The narrative essence of Vikings lies in the stories of its heroes who, from time to time, fought against all odds to register their names in the pages of history and thus become legendary. As depicted in the Netflix series, “Vikings: Valhalla,” these Scandinavian warriors fought for a purpose, whether it was to save their honor or to take revenge for their fallen brothers. The original series, which came out in 2013, introduced us to a legendary Viking, Ragnar Lodbrok, and narratively traced his heroic rise, followed by a betrayal in which he lost his life. During these decades, the Viking warriors were in constant conflict with their neighbors, the Anglo Saxons.
In “Vikings: Valhalla,” which begins in the 11th century AD, the warriors face another conflict: the struggle to preserve their faith and save their roots. As time flies and a man grows both emotionally and mentally, his faith needs a transformation as well, and religions that resist change are doomed to perish. As a result, Season 1 of “Vikings: Valhalla” marks the end of the Old Norse Gods, not only because of flaws in their religion, but also because of widespread acceptance of Christianity.
Contrary to the original series, “Vikings: Valhalla” is much closer to history and thus follows the journey of real-life warriors that walked on Earth and left their mark. The series’ characters are based on historical figures but have been fictionalized to heighten the drama. Hence, the explanation of these characters explores only the threads of their personalities as depicted in “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1.
King of Denmark, King Canute, or Cnut “the Great”
King Canute, son of Sweyn Forkbeard, was the ruler of Denmark who reunited the Viking army to take revenge on the King of the English, Aethelred II. On the night of St. Brice’s Day in 1002, Aethelred II destroyed the Viking settlements in Danelaw and massacred each one of them to please his Saxon brothers. On the same night, the Prince of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, lost his brother, Sten, who was a member of the Royal Kingsguard. After Sten’s murder, Harald joined forces with Canute in Kattegat and convinced his half-brother, Olaf Haraldsson, King of Norway, to help Canute raid London.
However, before the invasion, Aethelred II died of old age, leaving the throne to his youngest son, Prince Edmund, and to keep the passion burning, Canute promised Harald to get him Edmund’s head. After the fall of London Bridge, Canute and allied Viking forces captured London, but before Harald could exact his revenge and murder Edmund, Canute had a change of mind.
At this juncture, the true nature of Canute’s personality was revealed. It can be argued that Canute never wanted revenge, or even if he wanted vengeance, then it was from Aethelred II and not his feeble son, Edmund. Canute scrutinized the political scenario of Europe and understood one simple thing: that Edmund, as a leader, was not fit to rule. Additionally, there was a King of Mercia, Eadric Streona, who desired to sit on the throne of London, and Canute knew that as soon as the Viking army would retreat, Eadric would attack Edmund and take the kingdom. Canute understood the political tension and used the golden opportunity to fulfill his own ambitions. They came all the way from Kattegat, and leaving with gold, or head would make Vikings look like raiders, and Canute wanted to wash off those stains. He told Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, that he wanted his own head on the coin of England and wanted to lay the foundations of a great Northern Empire. His ambitions suggested his struggle for glory, and because of his vision, Canute simply didn’t become a ruler, but instead forged his name in history as Cnut “the Great.”
Another part of Canute’s personality that made him stand out from other Viking leaders was his strategic approach towards people. The Scandinavian warriors were known for their warm blood, but Canute was a leader, and to become a great leader, one has to maintain their calm to think straight. Fortunately, Canute had it all. He didn’t kill Edmund, or Emma, or Earl Godwin, but instead beheaded Eadric, to gain Edmund and Emma’s trust. Canute needed them to convince the other earls and royals to pay taxes to a Viking king without any bloodshed and thus even decided to rule alongside Edmund. He didn’t mind sharing the throne because he knew Edmund wasn’t strong enough to lead a rebellion and cunning enough to win it against him. But Emma was, and so he not only helped Emma to get back to her kids but also married her to make the bond stronger. In simple terms, Canute knew that to rule the entire Northern Kingdom, he needed people whom he could tame or trust.
At the end of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1, Canute was called to a battle in Denmark. He left the throne under the command of his father, Sweyn Forkbeard, who ruled it with Emma as the King’s advisor in Canute’s absence. The second season of “Vikings: Valhalla” will follow Canute’s journey further, making him one of the greatest Viking Kings who ruled the entire Northern Kingdom.
Prince of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson
Great-grandson of Harald Finehair, Harald Sigurdsson, was the prince of Norway, who was promised the throne after the death of his older half-brother, Jarl Olaf. He assembled the forces of Norway in Kattegat to avenge his brother, Sten’s murder, and during the mission, he met Freydis Eriksdotter, a Greenlander with whom he fell in love.
