A common theme in response to today’s popular culture representations of the Early Middle Ages is the accusation of ‘inaccuracy’. Sometimes this is done by experts and enthusiasts for good reason, when they are aware that details of the plot, dialogue or material world don’t match in subtle or stark fashions with our established evidence base. Sometimes there are striking contradictions to our established and verified historical, archaeological and literary sources which have dangerous ramifications in contemporary society: spinning damaging and pernicious stereotypes that require challenging. Yet this approach – claiming to identify ‘inaccuracies’ – is also frequently appropriated and performed by racists and extremists in order to denigrate and detract from fictional narratives which pay recognition to the complexity and diversity of the human past and today’s audiences alike. Hence, I argue that reducing debates on popular culture representations of the Early Middle Ages to discussions of ‘accuracy’ stifles the power of the arts to provoke and explore fresh readings of the early medieval past that challenge existing narrative structures and stereotypes. Fixating on accuracy without due attention to context and narrative prevents fiction from affording new vistas of dialogue and engagement about the human past for a range of contemporary audiences.
In this post, I identify and discuss two very recent examples of this issue. They share close similarities, even if they superficially appear very different. Both instances relate to present-day perceptions of, and obsessions with, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’, in fictional portrayals relating to the myths, legends, history and archaeology of the Early Middle Ages.
Background: Anglo-Saxon England and Viking Scandinavia as ‘white’
Some context is required. Representations of early medieval ethnic groups inspired by archaeology, history, legends and mythologies have long been enmeshed in racialised discourses. Archaeology has frequently been implicated in such discourses, especially from the mid-19th century but persisting through the 20th century to the present. For instance, many audiences continue to costume dramas with characters who repeatedly refer to themselves and others by ethnonyms that are unlikely to have been used in that fashion (based on our available evidence) in the 5th-11th centuries. Examples include The Last Kingdom and Vikings TV shows in which references are made to the ‘Welsh’, ‘Saxons’, ‘Franks’, ‘Danes’ and ‘Vikings’ and so on as if they were enduring, coherent ethno-linguistic formations. Such groups are often afforded contrasting and distinctive material cultures and physical traits to accentuate their ethnic differentiation. Likewise, physical characteristics are exaggerated for viewers through casting choices but also through contrasting cosmetics, body-art, costume and hair colour, as well as material cultures and built environments. These ‘ethnic’ early medieval representations often extend far beyond our historical and archaeological sources, hyper-exaggerations which help to distinguish between different groups of antagonists and protagonists.
Likewise similar conceptions are transferred to fictional universes and characterise fictional ethnicities, ‘races’ and species inspired by the early medieval past. The men, elves, orcs, hobbits and other ‘races’ from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and their constituent sub-groups are but one example among many. In such representations, distinctive costume, hair, and material cultures are as important as language, accent and physical characteristics in distinguishing the normative characteristics of each race and their various subdivisions.
Commentators and audiences are often intimately familiar and sometimes fixated around such characterisations for both fully fictional worlds and dramatic representations inspired by history and legend. While audiences tend to understand they are watching modern renditions and fiction, some get outraged and defensive at variabilities of these ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ representations of the early medieval past are created in response to shifting archaeological and historical information as well as changing climates and expectations for audiences.
The cries of objection soar especially when racial and ethnic conventions and expectations from our traditions of representation are subverted and contradicted; accusations of ‘inaccuracy’ thus emerge and are perpetuated.
Certainly, such performative outrages and controversies can operate around any single or multiple aspects of identity – including but not exclusive to age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, accent and language. Yet those pertaining to ethnicity – shared senses of belonging or otherness as defined or perceived – and race – perceived stark distinctions within the human species defined by physical characteristics and behaviours – is particularly prevalent.
Casting choices perceived to challenge or counter such expectations are a particular focus of outrage by audiences content with, and used to perpetuate, a ‘white’ Middle Ages. Hence, when physical characteristics used in the modern world to attribute individuals and groups to ‘races’ are brought into the discussion, debates and disputes become especially heated.
