A primer on the Electoral College

The Electoral College is frequently a mystery even to Americans who have followed many Presidential elections. This is a historical explanation of what the Electoral College is, why it came about, how it works, and some possible problems with it.

In the early years after the Revolution, the United States of America was governed by the Articles of Confederation.[i] It was an unhappy experiment. The Confederation Congress needed to get 9 of the 13 states to agree to pass any measure, and had no power to enforce its laws on the states. States failed to pay their contributions, even ones to which they had agreed, leaving the Confederation Congress broke much of the time. The situation in the states was not much better. In 1786, Massachusetts’ government seemed on the verge of toppling to a rebellion of farmers.[ii]

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)

So when the delegates from 12 of the states gathered for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, they decided to build a stronger central government. They wrestled with many controversies, and typically adopted compromises to obtain the broadest possible support. They made the new Federal Government more powerful, but split it into three branches, and made each a check on the other two.[iii] In the conflict over whether the Federal Government should represent the states or the people, they compromised and created a legislative branch, Congress, divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives, to represent the people, and another, the Senate, to represent the states.[iv] And in the conflict between being responsive to the popular will and preventing the government from being subject to momentary mob enthusiasms, they gave members of the House of Representatives only a two-year term, while giving Senators a six-year term, and having the judiciary appointed by the President subject to review by the Congress.[v]

And who did the first electors vote for? Guess!

And who did the first electors vote for? Guess!

Ah, but how was the President, the head of the executive branch, to be selected? The Constitutional Convention enacted a complex system along the lines of their previous compromises. The President would be elected, thus representing the popular will, but not directly. Instead, he would be elected by a special group of people chosen for that purpose called electors, which group we now call the Electoral College.[vi] These would be chosen by the states, giving them a role. Each state would get two electors just for being a state, just like how they get two Senators in Congress. But they would also get the same number of electors as they have Representatives in Congress, hence in proportion to their population, which gives the popular will a role once again. The electors would be the ones who would actually cast votes for the President, and also vote separately for the Vice President. Whichever candidate got a majority of the Electoral College votes would become the President and Vice President.[vii]

Over time, certain customs developed in the election of the President. Under the Constitution, legislatures determined how the electors were chosen from their state. In the early days, many legislatures did choose the electors, but over time the legislatures turned the choosing of the electors over to a popular vote. And the “winner take all” principle became the norm: whichever candidate won a plurality in each state would get all the electoral votes from that state.[viii]

The first President to need 270 electoral votes: LBJ. (He got 486.)

The first President to need 270 electoral votes: LBJ. (He got 486.)

So how does this actually work today? Each state gets as many electors as it gets Senators and Representatives in Congress. Each state gets two Senators, so each state gets two electoral votes for that. The 435 Representatives in the House are apportioned roughly by population, so each state gets electors roughly proportionate to the population.[ix] For example, California, the largest state by population, gets 53 electors because it has 53 Representatives, plus the two electors it gets for having two Senators. Wyoming, the smallest state by population, gets only one electoral vote for its one Representative, but two more for its Senators, so three in total. And there is one anomaly: the District of Columbia is represented in the Electoral College as if it were a state, so it gets three electors.[x] Hence there are 538 electors (435 + (50 x 2) + 3). For a candidate to win the Presidential election, that candidate must win over half the Electoral College votes, which means 270 are needed to win.

When you go to vote on November 8, the ballot you mark probably lists the names of the candidates, but you are actually voting for the slate of electors in your state that have been nominated by each candidate’s party to pledge their votes for that candidate. The candidate who wins a plurality in each state wins all that state’s electoral votes, which is to say that candidate’s electoral slate is deemed the winner.[xi]

Congress counting the Electoral College ballots in 1877 (which actually was a complicated mess, but for reasons not germane to this article)

Congress counting the Electoral College ballots in 1877 (which actually was a complicated mess, but for reasons not germane to this article)

Once the appropriate state official certifies the vote, and hence the election of the winning electors, those electors gather at the state capital to cast their votes, which are then certified by state officials and carried to Washington, D.C. There in January, the new Congress will count the Electoral College votes and declare the winners of the Presidential and Vice Presidential elections.