Harald was a great orator, and through his words, he instilled a burning passion in the Viking warriors. It was the reason Canute needed Harald by his side to unite the army that was struggling with the seeds of a civil war due to differences in their faith. Harald was a dedicated Christian, yet the pagans followed his chain of commands because, unlike Olaf, the extremist, Harald never forced anyone to convert to Christianity. He knew his history and consciously accepted the fact that all religions have their flaws, which is why he tried his best to facilitate a truce between Jarl Kåre, a Christian, and the Queen of Kattegat, Estrid Haakon, a Pagan.
Olaf and Kåre wanted to mass convert all the pagans, which Haakon refused. The refusal led to the fall of Kattegat, in which Harald was struggling to choose sides, but in the end, he decided to help the pagans and fought against Olaf and Kåre. Harald was badly wounded in the battle and was rescued by Freydis, who left Kattegat after its fall.
In Season 1, Canute had already warned Harald of Olaf’s intentions, and he was purposely not going to hand over the throne of Norway to Harald. Instead, Olaf secretly had a son about whom he told no one, and Canute believed that he would leave Norway to him after his death. Thus, Canute promised Harald the throne to unite Norway with his Northern Kingdom, and after Olaf’s betrayal, Canute had all reasons to hunt him down and execute him for treason. In the end, Olaf manages to escape from Kattegat, but Harald will hunt him down in the second season of “Vikings: Valhalla” to finally become the King of Norway.
Greenlander, Freydis Eriksdotter, Daughter of Erik Thorvaldson
Erik Thorvaldson, also known as “Erik the Red,” was a legendary Viking berserker who was exiled from Norway and Iceland after being convicted of murder. He was a great explorer and thus sailed to unknown horizons looking for new lands to finally rest on, and thus came to Greenland, which is believed to have been discovered by him.
In Greenland, Erik started anew, but the darkness inside him remained the same. His son, Leif Erikson, pointed out that the Greenlanders didn’t respect Erik for his bravery but respected him in fear. In front of his son, he beat a man who failed to give a lamb that wasn’t even born yet, and that was the kind of insanity the man held within him.
Freydis was Erik’s daughter and Leif’s half-sister, who lived in Greenland. During their stay, a Christian missionary, Gunnar Magnusson, arrived at Freydis’s house and attacked her. Gunnar not only raped a teenage Freydis but also inflicted upon her a brutal mark in the form of a cross, intending to cleanse her of her pagan soul. The incident traumatized Freydis’s childhood, and she swore to seek revenge from the man who caused her pain, and in this burning desire for vengeance, she hated the religion that was forced upon her. She became a more dedicated follower of the Norse gods and made sacrifices to Odin to gain the favor of the gold to help her in her mission to kill Gunnar.
Freydis, Leif, and other Viking Greenlanders came to Kattegat seeking Gunnar Magnusson, the right hand of Jarl Olaf. After Freydis took her revenge and murdered Gunnar, she faced judgment from Estrid Haakon, who kept Freydis in Kattegat, feeling her strong connection with the Norse gods. She entrusted her with a mission to seek her destiny in Uppsala, where Freydis met “The Seer,” who prophesied her destiny as “The Last Daughter of Uppsala.”
The Seer had also prophesied the fall of Uppsala and Kattegat through a vision he saw when Estrid Haakon visited him during the pilgrimage. Haakon knew that a large wave would arrive on the night of the wolf moon and would sweep all the pagans away, and with the end of Uppsala and Kattegat, the last shrines of the Norse Gods would end too. But Freydis would survive. She would become the last link between the Norse Gods and their pagan followers, and as predicted, Freydis escaped with Harald Sigurdsson after the fall of Kattegat.
In the upcoming season of “Vikings: Valhalla,” Season 1, Freydis will act as the center of conflict between the two religions. She is indeed the chosen one whose decision will decide the fate of these two religions, but as we know so far, Freydis has grown an eternal hatred for Christianity. Yet, she loves Harald, a Christian, and that will probably become her dilemma, having to choose one of these two faiths. It can be argued that Freydis’ decision to choose Christianity would cut off the last link between pagans and Norse Gods, thereby marking the end of it all, but before that, there is a long journey ahead for her to pursue.
