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The Truth About The Shield Walls In Vikings

History's Vikings is coming to an end after season 6, but with Netflix's Vikings: Valhalla spin-off on its way, it's probably safe to say that we haven't heard the last of everyone's favorite grumpy raiders of ancient Scandinavia — or, at least, their descendants.

Unlike fantasy epics like Game of Thrones, Vikings has always planted at least one foot in history. While Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) may or may not have been a real historical figure, his brother Rollo of Normandy (Clive Standen), his wives Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland), and his many sons all feature in various sagas and historical records. Many of the events and raids on the series, such as the Siege of Paris, also very much happened in real life.

That said, being a TV show, Vikings isn't above peppering things with a little extra drama every now and then. However, some viewers think this approach may have caused a strange situation where the show's battle-happy characters have started forgetting a tool in their battlefield arsenal — namely, the shield wall, a tactic where warriors form a connected wall of shields that keeps them relatively safe from enemy attacks and allows them to push forward at their leisure. 

Let's take a look at the truth about the shield walls in Vikings.

Vikings went heavy on shield walls at the start, then stopped later on

Some fans have pointed out that Vikings spent its first two seasons establishing the shield wall as the Viking warriors' go-to tactic in open-field warfare. In a thread on the Vikings-themed subreddit, user u/DepressedPoetboy laments the fact that, despite its well-established usefulness, the tactic seems to go out of the window in later seasons. 

"Shieldwalls were a huge thing in the first 2 seasons," they write. "Yes, later the siege of Paris was not really very well doable with a shield wall, but what about the 5th and 6th season? Nobody ever even comes up with the idea of forming a shield wall, which was always a huge advantage of the Vikings, greatly established in the first season. Now everyone just runs at each other uncoordinated."

Indeed, during Ragnar's season 1 raid at Lindisfarne, the Northumbrian forces confront the Vikings on the beach but are completely and utterly destroyed when Ragnar's crew expertly employs the shield wall tactic. Shield walls also come in play when Ragnar faces his brother Rollo and Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) in battle — in fact, both sides immediately raise their shield walls, even though they're about to charge. 

Sure, the Vikings later embark on adventures that require other methods of warfare. However, seasons 5 and 6 feature plenty of battlefield action, so it's fair to wonder why at least one Viking chief doesn't remember one of the most potent tricks at their disposal.

Some fans think shield walls were phased out for practical reasons

Some fans think the shield wall diminished in importance because Vikings moved away from realistic, grimy fights, and started embracing large, fantastic battles.

"The creator of the show traded in more numerous realistic battles, for like 1 or 2 battles a season that are a big spectacle and unrealistic," Redditor u/Minder1 writes. "Go back and watch the first couple seasons and there is a battle like every episode or two, but now the whole season is just buildup to a final battle."

Others say that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, because six seasons of shield walls might get a little repetitive and larger battles (and budgets) necessitate different approaches. "With the increase in budget and bigger scaled battles, shield walls wouldn't have been that interesting," user u/Ghostface1357 argues. They also point out that the early seasons of Vikings eschewed the tactic if the battle was large enough: "Like look at [episodes] 1x7 and 2x9, both had battles but they were a bit bigger than the usual ones and they abandoned the shield wall."

It has also been pointed out that History might simply have dropped the educational aspect of the show when it took off, and focused on making it as entertaining as possible. "I think the History channel must have abandoned their requirement for educational components after the initial seasons," user u/MildlyIrritatedMax writes on the Reddit thread. "Along with shield walls in the first season, there were also monologues explaining Viking culture/tools that disappeared in later seasons as the show became pure entertainment and less infotainment."

Did real Vikings use shield walls?

Beyond all this discourse is the fact that the implementation of shield walls by real-life Vikings has been questioned. Some believe that they did use them (notably in the Battle of Hastings), while others, like archaeologist Rolf Warming, are of the opposite opinion. 

Warming, who's the director of the Society for Combat Archaeology, previously stated that "it's a widespread misunderstanding that the Vikings stood shield by shield and created a close formation in battle with their round shields" (via ScienceNordic). He conducted research into the topic, finding that historical sources reference a shield wall but don't describe the actual formation, making it difficult to understand how the tactic was implemented — if it was even at all in the way we've come to know it. Warming also carried out experiments to test the practicality of using shield walls in combat.

University of Copenhagen associate professor of archaeology Henriette Lyngstrøm agrees with Warming's conclusions that Vikings may have been more individual fighters. "The notion that Vikings fought shoulder to shoulder and waited for incoming blows seems unsound to me," she has said. "Warming's conclusions make much more sense."

However, Anne-Christine Larsen, the lead curator at the Trelleborg Viking fortress, isn't convinced that Warming is correct. She has said that perhaps full armies would use shield walls — rather than a small group of warriors — and that further research and experimentation will be required to reach a stronger conclusion.

"Warming's experiments were based on single combat, so we're still missing knowledge on how the shield wall worked on a larger scale, with an entire army," she explained. "Here at Trelleborg we try to recreate the Viking Age in the most authentic way possible. So if an experiment with an entire army shows that the shield wall didn't actually work in reality, then the warriors will definitely be open to changes."

Perhaps the reason why Vikings stopped showing off shield walls during battle scenes was out of an abundance of precaution. It remains to be seen whether they'll appear on the second half of Vikings sixth and final season.