Vikings and Bears

[Beware–this post contains a few spoilers for Season 4 of Vikings.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about bears recently. Part of this is due to the theatrical release of the live-action Jungle Book (“Look for the bare necessities”) as well as an ongoing project on Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants (2008) in which Thor is transformed into a bear. I’ve heard that there’s a bear in the 2015 film The Revenant, but to be honest, I have no desire to see it. Since I’ve moved to Colorado, I’ve seen at least seven bears, including a mother bear and her two cubs near the aptly named Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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But most recently, an episode of the History Channel’s The Vikings has brought human/bear relationships to my attention once again.

What I’ve seen of Season 4 (I’m a little behind) has been great so far. I’ve enjoyed watching Floki’s storyline evoke that of his alleged ancestor Loki in significant ways, and the show has touched on the art of illuminated manuscripts. Poor Rollo is trying his best to please his French wife. Travis Fimmel as Ragnar continues to be mesmerizing. I’ve been particularly interested in the storyline of Björn Ironside, Ragnar’s eldest son, who has decided to spend the harsh winter in the wilderness in an attempt to prove himself to his father.

In the third episode of Season 4, Björn discovers that something has been destroying the traps that he has set. The culprit? A bear. When Michael Hirst, the show’s creator, asked  others in the studio, “I need a test for Bjorn. I want to send him into the wilderness. What kind of trials could he possibly have in the Scandinavian wilderness?” (Variety), I’m not surprised that an encounter with a bear was the answer, but I must admit my disappointment at how they realized this encounter, especially in light of the role of bears in Norse literature and mythology.

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) will face off against a bear in Season 4, episode 3 of "Vikings." Photo: History Channel

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) will face off against a bear in Season 4, episode 3 of “Vikings.” Photo: History Channel

When Björn first realizes a bear has been stealing from his traps, he tracks it to its lair only to find it is waiting for him on a snowy plain. The bear does not charge, however; rather, it stands and growls menacingly–but then it turns and then moves away in the opposite direction.

My first thought on seeing this scene was to expect Björn to follow the animal. After all, his name translates to “bear” in Old Norse. Perhaps the bear was his spirit animal. In addition, the enemies of Ragnar, learning of Björn’s isolation, have hired a berserker to track him down and kill him. I was hoping for a nice commentary on the human/animal binary, especially given that berserker is Old Norse for “bear shirt”–literally, one who acquires the strength of a bear by donning a bear skin.

Later in the episode, Björn discovers a flask of alcohol and spends the evening drunkenly howling at the Northern lights. The next morning, it is not the bitter cold that awakens him, but rather the bear. Once again, the bear turns and walks away from Björn without charging. Björn does not follow.

But when Björn next encounters the bear, he does so fully armed and the two engage in battle.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 6.12.25 PM.pngFollowing the death of the bear, Björn skins the bear and treats the wound he received from the beast. Later we see Björn emerging from the ice in a scene reminiscent of baptism.

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On one hand, the death of the bear will provide warmth (the bear skin), food, and much-needed confidence to Björn, but on the other hand, this episode, for me at least, marked how different Björn is from his father. Ragnar is very in tune with the spiritual–in fact, this same episode shows Ragnar communing with a lost friend–and when Björn kills the bear, the camera cuts to Ragnar, who hears Björn’s cry of victory as a raven–one of Odin’s totemic animals–flies overhead (and there have been several other moments in the series, from the very first episode even, where Ragnar is connected to Odin through a raven). 

In fact, just before Björn encounters the bear for the final time, Ragnar has been telling the story of Hárbarðsljóð to his younger sons. In this flyting poem (a translation is available here and the poem in Old Norse here), Odin disguises himself as the ferryman Harbard who subsequently refuses passage to Thor. Ragnar tells the story in part to shame his wife Aslaug (she had an affair with a man named Harbard in the previous season), but given the larger frame of the Björn/bear encounter, I can’t help but wonder if the Thor/Odin dynamic is a commentary on the Björn/Ragnar relationship as well.

While bears do not often show up in the Middle English romances with which I typically work, they do appear in the Old English and Norse material. The titular hero of Beowulf, for example, has linguistic connections to bears through his name (“Bee + Wolf”). Grettir, in Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, spends most of his time fighting other outlaws and the occasional troll, but a few bears show up as well. But then there’s the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.

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Even before Bodvar Bjarki appears, the motif of the Bear’s Son appears when Queen Hvit, after unsuccessfully propositioning the king’s son–aptly named Bjorn, curses Bjorn to live out the days of his life as a bear:

She then struck him with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock, and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ (Chapter 19 from Jesse Byock’s translation)

Bera, his beloved, follows after him and they live together for some time–even having children together (one of whom is Bodvar Bjarki, whose name means “Warlike Little-Bear”). Like Merida in Disney/Pixar’s Brave, Bera recognizes the humanity in Bjorn’s eyes. When Bodvar grows up, he seeks the court of Hrólfr Kraki and garners much glory. His connection to bears is more subtle than that of his father, as revealed in a battle scene:

Then Hjorvard and his men see a huge bear going before the King Hrolf’s men, always nearest to where the king was. He kills more men with his paw than any five of the king’s other champions. Blows and missiles glance off him. But he bursts under him both men and horses of King Hjorvard’s army; and everything that comes in his way, he crushes in his teeth, so that panic sweeps King Hjorvard’s army. (Chapter 50 from Peter Tunstall’s translation)

Bodvar’s companion, Hjalti, wonders where Bodvar is and leaves the battle to look for him. Upon finding Bodvar sitting motionless in a trance in the king’s hall, Hjalti rebukes him–but alas, the spell has been broken. Bodvar was present at the battle–he had sent his spirit into the fierce bear–but now the tide will turn and Bodvar, the king, and their noble companions will fall.

The fourth episode of Vikings (the most recent episode that I’ve seen) did nothing further with Björn‘s relationship to the bear. He defeats the berserker sent to kill him and returns to his father’s home (although now with a female companion), but I’ve not seen any evidence of change in him. Perhaps time will tell.

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