Carrying on from the previous post, below is a detailed, episode-by-episode rundown (with pictures!) of Ragnar and Athelstan’s relationship.
I present this not as a “This is why my slash ship is canon” manifesto, but instead as an illustration of the relationship itself, so folks can understand why I’m so giddy about it. Regardless of whether one sees or even imagines a sexual aspect to the relationship, it is still one of the greatest m/m love stories in current popular media, on the same level as some of the all-time great homoromantic (if not homoerotic) relationships such as LOTR’s Frodo and Sam. And it does all this without ever once apologizing, downplaying, laughing it off, or trying to macho things up to avoid anyone getting uncomfortable with it. This is not a “bromance,” with muscle-bound Ken dolls giving each other fist bumps and Man Smacks and then going home to their hot, completely underwritten female love interests. It’s just plain love, plainly portrayed as if it’s the most normal, natural thing, smack in the middle of a traditional blood-and-glory testosterone fest. That some people (including me) also see a sexual element to the relationship is actually irrelevant; The love is the same either way.
Of course, other shows in this genre have had canon m/m romantic and sexual relationships (Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Da Vinci’s Demons), and I’m thrilled to see that kind of representation. Yet such portrayals don’t really have the sheer subversive power that this one does: The macho male lead is utterly besotted with a decidedly not-macho young man, and their relationship forms one of the biggest plot arcs in the series. Renly and Loras, however nice it was to see them on screen, couldn’t do what this is doing to help change paradigms of how men are supposed to feel about each other. Straight guys can wave them off; they don’t look up to them as role models. Ragnar, though? He’s a hero. He’s an audience avatar. And he openly adores another man. That? Is subversive. Yay!
If you’d like to see some of this subversion in detail, read on! (Please be aware that there will be spoilers below for both already-aired seasons, and some spoiler-heavy speculation about season three. Click the cut at your own risk!)
To begin, a little background for those unfamiliar with the show, which airs in the U.S. on the History channel, and is its first foray into a scripted series:
Our protagonist is Ragnar Lothbrok, a semi-legendary figure of Norse folklore whose various stories have been thrown into a blender and made approachable for TV. Ragnar is a rather different sort of Viking as the show tells it: He is a warrior, and raids as do the rest of his fellows, but he seeks more. He is at heart an explorer and a seeker of knowledge, and someone who, as a farmer during the off-season, wants to know if there are places in which survival isn’t so difficult as it is in the harsh landscapes of Scandinavia.
Ragnar is married to Lagertha, herself a legendary figure and a shieldmaiden warrior of some renown. They have two adolescent children: Bjørn and Gyda. Other prominent characters include Ragnar’s brother Rollo, with whom he has some amount of conflict, and his shipbuilder friend Floki, who is a bit of an odd duck, to say the least. We later also meet Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug, his King Horik and a few other significant characters, whose roles I’ll get to as the discussion goes along.
Season One: Boy Meets Boy
In the second episode of season one, Ragnar ventures forth on his first major quest. Sailing a new kind of ship made by Floki, and defying the orders of his earl, he heads west, seeking lands that direction that are only rumored to exist. After a rough journey, he and his crew make landfall, to their great delight, at an island off the coast of Northumbria, England, called Lindisfarne. This island is home only to a monastery, one famous for its illuminated Scriptures. The Northmen, armed and brutal as they are, shortly lay waste to the utterly unprepared monks, and ready themselves to head home with a load of treasure. However, Ragnar has also discovered something more interesting than mere gold: One monk, named Athelstan, can speak his language, and has chosen to risk his life to save just one thing: a copy of the Gospel of St. John.
Fascinated, Ragnar, against the wishes of his brother, takes the monk back with him to their home village of Kattegat. The earl, angry at being defied, claims the raid’s treasure for himself, but allows the raiders each to choose one item to take as reward. To the bewildered giggles of the assembled crowd, Ragnar chooses his monk, and takes him home as a personal slave (though rather more like a new family pet.)
This is where things get interesting.
First off, there’s something unusual just in the way these two meet and get together. Most people are aware of the common trope of the hero getting rewarded a pretty, young girl for completing a quest. No matter the hero’s age, a young woman is almost always part of what he wins for his effort. Here, Ragnar already has a woman at home. What he gets instead for his quest completion, and what he chooses over treasure, is a young man–and an attractive, if strange, one at that.
