One of the most fascinating characters on History's "Vikings" (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET) is the newly introduced Athelstan (George Blagden), a monk from Lindisfarne who is captured by Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his raiders during a vicious attack on the Christian settlement. In this week's episode (March 17), Athelstan will find himself thrust into the unfamiliar world of the Vikings, whose pagan customs prove completely at odds with his own beliefs.
The Huffington Post spoke to Blagden via phone to find out what's to come for the captured monk, how his faith will conflict with the pagan rituals of the Vikings, and how the relationship between Athelstan and Ragnar will develop. The first part of that conversation is below. Light spoilers ahead.
This week, Athelstan gets his first introduction to Viking culture on their home turf. How is that experience for him?
Episode 3 is exciting because it’s when Athelstan really gets to have that conflict of, “How on earth do I survive and how on earth do I get through the next day?” and he has to turn to his wits and is flying by the seat of his pants. He’s constantly in that fight or flight mode and I think that’s why in the chapel in Episode 2 he suddenly decides to try speaking Old Norse to see if that works, and it did.
Athelstan and Ragnar have such a fascinating dynamic, where you can slowly start to see trust and camaraderie building between them before Ragnar shuts down again. Can you preview how their relationship evolves?
It’s a complex relationship and it’s sort of like when you’re in school and you feel like you’ve got a special teacher that you're friendly with and then they decide to discipline you and it’s kind of like, “Oh. OK. You just hit me. I forgot where our hierarchy stands.” It’s a conflict like that with he and Ragnar. It’s because Ragnar is as interested in Athelstan as Athelstan is interested in him, and so Ragnar forgets that sometimes as well: “Hang on a minute -- although this is the man I let into my house and start to become part of my family, I still need to let him know who’s boss." Without spoiling the rest of the season, it’s a very slow, long, process for Athelstan to become ingratiated in this society and I really don’t think it fully happens by the time we get through the end of the first season. It’s hard when you are trying to ingratiate yourself in a completely foreign world. It takes a long time.
He's obviously still a slave, so it's a tenuous balance, but do you think there could come a point where he might willingly want to be part of this culture, despite how different it is to what he's always known?
That is something that Michael [Hirst] and I try to deal with in the narrative throughout the first season and you’ll see as the episodes go on how much and to what extent he fully immerses himself, and it’s a constant conflict. I don’t want to ruin anything but it’s very much ongoing.
Let's talk about that threesome scene, because it's obviously so unexpected for him. What is going through Athelstan's mind in that moment?
Well, Athelstan has grown up on this island off the coast of Northumberland in this isolated monastery with only men. He has never seen a woman in his adolescent or adult life, let alone considered the idea of touching one or going near one. So it’s kind of like someone saying the Earth was flat rather than the Earth being round. “My brain cannot process it. I don’t understand what you are asking me to do.” What I really wanted to try and get across was that, “This guy is human and even the most religious of men are still only human.” With everything the lovely Katheryn Winnick is doing in front of him and Ragnar and all of her posing with her blanket, Athelstan is a man and yes, he’s a priest but he’s still a man and he still has those basic animal instincts that any man on the planet would have. I think this is just the first time in his life that they have been awakened and I think he doesn’t really know how to deal with it.
Will we see more of that temptation as the season progresses?
Well that is a very good question … What I will say is that the audience needs to remember that Athelstan is only human and there’s only so much time that even the most religious of men can stay that way in the context in which Athelstan is thrown into this completely alien, pagan world. So, yeah, keep watching. [Laughs.]
Obviously, the friction between his Christian faith and the Vikings' beliefs is going to be a constant source of friction. What can you say about how that develops?
The whole drama for Athelstan is that he fundamentally believes in something that is completely opposite. Talking to Michael before we started, most of the elements of the Christian faith are completely opposite to those of the pagan faith or the Vikings followed. For example, we in the Christian faith worship a single God, a single deity; Vikings worship many. They believe that the Gods are really present with us as physical entities. Everything is opposite and everything is different.
I guess it would be like grabbing someone on Sunset Boulevard, picking them up in a helicopter and taking them to a monastery in Tibet and saying, “This is where you are going to live the rest of your life" ... In reality, it just wouldn’t work. And he can try, like Athelstan does for a long time, but ultimately I think we are the result of our surroundings at the time.
As we've seen, Ragnar is a very curious character by nature. Does he start to become more interested in Christianity through his interactions with Athelstan, or is he purely using the information he gets from him for raids?
I think, speaking to Michael about religion, the big argument from that time is whether the Christianity influenced pagan Viking culture or whether pagan Viking culture influenced Christianity at that time and no one really knows. Because as the 800s went on, we were very much embedded in each other’s societies. The Vikings colonized Britain and a lot of our modern day towns are named after Viking names that settled these big towns. So I don’t think you’ll see in this first season, anything that plays towards that. I don’t think Christianity is something that Ragnar is interested in. I will say that you will hopefully get to see how the Vikings feel towards Christianity. As the season goes on, you’ll see in some of the later episodes. I think mostly the drama in the religious aspect of the show comes from Athelstan being this very western Christian religious figure trying to ingratiate himself in this very pagan society. I don’t think you’ll see much the other way.
Speaking of your early conversations with Michael, how did he present the character to you when you first got the role? What were some of the discussions you had in developing Athelstan?
The first question Michael asked me when I got to Ireland was, where did I go to school, and I said I went to boarding school at age seven in the UK and was at boarding school until 18 and he said, “That’s just so perfect, because that’s exactly who Athelstan is … I want you to bring as much of yourself to the role as possible," which is quite hard. Previously, I had just come off the set of "Les Miserables." I was playing a part in that which was very far away from me -- I was this drunken womanizer, which is really not me. That’s quite easy sometimes as an actor when you’re playing a role that is quite far away from you, because it means that you can really have fun with it and play around with it. But when a director asks you to basically present George to the camera, it’s quite hard. You don’t really know what to do because you’re just sort of being you, really. I’m not saying for one second that Athelstan is an exact reflection of who I am, but a lot of his characteristics are. So Michael really wanted me to bring a lot of myself.
The other thing was that I asked if I could actually go to Lindisfarne Island off of the coast of Northumberland and so I went for a couple of days in our preproduction weeks, which was just amazing. I kind of thought it was this little spit of land, a couple of hundred meters that you walk across a bridge off of the coast. It’s actually like a mile and a half out to sea and the only way to get to it -- now there’s obviously a road along the mudflats, but a thousand years ago there wasn’t a road -- it was just big mudflats. It's exactly like "The Woman in Black" ... that kind of island and these big expanded mudflats that you have to go across? That is what Lindisfarne Island is like.
A thousand years ago, the monks would have to wait until they saw the tide start to go out and then they would have to peg it across, run, and they’d often drown. It was a very dramatic, dangerous place to be and so that really helped in Episode 2 and 3, setting up the context in which he had grown up and what he’d become accustomed to. I think it’s a big reason as well, why he is a survivalist, because it wasn’t a safe confined community on Lindisfarne. It was a dangerous place and it was somewhere these monks had to have their wits about them. I think that’s how Athelstan is made up, by this really dangerous, isolated environment.
Move over Sterek, there's a new ship in town.