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Vikings, Plutarch and the Reversal of Fortunes

6:00:00 AMJoseph Anderson

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Man is fascinated with destiny: his destiny, his country's destiny, the destinies of those around him. Maybe this is why such great playwrights like Shakespeare have written countless plays on the role of fate and its hold on a person’s life. If you look at the course of history, you will not always find winners and losers. Someone who is a winner one day may be the loser the next. The conqueror can become the conquered. Great empires rise, and they fall. It’s the stuff of history. One show that portrays the instability of success is History Channel’s drama, Vikings. Beyond the epic battle scenes, part of what makes Vikings such a powerful drama is its ability to portray the reversal of fortunes in its characters. These reversals have happened since the very beginning of the show. Ragnar went from a simple farmer to a king. Aethelstan went from slave to influencer of two kings and father of Alfred the Great. Floki went from right-hand man of the King of Kattegat to tied and left for dead in the bowels of a cave. The list of examples goes on. So why does fortune reversal communicate so well with an audience? After all, storytellers have been employing its use since the origin of myth. I have no doubt that it’s because of how concerned we are with our own destinies and our own fates. We want to be rich, successful, and above all happy. And yet experience shows us that nothing can necessarily guarantee happiness, which is why we look at the tragic heroes in both contemporary stories and the classics and feel compassion with them — we suffer with them. Vikings and stories like it are concerned with the question, “What makes for a happy life?”. Plutarch, the great biographer, gives us a great example of this in the form of his story about the travels of Solon. Solon was pretty much the original lawmaker for the Greeks. A lot of what their culture eventually became was owed to the foundations Solon set. So, one time Solon was out traveling and he came to Egypt and met Croesus. Croesus asked Solon who the happiest man was. Croesus was expecting to say that he, Croesus, was because of all of the wealth he had. But Solon gave a different answer: he said, “For thyself, oh! Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life”(Greek Lives) Ironically enough, Croesus did not live the long happy life that would have signified success in Solon’s mind. Changes of fortune aren’t just for storybooks, and the question remains open ended for us. What will we do in response to the changing tides of fortune? Whatever your answer may be, an encouraging truth is that your circumstances can change. You may be at the bottom of the heap or king of the hill. But, we know from history that the lowest can become the greatest, and that the greatest should not grow complacent in their success.

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