The young monk’s attractiveness doesn’t go unnoticed. The first night that Athelstan spends in his new home, he is invited back to Ragnar and Lagertha’s bed. He declines, citing his vows of celibacy, and this is accepted with grace, if also some disappointment and confusion. In the scene, it’s textually ambiguous as to whether Athelstan would have had sex only with Lagertha, but non-verbally, it’s pretty clear that everyone involved wants everyone else. Athelstan, for instance, is definitely aroused: He spies on the pair as they’re making love before the proposition, and never says he doesn’t want to join them; only that he can’t. Subsequent interviews with the cast, particularly Fimmel, have confirmed that the scene wasn’t just about Lagertha propositioning Athelstan. Ragnar wants the threesome just as much as she does, and Athelstan is just as fascinated/shocked by the both of them, not just the presence of a half-naked woman when he’s never touched one before.
So, right away, as of episode three, we have something drastically unusual for most m/m pairs that get shipped by fans: An actual expression of sexual interest and a proposition, even if the sex proposed has a woman involved. Although the interest is never acted on, this scene establishes a level of sexual tension between them that continues throughout season one, and intensifies in season two.
It is, however, secondary to the emotional bond they develop, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on in the rest of this.
I should back up here for a moment to acknowledge something that many find problematic about this relationship (and the fact that so many of us love it): It is of course absolutely true that there is a significant power imbalance between them. Athelstan is actually owned by Ragnar, and theoretically runs a risk of retaliation if he declines his master’s wishes, even if Ragnar never raises a hand to him. As most of us here in the 21st century understand it, it’s impossible for someone in such a position to actually grant informed consent. It can therefore be argued that Athelstan’s affection for Ragnar is only Stockholm Syndrome (though Ragnar has his own case of Lima Syndrome.)
While acknowledging the modern lens through which we view this relationship, and acknowledging that it is problematic, I personally don’t think it’s nearly as problematic as some have argued. I don’t want to derail the rest of the post too much to explain why, but suffice it to say this: Not only does Ragnar give Athelstan practical, if not legal, freedom almost immediately, and never mistreats him beyond the initial abduction, but it’s clear Athelstan knows that he was just as enslaved when he was at the monastery (to which he had been given as a child.) In the cultural and narrative context of the show, if not the cultural context in which the audience exists, the power imbalance here is actually on par with the inherent imbalances in ANY male/female relationship set in a culture and/or era in which women have few legal rights and are literally owned by their husbands (hello, Game of Thrones’ Dany/Drogo.) If there’s little to nothing wrong with the ubiquitous m/f medieval fantasy romances that litter the pop-culture landscape, then there’s little to nothing wrong with this one, either. In other words: This relationship is not inherently more abusive just because the person with less power is male instead of the usual female. We can acknowledge its problematic aspects while still enjoying its significant positive ones.
All throughout season one, Ragnar and Athelstan develop an incredibly close and symbiotic relationship, beginning just a few days after their arrival at Kattegat.
Ragnar has capitalized on his slave’s knowledge, gaining useful information with which to argue his case to the earl for further raids west. Athelstan, despairing at how he has unwittingly helped with another attack his homeland, passively resists. He drops to his knees and expects Ragnar to kill him, as other Northmen have killed the monks captured with him. Instead of doing so, however, Ragnar essentially sets him free, cutting the rope around his neck and taking some of the baggage Athelstan has been carrying. Surprised at his life being spared yet again, Athelstan gets to his feet and follows Ragnar back home.
Over the next few episodes, they grow closer. Ragnar entrusts Athelstan with the care of his children while he and Lagertha are out raiding together. (He tells his indignant son, “I don’t regard him as a slave. He is a responsible person.”) Athelstan asks for his legal freedom, but acknowledges that he’s not treated like a slave, and that he has no desire to escape. In the same episode, Athelstan saves Ragnar’s life when he and his village are attacked by the earl, and begs his own god to quickly heal his master’s wounds.
As Ragnar is healing, at the cabin of his friend Floki, Athelstan occasionally talks religion with the others. Most of them laugh at his ignorance of their beliefs, and at the Scriptural platitudes Athelstan occasionally says. Ragnar, however, is kind about this, smiling at Athelstan and noting that the Christian god sounds like one of theirs. Again, Athelstan is grateful for the understanding.
Over the couple of years that next few episodes span, Athelstan is given increasing importance. He becomes basically a third parent to Ragnar’s children, and gains status in the community, swapping the clothes that mark him as a thrall, and taking up a steward-like position when Ragnar becomes earl. He even attends sessions of court, holding a position of importance near, if not on, the dais with the rest of the family. His technical legal status may still be as a slave, but for all practical–and personal–purposes, he definitely isn’t treated as one. Ragnar relies on him for companionship, emotional comfort, and even advice.
