By: Jarod Grice
The hit TV series by Michael Hirst, Vikings, has taken its viewership by storm. Premiering in 2013, the historical drama is based on the life of the Viking Ragnar Lothbrok and his journey from a humble farmer to a ruthless Scandinavian King.
The series is loosely based on the real Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the best-known heroes of Norse legend, and his invasions in England and France in the 8th and 9th centuries. Throughout the series, Ragnar’s rise to prominence comes through brute overpowering of his enemies, ceaseless ambition, and the support of his family and confidants including his close friend Floki and his friendship with the English monk, Athelstan. As the story unfolds, the polarizing nature of grace teases its way to the surface.
An Unlikely Friend:
In the first season of Vikings, we are introduced to the character Athelstan. Athelstan is an English monk who has been captured by the Vikings and made a slave to Ragnar’s household. As Athelstan cares for Ragnar’s household, we begin to witness a deep sense of trust and loyalty develop between Athelstan and Ragnar.Though he deeply struggles with his own Christian faith, he shows consistent grace and kindness toward Ragnar and his captors. The beauty of a character like Athelstan is that he stands in stark opposition to his Christian counterparts. While the majority of the English are greedy, manipulative, and morally bereft, Athelstan reflects a Christ-like sense of patience, care, and a forgiving spirit toward his enemies. This contrast clues us into how uncommon extravagant grace is. When uncommon kindness is central to any character’s persona, it pricks at our curiosity and leaves us wondering how someone can have such cause for retribution yet exercise such forgiveness. Vikings, more than weaving a coherent picture of good vs. evil or victory over one’s enemies, untangles common preconceptions about what loving our enemies really looks like.
An Unwelcomed Enemy:
Though Athelstan is deeply loved by Ragnar, his kindness isn’t received in the same way by the rest of the community. One of Ragnar’s most loyal companions, Floki, responds to Athelstan with bitterness, skepticism, and hatred. Floki’s obsessive commitment to the gods turns him blood-thirsty and determined to destroy Athelstan. Clearly, Hirst’s depiction of Viking barbarism is unsettling at best. However, what this series depicts so well is the incivility and inhumane practices of both the Vikings and the English. Both are willing to destroy their family and friends for power and prestige. Both are willing to abandon their belief for gain. There is an equalizing nature to the series; neither party walks away without blood on their hands.
The Double Nature of Grace
The character of Athelstan clues us into the myriad effects grace can have on individuals. For Ragnar, Athelstan’s grace softened his heart. Ragnar asks Athelstan deep questions of faith, challenges his own devotion to pagan orthodoxy, and even learns the Lord’s prayer. What we see in Ragnar’s friendship with Athelstan is the effect grace can have on a willing and responsive heart. In a particularly gripping scene following the murder of Athelstan by Floki, Ragnar carries the body of Athelstan for many miles up a steep mountain to bury him. Ragnar insists that Athelstan have a Christian burial and constructs a cross as a grave marker. Ragnar stays with Athelstan for nearly a day and often holds back weeping as he mourns the death of his close friend. Athelstan’s grace cultivated true friendship between a Christian and a pagan.
However, what Vikings shows us is that grace also has the capability to harden hearts. In the same manner that Pharaoh was shown grace by the Lord during the Exodus and “his heart was hardened”, Floki’s heart toward the monk becomes calloused. To be sure, Athelstan showed kindness, grace, and friendship to Floki as well as the other Vikings. Alas, Floki’s heart was determined to resist the kind of grace that ran headlong against his own obsession and pride.
In our own lives, grace can have this double effect. In some cases, grace softens our hearts because it reminds us how undeserving we are to receive it. Being shown forgiveness when we have perpetrated wrong can have a disarming effect on us. It knocks down our defenses and gives us the ability to trust again. In other cases, grace hardens our hearts because it exposes our own sin. Unfortunately, when sin is exposed we often cover it up, defend it, or minimize it because we don’t want to confront it. We see in the ministry of Christ this same double nature of grace. Many resisted the program of God’s kingdom and the authority of Jesus and many like the poor, outcast, and spiritually needy, received God’s grace with open arms. What we see in a show like Viking’s is that the only prerequisite to truly being changed by grace is to recognize our need of it.