Out with the Greeks, in with the Vikings. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla kicked off Tuesday with strong reviews, including an 8/10 from GameSpot. It’s especially exciting for Xbox Series X | S owner probably the biggest starting game on the new platform from Microsoft.
In Valhalla, you play as Eivor, a Nordic attacker who leaves home to start a new life in Anglo-Saxon England. Vikings have long been a subject of fascination in popular imagination, and you probably have a good idea of what they’re about – raids, horns, Chris Hemsworth – even if you found the story like a huge school slumber party.
Valhalla is set in the ninth century. It’s what we commonly call the Early Middle Ages, and it’s also when the Northerners decided to kick England’s asses. But you could probably find that out from the trailers. Knowing any part of the story will help you make the most of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
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First, a disclaimer. The northerners weren’t great at writing their history. They scribbled here or there on the strange runestone, but since stones are heavy and difficult to carve (as I can imagine) they passed their story on largely through the oral tradition of storytelling. “Skalds,” or bards who kept the history of a clan, recited epic poems in which the brave deeds of brave warriors and mighty kings were recognized.
These legends were not written down until the 12th century, 400 years after the height of the Viking Age. By then, these sagas had turned into fantastic stories with larger than life heroes, romance and the strange appearance of Thor, much like the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
For this reason, our knowledge of the actual events of early medieval Scandinavia is somewhat limited. In general, however, we accept some events in the sagas as (more or less) fact.
Why are you going to England?
Around the time of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Norway was the center of the Viking world. It was not a country like it is today, but consisted of several small entities called small kingdoms. These little kingdoms were made up of clans, each with their own leader: a jarl or chief king.
These kingdoms weren’t the most peaceful places to live. They did not stay on their respective tracks and were often at war with one another, invading the territory or settling blood feuds that spanned generations.
While you were busy preventing Fjordane from stealing your land, you also fought Hadeland because your great-grandfather mistook your great-grandfather. It was a bad use of everyone’s time.
872-873 AD, when Walhalla begins, the small kingdoms of Norway were united by Norway’s first king: King Harald Fairhair. Harry had inherited several kingdoms from his father and conquered several more along the way. This regional conquest clearly made Harry cocky, which led to his desire to unite all of Norway.
At the beginning of the game our hero Eivor meets this King Harald Fairhair. Assassin’s Creeds King Harald is a young and kind (and blond) king with a desire to unite Norway under one banner – his. In Valhalla, Harald comes to Eivor and offers the peace and stability of a united country when Clan Raven bends his knee.
The Nords, both in Valhalla and in real life, have found a compromise. On the one hand, everyone could put their differences aside and not have to fight their grandparents’ battles or worry. On the other hand, they have to surrender their titles and lands to Harald and be his subjects instead of equal rights. It is a win-win situation when by win-win you mean one person wins and everyone else pays taxes to that person for the rest of their lives.
Many of the Jarls, tired of years of bloodshed, accept his offer and swear allegiance to him. Against this background, Eivor’s foster father Styrbjörn also swears allegiance to King Herald in Valhalla. Great! Except that Styrbjörn did not mention his plans to give up the titles he had promised his son Sigurd. Not good!
Sigurd, your brother, feels betrayed and upset that his father gave his birthright away and decides that there is no place for him and Clan Raven in this new united Norway. Then Siguard, Eivor and Clan Raven decide to start their raid and establish a new kingdom in England
What’s going on in England?
Anglo-Saxon England consisted of seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent. The northerners had invaded Britain since the attack on Lindisfarne in Northumbria in 793 and had sometimes settled there. The Lindisfarne raid started what we know as the Viking Age and lasted until 1066 when some new people moved to England (spoilers for a future Assassin’s Creed game: It’s the Normanans).
Many of these Norse clans settled in England because, like Sigurd, they were essentially driven from their lands after refusing to swear allegiance to new kings. Others just wanted to flee to the countryside after realizing how nice it was to have real farmland and grow their own food.
By the time Eivor (that’s you!) Settles in Mercia, a coalition of warriors from Denmark, Sweden and Norway known as the Great Pagan Army has conquered Jorvik (now known as York) and Nordic settlements are being established across Northumbria. Mercia and East Anglia. The Nordic (disparagingly referred to as Danes by the Saxons) gain power, either through violent conquest or through the installation of Saxon puppet kings on the throne – or often both.
As the unofficial representative of Clan Raven, Eivor is allowed to play kingmakers across Great Britain to forge alliances. It’s “I put you on the throne, you scratch my back … and you fight for me whenever I want because you owe me something.” in order to a lot of “politics.
The power and presence of the Vikings extends from the south side of Hadrian’s Wall near Scotland to Lunden, London. Nordic culture is so dominant that this area is known as Danelaw – the place where Nordic laws and culture dominate those of the Anglo-Saxons. Think of it as Little Norway, but cover most of England.
This expansion and growing cultural dominance that Valhalla is playing understandably makes the Saxons a bit hot under the collar and wary of these “Danes”. In Wessex, King Alfred fights against the Nordic invasion. He’s the guy in the Valhalla trailer who declares war on the Vikings and their efforts to invade Britain.
In the game, he positions himself as a sneaky antagonist with a glimmer of cruelty in his eye. All understandable since he is against our hero. However, the real Alfred was possibly more complex than just “Evil English Guy”.
He inherited a divided and war-weary Wessex from his brother Æthelred I, who spent his entire reign fighting against the great pagan army. Alfred the Great is widely regarded as a strong leader who is not only capable on the battlefield but also diplomatically. Alfred is the only other monarch in England besides King Cnut the Great (don’t laugh at his name) to have been awarded the title “The Great” (OK, well, you can laugh at Cnut The Great a little.)
This tidbit has nothing to do with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, I just think it’s cool. If this is ever a question on Trivia, you owe me a Guinness of thanks.
Alfred is more noble in real life than depicted in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. On the other hand, history is made by the winners. And sometimes it’s fun to beat the winners of history.
Assassin’s Creed hits Xbox Series X on November 10th | S, Xbox One, PS4 and PC released. The PS5 version will follow on November 12th.
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