Things derail somewhat in episode eight. Ragnar and Lagertha, in their grief over a miscarriage, try to offer Athelstan as a sacrifice in a religious ritual. Yet even that episode has evidence that there is an unusual bond. First, Ragnar never tells Athelstan of their plans, despite knowing very well that Athelstan won’t agree to be sacrificed, and still, despite professing otherwise, believes in the Christian god (thus making him unsuitable.) Second, Ragnar leaves Lagertha alone with the children the night before the ritual to shadow Athelstan as he partakes of the revels of the festival. Third, as Athelstan is hallucinating (yay, mushrooms!) about an orgy he witnessed, he also recalls seeing Ragnar. Most telling of all, however, is the body language when Ragnar explains to Athelstan what the pens of animals are for (while still not revealing that Athelstan is intended to go with them.) The grief written on his face–the dread of losing this man he loves so much, even for a good cause–is heartbreaking.
As one might expect, things go from bad to worse, generally speaking, in the last bits of season one and early season two. Their relationship takes a back seat to other dramas: A plague sweeps through the town, taking Ragnar and Lagertha’s daughter (much to Athelstan’s grief as well); Ragnar’s rift with his brother grows into violent proportions; and in a particularly stupid move, he has an affair while off doing a political-negotiation run for the king. In the season-two opener, Ragnar’s one-night stand shows up in Kattegat pregnant, and all hell breaks loose. Lagertha leaves him, taking Bjørn with her, and suddenly Ragnar has nothing left of his family but a woman he barely knows . . . and Athelstan.
Season Two: Star-Crossed Lovers
The next episode opens four years later, and my, have things changed! Ragnar has two new sons, courtesy of Aslaug, and she’s pregnant again. Athelstan and Ragnar are clearly back on incredibly good terms, and the formerly timid monk has now become a proper Northman–full beard, combat skills and all.
So much has he adapted that Ragnar invites him to go back to England for their first raid in four years, and England is where their relationship takes a sharp turn: In a scene laden with emotional depth, Ragnar, pleased with Athelstan’s bravery in battle, presents him with an arm ring, thereby officially welcoming him into Norse society as a free man.
This act is what sparks one of the biggest plot arcs in the entirety of season two. A series of events conspires to separate them: Ragnar has to return to Kattegat while Athelstan chooses, much to Ragnar’s dismay, to stay behind for practical reasons. Their parting scene is downright painful, with Athelstan standing alone on the shore, eyes locked with Ragnar as the boat sails away.
Staying behind doesn’t go well for Athelstan: He is captured by the Saxons and crucified as an apostate, saved only at the last moment by Ecbert, the King of Wessex. (There’s a very interesting side-plot of Athelstan’s relationship with this king, but it’s not necessary to go into here. Suffice it to say that while it has many of the same elements as Athelstan’s relationship with Ragnar, it’s a very clear contrast to exactly how lovingly and respectfully Ragnar has treated him over the years–and that contrast becomes an important element later.)
The crucifixion scene, in addition to being brutal, also gives us a very fascinating bit of visual subtext: Though stripped of everything but undergarments, Athelstan nonetheless still bears his arm ring. As he is being nailed to the cross, we get a shot of him staring at it, as if begging the man who gave it to him to come to his rescue.
Being separated isn’t easy on either of them. Athelstan endures some rather awful PTSD and hallucinations, plus some painful crises of faith. Ragnar is told that Athelstan probably perished, but refuses to believe it. He is told by King Horik, who had also remained behind, that Athelstan betrayed them, causing the Saxons to attack their camp. Ragnar’s closeness with Athelstan, which Christian-hating Horik doesn’t know about, helps him understand that the king is lying and is thus the threat he has long suspected.
Though delighted to be back in contact with Lagertha and now-grown Bjørn, who had come to Kattegat’s rescue after an invasion and occupation, Ragnar still is unhappy. Plagued by dreams of Athelstan, Ragnar eventually asks the Seer, the village’s prophet, whether Athelstan is alive–and is told he is. With that hope in his heart, Ragnar sails back to England, where he discovers for certain that Athelstan definitely is alive, and is being housed by King Ecbert. He learns this via the king’s son delivering a special token: The arm ring. Ragnar snatches it up out of the poor man’s hand, squirms like a caffeinated toddler, and promptly puts it on, where it stays for the next two days, even through a massive, bloody battle which nearly kills his brother.
When Athelstan is finally sent to the Viking camp to negotiate with them, he’s met by most with suspicion and mockery, due to his once again being in Christian religious garb. Only Ragnar, Lagertha, and Bjørn understand and accept who he really is.
