Today’s Arts and Culture offering comes from C. Foxnose Huling, a Norse Animist and apprentice vitki living in New Orleans with an assortment of humans and pets.
Taking the form of a police procedural, HBO Europe’s Beforeigners uses themes of time travel to explore issues of prejudice, progress, and friendship. The show was created by Anne Bjørnstad and Elif Skodvin, who previously created the 2012 Netflix hit Lilyhammer.
Set in present-day Oslo, the story begins when people from the Neolithic, Viking, and Ibsen eras start appearing in bodies of water following mysterious flashes of light. Though the phenomenon is global, Beforeigners focuses on the relationship of police detective Lars Haaland (Nicolai Cleve Broch) and his Norse-era partner, Alfhildr Enginsdottir (Krista Kosonen, who had to learn both Norwegian and Old Norse for the part). The two investigate the murder of a prehistoric woman, leading them to a deeper mystery involving human trafficking.
Along the way, we are given a view into the lives of the detectives as their friendship develops. Lars, divorced after his wife ran off with a 19th-century man, has an addiction to a drug used to help “time-igrants” adjust to the modern age. His daughter Ingrid (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin) is a typical teen preparing to graduate high school. Alfhildr is a newly-minted police officer, just out of the academy. In her former time, she was a shield-maiden for Tore Hund, the 10th century leader of a revolt against St. Olaf, the Norwegian king – a fact she has to keep under wraps at the risk of losing her job. They work well together after some misunderstanding, and learn to appreciate the contributions their differing pasts bring to the table.
I watched the show in the United States over the summer of 2020 as racial tensions came to a boil, with avidly white supremacist groups talking of “heritage” that needed to be guarded, bloodlines that needed to be kept “pure,” and so-on. Arguments about who belongs where devolved into attacks against minorities and marginalized communities. The image of “the viking,” along with Norse symbols of faith, have been used by a number of the hate groups involved, much to the chagrin of inclusive and anti-racist Heathens.
Beforeigners is an especially interesting watch under these circumstances, as the writers look at prejudice, in the form of time-chauvinism, throughout the episodes. Their use of historic characters such as Tore Hund to illustrate ongoing or revived religious conflict is deftly handled. Without giving too much away, the Christianization of Norway is not presented as ideal. The issue of dominance is not a settled one; the return of Tore Hund has put some more fanatic elements on high alert. By the end of the first season, we see this war between old and new(ish) ways is about to explode afresh.
The development of Alfhilder and her co-era friends as they adjust to the modern world is not played for laughs. We see the jokes deployed against Alfhilder by a prejudiced co-worker as patently unfunny and a form of bullying. When humor does come into play, it is congenial – showing the sense in why those from other times do what they do, or as a means of bonding.
It’s clear the creators of the show are on the side of building a more open society, and treating newcomers fairly and humanely. Such a plainly pro-immigrant stance is refreshing to see. Norway, as here in the States, has seen some strong anti-immigrant and racist strains in recent years. That question of who belongs there is sharply posed; Navn (the ever-naked Oddgeir Thune), a Neolithic hunter, views the entirety of the place as his, since he was the first to settle there for a winter, while the Bohemians consider it their city (which they insist upon calling Christiana). A contingent of the present-day people want all of the “beforeigners” out.
Meanwhile, the Norse have done what they apparently always did – adapt to the new place and absorb the best culture has to offer. They have a mead-house, they have a dance hall, and they have their lives. Tore Hund is a family man, having married a present-day woman, and wants no more of his old life. He’s distressed by the reaction of hardcore Christians to his presence. Alfhilder is happy being a police woman, making her way as best she can on those wages while paying off student loans. Their acceptance of the situation they are in is healthy, even if it’s not always easy.
For others of Alfhilder’s old world, it is a different story. Her best friend and fellow shield maiden, Urd (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir), is too used to the battlefield to be happy with the current day. The best she can hope for is a good death to achieve admission to Valhalla.
For Skjalg (Jeppe Beck Laursen), the skald, there is the frustration of having new works to read but his cohort only wanting to hear the old sagas. After attempting to recite a new poem for a rowdy audience of drunken Norsemen, he is forced to return to one of his famous skaldic works of yore. He is a minor character, but his situation is poignant and poses some interesting questions to us as Heathens. I see him as wanting to bring his gifts of observation and verse into the present age, to note the wonders of this world. His expressive reading of his modern verse shows an innocent excitement; he has thoughts to share. Yet he is dragged back by demand for tradition – his recitation by rote of the thousand-year-old story is theatrical, over-practiced. This scene left me with many thoughts about how we move old ways into new times meaningfully.
Overall the show is beautifully constructed. Each episode has both its own coherent trajectory and contributes to the overall arc. Filmed in Norwegian and Old Norse, it is well-subtitled and easy to follow. The actors bring an unusual naturalness to extraordinary situations, which makes it all the easier to understand even if you forgo the captioning. There is a planned second season, though of course this has been delayed by the pandemic. It is certainly something to look forward to.
The first season of Beforeigners is currently streaming on HBO Max.