Monday, January 25, 2016

Monday Muse - George Blagden as Athelstan on Vikings



Its been a long time since I did a Monday Muse post, but with the new year upon us, and me well immersed in my latest TV addiction, I thought it was about time we had one.
So, today I'm looking at the character of Athelstan on Vikings, played by George Bladgen, mostly because this character has been through one very intersting journey on this surprisingly addictive show. If you're not up to date with Vikings, then look away now, as there may be some slight spoilers.
Now, the actor may look familiar, he's been in a few big productions like the 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables, and Wrath of the Titans. But I'm not here to talk about him, so much as the character of Athelstan.
I'm still debating whether or not Athelstan was technically what I like to call a gray character (one of those people you never really know are good or bad, or may be a bad character on the surface, but a good character at heart. Or a good person who does bad things for what they think are the right reasons) but he definitely went through one of the most riveting and fascinating character journeys I've ever seen on any TV show, or possibly read in any book. And I do not say this lightly. If you're a long time reader of this blog, you know I like my TV shows, I like to dissect them more than some other viewers. So I'm making a pretty big call here!
Athelstan started out as a young monk at a monastery. This monastery is the first thing the vikings, led by Ragnar Lothbrok, come across on their maiden voyage to England. They of course sack the monastery and take Athelstan, along with several other monks as slaves.
Ragnar becomes fascinated by Athelstan when he learns that Athelstan can speak their language. When the earl whom Ragnar defied to take his voyage confiscates all the bounty and tells Ragnar he can keep one single thing, Ragnar chooses the now-slave, Athelstan, much to the amusement of some other vikings.
Though Athelstan is obviously terrified of this new and brutal world, he is also curious about the way the "northmen" live. And I think one of the reasons why Ragnar and Athelstan quickly develop a strange kind of bond is because they have the same inquisitive minds that don't necessarily accept things as they seem on the surface, always looking for the deeper meaning.
Now this is how Athelstan is launched on his compelling journey. It doesn't take long before Ragnar is happy enough to entrust Athelstan with the care of his children while both him and his wife, Lagertha, go on another raid to England.
By now, Athelstan feels comfortable enough to question Ragnar about all kinds of things, including his freedom. In return, Ragnar questions whether Athelstan would use his freedom to return to England and his God. But its clear that Athelstan isn't interested in going anywhere.
Over the course of the next season (which occurs 4 years after the first season), Athelstan becomes a warrior, fully embracing the Norse gods. His transformation from timid monk to warrior willing to kill without remorse is startling, but he proves himself by joining Ragnar on raids and engaging in bloody battles. There are moments, of course, when you could see him questioning how far he'd come and why.
But things weren't all smooth sailing. At one point, Ragnar planned to sacrifice Athelstan at a holy place their people visited every nine years. I think in actual fact, this was seen as a great honor. At first Athelstan had no clue why Ragnar had taken him along, but when he found out, he was quite obviously shocked and horrified, as from a christian point of view, human sacrifice is abhorrent. I was sure at one point that Athelstan was about to be killed off, but lucky for him, he was deemed unworthy as a sacrifice and someone else had to volunteer.
Athelstan never held this against Ragnar, instead they continued to grow closer, taking us well on the way to a great TV bromance. But this may have been the start of the tipping point for Athelstan to question whether he would ever really belong with the northmen, no matter how close he and Ragnar had become (que the Athelnar shippers. Though some argue it should be Ragnalstan. I kid you not. God, I love these shipper names.)
Not long after this, it was starting to become very apparent that Ragnar relied heavily on Athelstan's council. The more trust he lost in his friends and family around him, the more he turned to Athelstan, which some of Ragnar friends--one name Floki, in particular--didn't like. Floki was very dedicated to the ways of the gods and became increasingly worried that the "priest" as they still often called Athelstan, would lead Ragnar to ruin.
In the middle episodes of season 3, Ragnar told Athelstan straight out that he couldn't trust anyone else. Athelstan had been questioning himself and his faith more and more after being captured and almost crucified in the previous season, then spending time as a confidant of the Wessex king.
Just as Ragnar came to a point where he felt he had no one else except Athelstan, the former monk rediscovered his christian faith. When he told Ragnar, the now-king of the Vikings was happy for his friend, but when Athelstan mentioned leaving, Ragnar was clearly thrown and almost desperate, telling Athelstan he could not leave him, that he loved him (not in THAT way... well, maybe a little. But my understanding of this portrayal of the vikings is that they didn't see "love" in the same way we do now) and that he would protect him from anyone who would say anything against him.
Ragnar later proves this by removing Athelstan from a tense stand-off, where Ragnar's brother, Rollo, is questioning why the priest is no longer wearing the arm band that Ragnar had given him years earlier as a sign of acceptance and respect.
But for Floki, this is the last straw.
I have to admit, even after Floki burst in and killed the ready-to-be-martyred Athelstan, I didn't believe he was really dead. Even when Ragnar carried Athelstan's body to his final resting place and said an emotional farewell, including the fact he could not be consoled, that he was a changed man, and had no idea what to do without Athelstan, I still thought that someway, somehow, Athelstan would rise and not really be dead, maybe just deeply unconscious, similar to the way he'd been crucified earlier, mirroring the journey of Jesus.
Even when the episode had finished, I still refused to believe, and it wasn't until I went on google and saw the truth, that Athelstan really was dead, that I finally accepted it with a good dose of loathing.
Its been a long time since a TV show has blindsided me and killed off my favorite character of the entire show, but Vikings manged to do it. And admittedly, I haven't watched an episode since. Oh, I intend to continue with the show, because I want to know what's going to happen with Ragnar, especially now that he has lost what was possibly the one true, inscrutable and certain thing in his life. But when I've been so heavily invested, its going to take me a little while to get over Athelstan's death.
I think this is definitely a show I'm going to have to re-watch. I'm sure there were many nuances I missed the first time around because I was in such a hurry to see what happened next. But I have to applaud the writers and creators for the ingenuity of Athelstan's character, even though they killed him off. From a creative and writing perspective, I could see how after rediscovering his faith, Athelstan's journey had to come to an end. And there was probably no other way to do it. He would never have left Ragnar, but as a devout christian, he couldn't feasibly continue living with the vikings.
From a fan point of view, I'm devastated that there won't be more Ragnar/Athelstan scenes. And I think it will be a long time before we see a bromance that complex and intriguing on TV again.
 


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