As Athelstan leaves the camp to deliver their message back to the king, Ragnar joins him. Part of this is to protect him: Horik’s forces already sparked chaos by attacking a previous envoy, and an archer lies in wait. Our pair have an absolutely delightful and intimate conversation on this little walk.
Once they are out of sight and danger, though, Ragnar then stops, and, taking Athelstan’s hand, puts the arm ring back on his wrist, letting the touch linger, and taking note of the telltale scars on his friend’s hand. They part with tender words and looks, and once Athelstan is out of sight, Ragnar sighs heavily.
After a successful negotiation session with Ecbert, Ragnar and co. prepare to return home to Kattegat. Just before Athelstan leaves the camp, Ragnar leaves his critically wounded brother’s side and comes up to him. Looking up, as Athelstan is on a horse, this strong, powerful Viking asks his friend to come back home with him; begs him, actually, while clutching at his thigh, in front of the entire camp. For such a man–an earl, even–to “debase” himself by such shameless begging of this gentle, unmanly Christian and former slave, is massive. Ragnar does not humble himself lightly, and certainly doesn’t do it in public. That he does so here speaks volumes.
This is a scene reminiscent of a thousand other romantic scenes that have come before it. It’s a classic “don’t go/please stay/I can’t live without you” scenario. As with most others of its kind, the begging pays off: At the end of the episode, Athelstan steps off the ship in Kattegat, back again in full Viking kit–including a shirt that once belonged to Ragnar (!)
As Aslaug greets him in the great hall (Ragnar having gone off to attend his brother), she asks why he has returned. He tells her, “I came back because you, Ragnar . . . all of you are my family.” Ah!
But wait, there’s more!
The season finale episode is a doozy: Horik has plans to ambush Ragnar and wipe out him and his entire family. Ragnar, however, has been preparing for this all along. Somewhat predictably, he wins–Athelstan fighting right with the rest of them–but before the battle, something interesting happens. The entire episode, Ragnar has absolutely no dialogue save for one scene: On his knees, praying with Athelstan to the Christian god.
Not only has Athelstan become a hybrid of Englishman and Northman, but so has Ragnar. The two have, as classic couples do, melded to become one.
This is where we leave our pair at the end of season two (after a nice little battle, of course.) They are bonded, they are family–in so many words–and they clearly cannot be happy without each other.
What’s to come in season three? I’ll get to that in a bit. For the moment, more analysis.
So What’s the Big Deal?
There’s no way my summary, however lengthy it has been, can really do this relationship arc proper justice. There are so many subtleties in the actual scenes, from facial expressions and body language to the shots and blocking chosen by the directors, that convey exactly how intensely these two feel for each other. And the relationship’s intensity, if not its particular flavor, is, canonically, intentional. Hirst, Fimmel and Blagden have all commented on the relationship, calling it out as the special, unique thing it is for these characters. Blagden even calls it “romantic.” Their closeness is also commented upon in canon by Floki and Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf, among others. There’s also some speculation, which I feel makes sense, that Athelstan is taking the place of another wife mentioned in Ragnar’s legends (a woman named Thora, whom he rescued from effective imprisonment.) In any case, however, Athelstan is crucial to the telling of Ragnar’s story, and so is the depth of their relationship.
Their final scene in season two explains part of why this is. In season one, Athelstan acts as a bit of an audience avatar; a guide from a culture with which most viewers are familiar to ask all the questions we would ask about the usually misunderstood Viking culture. In season two, however, we start to see the cultures blending, as they did historically. The Vikings eventually converted to Christianity, but also settled in England, bringing much of their culture with them. This blending is represented metaphorically by Athelstan and Ragnar’s relationship. It is, in other words, not just a nice emotional arc for characters we like, but thematically critical to the overall plot. Hundreds of stories have come before in which people from different cultures fall in love, bringing their people together in the process. Hell, the practice of political marriages is built on exactly that premise. The same thing is happening here. It just happens to be a joining of two men, instead of a man and woman, and it is a joining based on love, rather than political alliance.
I still want to stress that I’m not claiming that this relationship is intended to be read as sexual. There are definitely sexual elements to it, and in the show’s cultural context, neither heterosexuality nor monogamy can be used to disregard them, but sex is actually beside the point.
Some homophobes like to argue that they don’t want to have to “explain” same-sex couples to their children, yet there’s no real explanation necessary, and certainly not one that must include a detailed description of sex acts. Little kids who know next to nothing about sex still understand why Cinderella falls in love with her prince and wants to marry him. They can obviously understand why a prince might fall in love with another prince. Children recognize something that adults often do not: That romantic love is qualitatively different from other kinds of love, and in ways that have nothing to do with sex.
