At first appearance The Vikings at Helgeland, Ibsen’s 1858 play based on the old Norse sagas is ridiculously outdated, too dramatically awkward to be of much interest today as living drama. For anyone who knows only his work from the 1870s onwards, it’s scarcely recognizable as an Ibsen play but a closer reading shows strong indications of the psychological insight that was to blossom in his writing over the next couple of decades.
Anyone familiar with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen will recognize the characters and situations. Both works are drawn from the Völsungasaga and the plot of The Vikings has a lot in common with that of Götterdämmerung, the final opera of Wagner’s cycle. It features Sigurd (Siegfried), Gunnar (Gunther), Dagny (Gutrune) and a human rather than half-god Brünnhilde in the formidable character of Hjördis. There’s talk of Norns and a ring and a full-blown Ride of the Valkyries at the end of the play. Sigurd is married to Dagny and Gunnar to Hjördis, the same pairing as in Wagner’s music drama, and the arrival of Dagny’s father Örnulf (also Hjördis’s foster-father) sets off a chain of events that ends in personal, rather than godly, twilight.
One of the crudities of Ibsen’s dramatic method at this stage is the arrival of characters shortly after they’ve been mentioned. For instance, the play opens with Sigurd unexpectedly meeting with Örnulf and their discussion soon turns to Gunnar and his warrior bride; within seconds the latter pair arrive, having not seen the others for years. Ibsen strives to make this coincidence seem natural but it doesn’t convince. The first scene is a negotiation, in which much of the plot exposition takes place:
ÖRNULF: I want you all to hear now what this matter is about. Five winters ago. Sigurd and Gunnar came as Vikings to Iceland! All that winter they took shelter on my land close by my house. Then Gunnar carried off Hjördis, my foster-daughter, by force and cunning! But you, Sigurd, took my own child, Dagny, and sailed away with her.
This stilted manner of delivering information to the audience by telling other characters what they already know is typical of early Ibsen but there’s plenty that’s more subtle. Ibsen metes out information much as he does in his later plays. In what is the opposite of dramatic irony, he withholds one vital fact until three quarters of the way through the play. Its impact is felt early on but the audience is as much in ignorance as the characters and it requires a second or third reading to pick up on some of the subtleties.