The latest two ‘controversies’ each have seen commentators and audiences resort to claims of ‘inaccuracy’ for casting people of colour: Rings of Power and Vikings Valhalla. This is often framed as ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘revisionist history’ and specifically of ‘woke history’ and ‘blackwashing’: reactionary responses to long-standing calls for better representation of ethnic minorities in the arts which have tended to portray the human past, including the early medieval period, as exclusively ‘white’, thus sustaining and validating white supremacist thinking and behaviours in contemporary society, legitimised by this supposed primordial European racial homogeneity.
In such debates, claims to authority are often made, not only to the intentions and ‘lore’ of creators and authors of the fictional universes, and failing to be supposed ‘truths’ of normative whiteness. Also, objections to the representation of people of colour in mythical, legendary and historical early medieval fictions is rooted in claims that the ‘real’ early medieval past was indeed exclusively or primarily ‘white’. It is this second point that brings my expertise to bear on this issue.
Rings of Power
The first instance came to my attention via TikTok and Twitter. Specifically, I was struck by the scale of vitriol and criticism directed at the Amazon Prime Rings of Power television series even before its release. Specifically, I witnessed lead popular TikTok creators DonMarshall72, FantasyAnex and KnewBetterDoBetter on TikTok receiving a barrage of anger because of their enthusiasm and excitement for the new series. This all derived simply from the trailer, not the episodes themselves: https://youtu.be/v7v1hIkYH24. This persisted in reaction to a series of ‘first look’ still images published in Vanity Fair from the television show on 10 February 2022. Two images were a particular focus of critical attention and derision by ‘fans’ and self-proclaimed Tolkien experts wishing to defend ‘the lore’. The first was captioned ‘The dwarven princess Disa, played by Sophia Nomvete, standing at Khazad-dum’s entrance’.
Similarly, the image ‘silven elf Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova, is a character’s who’s been created for the series’ attracted particular criticism and derision from online commentators.
To be clear, each character is new and not described or from any of Tolkien’s writings, and there are other characters similarly invented for the show (e.g. the man Hallbrand played by Charlie Vickers). The Second Age was a time in Middle-Earth’s history for which we must remember Tolkien never published a coherent novel. He presented little to no detail regarding the physical appearances, and specifically the skin tones, of many of his characters, so this outrage is not evidence-based in regards to any of Tolkien’s writings or notes. This of course wrongly presumes an insight into Tolkien’s mind which is deeply questionable, as well as presuming that a 21st-century drama should be attempting to honour this imagined vision of a long-dead author.
Despite this, critics not only attacked the trailer and ‘first look’ article on multiple grounds claiming the costumes and sets looked ‘wrong’ based on unspecific criteria. In particular, criticisms were directed towards the aforementioned choice to cast a Black woman as a dwarf and an actor originally from Puerto Rica to play an elf.
Notably, commentators not only claimed this ‘ruined’ the show and was ‘woke’, but specifically asserted it was counter to Tolkien’s vision and what we know about Middle-Earth. I’ve seen comments claiming Tolkien’s England and Europe were ‘white’ (presumably meaning early-mid 20th century, although Tolkien died in 1973) and that Middle-Earth was intended to be ‘for England’ and therefore by definition ‘white only’. Moreover, self-appointed experts have asserted that Tolkien never described elves or dwarves as being ‘people of colour’ and therefore shouldn’t be played by actors who fit this description.
