He, as a noble Viking, comments on a description of an English punishment with ‘ah, you see, the English are civilized.’ We are supposed to be shocked by the violence of the Viking, but later we are shocked by the violence of the English, who cut off the main character’s hand and throw Ragnar to the wolves. The English may represent civilization, but they are no more civilized, despite their Christianity. Kathleen Kelly argues that for The Vikings ‘the alterity of the Viking Age furnishes the pretext for representations of violence and sex’ (Kelly, 2011, 15). To American audiences the Middle Ages is known to be barbaric, and Viking Age settings can really capitalize on these assumptions. The concepts of civility and barbarians are both old and very new. Us versus them, and the value of our ways versus theirs, is a very old concept. However, the idea that a people is intrinsically barbaric, and that civilization must be brought to them so they can embrace it, is an idea rooted in nineteenth century colonialism that, among the films, has perhaps its best expression in The Vikings.
The concept of human barbarity is systemic in Viking films. It is also the major theme of The Saga of the Viking Women and their voyage to the lands of the great sea-serpent. The women are seen casting votes, which is intrinsically civilized to an American audience, but doing it with spears, to signify the alterity and barbarity of the past. In Outlander Kainan decides not to go back to his supposedly more refined society, but to stay with the seemingly barbaric Vikings at the end of the film. He has questioned his society’s refinement by reflecting on the role he had in the Moorwen genocide. In The 13th Warrior Ibn Fadlan is disgusted with the practices of the Vikings, who use the same bowl to rinse out their mouths. This is true to the original Ibn Fadlan text, but an interesting inclusion for American audiences who have othered parts of the Middle East as backwards, as opposed to progressive. In Pathfinder Ghost is driven to speaking in Norse like the Vikings to save Starfire’s hand. The Viking comments that he ‘knew you could speak like a human,’ which is ironic to audiences who have been taking the Vikings to be the monstrous other and the Natives as humans.
The anthropomorphizing of beasts, like the Moorwen, the dragons or even the Wendol, takes the idea of being intrinsically barbaric (or animalistic) or civilized to a new level, by really asking to broaden our understanding of what is human, and to question the humanity of ‘civilization.’ Homi Baba has said that the very concepts of civility and barbarity as we understand it are born out of colonial thoughts:
For at the same time as the question of cultural difference emerged in the colonial text, discourses of civility were defining the doubling moment of the emergence of Western modernity. Thus the political and theoretical genealogy of modernity lies not only in the origins of the idea of civility, but in this history of the colonial moment (Bhaba, 2010, 2367).
The Vikings asks us to question how different these people who are our ancestors are from us, and work through the suspicion that ‘the Vikings lurk under the layers of modern civilization, waiting to reemerge – a past identity, a repressed self, what lies beneath’ (Aronstein, 2011, 73).
In Prince Valiant (1954) the Vikings under Sligon are a barbaric people who are slowly being civilized as they are brought into the folds of Christianity. This film is based on Hal Foster’s long running comic strip. Even though Prince Valiant and his family, influenced by Christianity and civilization espoused by King Arthur’s court, look nothing like their Viking brethren, people in Briton continue to treat him differently, as if the barbarity of being a Viking was somehow inherent in his blood, recalling Pathfinder and also Victorian essentialism. But if he is governed first by his nature as a Viking, he is then a perfect example of what postcolonial theorists like Spivak describe as the marginal buffer group: ‘even the third group on the list, the buffer group, as it were, between the people and the great macro-structural dominant groups, is itself defined as a place of in-betweenness’ (Spivak, 2010, 2118). Bhaba uses terms like hybridity to describe the fluidity between different cultures. Most often the protagonist of the Viking films is someone who understands and can assimilate both cultures. Prince Valiant is one example, as is Eric, Tony Curtis’s character in The Vikings. Eric is part English and part Viking, though he knows about neither side of his heritage until the end of the film. He understands the violence and values of both cultures, and can participate in both. The films do not necessarily agree on the role of the go-between, as Prince Valiant does not seem to value the culture of his native Vikings, wishing instead to bring his people into the folds of Arthur’s court and Christianity. The Viking is also advocating for the subaltern to come nearer to the dominant culture. In The Norseman the Native girl embraces hybridity, recognizing the Vikings are the party in the right, and shunning her own community. Hiccup is the go-between who stems the violence through his hybridity. Eric in The Vikings and Ibn Fadlan in The 13th Warrior embrace a hybridity that does not seek to change either culture, or to choose one or the other. Instead, they simply gain the tools to act in both worlds. The conclusions for those characters who embrace, or are forced to embrace, hybridity, often reflect the overall attitudes of the individual film to colonialism. The prevalence of this type of character throughout the corpus is indicative of how prevalent the concepts of colonialism are in Viking films, and also reflect the heterogeneity of the way these films, and in turn the dominant culture, deal with those concepts.
Reflecting on the role colonialism played in the formation of nineteenth century nationalism, we could even bring outliers like The Viking Sagas (1995) directed by Michael Chapman into this discourse. However, this example may be more instructive as an outlier. While more concerned with the ‘fate of Iceland’ and what it means to be a ‘Viking’ than the actual sagas that inspire the film, this film is the one example of an American film, or at least a film produced by an American production company, about Vikings that is insular, the characters are not interacting with other cultures. It stands out because of this, drawing attention back to the way cultural interaction, which is not separated from a colonial narrative, has dominated narrative in the other films.
