We gave it an A-
The Great Army assembles in Kattegat, kings and earls and heroes and monsters. A great sacrifice must be made, says Lagertha, the heroic Queen. “If the army fails,” she says, “if they are defeated by the Saxons, our peoples might never recover.” The gods call for a special sacrifice at times like this. The question is not what, but who?
All must sacrifice in times like this. The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok must sacrifice their pride, perhaps, or perhaps much more. Ivar Boneless must sacrifice his ambition, for the moment. Some of his brothers think the army doesn’t need a leader at all. They are willing, for the moment, to let Bjorn Ironside lead them, for Bjorn has the experience: He sailed with his father to the walls of Paris and sailed beyond his father’s wildest imagination to the Mediterranean. “What battles have you won?” Bjorn asks his brother, Ivar. “What battles have you lost?” Ivar doesn’t answer him; it is the future, not the past, that interests the youngest son of Ragnar.
They’re a curious lot, these sons of Ragnar: Selfish and self-regarding, noble and proud. Ivar jealously covets greatness, but Ubbe and Hvitserk believe in sharing. Ubbe marries Margrethe, the former slave. But he knows his younger brother covets Margrethe — loves her, even. “I don’t think it’s fair that I should keep Margrethe to myself,” says Ubbe.
“How can you not be jealous?” his bride asks. She loves them, both of them, of course, but there is still much she doesn’t understand about these strange men. “We are Vikings,” Ubbe says, as if that explains everything. They spend the wedding night together in bed, all three of them.
What tangled lives they lead, the great and tragic Lothbroks! Queen Lagertha takes on her ceremonial duty, sacrificing an Earl for the army’s cause. The Earl is not afraid. Tonight, he dines with the gods; he shall meet Odin, and perhaps he shall meet Ragnar Lothbrok. He is a believer, and when Lagertha stabs him with her sword, he pulls her in closer. Lagertha’s lover, Astrid, is not watching by then; she is pulling Bjorn Ironside closer, another tangled affair for a family not one generation removed from its little farm. The gods greet the sacrifice with shooting stars overhead, a good omen if you believe in such things.
Love, or something like it, is all around in Kattegat these days. King Harald sees a specter of his past and a vision of his glorious future: A princess he once knew, who would not take his hand in marriage. He has worked his whole life since to deserve her; he still seeks to be King of all Norway. Yet she is already married to an Earl in Denmark. “I was a King,” Harald tells her, “And I was not good enough for you. In the meantime, you marry a nobody?”
It’s a side of Harald we have not seen before. For years now, Harald has seemed like a new sort of Viking, or an older sort given new license in these days of high adventure. A man like Ragnar or a woman like Lagertha seeks power for complex reasons — for protection of the family, for the advancement of society, for curiosity. Harald has always sought power, with great violence and little curiosity about the cultures he plunders.
Yet Harald is only human, after all. “I have built my entire life around you,” he says, madly, half-considering killing his old love. He does not kill her; perhaps, in his strange heart, he still believes she will choose him, if only he conquers more, if only his power increases.
NEXT: Tangled webs woven in Wessex