We go through stories led by coincidence.


Watching the second season of The Last kingdom, I was immediately drawn to the tale of the two brothers, Erik and Siegfried (I will try not  to  reveal too much but – as my students often complain, I am terribly prone to spoiler-making). They have what Uthred, son of Uthred and protagonist of the show, lacks: passion and vitality, the desire for adventure that we believe moved the northern marauders, because simple need may start a  historical migration, but it makes for rather depressing storytelling.

As this tale of two brothers unfolded I was reminded of  Hengist and Horsa , from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I  also recalled a documentary film about African wildlife I saw once, about two brothers – two leopards, who stayed together when they left their mother, and became a formidable pair of hunters in the savannah, strong and beautiful and full of life.  It seems it is  common behaviour for sibling leopards, lions  and cheetas to band together when they grow up.

Of course leopards and lions are not part of Norse mythology, but in the Mediterranean area Northern people were noted for their fair or red long hair, so, even though  bears and wolves were the totemic animals of Germanic peoples, the connection with golden felines was made. It is worth noting that although it is sometimes said that England got its heraldic lions from the Normans, it means from the Norman kings, or rather the Plantagenets: it was Richard I who adopted them as his emblem. Heraldry  did not exist in the Dark Ages.

Which brings me back to brothers in arms. and coincidences: in the few days I watched The last kingdom, an Italian historical novel was on offer on Kindle: I due Leoni (The two lions) by Francesco Grasso, published last year. It is about Robert and Roger Hauteville, the two most famous amongst Tancred of Hauteville’s twelve sons. Like many other high-born Normans, they travelled to Italy looking for fame and fortune, fought as mercenaries and made themselves lords. What makes them special is that by becoming respectively Duke of  Calabria and Count of Sicily they laid the foundation of the Southern Italian kingdom, including Sicily, Calabria and Apulia, whose first king was Roger II, Roger’s son.

Grasso’s style is somewhat clumsy, but the book (about 250 pages) reads fast and it has some intriguing moments, especially when Roger, who is deeply Christian, is confronted by the ghosts of his mother’s gods. For the rest, the novel relies on the solid telling of the brothers’ adventures among Lombards, Arabs and Byzantines. What is not especially good is the depiction of the relationship between Robert, who is cunning and manipulative  and Roger, an honourable, direct man.   It is told rather mechanically and the conversations are not very smooth or credible. Sichelgaita (or Sighelgaita), the Lombard princess who married Robert, is an interesting character.

The novel is told in a long flash back, which is imagined as a confession; the monk who relates it opens it with two quotations: one is  from L’Ystoire de li Normants (The history of the Normans ) by Amatus of Montecassino and made it straight   to  my top favourite historical quotes:

Go and try the Normans’ madness.

The other is  fictional, and it is attributed to Robert himself:

Two lions can hunt together, but only one can lead the pride (my translation).

Zoologically that is false: just like leopards and cheetas, young male lions who have to leave their mother’s pride are known to stay together and to attempt the acquisition of a new pride. Yet authors may choose how far to go with animal analogies, or to develop a narrative pattern based on closely related  characters.

Siegfried and Erik are similar – brave, battle-loving, good at planning as well as fighting, as intelligent and curious as anyone whose god is Odin should be. They are also shown to be close, caring for one another. Friends as well as brothers, unlike another pair of brothers:

Vikings season 1 opening scene (this clip, and the following, belong to history Channel)

In Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother Rollo appear to be a case of narrative complementary opposites, which ensure progression to their story. What they have in common as characters is that they are far more complex than the average hero, especially in a tv series.

From the first episode of season 1, the relationship between Ragnar and  Rollo looked complicated: we learnt that Ragnar loved his brother, but we saw the latter wooing Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha.  Ragnar appeared as the family man, whose aim, in raiding, was to support his community, while Rollo was portrayed as the warrior to whom there is no other path in life but fighting. We witnessed tense moments, but also Rollo’s courage and loyalty to Ragnar when he refused to betray him to earl Haraldson, yet Season 1 did end with his betrayal (in favour of a foreign earl, Jarl Borg): Rollo embodies perfectly the strain between opposing values, honour and valour on one hand, and the desire to gain fame and prestige on the other, which is the motor of many stories set in this world. Yet as the series went on, things went from complicated to complex and the two brothers started evolving. Ragnar betrayed his wife, became king and grew into an ever intriguing but much less likeable  figure, while Rollo, who had to go through a path of fall and redemption, gave us glimpses of inner turmoil which culminated in a memorable meeting with the village seer.

The scene was depicted as a kind of  psychoanalitic session, and worked wonderfully. It was the end of season 3. After that, Rollo had hope to counter his inner darkness and his guilt, while Ragnar became more and more obsessive; Rollo became the builder of new things, the finder of new paths; Ragnar chose self- destruction.

Harald Fine-hair and Halfdan the Black (who, like Ragnar Lothbrok and Rollo,  were not historically  brothers) are closer to Erik and Siegfried in their relationship: they cover each other’s back and co-operate in their attempt to gain power at the expense of Ragnar’s clan. At the end of Season 4 (part two) Halfdan announces he intends to follow Bjorn in his explorations, but it is reasonable to think his  intentions are not very friendly.

Which takes me to my last point: although what Michael Hirsh did was simply to give Ragnar the five sons that the sources list, I think five are too many and make the narrative less compact than it used to be. There are moments when the need to make each brother undergo a certain experience makes for a certain repetitiveness.

We will see what the future brings: it is a world in which getting rid of characters is quite easy, after all, and -well, I did say I am prone to making spoilers …- the end of Season four seems to show that the fact that four sons of Ragnar are too many  has occurred to the authors.