Leif Erikson, son of Erik Thorvaldson
Leif was a skilled warrior and a marvelous explorer like his father, Erik the Red. However, with these remarkable skills, Leif also inherited his father’s rage, or darkness, as he called it. The conflict of Leif’s character was not to end up like his father, i.e., a ruthless and violent berserker. It was the reason why Leif never acknowledged the sagas of Erik the Red, because only he knew what it felt like to grow up in the shadows of a legendary hero. According to Leif, Erik was an estranged and violent man who humiliated his son and never showed any signs of fatherly love. It was because of his father’s behavior that Leif refrained from killing a person until destiny caught him in a web of affairs and compelled him to fight in the Viking War.
After Leif’s half-sister, Freydis, killed Gunnar Magnusson, Harald used the opportunity to convince Leif to come with them to London as the captain of his ship. Harald had witnessed Leif’s skill and was keen to have him in his army, and thus Leif came to London, where he planned the fall of London Bridge that made him a hero in the eyes of King Canut. Canut, who knew Leif’s conflict, which was living with the stains of a cursed father, used his authority and made Leif a hero among the warriors who would be remembered for his own actions instead of his father’s past. Leif wanted to remove the stains from his name, and he did, but there was much greater darkness inside him that he couldn’t get rid of.
Leif told his lady love, Liv, that she was the only person who had saved him from the rage that he had inherited from Erik the Red. In a way, Leif pointed out that without Liv, he would become a berserker too and might end up killing innocent people outside the battlefield. Unfortunately, what Leif feared ultimately happened.
During the battle of Kattegat, Olaf killed Liv, and the death of a lover consumed Leif with the rage that he had been trying to escape since the beginning of the series. He killed Olaf’s men in his fury, but soon faced Canute’s eldest son, who had accidentally encountered Leif. However, under the spell of trance-like fury, Leif lost his senses and failed to see that it was a kid standing in front of him. The closing shot of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1 depicted Leif screaming at Canute’s son to kill him. And if Leif kills Canute’s son in the upcoming season, eventually, he will become “Erik the Red,” a personality that he has been running away from since the beginning. Will Leif meet the same fate as his father and be banished from the Northern kingdom? The upcoming season will follow his arc further.
Olaf Haraldsson, King of Norway
Jarl Olaf was a cunning and treacherous leader who had two sole purposes in life: to gain power and to mass convert pagans to Christianity. He wanted to start a holy war under the banner of Christ, but to lead the battle, he needed gold. To fulfill his purpose, Olaf abducted Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, with the intention of getting information about Aethelred’s hidden treasure. Before becoming the King of Norway, Olaf worked as a member of the Royal Kingsguard and helped Aethelred to build the defenses of London, especially the London Bridge. During this time, he witnessed Aethelred’s treasure, which Emma concluded was just a myth. Until the very end of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1, Aethelred’s hidden treasure didn’t surface, and it might turn up in the upcoming season, proving beneficial to its beholder.
Like King Canute, even Jarl Olaf didn’t believe in futile bloodshed. However, the major difference between these two people was their approach towards others. While Canute put his blind trust in his men, Olaf believed in deceiving them and using them for his purpose, and cutting them off once it was achieved. His disloyalty could be seen in the fact that he betrayed not only Canute but also his younger brother, Harald, to whom he had promised the throne of Norway after him.
Following his true nature, Olaf tried to overthrow Canute by turning Canute’s first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, against him. He plagued Canute’s relationship with Ælfgifu, so that she would hide the fleets of Denmark at the time of urgency when Olaf attacked Kattegat to establish his monarch and cleanse the land of the pagans.
With the help of a Christian extremist, Jarl Kåre, Olaf attacked Kattegat and demolished the city, murdering all the warriors of Estrid Haakon, except Freydis. By the time Sweyn Forkbeard found Denmark’s fleet and reached Kattegat, it was too late. And as soon as Olaf and his men saw the upcoming ships, they fled Kattegat to save their lives, and hence, at the end of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1, Olaf survived. However, during the attack, Olaf killed Leif’s love interest, Liv. Maybe, in upcoming season, Leif with the help of Olaf’s brother, Harald, and King Canute, will hunt Olaf down, end his holy war, and put Harald on the throne of Norway.
Born to a Viking family of dedicated pagans, Jarl Kåre witnessed the horrors of his religion in his childhood when, during a ceremony, the pagan priests sacrificed his older brother to the Norse Gods in front of his eyes. The visual traumatized Kåre mentally, who adopted Christianity as he grew up and started killing the pilgrims who came to Uppsala. The major difference between Olaf and Kåre was that while Olaf believed in converting the pagans, Kåre believed in slaughtering them to cleanse the land.