My Archaeodeath responses were twofold, focusing on the dwarven princess character of Disa. First, I pointed out that the material culture represented for Khazad-dum – the runic-inscribed doorway, and the wealth adorning Disa – reflected the huge wealth of the Second-Age dwarves in a striking way and is consistent with Tolkien’s universe as described in his published works and in the various artistic and cinematic versions of the Third Age from the films of Peter Jackson. More specifically, Disa’s costume was at least part-inspired by the European, and British, Bronze Age, specifically the spiral ornamentation, lunullae and lozenges. So in addition to being a more diverse casting than before which is justifiable in its own terms and without recourse to what Tolkien ‘intended’ or anything about the human past, the still image suggests Rings of Power is hoping to make specific connections between the Second Age of Middle-Earth and a mythical version of the Bronze Age. I speculate as the show isn’t even aired yet, but I wonder whether this a conscious attempt to parallel Tokien’s ‘Second Age’ with the second age of Thomsen’s Three-Age System: a time before the Iron Age/Roman and early medieval pasts? If so, does this provide a hint that a sense of distant pastness, contrasting with the Third Age we are familiar with from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, will be apparent in the show?
Whether conscious or not, it is inspired and creative and not only in creating an aura of deep-time in the fictional world of Middle-Earth. Simultaneously, it serves to visually connect prehistory for audiences today, including people of colour. It frames Britain’s early history as a diverse environment with far-reaching contacts and knowledges, as well as people of varied backgrounds beyond these islands. More than that, it problematises claims to ‘white indigeneity’ as bogus fantasies, whether they are framed as prehistoric, Roman, early medieval or later. We must wait for the show to air to see if more ‘Bronze Age’ styles appear associated with the Rings of Power show, for the dwarves specifically or for the Second Age more broadly.
I followed up by making a specific comment about ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, having seen further comments evoking the whiteness of early medieval Britain as evidence that Rings of Power was inaccurate. Specifically, I argued that, in terms of population, knowledge, mythologies and communications, Anglo-Saxon England was a place where people of colour inhabited the landscape, churches, emporia and the imagination.
Thus, I stated that this period cannot be framed as a predominantly or exclusively ‘white’ place and it certainly cannot be claimed that darker skin-tones afforded to supernatural peoples is ‘inaccurate’ in any demonstrable fashion. I stated this in relation to both the evidence we have for far-reaching contacts, travels and knowledges between what was becoming to be known as ‘England’ with not only Scandinavia and Continental North West Europe, but also with the Baltic and the Russian river systems, the Mediterranean world including North Africa and South-West Asia and indirectly from farther afield. I also pointed out the inheritance of Roman Britain’s diverse population and new population movements of various scales and directionalities throughout the mid-/late first millennium AD. Early medieval ‘insular’ society was far from insular!
Moreover, the inappropriate framing of distinctive ‘races’ in relation to early medieval societies feeds into racist narratives predicated on discrete origin myths, affording an inaccurate fixation with skin tone and giving credence to stark and simplistic racial characterisations and prejudices which cannot be securely attested before the later medieval and modern eras. There is a nuanced debate to be had regarding how ‘races’ were conceptualised in the early medieval period, as distinct from ‘ethnicities’, but that is not for this popular discussion where such terms are readily misconstrued and disinformation readily promulgated thereon.
Here is a follow-up point regarding the pushback I received in which racists were clearly fixated on the issue being about the scale of ‘immigration’ and via this false logic accidently and unwittingly accepting a a similar percentage of ‘people of colour’ in early medieval Britain to the UK in the early 21st-century: something I never for one moment claimed!
The second controversy relates to the Vikings Valhalla TV show: a spin-off by Jeb Stuart from the popular and long-running Vikings (2013-2020) show create by Michael Hirst. Whilst the former was set in a fictional late 8th/9th-century early Viking world, this new show takes us forward to the early 11th century and the time of King Cnut.
This time, whilst set in a broadly ‘historical’ framework with named historical personages including Cnut himself, Harald Sigurdsoon, and Leif Erisson and Freydis Eriksdottir, the inspiration is later legends rather than a precise tie-in to know historical events.
The difference from Rings of Power is that this show has actually aired, with Netflix releasing the entire first season on Friday 25 February 2022.