The link between Vikings and colonialism is strong and continues to have an enduring legacy. Even the recent Marvel movies, although the characters self-identify as Asgardians instead of Vikings, engage in the post-colonial discourse. In The Avengers (2012), directed by Joss Whedon, Nick Fury comments to Thor and the other Avengers that the Asgardians’ appearance on earth forever changed the way they saw themselves: “we learned not only are we not alone, but we are hopelessly, hilariously, outgunned.” The dominant culture is becoming aware, as it tries to do away with essentialisms that place one ethnicity forever above another, there is a possibility of a dominant group becoming subaltern. This has particular meaning for American audiences, whose history has demonstrated the devastation of an invading colonial force. The concept of colonialism changes with the time period and with the politics of those making the film, but Viking movies evoke national myth-building for postcolonial audiences and ask those in the dominant culture to come to terms with the barbaric practices of colonialism.
Aberath, John. 2003. A Knight at the Movies. New York: Routledge.
Achebe, Chinua. 2010. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1612-1622. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Anderson, Benedict. 2010. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1916-1922. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Beowulf. 1998. Directed by Graham Baker. Performed by Chris Lambert. DVD.
Beowulf. 2007. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Performed by Ray Winstone. DVD.
Bennet, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. 2009. The colony. In An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 242. New York: Pearson Longman.
Bhaba, Homi K. 2010. The Commitment to Theory. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leigh, 2353-2372. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Davidson, Roberta. 2011. Different Pathfinders, Different Destinations. In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 96-105. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Davis, Graeme. 2009. Vikings in America. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd..
Fanon, Franz. 2010. The Wretched of the Earth. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1440-1454. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Finke, Laurie A., and Martin B. Schichtman. 2011. Between Exploitation and Liberation: Viking Women and the Sexual Revolution. In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 150-164. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Gilroy, Paul. 2010. The Black Atlantic. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 2556-2575. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hammer, Jona. 2002. Eric Brighteyes: Rider Haggard rewrites the Sagas. Vol. XII, in Studies in Medievalism: Film and Fiction Reviewing the Middle Ages, edited by Tom Shippey, 137-170. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
Hardt, Lauren, and Michael Warner. 2010. Empire. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 2621-2635. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Harty, Kevin J. 1999. The Reel Middle Ages: Films About Medieval Europe. London: McFarland & Company.
—. 2011. Introduction: 'Save Us, O Lord, from the Fury of the Northmen'; or, 'Do You Know What's in Your Wallet?'. In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depiction of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 3-8. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
—. 2011. "The Vikings on Film: A Filmography." In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 193-214. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
—. 2011. "Who's Savage Now?! - The Vikings in North America." In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 106-120. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Haydock, Nickolas. 2007. The Imaginary Middle Ages: Movie Medievalism. London: McFarland & Company.
How to Train your Dragon. 2010. Directed by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders. Performed by Jay Baruchel. DVD.
How to Train Your Dragon 2. 2014. Directed by Dean Deblois. Performed by Jay Baruchel.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. 2011. The Trope of the Scopic in The Vikings (1958). In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depiction of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 9-23. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Lloyd, David. 1999. Ireland after History. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke. 2007. Directed by Rafael Jordan. Performed by Adrian Paul. DVD.
Lupack, Alan. 2011. Valiant and Villainous Vikings. In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 46-55. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Marshall, David W. 2011. Harrying an Infinite Horizon: The Ethics of Expansionism in Outlander (2008). In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 135-149. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Outlander. 2008. Directed by Howard McCain. Performed by Jim Caviezel. DVD.
Parker, Joanne. 2002. The Day of a Thousand Years. Vol. XII, in Studies in Medievalism: Film and Fiction Reviewing the Middle Ages, edited by Tom Shippey, 113-136. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
Pathfinder. 2007. Directed by Marcus Nispel. Performed by Karl Urban. DVD.
Prince Valiant. 1954. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Performed by James Mason. DVD.
Said, Edward. 2010. Orientalism. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1866-1888. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America. 2007. Directed by Tony Scott. Performed by Tony Scott. DVD.
Shipley, Marie A. Brown. 1887. The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or Honor to Whom Honor is Due. New York: John B. Alden.
Sklar, Elizabeth S. 2011. Call of the Wild: Culture Shock and Viking Masculinities in The 13th Warrior (1999). In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 121-134. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2010. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 2114-2126. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Sullivan, Joseph M. 2011. Silly Vikings: Eichinger, Hickox, and Lorenz's Anglo-German-Irish Production of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant (1997). In The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages, edited by Kevin Harty, 56-71. London: McFarland & Company Inc..
The 13th Warrior. 1999. Directed by John McTiernan and Michael Crichton. Performed by Antonio Banderas. DVD.
The Avengers. 2012. Directed by Joss Whedon. Performed by Chris Hemsley. Netflix.
The Island at the Top of the World. 1974. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Performed by Jacques Marin. DVD.
The Norseman. 1978. Directed by Charles B. Pierce. Performed by Lee Majors. Youtube.
The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. 1958. Directed by Roger Corman. Performed by Abby Dalton. DVD.
The Viking.1928. Directed by Roy William Neill. Performed by Donald Crisp. Youtube.
The Vikings. 1958. Directed by Richard Fleischer. Performed by Kirk Douglas. VHS.
Young, Robert. 2001. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.