Kåre was mentally delusional and believed that he was the chosen one who would hold the holy sword and cleanse the lands, but when he saw the sword with Freydis, he decided to stop waiting for destiny and slew the priests of the Pagan Shrines on their own altars. Falling prey to his blind faith, Kåre also kidnapped the Seer and locked him in a cage, which was probably a sign of his incurable mental illness. Later, in the name of Christ, he raised an army and joined forces with Jarl Olaf to destroy Kattegat. However, after the fall of Kattegat, Olaf betrayed Kåre and attacked his men along with Pagan warriors. At the same time, Freydis encountered Kåre unleashing her holy sword, and beheaded him to take revenge from him for killing her friends and extended family.
Emma of Normandy, Queen of the English
Emma, born in Normandy to a Danish nobleman, was married to the King of the English, Aethelred II, when she was just 15 years old. When she stepped into the foreign country, she couldn’t even speak the language of the land and was treated as a piece of property. The humiliation and the indifference Emma faced as an outsider became a part of her character arc while she hustled to prove her worth as she grew up. After the death of Aethelred II, Emma took command of the affairs of the English throne and became Prince Edmund’s advisor until his coronation.
It was Emma who predicted the Vikings’ attack from the south and thus sent Edmund to Mercia to convince Eadric Streona to position his troops on the swarm side, thereby resisting the attack. King Canute was impressed by all the strategic decisions Emma made in the battle with the Vikings and thus decided to give Emma the title she deserved, the official King’s advisor. Emma was probably touched by Canute’s gesture and thus decided to marry him because, in Canute, she saw a visionary who was ready to break the norms of society and give people titles based on their merit instead of their lineage or gender.
Later, being the King’s advisor, Emma helped Sweyn Forkbeard to find his missing fleet, which her daughter-in-law, Ælfgifu of Northampton, had hidden to blackmail Forkbeard into handing over the title of Queen of the English to her and sent Emma back to Normandy. Emma tricked Ælfgifu by staging her return to Normandy and involving Earl Godwin in her plan, who persuaded Ælfgifu to travel to Mercia to facilitate a truce between the Vikings and Mercians, the relationship that had turn sour after the murder of Eadric Streona. Forkbeard found the missing fleet and called back Emma from Normandy. Thus, her words influenced the Mercians, and while Ælfgifu felt important in being a part of King Canute’s cause, Forkbeard found the missing fleet and called back Emma from Normandy. Finally, Emma revealed to her that the entire plan was to distract her from finding the fleet of Denmark, and Forkbeard took Canute’s sons too to the battle, thereby leaving her with Ælfgifu with which to retaliate.
Hence, at the end of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1, Emma finally achieved her position as the Queen of the English and would taste the power of her position in the upcoming seasons, while playing an integral part in King Canute’s the Great Northern Kingdom. Her character arc has just begun, and probably the next two seasons will add further layers to it.
If the Pagan Seer could foresee the future with magic, then Earl Godwin could predict it with his wit. Godwin was a sharp observer who anticipated the actions of people around him and thus acted accordingly, in such a way that the future turn of events would shower upon him the blessings of the victorious individuals. To begin with, when Aethelred massacred the Vikings in Danelaw, Godwin was certain that the Scandinavian warriors would retaliate in revenge. Hence, at that moment, he helped Harald Sigurdsson escape London, thereby gaining a favor that would help in the future. The favor helped him to save his life when Harald encountered him again during the Viking attack on London and spared his life in exchange for his king gesture in the past.
However, one single favor not only helped Godwin to escape execution but also helped him to gain Canute’s trust. He further helped Canute to find Emma’s kids, kidnapped by Olaf, and with that, he became Canute’s most loyal man in London. His credibility rose to fame when Forkbeard, out of past rivalry, killed Ealdorman Sigeferth of Wessex and made Godwin the new Jarl of Wessex.
In this turn of events, Godwin should not be called lucky, not by any faraway chance. Instead, he rose to the greater heights on his own, through his own wit, zeal, and a past that influenced his ambition. Godwin’s father was an Ealdorman too, and when Godwin was just a teenager, his father stole 24 of the King’s ships and used them for his own greed. For his acts, Godwin’s father was stripped of his lands and title and was imprisoned until his death. Maybe, like Leif Erikson, even Godwin struggled to wash off the failures of his father and regain everything that he lost due to his greed. By the end of “Vikings: Valhalla” Season 1, Godwin finally earned back the title of an Ealdorman, but his days of glory have just begun because, as history suggests, the house of Godwin will sit on the throne of London and rule the kingdom after the fall of the Viking King. The upcoming season will further follow Godwin’s rise to glory and how he will finally become a father to a lineage that will rule England.