Whilst an ostensibly white cast, outrage was sparked by the casting of a single leading character – Swedish-born and long-term Danish resident Caroline Henderson – who plays the fictional Jarl Estrid Haakon in six of the eight episodes. The show represents Jarl Estrid Haakon as the granddaughter of an African who had married her grandfather following their meeting in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
The only other speaking character played by a person of colour is Altöra, Jarl Estrid’s bodyguard, played by German-born Annalbelle Mandeng. Details of her origins and relationship with Jarl Estrid are not explained in any detail.
As with Vikings, people from across the Viking world are depicted as traders and enslaved peoples in the bustling cosmopolitan trading settlement of Kattegat. Vikings already showed the raiding and exploring of the key characters reaching North Africa as well as central Asia. Yet, this time sub-Saharan merchants and slaves are represented too, articulating the even-more expansive connections of the Viking world in the 11th century as opposed to the 9th century.
Again, criticisms have abounded, but with more specific claims that Jarl Estrid Haakon is both an exercise in bogusly swapping the ‘race’ and ‘gender’ of a specific historical personage.
In response, Caroline Henderson has herself been quoted as responding to those who object to her portrayal: not only is the character fiction, but there is evidence of people of colour across the Viking world (See also this article in Metro). Check out this YouTube by The Welsh Viking for another take:
Unfortunately, historians have inadvertently supported these criticisms by being quoted out of context (as in the Daily Express), thus making it seem as if they are confirming that the TV character can be juxtaposed against a single historical personage, namely the Norwegian Jarl Haakon Sigurdsson. Others online took the view (as does The Welsh Viking) that it was Jarl Haakon Ericsson who was being falsely accused of being ‘misgendered’ and ‘race-swapped’ but in contrast refused to give credence to this idea of ‘swapping’. The very fact that no one can agree which ‘Haakon’ is supposed to be the ‘victim’ of race/gender-swapping is revealing in itself, I feel: namely that no such clear intention was at play by the creators of the television series at all.
Henderson is taking it too far to claim we have demonstrable evidence of women of colour in ‘positions of rulership’ in Viking Scandinavia, although we do have clear evidence for elites in the Scandinavian Viking period from Saami and West Slavic peoples as well as perhaps farther afield. This point aside, the outrage is all pointless and false, since the name ‘Haakon’ was shared by many individuals in the Viking Age from Haakon the Good to those mentioned above and it is manifestation in the medieval and modern Norwegian royal family. Meanwhile, the role of the jarl in charge of the fictional town of Kattagat is just…. fiction. Meanwhile, this all took place in a version of the later Viking Age inspired by later legends in which many of the acts which take place never happened in any way resembling our verified source material. Together with the many other more pressing errors in the show, including their repeated insistence of antagonists and protagonists calling themselves ‘Vikings’, this all seems rather silly. In combination, this should alert folks to the fact this is no attempt to represent historical events or processes directly.
I decided to compose a video on this subject for TikTok too. But first up, I wanted to reflect on the show more broadly:
My take was very similar to The Welsh Viking, but I would contend that the character is more intelligently cast and composed that others are willing to admit and discuss.
Expanding on the fictional character’s inspirations, we must not fixate so much on which ‘Haakon’ is being adapted, but instead to how she is an amalgam of ‘Estrids’ too! Specifically extending to the now-famous Estrid whose name appears on multiple Uppland runestones, her grave has been identified and in recent years she has become a Swedish heritage tourism icon and museum exhibit. She is the iconic Viking Swedish aristocrat: the progeniture of the Jarlbanke clan. Check out this public talk by Dr Ing-Marie Back Danielsson on the heritage interpretation of the Swedish Estrid.
The legendary Swedish Queen Estrid might be a further inspiration, being of Slavic royal descent.
