Vikings has taken its viewership by storm. Premiering in 2013 and airing on History, the series is based on the life of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his journey from a humble farmer to a ruthless, marauding Scandinavian king. Ragnar’s rise to prominence comes through the brute overpowering of his enemies and ceaseless ambition, yet the show also makes room for a consideration of the equally powerful effects of grace.
In the first season of Vikings we are introduced to Athelstan (George Blagden), an English monk who has been captured and kept as a slave in Ragnar’s household. As Athelstan performs his duties, a deep sense of trust and loyalty develops between him and Ragnar. Though he deeply struggles with his own Christian faith, he shows consistent grace and kindness toward Ragnar and his captors. This stands in stark opposition to his Christian counterparts. While the majority of the English are greedy, manipulative, and morally bereft, Athelstan reflects a Christ-like sense of patience, care, and a forgiving spirit toward his enemies. This contrast demonstrates how uncommon extravagant grace is. We can't help but wonder how someone who has such cause for retribution can still exercise such forgiveness. More than weaving a coherent picture of good-versus-evil or victory over one’s enemies, Vikings untangles common preconceptions about what loving our enemies really looks like.
Athelstan’s offer of grace softens Ragnar’s heart. (Spoilers ahead.) Soon he asks Athelstan deep questions of faith, challenging his own devotion to paganism. Ragnar even learns the Lord’s Prayer. What we see in Ragnar’s friendship with Athelstan is the effect grace can have on a willing and responsive heart. The true depth of their relationship becomes clear after Athelstan’s death. Ragnar carries Athelstan’s body for many miles up a steep mountain, where he insists that Athelstan have a Christian burial. He even constructs a cross as a grave marker. Ragnar stays with Athelstan for nearly a day and often holds back weeping as he mourns the death of his close friend. Athelstan’s grace cultivated true friendship between a Christian and a pagan.
Athelstan’s offer of grace softens Ragnar’s heart.
Although Athelstan is deeply loved by Ragnar, his kindness isn’t received in the same way by the rest of the community. One of Ragnar’s most loyal companions, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), responds to Athelstan with bitterness, skepticism, and hatred. Here we see how grace can be rejected. In the same manner that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, Floki’s heart becomes calloused. Floki is determined to resist the kind of grace that ran headlong against his own obsession and pride.
The character of Athelstan demonstrates the very different effects grace can have on individuals. In our own lives, grace can have this double effect. In some cases, grace softens our hearts because it reminds us how undeserving we are to receive it. Being shown forgiveness when we have perpetrated wrong can have a disarming effect on us. It knocks down our defenses. In other cases, grace hardens our hearts because it exposes our own sin. We’d rather cover it up, defend it, or minimize it because we don’t want to confront it.
We see in the ministry of Christ this same double effect of grace. Many, especially those in authority, resisted the message of Jesus, while others—the poor, outcast, and the spiritually needy—received God’s grace with open arms. Vikings reminds us that the only prerequisite to truly being changed by grace is to recognize our need of it.