An accusation, therefore, that a romantic reading of this relationship (or any other m/m relationship in popular media) is somehow making it into something sordid is way off the mark. Entirely aside from the fact that there’s not a damn thing wrong with sex, and its presence does not cheapen a relationship in the first place, it’s not necessary for a relationship like this to be overtly sexual to still be deeply meaningful, and in a way that is different from friendship, filial love, or other kinds of relationships. Human relationships don’t just fall into two boxes–sexual and non-sexual. They are all over the map, and are as unique as the people involved in them. There’s nothing except culture and stupidity keeping a man from tenderly, deeply loving another man to whom he is not related, regardless of whether he also wants to do the horizontal hula with the guy.
That this show is illustrating exactly such a relationship, and that one of the partners therein is a traditional, macho hero, is fantastic. Love is beautiful. Love between people who are constantly told that emotion makes them weak is more beautiful still.
Ragnar and Athelstan have one of the best love stories on TV right now. That they are two men not only doesn’t lessen this, it makes it even better.
A Word on Season Three
So what’s next for our pair? Well, we have a few clues. The trailer and some set pics have told us that they return to Wessex, but Athelstan also comes back to Kattegat again after that. They are somewhat separated while in Wessex; Athelstan is back with Ecbert, seemingly negotiating something, while Ragnar is off doing Ecbert’s dirty work in the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. Beyond that? We’re not sure.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
The one thing we do know, unfortunately, is that Athelstan will be leaving. Blagden has taken a lead role in a new series, and that is conflicting with Vikings filming. He hasn’t confirmed the departure publicly, but there’s reliable information that he is leaving permanently, and his last episode will be 3×06. Whether Athelstan dies or is written out some other way that might allow him a cameo in future seasons is unclear. (Although given the semi-fantastical nature of the show, it’s also possible he could have a cameo even if he’s dead: Appearing as a hallucination, visitation, or in someone’s experience of Heaven or Valhalla, for instance.) Regardless, midway through the season, Athelstan will no longer be by Ragnar’s side. (Cue sobbing!)
We also know that Ragnar’s days are numbered, however. Historically, Ragnar came to an end at the hands of the King of Northumbria, and his death was avenged by his sons. Hirst originally planned this for the end of season one, but changed his mind. He still, however, probably won’t keep Ragnar around much longer, instead making way to tell more about the greater adventures of Bjørn and the rest of his sons. So it’s possible Ragnar, too, could be out sometime in season three. Whether this is related in some way to Athelstan’s leaving is anyone’s guess.
However, given the critical importance of their relationship, not just in terms of character but of plot development, it’s probably safe to assume that losing Athelstan will have a major effect on Ragnar. There are no guarantees, but I suspect we may see yet another few love-story tropes before it’s done: pining away for a lost love, seeking revenge, a heartbreaking, intimate death scene–something like that. We already have one snippet of evidence that that might happen: An on-set pic, taken after Athelstan’s departure, in which Ragnar is wearing a cross pendant that Athelstan wore while he was a priest at Ecbert’s court. There could be a few other explanations for this, including Ragnar converting (which may itself be related to Athelstan anyway), but yeah. It’s probably something of Athelstan’s he has decided to keep with him after losing him.
I admit I’m kind of upset about this turn of events. Not only for the obvious reason of wanting to see more of this beautiful relationship play out, but because m/m love stories have a bad habit of ending tragically. We so very rarely see a happily ever after for men in love, whether queer or no, and it would’ve been nice to see them go up to the end. At the very least, I hope Athelstan shows up in Ragnar’s afterlife or something, so they can be together forever. But even if things get shot to hell in season three, I still think it’s amazing what Hirst and co. have done with this relationship thus far. Hell, even if he has chosen a tragic ending, that in itself is still a good mark. If he’s going to spend those kinds of emotional resources, at least he meant to earn them in the first place.
Of course, both of them have other plot arcs, and other relationships that are critical for them, but I think, and I hope I have made it clear with ~5,000 words of blather about it, that Ragnar and Athelstan is arguably the key relationship arc of the entire series thus far. Its impact on the culture of its audience may not be as salient as the impact of canon-queer m/m relationships, but in some ways, it might actually be even more important, due to Ragnar’s status as a hero and role model. Men who look up to Ragnar and therefore decide not to be afraid to love each other, whether they identify as queer or not, are men who will choose love in other areas of their lives, too. And for that, we will all benefit.
(All screencap images copyright The History Channel)