”Vikings” are all the rage right now. I put quotation marks around the word since the people portrayed seldom have much in common with the real norse culture. This week I’ll take a look at How To Train Your Dragon 2, a movie that definately have ”vikings”, yet the inaccuracies don’t hit you in the same painfull way as they did in Frozen (a movie taking place in ”Scandinavia”.
But first… the snark
- Here we see the vikings in their natural habitat; barren cliffs, dramatic sea and gigantic, carved wooden statues with fire in their mouths. Their main breeding stocks were sheep and dragons.
- It’s a little known fact that vikings played sheep quidditch.
- Viking girls were allowed the same freedom and were as strong as viking boys. In fact, they were the best sheep quidditch players available. This may be the background to the famous Strong Viking Woman.
- Despite their excellent ships vikings didn’t travel far before they tamed dragons.
- Viking leadership was hereditary.
- Sami people and maoris ganged up, formed a loosly held fleet an became dragon hunters.
- Ice doesn’t melt.
- Before his stint as trainer of children pickpockets in Oliver Twist, Fagin had dreadlocks and shouted at dragons.
Since HHTD2 is relatively new I stop before I give any serious spoilers. I liked the film, and I think the reason inaccuracies don’t pain you is twofold; the world is firmly established as a mishmash world with pieces picked as they pleased (19th c mechanics in peglegs and furniture? No problem!!!), and a script that have been revised thoroughly. Even if it’s not without problems you can enjoy it. However…
Point 1: When I try to place Berk in real life geography I end up on Iceland, Faroe Islands, or perhaps Scotland. That’s a rather small part of the area where vikings lived. Just as swedish romantics (at the end of 19th c) had the notion that vikings lived in large woods, most people today seems to think that the normal viking environment is a windswept island. But there were vikings at several places that were far from this. Norway, with the fiords, may still cater to the perception. Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Finland – all places were vikings lived – have nature that is far more Wind in the Willows than Götterdämmerung; foliferous trees, cuddly islands, vast fields, rolling hills, sleepy rivers and green, green grass. Somehow this is always forgotten when we need a ”viking”.
Point 2: Sheep quidditch is an excellent way to establish that this is a mishmash world far from reality. The reason I ask for this creation to take reality into the equation is that even a farout fantasy will turn problematic otherwise.
Point 3: The Strong Viking Woman – pop culture icon and beloved even by history freaks – sets off my scholar senses like few other things. She doesn’t make sense. We dearly want the viking women to be amazonians, but the cultures at that time were heavily patriarchal, and no matter how I look at the norse one I can’t find sufficient reason for it to be different. There are the icelandic sagas with the strong women, of course, but when you look under the surface not even they could act freely, and they mostly had to rely on a male intermediator to get their will. There’s something fishy in this, and I want to get to the bottom of it. (I will elaborate on this in the Blogpost That Refuse To Die, and I suspect she will get one or more posts of her own eventually.)
Point 4: Yes, the real vikings travelled far, and in HTTD1 we can see villagers of Berk using longships and travelling for days. If Berk was situated at Faroe they could’ve sailed to Scotland and back again in that time (provided the weather didn’t act up – that’s the tricky thing with sailing). In addition they could travel to Iceland, Norway, and Denmark rather easily. Throw in a few stops on the way and they could reach Spain, Morocco, Sweden (sailing in the other direction), Poland, Germany, Finland and Russia. Saying that the world gets bigger when you’re flying a dragon is… well, the world should already have been big to the villagers of Berk. The perk of dragon flight shouldn’t be reach, but time. And that Berk should be isolated is contradicted by details in both movies. After all, despite Berk being burned to the ground by dragons several times a month, they still managed to find more wood to rebuild their houses – and their own island didn’t have trees or even stubbs.
Point 5: It’s fascinating to see how hereditary leadership is a staple in fantasymovies from the US. Is it so exotic? Anyway, leadership among the norse were only halfly hereditary. The new leader was elected when the old one had died. The son of a king or chief couldn’t automatically claim the position for himself. However, the electors were a select group, and they chose from the family of the old leader. This gives anyone making ”viking” fiction an unique opportunity to pick one of three options; a ”modern” election, the original elective process and hereditary leadership. I have to admit it would be interesting to see someone pick up the first two ones for a change.
Point 7: There are impressive ice formations in this movie. Gigantic ones even, but I can’t remember seeing any flows of meltwater, despite most of them having greenery in the vicinity. True, most glaciers don’t melt during summer, but they tend to get mushy and have rivers flowing out of them. Even a newly formed icemass should drip.
Point 6 and 8: Let’s face it; the vikings of Berk are not vikings. They are operetta stereotypes formed at the end of the nineteenth century and of roughly the same age as the Pickaninny. The horns on the helmets, the double axes, the women’s braids by the ears and boobplates are imported directly from Wagner operas and music hall shows. On a consious level we’ve abandoned the Pickaninny, yet we’re happily perpetuating the same viking stereotype as the victorians (and let’s not forget how appealing it was to the nazis). One of the reasons is of course that vikings (and their heirs) are white, and padded with so much privileges that a stereotype is a mosquito bite instead of a cultural robbery.
But, appart from the lazy worlbuilding and writing (and now I’m looking at both Cressida Cowell and Dreamworks), there are problems with perpetuating this stereotype.
The biggest problem arises when you need to write The Other into the story. When I look at the baddies of this movie they are all coded in a way that uncomfortably borders racism, as if one steretype automatically awakens those we want to avoid.
Don’t read below this line if you haven’t seen the movie.
The movie have a gang of grey baddies, where one of them (Eter) eventually end up on the good side. Eter’s friends have details in their clothing that make me associate to the sami people. I’m on thin ice here since they’re not in obvious sami attire or carrying parts of it. I kept staring at the hats wondering where these non-Berkian details had been picked up, because the pattern looked familiar. (It will be interesting to find out.) Sami and innuit are two of the peoples closest at hand if you want to add people of colour to the mix, hence my ponderings. Eter, on the other hand, had tattoos on his chin picked from the maori people of New Zeeland. (Could a maori end up on the other side of the globe? Of course s/he could, but it would require one h**k of a series of amazing events. Could sami end up hunting dragons from a boat? Well, the samis have traditionally been hunters as well as reindeer keepers, but they have in general stayed on land.) The most uncomfortable with this is that the whites of the movie are on the good side and those people of colour that are fairly light skinned (samis) end up in the grey scale.
Then we have the biggest baddie of them all, the dragon king Drago. He looks like Fagin with dreadlooks, and is the person with darkest skin. You get the victorian jew, the bad arab and and the bad african roled into one. It’s as if the team has consciously tried to cram in as many negative stereotypes in one person as they could without getting caught. In addition we have a moral scale that matches the colours of the characters’ skin. I have a lot of problems with this.
When we use the viking stereotype we lessen our vigilance towards other readymade patterns, paving ways for racist clichées. Eventhough vikings are padded with privileges, and even if HTTD is set in a humoristic mishmash world, a bit of sensitivity towards reality would have payed off. It’s obvious that there have been research, but it looks like the effort to make something fun of it was lapsing somewhere along the road.