Beware the berserker
Credit: Jonathan Hession/History
S4 E4
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How old is Ragnar Lothbrok? When we met him, he was a young man, father to fresh-faced children, dreaming wild ambitions about the life he was going to lead. Now he is older. Perhaps he is just old. “I cannot stop thinking about death,” he muses. “Death intrigues me.” He has lost a child. He has lost friends. “But my own death continues to elude me.”

Who can Ragnar speak to, now? His son Bjorn is far away, in the Interior. His first wife, Lagertha, is in Hedeby, an Earl abed with an Earl. His second wife, Aslaug, regards him as a nemesis. One of his best friends killed his other best friend. “I am constantly torn,” he says, “between killing myself or everyone around me.” His wife’s new slave, Yidu, listens to him. (She comes from far away — and hasn’t Ragnar always connected with outsiders, like Athelstan the Christian or Ecbert the intellectual?) “A king and a slave,” Ragnar says. “It is both our duties to serve others, whether we like it or not.”

In Wessex

King Aelle arrives in Wessex to share the table with his ally King Ecbert and the currently deposed Queen Kwenthrith. The problem of Mercia weighs heavy on Aelle. Shall the combined might of Northumbria and Wessex march to Mercia? And shall Kwenthrith once again be established as lord of that land? Aelle has concerns. Kwenthrith’s heir, Magnus, is the bastard son of Ragnar Lothbrok. Years have passed, but Aelle’s enmity toward the Northmen hasn’t dimmed.

They dine together, the English royals. Kings Aelle and Ecbert; Aethelwulf, Ecbert’s son; and Judith, daughter of Aelle, husband of Aethelwulf, mistress of Ecbert. Northumbria can sense the affairs all about him. Aethelwulf cozies up to Kwenthrith; Judith giggles with Ecbert. He takes his daughter aside and accuses her. “You are a bad wife and a bad mother,” he says. “The very worst example of womanhood.” But this is not the shy Judith he long ago married off. “You don’t own me, father,” says Judith. “Nor does any man own me. Though encumbered everywhere, I am free.”

In Frankia

Princess Gisla has prepared well for this divorce. The Cardinal has arrived. The papers of annulment are ready. But Rollo has a surprise for her. “I have learned your language!” he declares. “Princess Gisla, I beg you not to do this. I know my destiny is to be with you. And I swear that I, like you, am prepared to defend Paris to the death.”

A surprise: Duke Rollo actually paid attention during those language lessons! His efforts do not go unnoticed by his lady wife, who dismisses the Cardinal to enjoy the wine shops of Paris. “What is more important to you,” she asks her husband. “Our marriage, your appointment by the Emperor, or your Viking soul?” Rollo is confused; did he not slay his own warriors for the greater glory of Paris? But Gisla knows that that, too, is a very Viking thing to do. Rollo offers her his arm band. That is personal, he explains.

That, it seems, is good enough for Gisla. She arrives late to a Yuletide feast and demands that her husband follow her into the kitchen for important business. They make wild love, loud enough for everyone in attendance at the royal feast to hear them. Her father approves.


In the Interior

Bjorn prepares to return home, tattooing himself in memory for the long winter he has spent with his thoughts. He sets off wearing the pelt of the slain bear. A new threat awaits him: The berserker assassin sent by Kalf and Erlendur. The battle is brutal. The berserker slashes into Bjorn’s face and breaks Bjorn’s ax asunder.

But Bjorn gets the better of the warrior by stabbing fishhooks into his face and entrapping him wrapped around a tree. Bjorn takes a ring off the man’s finger. (We know the lord of that ring is Erlendur.) “Who sent you?” Bjorn Ironside asks his attacker. The man does not respond. Bjorn doesn’t ask a second time. He stabs the man deep in his stomach and lets his entrails fall on the ground, blood freezing as it leaves what used to be a human body.

NEXT: Ancient Chinese medicine

In Hedeby

An unexpected visitor appears in the hall of Hedeby. It is Bjorn Ironside. Lagertha hugs him — always nice for a visit! — and Kalf tries to play it cool.


Bjorn has an announcement to make. “I have come to take Torvi with me back to Kattegat,” he says. The wife of Erlendur looks on, shocked. “She’s your wife, yet you treat her like a slave,” Bjorn spits at Erlendur. Torvi is free to make up her mind, and she has: “I want to go with Bjorn.” But Erlendur refuses to release her son. It is his right, apparently — even though he holds no blood relation to the son, born of Torvi’s short marriage to Jarl Borg. But Lagertha advises her to follow her heart. “We have one life, Torvi,” says the Earl. “Go and live it.”

In Kattegat

While the followers of the Christ-God celebrate Christmas, the Vikings have their own midwinter celebrations. Ragnar tries to teach his son, Ivar, about mistletoe. (Centuries later, the Christian celebrations will fuse with the pagans’ traditions.) You can feel that Ragnar wants to be a good father to this son he tried disposing of. “You can’t make him like you,” his wife tells him, angry. “He’s not you.”

Floki the misbegotten goes to see the Seer, attempting, perhaps, to find some new clarity in a life gone cloudy. The Seer has never treated anyone the way he treats Floki. “I have waited a long time,” says the creature. “Hundreds of years, while I lay in the wet ground, waiting in the space between life and death. Show me who you are.” The Seer licks Floki’s hand, not the other way around. It seems there is much left for Floki to do: A greater destiny than he had ever conceived of.

Aslaug has seen how Ragnar looks at Yidu. She asks him: “Would you like to spend some time with her?” Ragnar would. He takes Yidu to a special place: A house on a lake. “No one else has ever been here,” says Ragnar. “It is the only place I do not feel alone.” Yidu doesn’t quite understand; she can come and go as she pleases? “Only if you desire to,” says Ragnar — reflecting the words of King Ecbert to Judith. Ragnar and Ecbert have always been mirror images of each other, so perhaps it’s fate that they both suddenly find themselves in a similar position. They seem to want — more than anything — an equal companion. (Or perhaps they just don’t want to feel so alone.)

Yidu gives Ragnar something for his pain. An ancient Chinese medicine. It sends Ragnar into some kind of emotional trip — he seems to eat a live snake, to sail inside, to dance with a skull upon his face. He dances with Yidu. While he lingers with the woman, his wife takes little Ivar to see Floki. She knows how the boat builder honors the gods—– surely, he can teach the old ways to her most beloved son?

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A new lord arrives in Kattegat. He is Harald, though his men call him King Finehair. (It’s a name for the history books; look him up, if spoilers you seek.) Harald wants to meet the famous King Ragnar, but he is nowhere to be found. Instead, he meets Aslaug and Ragnar’s family. In the middle of a wild party, he suggests they play a game. He tells Aslaug a story. “I made someone a promise,” he said. “A girl. Princess. I wanted to marry her, but she turned me down. I wasn’t important enough. She had other offers.”

Aslaug teases him: “Why didn’t you just take her?”

“I don’t know,” he smiles. “I liked her spirit. I decided I had to be worthy of her.” How could he do that? By making himself King of all Norway. “But in order to become King of all Norway,” Aslaug says, “You would have to overthrow my husband.”

“He’s dead!” Ragnar’s son declares, winning their little game. Harald smiles, perhaps not so worried about losing a child’s game when there are so many better things to win. Ragnar walks into the hall, just in time to see a man, on his throne, talking to his wife and children. Perhaps he can feel a change in the wind. He’s played his share of games, too.

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