Simple. Even though the President isn’t officially elected until the Electoral College votes are counted by Congress in January, we’ll almost certainly know the day after people vote in November who won.

But what if something goes wrong? There are three perfectly legal problems that could cause the Electoral College to fail.

The first and biggest problem with the Electoral College is that a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose in the Electoral College. There are two reasons why this can happen. First, the Electoral College rewards winning in small states disproportionately to winning in large states, because small states have their weight in the Electoral College increased above their population thanks to the two electors they get just for being states (corresponding to the number of Senators they have). Second, the winner-take-all system of awarding all the electoral votes of a state to the winning candidate means a candidate can barely eke out a popular vote majority in just enough states to win the Electoral College, while being thoroughly trounced in the other states.

Between losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College through a controversial Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush had legitimacy problems early in his Presidency.

Between losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College through a controversial Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush had legitimacy problems early in his Presidency.

It’s happened three times: in 1876, 1888, and 2000, the candidate who won a plurality of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College to an opponent who had gathered a majority in the Electoral College.[xii]

There’s not much that can be done about this. It’s part of the design of the Electoral College. But in these more democratic times, when we feel the will of the people should be the final word, results like these undermine the legitimacy of the Presidential election process and the Presidency.

The second problem is that, while the electors are typically chosen from loyal party members who cast their ballots as directed, sometimes electors don’t vote the way they’ve been instructed by the voters and their parties. It’s only happened occasionally, as recently as 2004, but has never influenced an election’s outcome yet.[xiii] Still, such votes are legal and irreversible. Oh, some states have passed laws binding electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote, but the Constitution recognizes no such constraints on an elector’s vote. The authors of the Constitution looked at the electors as being local wise men who would vote for a reputable statesman, not party hacks who would blindly follow a popular vote.[xiv] So it’s questionable whether those state laws could actually bind the electors, to say nothing of overturning the votes they actually cast.[xv] Neither the states nor Congress have disputed the votes of rogue electors. Conceivably, if enough electors changed their mind, they could elect someone nobody voted for.

The third problem is if no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College, which given the current even number of electors includes the possibility of a tie. It happened once under the current system, in 1824.[xvi] In that case, the election for President is thrown into the House of Representatives. But, contrary to what you might expect, the Representatives don’t vote directly for the President, no. Instead, they have to band together and vote by states, each state getting only one vote. So, if this situation arose, California would have to get its 53 Representatives to huddle and decide which candidate they would cast their one vote for. Imagine the misfortune of a state with an evenly split delegation: it wouldn’t be able to cast a vote at all! While the smallest states, with only one representative, would have an easy time of it.

I wuz robbed!

I wuz robbed!

It was a mess when it happened in 1824. Two of the also-rans, John Quincy Adams (who came in second) and Henry Clay (who came in third in the popular vote, fourth in the Electoral College vote) banded their supporters together to give Adams a majority in the House, and hence the Presidency. Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality of both the popular vote (41%) and the Electoral College vote (99 out of 261) felt the election had been stolen from him. His successful campaign four years later against Adams was heavily colored by charges that Adams and Clay had made a corrupt deal in 1824.

It wouldn’t be much better today. In the current Congress, 33 state delegations have a majority of Republicans, 14 of Democrats, and 3 are evenly split. The Democrats may pick up a delegation or two in this election year, but the Congress that meets in January, 2017, is still likely to have a majority of state delegations with Republican majorities. Say that the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, wins a plurality of votes and Electoral College votes, but not a majority, because the rest are split between Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. How many Republican delegations would be willing to vote against their own party to put Ms. Clinton in the White House? Or what if Mr. Trump’s behavior continues to erode his support? Might the Republicans decide they should discard all the losing nominees, and elect a stalwart Republican they like?[xvii]

Fortunately, the possibility that neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton will win a majority in the Electoral College is still remote, so this third difficulty is still unlikely . . . so far.

[i] The Articles were accepted by Congress in 1777, but were not ratified by all the states until 1781.

