How accurate is Vikings: Valhalla? True story behind Netflix series
Showrunner Jeb Stuart talks to RadioTimes.com about the history behind the spin-off.
This weekend sees the debut of new series Vikings: Valhalla on Netflix – a spin-off from the History Channel's Vikings, set 100 years after the events of that show's finale.
Like Vikings before it, the new series tells a fictionalised story based on real events – this time focusing on the aftermath of the St Brice's Day Massacre, which saw King Æthelred the Unready of England order the mass killings of Danes in 1002.
The story takes several real-life Vikings who we know to have existed and places them at the centre of the drama, as they join forces to take revenge on England, all the while fighting their own religious war – with the Vikings fiercely split between factions of Christian converts and traditional Pagans.
The background to the series is largely true to the historical record – the St Brice's Day Massacre was a very real event and many of the battles that take place are also based on fact, while it's also true that there were clear tensions between Christian and Pagan Vikings at this time.
And although many of the events depicted are fictional – there is no evidence that Leif Erikson or Harald Hardrada ever met, for example – showrunner Jeb Stuart explained to RadioTimes.com that the important thing was for the series to feel like it could have happened, while he also highlighted the important work of researchers to make sure the show feels authentic to the time.
"It's one of those things where I want to believe it," he explained. "In other words, don't ask me to pop in somebody from the 14th century into my story and make it work. It's just not going to work. But if I can find characters that were tangential... let's say there's no historical knowledge that they both ran together, but it doesn't mean that it couldn't have happened.
"What, say, Leif Erickson may have been going through at that particular time would have been vastly different from what Harold Sigurdsson would have been going through. And I think that that the combination of those two creates a really interesting... what if they had known each other? How could that work? Well, once you sort of get over certain hurdles, and you start to put them together, then it can work.
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"But we have wonderful researchers, great historians that work with us on the show and stuff like that, and everything kind of has to go through a certain filter. And sometimes when they say 'I'm feeling uncomfortable about that,' that's actually something that makes me feel good as a dramatist, you know. I love the grey area, and I think the grey area is a fun place to work when you're doing historical drama."
Of course, the thing with making a series based on Viking history is that many details about the period – and the key figures that lived in it – cannot be fully known anyway, such is the nature of much of the evidence that exists.
But this is something which Stuart felt actually played into his hands, as it gave him more scope to play around with what might have happened.
"We don’t know a whole lot about the original Vikings — they didn’t have a written language, so the documentation is tricky," he is quoted as saying in the press notes for the film. "They left us the sagas, but the sagas were written 200 years after the end of this story, and they were written by Christians. We know archeologically what has been dug up, but we’re still discovering new things about Viking culture. Ultimately, we’ve made an authentic show. Sometimes we’ve moved dates or characters around a bit, but the historical pieces are all there."
As far as the Vikings: Valhalla cast goes, many of the actors involved in the series carried out extensive research into both the true-life characters they are playing and also this period of the Viking age in general. Some of the stars, such as Swedish pair Frida Gustavsson and Caroline Henderson (who play Freydís Eiríksdóttir and Jarl Haakon respectively), had a headstart in that regard.
"Vikings are very steeped into our DNA," Gustavsson explained to RadioTimes.com. "When you're in school, you learn about it, and I feel like as a Swedish or Scandinavian person, you're quite proud of the legacy of the Vikings.
"I did need a little bit of brushing up, " she added. "Because I realised that what I remembered was all these men, the only thing that you really learn in school about the Vikings were all these men – so I started reading the Poetic Edda, all the Sagas, the Greenlanders Saga, the Njáls Saga.
"And slowly popping up like mushrooms in the ground are these incredibly strong women who have incredible stories to tell. And I also discovered a wonderful book by an Icelandic scholar called Women of the Viking Age. She paints a picture of, from the cradle to the grave, how life can look like with the everyday kind of routines, and it's all based off archaeology and literature. So that was a gateway for me to really deepen my knowledge of the Viking world."
Meanwhile, although Henderson's character is fictional, she still found research extremely helpful in terms of understanding the character.
"It's an amazing part to play because of course she's inspired by all these male and female Viking people that we know existed through DNA, through research, through Sagas," she said. "And for me, my mother was very into the whole Viking history – she used to read stuff for us, for me and my little brother, so its been part of me all my life.
"And I think from as a little girl, I was so inspired by the stories that she told me of Viking women, that this is part of your DNA, as well, part of your legacy. And, you know, 1000 years ago, for me as a Scandinavian woman, it's quite relatable, actually – because back 1000 years ago, you could actually marry, you could divorce, you could own land, you could travel, you could raid, you could do all this stuff. You could be a shieldmaiden. We know that now for a fact. So for me to be able to play something like this was very fulfilling, and very, very exciting."
Harald Hardrada star Leo Suter also did plenty of historical research, and he said two things stuck out for him in particular. "One was the sort of ruthless nature and merciless nature of politics and kingship at this time," he explained. "How inheritance wasn't always obvious and clear, and the feuds and blood feuds that tore families apart in this era were extraordinary and really engaging history.
"And then as well, that sort of creeping in of Christianity at this time, as the Northern peripheries of the Byzantine Empire, these kings had to convert to Christianity because it was the main power source in Europe. So that struggle of Pagan kings converting to Christianity for political purposes, and the effect that had on their societies.
"But then for Harold as well, what I learned from the history books was that he was a famous legendary warrior even within his time, he plied his trade as a warrior across Europe, and gained renown as this huge, strong force of nature. So I was quite blessed in a way that there were so many resources and mentions of him in his time and it was fun to do that homework."
Vikings: Valhalla is coming to Netflix on 25th February 2022. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, visit our Drama hub or our TV Guide.
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