In other words, Jarl Estrid Haakon is a fictional pan-Scandinavian amalgam of multiple historical, semi-historical and legendary figures from the late 10th and early 11th-century: ‘Haakons’ and ‘Estrids’. In this regard is carefully positioned in the historical drama as someone negotiating the turmoil of political and religious change but failing to ‘keep the peace’ as feuds swirl around and eventually invade her settlement. Her story isn’t attested in the archaeological or historical record, and it is certainly stretching our evidence to claim we can confirm someone of her background ruled in early 11th-century Norway. However, given the far-flung travels of elites and the confirmed presence of foreign elites in Scandinavia in the period, her portrayal is plausible and authentic in stretching our evidence and inaccurate in precise terms. In these ways, more than any other single character portrayed in Vikings or Vikings Valhalla, her character is a creative triumph that incorporates an authentic flavour of the far-flung contacts of the late Viking Age world.
Let’s be clear: the flagrant ignorance and overtly contrived nature of objections on grouds of ‘inaccuracy’ regarding the casting choices made for these fictional characters in their equally fictional universes, made on claims made regarding ‘inaccuracy’ in relation to the early medieval past, are starkly racist in inspiration and character. These responses are predicated on false authorities perpetuated by superficial readings of the fictional worlds being presented, often sustained by discussions on social medial, including via Reddit and Quora. It’s striking how rapid this false authorities and claims of identify ‘inaccuracies’ burgeon within hours and days to attack artistic choices regarding the casting of people of colour in modern television series and films.
This is all nothing new, and we have seen it again and again in reaction to casting choices, most striking in the Marvel Universe choice to cast Idris Elba as Heimdall. The craving for a white Middle Ages is part of the reason these claims superficially seem convincing. In addition, they reveal how out-moded racial and ethnic characterisations of the early medieval past continue to pervade our popular culture despite sustained research dismissing and discounting them. In particular, I believe 19th-century translations and representations of early medieval people, as well as old-fashioned racial and culture-historic archaeological paradigms, are a specific part of the present-day problem: circulating via popular media without alternatives.
Moreover, we can use both instances to counter such stances and ‘celebrate diversity’ in modern casting decisions as well as discussing the diversity of the early medieval world. These are characters created for the TV shows and not found on specific details from Tolkien’s writings inspired by medieval literature, history and archaeology and there is no reason they should (Rings of Power) or take up specific historical, legendary, mythological personages (Vikings Valhalla). Equally, for Vikings Valhalla they stretch scenarios from the Viking world to their limit for dramatic effect. Still, I would contend they remain authentic and aspirational creative compositions inspired by our current evidence regarding the complex interactions of peoples and cultures in early medieval north-west Europe. They reveal how the fixation with accuracy can be exploited by racists, while the contextual and rich exploration of early medieval Europe can be found within contemporary creative arts as well as systematic archaeological and historical research.
In such a situation, archaeologists shouldn’t necessarily ‘endorse’ creative decisions made by historical dramas, but can use them to discuss these popular culture portrayals, even if it draws us into criticism and controversy. If not, our academic disciplines are complicit in fostering shallow engagements with popular culture by focusing on superficial evaluations of ‘what they get right’ and ‘what they get wrong’. Academics should fully and responsibly engage with these popular fictional portrayals in constructive ways if at all.
Rings of Power and Vikings Valhalla reveal how academics can indeed credibly comment on popular fiction and its political ramifications, but not by feeding bouts of pre-release and release-date outrage. Moving beyond eye-rolling at the inaccuracies is not simply encouraged, it is essential, and certainly if we are to conduct ‘Public Viking Research’ (as I argue in a forthcoming publication). Indeed, while we shouldn’t shy away from calling out dangerous stereotypes, there is also much that can be positively and constructively discussed in these high-profile stories. Rings of Power and Vikings Valhalla are points of public engagement for academic research across disciplines. They are also teachable moments for our students and audiences, as well as each other. Moreover, they should serve as a call to action: we ignore and dismiss popular culture portrayals of the early medieval past at our peril, and in the fantasy of dramas we can find more authenticity and prompts towards constructive discussions about what new research is telling us about the Viking Age than many documentaries!