[ii] This was Shays’s Rebellion. The rebels felt that the economy and laws had been manipulated to benefit speculators. The state government viewed the uprising as treason, pure and simple.

[iii] The three branches are the legislative (Congress), responsible for passing laws, the judiciary (the Supreme Court and other Federal courts), responsible for judging cases under law and the constitutionality of laws, and the executive (the President and the executive branch agencies), responsible for the administration, execution, and enforcement of the laws.

[iv] In the House of Representatives, each state has representation in proportion to its population, while in the Senate each state gets two votes, no matter how many people live in that state. This also resolved the controversy between the large states, which wanted their votes to represent their size, and the small states, which wanted each state to have equal representation. One should also note that who counts as a person and who votes were not simple matters in 1787, let alone the same thing. Native Americans not actually subject to the Federal Government’s authority (“Indians not taxed” in the phrase of the era) were neither counted nor could vote. Slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person and could not vote. Women and children were counted but could not vote.

[v] As the House represented the people directly it was appropriate that it had the shorter term, the better to respond to popular views. The Senate, on the other hand, was not just apportioned equally to each state, but its members were originally elected, not by the voters, but by the state legislatures. Hence their role as a “cooling vessel” for public passions in legislation. It was only in 1913 that the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave the power of electing Senators to the voters directly, instead of the state legislatures.

[vi] It was assumed that any Presidential candidate would be a man. The people in the Electoral College are called “electors” because their purpose is to elect the President.

[vii] The original system used in 1788-1800 was different in that the votes for President and Vice President were not distinguished. This created controversial problems in the elections of 1796 and 1800. The current system was put into place with the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. There have been other minor changes since then.

[viii] A candidate who gets more votes than any other candidate is said to have won by a plurality. If the candidate wins over 50% of the vote, the candidate is said to have won by a majority. Every majority is a plurality, but not every plurality is a majority. For example, in a three-way race, a candidate who wins 40% of the vote while the other two candidates won only 30% of the vote apiece has won by a plurality, because the first candidate’s 40% share is bigger than either of that candidate’s opponents.

[ix] The correspondence between population and size of a state’s delegation in the House of Representatives is not exact for three reasons. First, the number of Representatives has been fixed by law at 435 since 1929, and fractional representation isn’t allowed; there are going to be rounding errors. Second, each state is guaranteed one Representative no matter how small its population, which means some small states are disproportionately overrepresented. Third, there are several possible algorithms to apportion the remaining seats, but none of them gives a perfect result.

[x] This has been true only since the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1961, with the additional provision that the District can never have more electoral votes than the least populous state. Under current circumstances, both rules give the District three electors.

[xi] Maine and Nebraska are currently exceptions. They award Electoral College votes both by statewide election and by the vote in each Congressional district. So, for example, if candidate A wins the statewide vote in Maine and in Maine’s 1st Congressional district, but candidate B wins in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district, candidate B would get 1 electoral vote from Maine, while candidate A would get 3 (1 for the Congressional district, 2 for winning the state as a whole).

[xii] Note this description does not fit the 1824 election, in which no candidate took a majority of the Electoral College. 1824 is a special case discussed later in the text.

[xiii] The most recent cases have been protest votes in which the elector didn’t vote or voted for another member of their party. The last elector to vote for another party’s candidate was in 1972. Technically, the rogue electors of 1836 did change the election, since their actions forced the election into the Senate (see footnote xvii), but the candidate who should have won in the Electoral College did win in the Senate.

[xiv] The development of nationwide political parties was not anticipated by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. And given the slow communications and the large size of the nation back then, the rise of a number of regional parties probably appeared more likely.

[xv] After an elector cast a protest vote in 2004, Minnesota changed its rules so that electoral votes could be reviewed before being certified. To date, this mechanism has not been tested by a rogue elector trying to cast a vote for the wrong candidate, so its legality at the Federal level is uncertain. The Supreme Court has held that states can require electors to pledge to support a candidate, but has not ruled in favor of any mechanism to enforce that pledge.

[xvi] There was a tie in 1800, but that was under the older system. See footnote vii.

