‘Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword’ Makes a Point

Viewers, be advised: Several fruits and vegetables were brutally harmed in the making of Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword. In the opening sequence of this Nova episode, Renaissance martial arts expert John Clements slashes through tomatoes and pumpkins, not to mention a pair of two-liter water bottles, a basketball, an ice block, a side of beef and a number of rugs. This vivid splatter-fest recalls the prop comedy of Gallagher, but it’s a narrative hook that proves a point: Swords can really chop up things. And it turns out the Vikings were particularly good at making swords to do just that.

Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword exemplifies the series’ far-reaching, pan-global approach to its topics and applies these tools to unravelling the mystery of a sword known only as Ulfberht. The Ulfberht sword, it is explained, was precocious in its metallic composition and in its tensile and durable properties. In fact, it is pointed out that the Ulfberht sword, made between the years 800 and 1000, used a type of steel that wouldn’t be widely manufactured again until the Industrial Revolution.

Director Peter Yost utilizes proven documentary devices in this co-production of Nova and National Geographic. Interviews with a number of academics — Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist of the University of Stockholm, Neils Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen, Jon Anders Risvaag of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Gunnar Andersson of Sweden’s National Historical Museum — help place the legacy of the Vikings in its proper context. Risvaag and Andersson even show Viking swords from their collections.

Similarly, Alan Williams of the Wallace Collection, London, discusses archaeology and metallurgy as he gazes with awe and perplexity through his microscope at the high-quality steel of the Ulfberht sword. Williams also puts the enigmatic, seemingly arbitrary “Ulfberht” name in terms today’s audiences will instantly understand: “It’s much like putting the ‘Apple’ name on a computer,” he says.

Balancing the academic speak is the aforementioned Clements, who has carved (ahem) himself a niche as an expert of mediaeval swordsmanship, and he provides commentary and demonstration as to why the Ulfberht was so valued and such a feared weapon. Nova was also able to avail itself of an army of Viking-battle re-enactors; grown men who don chain mail and armour and take up swords and shields to go out and bash seven bells out of one another until they decide to fall down and play dead. Sure, it’s a bit silly, but it does lend more action to the history at the heart of the video. The battle re-enactments look (appropriately) chaotic, brutal and frightening.

Battles and academics aside, the most intriguing narrative thread of Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword belongs to a present-day blacksmith from northeastern Wisconsin. Richard Furrer of Door County Forgeworks admits his fascination if not obsession with the Ulfberht sword. “I don’t need a sword,” he says, “but I have to make one. Not because I can’t do anything else, but because I can’t do anything else.”

Furrer sets himself the task of fashioning an Ulfberht from scratch, using methods that would have been available to the Vikings in the later part of the first millennium. Because blacksmithing today is as much about preserving an art form as it is pursuing a trade, Furrer’s task is attention-grabbing, and it proves a vital test of Furrer’s metal… er, mettle. His artistic endeavor drew me in, and had me wanting to see him succeed.

Overall, Secrets of the Viking Sword is not the most visually stimulating episode of Nova. Compared to Nova: Deadliest Tornadoes or Nova: Why Ships Sink, there’s nowhere near as much dramatic video to pull in to the program (hence the dress-up Viking battles).

Something curious about this episode is just how overwhelmingly male it is. Only one woman is seen in the entire program, a museum curator who briefly carries a sword but has no speaking role. Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword is so mannish, it’s surprising it wasn’t underwritten by a brewery and a manufacturer of erection pills rather than the typical foundations, corporations and private donors.

But therein lies the challenge of Nova. Much as Seinfeld was a “show about nothing”, Nova is a show about pretty much everything. As a consequence, not every episode of Nova is going to be a runaway hit with all audiences. Still, the program’s producers seem to consistently strive to hit that elusive mark.

The DVD is a straightforward repackaging of the show as it appeared on television. There are no extra features on the disc, but the 60-minute episode is navigable by chapter.

Watch Secrets of the Viking Sword Preview on PBS. See more from NOVA.

RATING 5 / 10