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Vikings creator on why he chose Ragnar as his focus - Exclusive

The end of History's original series Vikings is as good a time as any to look back at where this began: Ragnar Lothbrok. He was the start of the saga, and his descendants continued his story after his execution in season 4. Looper spoke with showrunner Michael Hirst about how he landed on starting the story with Ragnar, what he represents for the Vikings in general, and the show's historical accuracy.

Hirst teamed up with a historical researcher and went looking for a lead character. They considered some more famous names — specifically Erik the Red and Harald Fairhair — before the researcher raised the possibility of Ragnar. They quickly recognized that he'd be a perfect lead character, with Hirst telling us that Rangar was "the first great Viking leader to emerge from the myth and legend, and that was perfect in many ways because it was the beginning of the Viking age." It was the start of exploration outside of Scandinavia and construction of new boats that traversed great distances. Where better to begin a story than the beginning? As Hirst says, "This was the perfect launchpad for the career of the Vikings as explorers and raiders."

Hirst also saw Ragnar's family as a plus, both for storytelling potential and for personal satisfaction. "Here was this mythic figure who also had at least five sons, who did amazing things," he explains. "One of the sons, of course, is called Ivar the Boneless. Who doesn't want to write a drama about Ivar the Boneless? It was a kind of no-brainer."

Historical accuracy

The historical accuracy of Vikings is a source of much discussion among fans. Hirst says that as a writer, "You have to give dramatic shape to stories, even if those stories are very close to the historical record." But he adds that "it was called the dark ages for a very good reason. A lot of things were not written down at the time... the Vikings were not literate anyway." 

As he explains, there's not much in the way of contemporaneous primary sources, at least from the Vikings themselves. "Most of what we know about them comes from their enemies, so the battles between Vikings and Saxons or Vikings and Franks, we would have the record of that from the Frankish point of view or the English point of view."

Hirst in particular acknowledges that "it's not entirely clear that [Ragnar] was historical... but the likelihood is, he was real. He does have his own saga, after all." While almost all of Ragnar's adventures are apocryphal at best, there's evidence that he existed via records of his family. "We know that Ragnar married a shield-maiden called Lagertha. We know he had all these sons, because his sons are historically recorded and reported."

While Hirst openly admits that the show shaped its storylines for maximum drama, everything is either based on historical record or could have plausibly happened. This leads to something he spoke of with particular pride: "A group of academics, serious academics, some of them Scandinavian, some of them from Cambridge University, have written a book comparing the show and the scenes and storylines in the show to what they know to be the facts, and they are extremely complimentary about the show, and reckon that it's just about as authentic as you could be, given the circumstances."

Vikings season 6B is now streaming on Amazon Prime.