Men like to break other men to prevent themselves from being broken. If a man can buy himself the time to carry on, he may find a way to overcome his fate.
In Season 4 of History's Vikings, viewers witness the demise of the show's protagonist: Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar is a larger than life hero, who cleverly comes up with plans to overthrow his enemies. He rose from being a lowly farmer in Norway to becoming a King with triumphant victories in England and France. Success can be a measure for some men, but for others it is not their victories that they will be most remembered for.
In Vikings, Ragnar humiliates King Aelle of Northumbria (a kingdom within modern-day England) numerous times in battles and raids. Ragnar even manages to strike a deal with King Ecbert of Wessex to allow Viking farmers to form a colony. The colony doesn’t last long, being destroyed by King Ecbert, and Ragnar does not avenge it. Ragnar doesn’t even tell his people of the colony’s demise. Instead Ragnar wants to raid France and bring his people even greater riches. Ragnar is a man of tormented internal battles, that's for sure.
After successful raids in England and eventually in France, Ragnar is on top of the world. But he wants more. Some of us are driven to reach for greatness, others are in the way.
Everything comes crashing down when Ragnar is forced to leave Paris after a failed raid on the fortress city defended by his brother, Rollo. Among the Vikings, leaders need to win. A King who cannot defeat his enemies isn’t a king at all.
Ragnar imposes an exile on himself and leaves his people, and his sons, to wander the reaches of the world. In the finale of Season 4a, Ragnar returns to his home, with several years passing since the defeat at Paris.
In a climactic return, Ragnar reasserts himself by openly challenging the people of Kattegat (his sons included) to one on one combat. Ragnar has returned, but he is not the same man as when he left.
Ragnar is older, he is wiser. He has had time to think about the things he has done. He has time to think about his crisis of faith. He realizes that he must sail back to England to avenge the killing of the Viking colony. He has trouble raising an army as he is now a beggar king. His son Ivar the Boneless decides to come with him, along with a few bought warriors. After a tumultuous landing in England, Ragnar and Ivar strike out on their own as they realize that with the party they have, they will be too easily seen but not large enough to defend themselves.
Ragnar presents himself and Ivar to King Ecbert. King Ecbert is one of the few men on the show that understands Ragnar 's motives at all. Ecbert holds Ragnar in captivity and Ivar, seen as a cripple, is treated with respect and care as Ragnar’s son
The dialogue between these two men is absolutely outstanding. Both have motives within motives, a part of “a bigger, bolder strategy”. To watch the two men confront the consequences of their decisions while confiding in each other was a pure joy.
In the end Ragnar agrees to be given to King Aelle if Ivar is sent home. This is important because King Ecbert must kill Ragnar, as he is the biggest enemy of his people, but he cannot bring himself to kill his old friend.
Ragnar agrees to go to King Aelle for two main reasons. First, Ragnar knows that his sons will come back to England to avenge their father’s death. Second, Ragnar also knows that if he can go to death at the hands of King Aelle and still hold true to who he is, he will create the seed of doubt in King Aelle’s heart, as well as in all Northumbrians.
What I find most poignant about Ragnar’s commitment to his death is that he knows there is nothing more he can do in this world. He has had his victories as well as his defeats. In death, however, Ragnar can shape the future, affecting many more lives than he otherwise wouldn't be able to. We cringe at the vicious treatment of Ragnar in the hands of King Aelle. We witness the need of men to destroy their enemies. We subtly note the lack of response Ragnar gives.
Ragnar dies in a snake pit after hours of torment from his enemies. Even though Ragnar dies dropping from a cage into a pit of snakes, he dies on his terms. Few men have the bravery to face such an end. Instead of being overcome in death Ragnar’s fame grows. Ragnar was not defeated; Ragnar set the stage for one of the greatest victories ever seen.
I tip my hat to the writers of Vikings, able to write the storyline so that it not only holds true to history (in the case of Ragnar’s death at least) but also maintains the heroic figure that was Ragnar Lothbrok. In most cases death overcomes an individual. It is rare for an individual to be immortalized by his death.
Ragnar will live on through his sons. Ragnar will continue to be the main character of Vikings, even if he is not in every episode. Ragnar wasn't always certain, but he was never afraid.