“I could hear their voices.” Michael Hirst on Vikings


Michael Hirst is a student of history. It is a rich source of stories which he has mined many times both for television and film, with successes including Elizabeth, The Tudors, Camelot, and most recently, Vikings.

Vikings have appeared many times in film and television, but are generally considered the antagonists. And so Michael’s show offers us a fresh perspective, as we follow the exploits of Ragnor Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel from Warcraft), one of the first Vikings to emerge from the mists of Norse legend.

Creative Screenwriting spoke with Michael about the process of writing historical fiction, the importance of poetry, and how Vikings has rejuvenated interest in Scandinavian culture.

Michael Hirst

Michael Hirst

You’ve made a career connecting the past with the present. How did you come to be interested in history and historical fiction?

I think the first thing to say is that the only two things I could do in school apart from sport were English and History. So I suppose that I have combined those as far as a career!

In terms of writing from history, I suppose it has to do with the fact that I was at university for a long time—about ten years at different universities. So for me, the initial period of research, reading, and thinking, which is where everything that I do starts, is a great joy.

Out of the research and the reading, ideas, storylines, and characters evolve and become real to me. It’s very much a process and it reflects the fact that writing about real things, real events, and real people, is somewhat more significant to me than writing fantasy or science fiction.

Of course, those genres, are fantastically entertaining, but there is something about addressing real things and how we live now that is meaningful. It has a deeper meaning, beyond itself.

Alyssa Sutherland as Queen Aslaug in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

Alyssa Sutherland as Queen Aslaug in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

What is your process for creating historical fiction?

I suppose that I first hoover up all the material that I can get my hands on within a particular period. I may also listen to the music of the time, or poetry if I can get hold of that. I really immerse myself in the period, and then I start jotting down stray ideas or thoughts with an open mind.

I actually try to let the storylines evolve from the material rather than impose myself on the material.

The poet John Dryden always compared creative ideas to thoughts tumbling over one another in the darkness. That’s kind of how I start. But most importantly, I also have a historical advisor. So if I come up with something of interest or dig deeply into a character, place, or storyline, I would ask Justin Pollard if he has more information.

As far as Vikings is concerned, Justin is an expert on the Dark Ages, if indeed such a thing is possible. So I run everything by him to check it is authentic, plausible, or real. You can’t always talk in terms of historical accuracies, since a) I’m not writing a documentary, and b) I’ve often wondered if there is such a thing. But, overall, it’s important that there is some plausibility and truth when the digging begins.

The whole thing is a process.

When I was writing Elizabeth the movie, I started to jot my ideas down on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I would scribble down a piece of music or a poem, something that I had read.

The footnotes in history books often contain very rich material. There are things that historians discard because they don’t fit into their thesis, so they will put it in a footnote. But I trawl through the footnotes and often find incredible tidbits or information on characters. There are often weird and wonderful facts.

Anyway, I was doing that for Elizabeth, and I was writing on this eight-foot-long piece of paper, and after a few weeks the story of Elizabeth started to appear. I realized that what wasn’t written about her was her earlier life, before she became Queen. And some of the best anecdotes, poetry, and emotion came out of that period of her life before she became iconic.

In fact, I gave that strip of wallpaper to one of the producers so it’s hanging up somewhere. It’s a chaotic process, but organized chaos.

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth. Photo by Polygram Filmed Entertainment - © 1998

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth. Photo by Polygram Filmed Entertainment – © 1998

Can you tell us about an example of where a poem or song shaped a character?

In Elizabeth, there’s a real poet called Thomas Wyatt who got featured in the film, and I used quite a bit of his poetry. He had been an ex-lover of Ann Boleyn, so he ended up being somewhat dramatic within the story. It was useful that his poetry was featured.

The Earl of Surrey, who was the last Noble that Henry VIII executed, was also a very fine poet. I love the rhythms of poetry and in the period; it can help you write the dialogue. You’re actually getting into the period to know how people spoke, within their rhythms of the poetry. Wyatt and Surrey were very instrumental.

This was also true with Vikings when I first started to make my jottings and notes. The works of the time are very weird and wonderful, but they’re beautiful. They’re all about the gods, and the relationships between gods and humans. The rhythms of the sagas helped me uncover Viking life. I started to hear the way they possibly talked during that time. I could hear their voices.

At the same time, I have to admit that I don’t only reference poets from the period. I also slip in quotes from poets in different periods. I actually used some of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in Vikings! Wessex quotes a few lines.

The reason that I thought I could do is that is because the lines are about time. Eliot thought the time past and time future are both contained within time present. I thought that that was really what I was talking about within the show—connecting past, present and future.

Linus Roache, who plays King Egbert of Wessex said that Eliot was a favorite poet of his as well. I had just sketched in these lines for a scene between Egbert and Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), and obviously he didn’t use these lines, because it’s a 20th Century poet speaking through a 19th Century English ruler. But it was what I was trying to say. And every time I tried to rewrite the lines, I couldn’t do better. Everything sounded stale and poor when compared to Eliot.

