After watching the first season of Vikings, I am intrigued by its hero Ragnar Lothbrok. Historians cannot agree whether Ragnar belongs to their discipline or to legend. Perhaps what is said about him is pieced together from stories about several different Viking chiefs. It does not matter. Ragnar is an archetype. He captures the essence and the variance of masculinity. That’s why, I think, he has put us under his spell. Ragnar has it all and represents it all. He does not live in paradise; he lives in a world of struggle. He battles the North Sea, but his greatest challenges lie in his social relationships.
Chief Haraldson (Mr. Byrne came out of treatment to play him) is a father figure and probably a former mentor. He sees in Ragnar his own ambitions as a young man. He therefore fears and seeks to destroy him, only to use the occasion to orchestrate his own warrior’s death. It’s a Laios-letting-himself-be-killed-by-Oedipus moment.
Wife Lagertha is tough, beautiful, and jealous. She is Ragnar’s equal. They enhance each other. She is willing to share Ragnar with another man (for a night) but not with another woman. She moves out when another woman (Aslaug, who looks like a derpersonalized Versace model) bearing Ragnar’s child moves in. Ragnar accepts her departure and his elder son’s decision to follow her.
Brother Rollo fights alongside Ragnar, while looking for a chance to distinguish himself and become a famous warrior. Rollo’s conflict is between loyalty and fame, and Ragnar knows it. Ragnar understands that trust is transient, that it comes down to an element of politics. This knowledge puts him ahead of the horde, and many of us in the viewing public.
Brother (in God) Athelstan, captured during the historic raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne and kept alive by Ragnar, is Ragnar’s alter ego. Athelstan sees Viking society from an outside, Christian perspective. Athelstan is the one that Ragnar’s gaze mocks when he refuses to share his and Lagertha’s bed. Although Athelstan is there to put the Christian and the Viking worlds in sharp relief, his story lies in how the contours blur. It is not a story of conversion to paganism, but the realization that the specific theological constructs are not important. Ragnar and the Norsemen, as well as Athelstan and the Saxons, seek divine assistance when in need, though usually in vain. God or gods is the wrong question. Life plays out in the attachments, betrayals, and hopeful new beginnings on Mother Earth.
A man of essence and variance, Ragnar is all too human. He is not to be stereotyped as a battle-axe swinging brute. When he returns from a raid and learns that his daughter died from a plague, he grieves alone and finds tender words of remembrance. When his unborn son dies, he asks why the gods let him overthrow Haraldson to become chief. The gods give with one hand and take with the other. Ragnar learns that this is life.
Watching Ragnar satisfies basic needs. He shows us that facing existence demands struggle at all fronts. He is not a uni-dimensional man. He is not just a captain who figures out how to cross the North Sea and plunder a defenseless monastery. That would be a cliché. Ragnar the archetype invites us to look for the analogues of his challenges, conflicts, and triumphs in our own lives, in our own Dasein. If you don’t find any, you haven’t lived - yet.
Ragnar the Hyperborean is not a good man from the conventional moralist point of view. He is a complete man of the heroic - Nietzschean - type, cut from the cloth of Achilles, Viriato, Kind David, and Caesar Augustus. We must ask how we can follow their path within the context of our own age and within the constraints of our own lives. The alternative is to sit and meditate and be nice. Let us follow Ragnar and not the typical Hollywood hero, who is morose, wifeless, childless, and brotherless. Hollywoodman – from Wayne to Willis – is a truncated man, a caricature. Ragnar is for real.
A note on patricide. If the killing of chief Haraldson was a sort of patricide, there is plenty of precedent in myth (besides Oedipus). Perseus killed his (grand)father Acriseos and Theseus was, arguably, responsible for the death of his father Aegios. It is interesting that in all these cases, the fact of patricide is not confronted directly. Instead, the relationship is veiled so that the killer is shielded from the full psychological impact. Oedipus did not know that Laios was his father; Perseus killed Acriseus when throwing a discus, making his death appear like an accident. Theseus failed to hoist the white sail when returning victorious from Crete, causing Aegios to leap to his death in despair. Freud saw the fulfillment of an unconscious wish in these episodes. It makes little sense, though, to speculate about the unconscious motives of fictional characters. Instead, it seems plausible to think that the theme of patricide in these stories touches something in the minds of the audience. The audience may be dimly aware that the struggle between generations has violent potential, that the idea of gentle succession is the real myth.
Ragnar Reduced (added a couple of weeks later)
After watching the second season of ‘Vikings’, my admiration for the full-blooded humanity of the protagonist has abated. Ragnar has become a ruthless career man, whose humanity is no longer multifaceted, heroic, tragic, or Nietzschean. This is a shame, but perhaps hard to avoid when a story must be kept going. Gradually characters become caricatures of themselves, as their most prominent characteristics are emphasized while others are neglected. If this is, as I suspect, a general phenomenon, one may want to become a viewer of first seasons.
Concept of the day: Repoussoir
A repoussoir is a figure or an object in the extreme foreground of a painting. It serves as a contrast to the main scene and contributes to the perception of depth. The word stems from the French verb repousser, to push back. Jan Vermeer used a curtain as a repoussoir in his masterly Art of Painting. From behind the curtain, we the audience peer deep into the artist’s
studio. Replicating the sublime with the mundane, I took a photo of the Reichstag and the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, placing them respectively behind a tree and a group of tourists. The repoussoir frames our perception. As such, it is a genuine psychological device. I suspect that the concept can be applied to other mediums, such as texts, as well.
Meanwhile, back in waste management
Having commented on bathroom design, I now offer [a] the long-row approach to leaking and [b] the blue-room feel for excreting. Both observed, if memory serves, in the Kunsthalle in Graz, Austria, a well-designed building mind you.