[xvii] What about the Vice Presidency, you ask? If no candidate wins a majority, that election is thrown into the Senate, where each Senator casts an individual vote. This has happened once, though not in 1824, surprisingly. It was in 1836, when the Democratic candidate, Richard Mentor Johnson, fell one vote shy in the Electoral College, but was elected by the Senate. Johnson was a controversial figure because he had lived with a mixed-race slave as if she were his wife, and that caused several electors to drop him from their ballots, although they still voted for his running mate, who became President Martin Van Buren. The most curious possibility that might arise in the 2016 election would be if no candidate won a majority in both the Presidential and Vice Presidential races, while the Democrats managed to recapture the Senate. If both chambers stuck to party loyalty, the result could be a Republican President and a Democratic Vice President. The last time the President and the Vice President came from different parties was in the election of 1796! (One could argue that John Tyler and Andrew Johnson were subsequent examples, but they ran on the same party ticket as the Presidents with whom they were elected.)

Review: Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015)

mary beard spqrOh, no, ancient Roman history! Dead white males talking about dead white males! The sort of thing you expect from desiccated old prep school teachers and moldy dons from Oxford and Cambridge. Well, sit back in your reading chairs, because you’re actually going to enjoy this book.

First off, as of this writing, Mary Beard is neither dead nor male. She is a Cambridge professor, but after you finish reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), you won’t hold it against her. Because this is a readable history, an engaging history, one suitable for a general audience. And yet at the same time it is not shallow. Moreover, readers will even learn something about how historians do their work, and why it can be exciting.

How does Prof. Beard do it? All the chapters are anchored in concrete examples. These serve as Beard’s launching pad for addressing her selected topics in each period of Roman history. For example, take Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (d. 280 BCE[i]). If you look him up in Wikipedia, you will find a horribly dry account of his military career, which will bore your pants off even if you do understand the historical context of Rome’s Italian wars. In contrast, Beard uses his sarcophagus to discuss the values of Roman men in Barbatus’ era, the development of Roman political and military power in the early centuries of the Republic, and the social conflicts of the same era, before launching into a discussion of Roman law, anchored by a different example. And she does this so smoothly you don’t realize the range of what you’ve just learned in a few pages.

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor. (Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor.
(Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

As you can gather from that description, Beard’s is not just a dry political or military history of Rome, like the one I read in high school.[ii] She’s concentrating on what she thinks are the important developments, whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. So she has extended discussions about what the legendary stories of Rome’s founding meant to later Romans, the mechanisms by which Roman power spread, and how the common people lived, while skipping over such details as the specifics of every war or the reigns of every emperor, if they don’t contribute to her analysis in any significant way. Readers will come away with an understanding of how Rome was able to conquer and incorporate peoples, first in Italy and then around the Mediterranean, without getting bogged down in the details of the Third Samnite War or the reign of the Emperor Vitellius (who isn’t even mentioned by name).

Along the way, Beard is frank in explaining how historical evidence leads her to certain conclusions, and on the limitations of historical research. She persuasively argues, based on archaeological evidence and comparative historical analysis, that early Rome simply wasn’t large or sophisticated enough to have the elaborate government depicted by later Roman historians such as Livy. And she admits that historians have inadequate means to assess how Christianity spread in any detail, while at the same time arguing that the structure of the Empire did indeed facilitate that spread.

Frankly, reading Beard’s book was a joy. Her writing is smooth, so much that this will be the fastest 500+ page history book you’ll ever read. Beard communicates her enthusiasm both for the subject matter and the nature of historical research quite well. It’s hard to hit a balance between being scholarly and popular in a history book, particularly one on more remote periods, but Beard has done it with SPQR.

[i] For dates, Beard uses the “common era” convention, so dates are given as BCE, Before the Common Era, and CE, during the Common Era. These are identical to dates using the convention of the Christian Era, B.C. and A.D., respectively.

[ii] No, I don’t recall the title or author. It was not an assigned reading, but a book I picked out of the library on my own to read. Yes, I was a history nerd even then.

On this day in history, February 22

1371 – Think of marrying the boss’s daughter? Can’t aim much higher than Walter Stewart, who married the Scottish King Robert the Bruce’s daughter. Their son Robert becomes king of Scotland on this day.