I thought people would pick up on it and think I was crazy, but no one picked up on it until I mentioned it in an interview. Then, someone got in touch with the head of English studies at Harvard and asked if this was true. The professor wrote back and copied me in. He said that it was from Eliot and provided the full quote, but then said, “Looking at it, I can see exactly why he used it and I can see where it’s appropriate and very cool.”

Linus Roache as King Ecbert in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

Linus Roache as King Ecbert in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

Many of your stories revolve around the clash of religious ideas. Can you touch on how that shapes your characters, as well as the arc of the series?

It’s very important to me as a person, as a writer. I guess that I’ve always been interested in spiritual things, but I’ve always had a complex reaction to organized religion. I’m very sure that the spiritual aspect of life has to be part of the human experience with every character you write about.

It may be by default that these religious issues show up in my work, but I didn’t consciously choose to do that, except for in Vikings.

During my research, the Pagan versus Christian conflict was very central to Viking sex and life at the time. It couldn’t be avoided, so it had to be addressed. I loved reading about it and I couldn’t have written Vikings without writing about the Pagan gods and the Christian God, who ultimately won, essentially.

With Elizabeth and The Tudors, I found myself writing about the Reformation and the clash of Protestantism and Catholicism. I was fascinated by it, and I realized that in England, it was not talked about, as it was seen inappropriate to speak or write about the Reformation from a Catholic point of view.

In other words, Henry VIII’s propaganda about the break from Catholicism wanted to make it seem corrupt or evil. And in England, that propaganda certainly worked.

We had always been taught that the Reformation was a good thing. That the destruction of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism was a good thing because it led to the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, it led to Shakespeare and the Golden Age. It was an unmitigated success.

In Season 3 of Tudors, I found out something that I should have known, called the Pilgrimage of Grace. This was a Catholic revolt against Henry VIII’s policies of destroying the Catholic monasteries, relics, and history.

I come from Yorkshire, where the march started. It was a huge event and thousands of people marched on London to confront King Henry. He dealt with this in a very merciless way, but I realized that I had never seen that dramatized before. No one had tried to tell the story from a Catholic point of view.

Out of religious and spiritual events can also come political truths and events. For me, this fact is very basic to the way I approach historical material.

Joely Richardson as Catherine Parr and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in The Tudors

Joely Richardson as Catherine Parr and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in The Tudors

There is less recorded information about the Vikings than the Tudors, and they have generally been depicted as horrific. How do you fill in the gaps between pages of history?

The first thing to recognize is that by and large, except for Arab traders, most of what we know about them was written down by their enemies. That would be Christian Monks in England and France. They had very good reason to denigrate and abuse the Vikings Pagan gods, along with their beliefs.

As soon as I started my research, I realised that all of the information that I had on the Vikings was where they were “the other.” They were always a dark force that would break down your door at night, rape your wife, and steal your treasure.

In fact, I never knew that women were treated as equals in Viking society. They could divorce, own property, rule, and fight alongside their husbands. It was actually a very democratic society.

As it was the Dark Ages, there is a very limited amount of what we know. Nevertheless, we do know quite a bit, and there are lots of stories of Ragnar that come out of myth and legend, as well as the sagas.

The sons of Ragnar actually come out of history. They were written about by Saxon chroniclers, and the most important thing for me was to understand their storylines. Once we had those, I knew their relationships with Saxons and how they interacted with Saxons.

In terms of individual storylines, I’m a writer, so I have to condense, imagine, and shape. Writing, of course, is about shaping. I would start with something that I knew, or something that passes as historical fact, then I would develop storylines out of that.

From there, I would run it past Justin to see if it felt authentic to him. I needed to know if it was reasonable for me to suppose those things. I needed to know if it was interesting and plausible about Viking behavior in society.

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn Lothbrok in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn Lothbrok in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY

I also have a friend who is an Icelandic novelist. He also loves Vikings and the sagas, so I send information to him and we share information. One of the things that makes me extremely proud is that the show is huge in Scandinavia, as well as other parts of the world.

In fact, I had a great radio interview after the first season. We had sent the first three episodes to the head of Scandinavian studies at Harvard: he’s a Swedish professor. I went on a radio program to discuss Vikings with him, and I expected to be chewed up or eaten alive, but he said this was the first time that his culture had been taken seriously and intelligently. I was thrilled to hear that.

I also recently went to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and I was given a private tour. The curator said that twice as many people now visit the museum. He said that there was a much larger interest into the heritage, and there were more archeological digs going on. The show had rejuvenated their own interest in their culture.

I was attacked quite a lot for The Tudors. Henry VIII is such an iconic figure that you’re not really suppose to show him in any other way than he is normally shown. But it’s been totally different with Vikings. It’s had a great response from teachers, historians, intellectuals, and all people who know about the period. It’s been fantastic.

Vikings returns to the History channel on the 30th November 2016.

Featured image: Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings © 2016 HISTORY



Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

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