'Vikings' get an epic 9-part History Channel makeover

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Vikings have gotten a bad rap.

So says Michael Hirst, creator and writer of History's epic nine-part series "Vikings," premiering Sunday, March 3. The show explores the complex society of the Norseman as it was near the end of the eighth century. Yes, the Vikings were often large, hulking figures who specialized in violent conquests of neighboring lands while taking pillaging and plundering to new heights. But they were merely surviving in a violent world, and their story hasn't fully been told, Hirst says, because the Vikings themselves never told it.

"We've always represented the Vikings as the other, because their history was written by Christian monks, who wrote propaganda about the Vikings -- how violent they were, how terrifying, how awful their gods were," Hirst tells Zap2it, who has shown his yen for history with "Elizabeth" and "The Tudors." "We've taken on board that propaganda, because it's never really been challenged. What interested me was to go into the Viking world picture, into their gods, into their religion, their rituals. As the season goes on, you understand where the gods came from, you understand the attraction of the pagan worldview and the pagan gods. It's interesting for, let's say, a North American, largely Christian audience for the first time to be presented the pagan worldview that they overthrew, that they replaced, and what it meant. Intellectually and emotionally, it's an interesting ride."

It's a ride the audience takes largely through the exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok, a historical figure who nonetheless has taken on mythical status as centuries have passed. Sure, Ragnar ( Travis Fimmel) could sack a village or monastery with the best of them, but he also had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Believing he was descended from the Viking god Odin, Ragnar defied the conservative, self-serving policies of his local ruler, Earl Haraldson ( Gabriel Byrne), by sailing west to new lands, using new navigation techniques.

The earl, though, does not take such insubordination lightly, and along with his ambitious wife, Siggy ( Jessalyn Gilsig, "Glee"), schemes to make an example of Ragnar for anyone who would challenge his authority.

In this truly international production -- which was shot in Ireland and Norway with actors representing the U.S., Canada, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Sweden (among others) -- it is an Australian who leads the way. Fimmel supplies Ragnar with a menacing swagger that has him wearing a devilish grin whether he's sailing to new worlds or swinging a sword. He is able to recruit so many to join his dangerous pursuits because of his undeniable charisma.

Fimmel -- whom Hirst describes as "compulsively watchable" -- shares this trait even during this brief interview, coming across as an engaging sort, happily talking about his experience with Vikings and casually providing massive spoilers (which won't be revealed here). Like Ragnar, he is a farmer with larger goals in life. Fimmel was able to go beyond the hairstyles, the armor and massive amount of staged violence to find the real character within.

"Everybody relates to a person being human, while a lot of people don't relate to all the sword fighting and ax fighting," Fimmel says. "You just play it like a normal human being with feelings, who loves his family and wants to do well in his life. Ragnar was a pretty ambitious guy, more ambitious than the typical Viking, and he's pretty prepared to sacrifice everything to get notoriety and just for the exploration of it all and the experience. Just to be a different man."

In addition to all the intellectual curiosity on display, Norse society also was far more progressive and democratic than many might think. Women, for instance, could not only fight alongside the men, but they could also own land and divorce their husbands. Ragnar's wife, Lagertha ( Katheryn Winnick), is a fine example of this -- a ferocious shield maiden who is just as dangerous as any man. And while Siggy may play a more traditional role in helping carry out her husband's plots, she is one of the more powerful and determined characters in the story.

Gilsig says she and Byrne saw their characters in the mold of other historical rulers whose positions of power seemed as natural as breathing air.

"How do you understand the Ceaucescus or these dictators who feel not only entitled but actually can't understand why their people don't love them anymore?" she says. "You think of Imelda Marcos, and she's like, 'Why don't you love me? I'm your mother.' They consider themselves something on the level of gods. Every time the earl executes someone, it feels like it's our only choice, and surely if people could only understand what it's like to sit in our position, they would know that this is just part of what we have to do in order to maintain the society as we see it. That's a real justification that's airtight for us, but is horrific from the outside."
Photo/Video credit: History Channel