1651 – As many as 15,000 people along the coast of the North Sea are killed by “Saint Peter’s Flood,” because some saints are mean, I guess. (OK, it’s because it was a St. Peter’s feast day; but it’s still a stupid idea to name it that way.)

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

1722 – It is actually February 11 in Virginia when George Washington is born; the American colonies don’t change over to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, at which point George objected to having a birthday 11 days too early, and switched to the 22nd. We celebrate George Washington’s birthday today as a holiday which NEVER falls on his birthday.

1744- The Battle of Toulon marks a turning point in the War of the Austrian Succession, not to be confused with the wars over the Spanish, Polish, or Bavarian successions, all of which you distinctly remember from your European history course.

1819 – The United States buys Florida from Spain for $5 million, which is about what the state will be worth after global warming gets through with it.

1821 – Alexander Ypsilantis begins the Greek War of Independence by invading what is now Romania. No, he did not have a bad GPS system in his dashboard. He was trying to get all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire to revolt.

1848 – The French Revolution of 1848 leads to the Second French Republic which promptly elects Napoleon’s nephew as President, who overthrows the republic and proclaims the Second Empire in 1851. Even Karl Marx made fun of this episode in history.

1862 – Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of American for a six-year term. Too bad for him the Confederacy didn’t last much more than three.

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

1875 – Charles Lyell dies at age 77. Don’t recognize the name? You should. This is the man who made the case that geological processes proved the Earth was millions of years old. Without him, Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the theory of evolution. (Ironically, Lyell himself never fully accepted Darwin’s theory.) Queen Victoria made Lyell a baronet, and probably thought she was honoring him, but no title could give him more honor than his role as a man of science.

1921 – A rogue anti-Boshevik Russian military leader of Baltic German descent restores a Buddhist religious figure to the throne of Outer Mongolia. Truth is stranger than Game of Thrones.

1924 – Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President to make a radio broadcast from the White House. Legends that John Cage was inspired by this event are not true.

1980 – Just as Saint Peter flooded the Dutch coast, God takes a hand this time to give the United States Olympic hockey team a victory over the Soviets, the “Miracle on Ice.”

I was so famous I became a taxidermist's project (Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

I was so famous I became a taxidermist’s project
(Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

1983 – The play “Moose Murders” opens and closes on Broadway. One would like to think that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was responsible for the closing, though its non-existent equivalent, PETH (People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans) would have had a stronger case.

1997 – Scottish scientists announce the cloning of a sheep named Dolly. Scotland . . . sheep . . . why am I not surprised?

This day MISremembered in History: December 7

You all know about Pearl Harbor, but other notable events happened on December 7.

574 – The Byzantine Emperor Justin II abdicates due to recurring insanity brought on by waging too many wars in the Middle East.

Darnley and the Queen

Darnley and the Queen, before his “accident”

1545 – Lord Darnley is born. He marries Mary, Queen of Scots in 1565. He has Mary’s secretary and rumored lover killed in 1566. He is killed in an explosion in 1567, probably planned by the man who would become Mary’s next husband. Game of Thrones, you ain’t got nothin’ on the Scots.

1672 – Richard Bellingham, former Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, dies. Lawsuits over his estate were blamed for the delays in Boston’s Big Dig project (1982 – 2038?).

1787 – Delaware ratifies the U.S. Constitution. 2,643 firms immediately incorporate there to avoid taxes.

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

1817 – William Bligh dies. It’s a shame he’s remembered only as the failed captain of the HMS Bounty. He was also the failed Governor of New South Wales as well.

1862 – The Battle of Prairie Grove, the only Civil War battle fought by armies of prairie dogs, ends when all the prairie dogs jump off a cliff and drown.

1869 – A misunderstanding over an illegible withdrawal slip leads to Jesse James’s first bank robbery.

1902 – Thomas Nast dies. He popularized the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, Uncle Sam, the modern Santa Claus, and Donald Trump’s hair style.

1905 – Gerard Kuiper is born. His belt size increased so much that it now circles the Solar System beyond Neptune.

