The Immortal Viking
BBC Earth|November 2018

He butchered serpents, pillaged on an epic scale, laughed in the face of death – and, in doing so, helped forge the modern ideal of the archetypal Viking warrior. Eleanor Parker tells the story of the ultimate Norse legend: Ragnar Lothbrok.

Eleanor Parker

Consider the quintessential Norse warrior – the fearsome raider, the merciless foe, the ale-swilling pagan who laughed in the face of death – and the chances are you’re thinking about Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar’s adventures read like they’ve been plucked from a Hollywood blockbuster. The son of a king of Denmark and Sweden, he fought giant snakes, led armies into battle, conquered vast swathes of Scandinavia, and terrorised the unsuspecting people of the British Isles.

Many, if not all, of Ragnar’s adventures are mythical – the product of Norse chroniclers’ vivid imaginations. But that didn’t stop them casting a long shadow over northern Europe during the Viking age. And, courtesy of everything from epic medieval poems and death songs to the blockbuster TV series Vikings – they’ve continued to do so for more than a thousand years.

For pure drama, Ragnar’s story takes some beating. Even his three wives were extraordinary characters. One was Thora, whom Ragnar wooed by killing a ferocious serpent. Another was Lathgertha, a mighty warrior who fought alongside her husband in battle. And the other was Aslaug, daughter of Sigurd the Volsung and the shield-maiden Brynhild, themselves two of the most celebrated lovers in Norse literature.

By these wives, Ragnar had at least eight sons – Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubbe among their number. These offspring were just as warlike as Ragnar and – courtesy of their own escapades – ensured that their father’s name lived on long after he met his death.

REVENGE IN BATTLE

That death, when it came, was every bit as dramatic as the life that preceded it. While on campaign in northern England, Ragnar, we’re told, was captured by Ælla, king of Northumbria. Ælla was hellbent on putting his Viking foe to death but found that no ordinary weapons could kill him, so he had Ragnar thrown into a snake-pit. But not even this grisly fate was enough to deflate the irrepressible Ragnar. With death approaching, the Viking warrior recalled with pleasure his greatest victories and savoured the prospect of feasting in Valhalla, the great hall for slain Viking warriors. More ominously for Ælla, he vowed to exact revenge on his killer – a promise that was followed through by his sons, who duly went on to conquer Northumbria and slay Ælla in battle.

It’s an enthralling story. But what makes it more tantalising still is the prospect that it might – just might – have been inspired by the exploits of a historical figure.

Some of the men described in medieval legend as “sons of Ragnar” were certainly real people. Ivar, Ubbe and Bjorn, among others, can be identified with Viking leaders who were active in France, Ireland and England in the second half of the ninth century.

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