TORONTO - Cast aside notions of the barbaric, filthy Viking.
"Camelot" scribe Michael Hirst is on a mission to rehabilitate that image with a scripted series that portrays the seafaring Scandinavian marauders as not only family-oriented, but rather civilized.
"Culturally for us the Vikings are always the other — they're always the guys who break down your door in the night and rape and pillage and they're not normally seen as sympathetic or attractive people," Hirst says in a recent phone interview from his home, just outside Oxford, England.
"Two of the main things about that culture was, one: it was far more democratic than anything in the West — anything in England or France or Ireland. That they had public meetings, that they had pseudo-democratic institutions. And the other thing that really stood out was ... that unlike in the West, women could divorce their husband, they fought with their men, they could rule. They could inherit property. And this was so far away from the sort of cliche of these raping, pillaging guys that I thought, 'Well that's a way to start. That takes me into their world.'"
Of course, there's still plenty of pillaging and plunder going on in Hirst's nine-part drama, "Vikings," an international Irish/Canadian co-production that debuts Sunday on History.
The eighth-century action centres on the fearless Norse warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, an ambitious adventurer who urges his corrupt chieftain Earl Haraldson, played by Gabriel Byrne, to explore the undiscovered West.
A bloody opening battle establishes Ragnar's ruthless precision in dispatching enemies, but when back in his tight-knit community, he's revealed to be a loving husband, father and farmer.
Australian actor Travis Fimmel stars as Ragnar while Toronto-bred Katheryn Winnick plays his warrior wife, Lagertha, and Montreal's Jessalyn Gilsig play's Haraldson's wife Siggy.
Gilsig says a deep backstory helps add texture to her calculating character, who comes from an established family and married young, probably around 12. She's forged a "Macbeth"-like partnership with Haraldson to rule their community with fear, but along the way they lost two sons in battle.
"We are as vulnerable as a family could be in our position — he's getting older, we don't have an heir and we have this really ambitious young man who is curious about a new way of exploring and also a new way of ruling," says Gilsig, also known from "Nip/Tuck" and "Glee."
"Gabriel Byrne was the first to mention Lady M actually and he was very adamant that we always have this approach.... It's not accidental that Siggy comes into the Great Hall and sits beside him. It's because he needs her to sit beside him, because they have a plan and she needs to keep him focused on that plan and together they build a strategy and had always built a strategy to maintain their position."
They live in a brutal society, but Gilsig notes that punishments are not meted out casually.
"Life is not disposable. Every death has a price and in fact, I think Michael Hirst has done a beautiful job of also showing that there was a system of justice in place — you couldn't just go and kill your neighbour and be, 'Well, I'm a Viking, sorry, that's what we do,'" she says.
"There were laws and there were codes and they were different than ours, it's a different time, but it wasn't just a kind of free-for-all of rape and pillage."
Of course, those codes were reserved for the Viking community. It was a different story when they went exploring.
Most of the early bloodshed comes as Ragnar and his gang head to foreign lands with the help of his friend Floki, played by Gustaf Skarsgard, who engineers a faster, sleeker and better-crafted boat that takes them south to England.
Hirst says Ragnar is based on a real Viking leader who raided England and Ireland, attacked Paris, married twice and had many warrior sons.
"One of his sons was the remarkably named Ivar the Boneless, who is just a fantastic character and I can't wait to get him in the show," says Hirst, whose costume dramas include the TV series "The Tudors," "The Borgias" and the 1998 film "Elizabeth."
Hirst says he based the tale on authentic records as much as possible. But he notes that Vikings were an illiterate people and all evidence of paganism was destroyed after Christianization.
Much of what was written down came from Christian monks and other hostile witnesses, giving birth to the ruthless reputation Vikings still have today.
"Anyone tuning in to a channel called History has the right to expect that what they're watching has some relationship to reality and to the real past. And this show does," says Hirst, who relied on research from archeological digs and anecdotes from traders who encountered Vikings.
"But it's important to say at the same time that we're talking about the Dark Ages. And they're not called the Dark Ages for nothing. We know very, very little about this whole period and a lot of it's mixed up with myth and with legend and so on. So anyone trying to manoeuvre their way around this subject is going to have to take leaps and use their imagination but that's fine because that's what drama is. And I would never ever claim that I'm writing a documentary."
Leaps included finding a way for characters to speak Old Norse without bogging down the series. Snippets of the language are used throughout but for the most part actors had to adopt a unique accent that evoked the era.
"We worked with a dialect coach to try to create a sound and an accent that our international cast could use as a bible to really kind of go to, to keep everybody unified," says Winnick, whose background in competitive taekwondo helped make her a convincing shield maiden.
"It's a Swedish, Old Norse way of speaking, traditional way of speaking — a bit of a British undertone for me being Canadian and living in the States. But I'm born and raised in Toronto (so) it definitely was challenging for me to pick up an accent. But I loved it."
"Vikings" debuts Sunday on History.