1917 – The United States Congress declares war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire after debating for six days whether it really exists.

1930 – The worst disaster in United States history: the first television commercial is broadcast.

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

1942 – Harry Chapin is born. They tell us he died, but I think he’s still driving a taxi.

1965 – The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople say they were just kidding when they excommunicated each other more than nine centuries earlier.

1972 – Apollo 17, which the U.S. Government would have you believe was the last manned moon mission, is launched. Either it was all a fake and we never landed on the moon, or it was just the preliminary steps for Apollo 18 setting up a permanent base on the dark side of the moon to defeat the Nazis there; possibly both.

(N.B.: Not to be used to prepare for a history test, to write a history paper, or to drive a taxi.)

Historical fiction on TV: “Vikings”

“Vikings” protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok

To catch up on how popular culture represents Vikings (and no, Marvel movies featuring Thor don’t count . . . well, they shouldn’t), I sat down the last few weeks to watch the History Channel’s show Vikings, first broadcast in 2013, and now scheduled for a fourth season. I was able to get hold of only the first season on DVD, so that’s mostly what I’ll talk about here. Bottom line, if you want to skip the rest of the review: so-so entertainment, so-so history, but useful for all that, and the series does have its moments.

The History Channel has had some dubious times, having swung from the “Hitler channel” due to the prevalence of World War II features, to exploring the fringes of the alien UFO theories. My expectations for this series were appropriately low. And right from the first episode, there were historical howlers. Was I really supposed to believe that the Norsemen had never sailed west before? Or that they stumbled on Lindisfarne monastery simply by chance? I won’t even get into the outfits, which one historian described as more appropriate for a leather fetish bar in the 1980s. Why is it that historical dramas about rough men love leather so much? Okay, stupid question.

And then there’s the pacing. One can see the struggle between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson shaping up from the get-go, but it takes six episodes to come to a climax. Doesn’t sound so long? The Earl’s been killing Ragnar’s allies dishonorably since episode 2. The show wants us to think Ragnar is some wise, far-sighted man, and Travis Fimmel, the actor who plays him, can sometimes make me believe, but he’s a pussy for putting up with friends and family being killed as long as he does.

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don't care about him. Instead, here's the improbable warrior Lagertha, who's also Ragnar's first wife

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don’t care about him. Instead, here’s the improbable warrior Lagertha, who’s also Ragnar’s first wife

A large part of the problem is TV’s tendency to turn historical dramas into soap operas. I first noticed this in the HBO series Rome, which should have been called Desperate Roman Housewives. The producers of these series think that the way to hold our attention is to drag every major character into labyrinthine plots. For example, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is simultaneously envious of his brother, carrying a torch for his brother’s wife, considering betraying his brother to whichever powerful man offers him a deal, bedding Earl Haraldson’s widow, and banging anything else in a skirt that he can reach. It’s all supposed to create dramatic tension and develop Rollo’s character. But it’s all so unreal in its relentless complexity that I end up not caring about Rollo at all. In fact, by the time I finished watching the first season, he was just “the irritant who’s supposed to make Ragnar’s life more complicated.” And the same could be said for many another character.

And yet . . . in between the de rigueur battle scenes and the plot complications, the characters do actually get some chances to develop. Ragnar’s pseudo-wise silences don’t impress me, but his battle smarts in setting up battles to favor his side do. His romance with a woman other than his wife and his son’s unfavorable reaction to this don’t move me, but Ragnar’s way of dealing with his son’s disapproval does.

And probably the most affecting moment in the entire first season is a side show to the main event: not the duel between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson, but the funeral afterwards. Ragnar’s willingness to honor his foe and the grief of Siggy, Haraldson’s widow, provide some genuine emotion, because they are human reactions to events that don’t seem contrived. It’s not Euripides’ The Trojan Women, but the episode exists for the same reason: human grief is real and understandable.

Siggy's usually a throw-away character, but here she's an essential part of the funeral episode

Siggy’s usually a throw-away character, but here she’s an essential part of the funeral episode

But what of the history? Again, Rome provides a reference. The series took painstaking care to get some details authentically correct, while doing great violence to the actual historical events and people. And Vikings is doing much the same, by reweaving history to make what the producers think is a more dramatic story, blending the authentic (e.g., the raid on Lindisfarne) with the inauthentic (e.g., the church at Uppsala). In both cases, just viewing the episodes won’t tell you what’s accurate or a guess or anachronistic or simply wrong.

Yet, in both cases, the series can provide an entry to learning more about history, so long as you start with the question “Was it really like this?” Did the Vikings really worship their gods at a church like the one shown in episode eight? Well, no. But then where and how did they worship? At that point, the historian and folklorist and archaeologist can step in and provide some answers. Most viewers won’t even get that far. But let’s treasure and encourage the ones that do, and help others along the same path.

My own interest in the Vikings began with watching the movie The Vikings from 1958. It was like the TV series, accurate in some details, but doing serious violence to the history. The Vikings started me on the road to trying to find out what the Vikings were really like. I hope Vikings will do the same for others.

That's Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. She does not kick ass.

That’s Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. This one’s no warrior-princess.

Honor in Egil’s Saga

One can tell a lot about a culture by the values it celebrates. For the Vikings, one key value was honor. As shown in Egil’s Saga, honor is a complicated matter, depending not just on what one does, but who one is, and who else one deals with.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal's Saga.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal’s Saga.

As you might expect, Vikings could win honor in battle or raids. It makes sense. Go on a good raid, fight a lot of people, take a lot of treasure in booty, and you win honor. Egil Skallagrimsson, the eponymous hero of the saga, was a Viking who took these matters to the extreme. In chapter 46, he led a party that robbed a farmer of all his treasure. But for Egil, that was not enough. He said that was a poor form of honor, that to win proper honor, the Vikings needed to let the farmer know that his treasure has been taken. And how did Egil let the farmer and his family know? Why, by burning down their house and killing anyone who tried to escape. That’s a hardcore Viking for you.

Fighting in battle also qualifies as an honorable occupation. Egil and his brother Thorolf helped lead King Athelstan’s army to victory in chapters 52-55. Athelstan honored Egil with recognition of his favor . . . and two chests full of silver.

And there are duels. Vikings used duels to settle many disputes, including disputes at law (see chapter 57). Egil even intervened in another family’s dispute to fight a duel. A man named Ljot wanted to marry a girl whose family refused him, so Ljot challenged the girl’s brother, Fridgeir. The idea was that if Ljot killed Fridgeir, that he would win the girl’s hand anyhow. Nice idea that, that one might have to marry a man because he killed your brother! Egil was staying with Fridgeir, who has been an exemplary host, and when he found out what was going on, Egil offered to challenge Ljot. Well, when they arrived at the site chosen for the duel, Ljot agreed to fight Egil instead of Fridgeir, because Ljot thought Egil a more worthy and tougher opponent. Ljot figured that if he killed Egil, he would win more honor than killing the younger, weaker, and less famous Fridgeir. In case you have to ask, Egil killed Ljot.

Egil had a long track record of killing people. He believed, along with most Vikings, that revenge was honorable. As in so many things, Egil was a bit extreme. When he was seven years old, he killed an eleven-year-old over a dispute at a ball game (chapter 40). Good thing Egil wasn’t in the NFL during “Deflategate!”

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn't get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn’t get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

If being a good fighter is something we expect of Vikings, being a good poet is not. Yet Egil was a noted poet, and several of his poems are recorded in the saga. (Although there’s some argument about whether they are genuine compositions of Egil’s.) His first recorded notable poem (chapter 31) was delivered at age three! So much did the Vikings honor poetry that King Eirik Blood-axe, who had many reasons to have Egil executed, spared him after Egil composed a drapa, a long complicated poem celebrating heroic deeds, in honor of Eirik (chapters 60-62).

Another worthy way of gathering honor among Vikings was to be generous. Equals were generous to each other (chapter 68). Wealthy, powerful men, such as Egil’s uncle Thorolf, generously supported many followers (chapter 9). Kings who made generous gifts were held to be honorable, as Athelstan did to Egil (chapter 55). Indeed, if you gave a worthy gift, you not only gained honor, but the recipient gained honor as well. Consider Egil’s uncle Thorolf. He built a magnificent longship that was so much better than King Harald Fairhair had that the king became jealous of Thorolf. Thorolf realized that he was slighting the king by appearing to be better than him, so gave the king the longship as a gift (chapter 11). Harald was pleased, and both men gained honor.

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

That last exchange demonstrates some of the dangers of the Viking code of honor. It was not wise to gain more honor than one’s superiors. Thorolf made that mistake, and while his gift of the ship temporarily solved the problem, ultimately his success led to King Harald Fairhair having Thorolf killed (as detailed in the chapters up through 22). And it wasn’t considered good form to act honorably and obviously expect to be praised for it. Late in his life, Egil received a wonderful shield from his friend Einar (chapter 81). What’s Egil’s first reaction? He was insulted that Einar left the shield because Egil thought Einar expected Egil to praise Einar and the shield in a poem! Egil wanted to go after Einar and kill him! Only after he learned that Einar was far away on his ride home did Egil regain his temper . . . and compose a poem about the shield and his friend Einar!

There’s a lot more to be said about Viking honor in Egil’s Saga. But I hope these few examples give you an idea of the range of Viking honor, and the complexity of the society that measured honor in these way.

Walking the cinematic plank: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat_island_ver2There are some pirate movies that reworked the image of piracy successfully, such as Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (in several versions and adaptations) and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – present). And then there are bad pirate flicks. While there have always been bad pirate flicks, such as Double Crossbones (1951), for about forty years, 1960 – 2000, that seemed to be all Hollywood could make. I recently tracked down and watched one of these forgotten “gems,” 1995’s Cutthroat Island, to see if I could figure out just why Hollywood couldn’t get it right for so long.

Cutthroat Island has it all, apparently: great sets, fast-paced action, a naval engagement, a treasure, a love interest, backstabbing, family disputes, a monkey, and the ritualized rape and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Just kidding about that last one. This is a PG-13 movie, which means they can only hint at sex, and while extensive violence is allowed, it has to be relatively bloodless.

But they ARE great action scenes!

But they ARE great action scenes!

Bloodless. or maybe bodiless: that’s a major problem with this film. The movie spends so much time on its action scenes, from tavern fights to ship flights, that the characters get little change to develop. Everything looks so clean and antiseptic most of the time, even cleaner than the Disney-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. And although Geena Davis could play a hot gal or a determined woman, in this film she always looks like someone’s suburban mother . . . even when she’s supposed to be playing a hot gal or a determined pirate captain.

This could have been hot

This could have been hot

Cutthroat Island apparently was trying to mix serious spectacle with self-parodying humor. This can be a successful formula: Against All Flags and The Crimson Pirate both did it in the 1950s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films at their best do likewise. But the poorly developed characters undermine both aspects of this film. It’s significant that the single funniest joke in the film is Geena David cracking a double entendre at the beginning, so unexpected given her motherly appearance; while Matthew Modine’s character has his most amusing scenes when he first appears and has a chance to strut his stuff, before he gets sucked into the main plot and all character development is sacrificed.

History? Perish the thought! Apart from being set at Port Royal during the heyday of the buccaneers, history has no role in this film. And the film doesn’t even take advantage of that! Here we have Geena Davis playing a female pirate captain when there was no such thing in the Caribbean, and yet most of the time it passes unnoticed and unremarked.

What we’re left with is a film that’s probably best suited for kids immediately on either side of puberty. 8-year-olds will enjoy the action scenes while the sexual references pass over their heads. While 14-year-olds would snicker at the sexual references.

Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office in 1995, and almost killed Geena Davis’s career. Partly that was due to the film itself, partly to its troubled production and distribution history. Hollywood took it as evidence that pirate films wouldn’t work as mainstream films, as they did with Roman Polanski’s Pirates a decade earlier. Instead, they should have realized that they needed stronger characters and either better humor (the route Pirates of the Caribbean took) or grittier stories (which is where the first season of Black Sails went).