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The Holy Grail of Viking Fiction,
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This review is from: The Long Ships (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
A number of years ago I stumbled upon a non-fiction history of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and immediately decided that I wanted to read everything I could about this historical period, especially works of fiction, which I love. Well, there was Mirsky's King of Vinland Saga, which was good but needed more depth; there was King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, which was, as usual for her, too dense; there was the out-of-print Golden Warrior, by Hope Muntz, which was excellent, but perhaps required a bit too much work. I finally read several hundred pages worth of the Sagas of the Icelanders, but as interesting as these were, they bear little resemblance to the modern novel. Recently, I came upon the Long Ships and here, finally, it is. This great book ranks up there with the best historical fiction of any genre and is certainly the best I have come across as it regards the ancient Vikings.
First, it is page-turning, exciting adventure. Little battles, big battles, individual confrontations, blood feuds, revenge, camaraderie, treasure, despair, hate and love; it's all here. The book pretty much follows the career, as it were, of Orm, who is initially kidnapped by the crew of a Viking ship and who agrees to accompany them on their ambitious, faraway raid to a wealthy fortress on the Iberian peninsula. Orm didn't particularly mind being kidnapped too much, as raiding for plunder was pretty much the goal of every Northman over the age of about twelve anyway. (Interestingly, the word "Viking" here is used as a verb. To go on a raiding party is to go "a-viking.")
Their raid is a success, to begin with, but they are in turn are attacked by a fleet of Moorish vessels out for revenge. Those that survive are captured and become galley slaves for almost three years. Through luck and circumstance, they are freed, and made bodyguards to the powerful Almansur, the Muslim lord. Eventually they escape and make their way back to their homes in the North, but not before fighting several other battles and experiencing many other adventures. We're only about half way through at this point, and there is much, much more to come.
Along with Orm's adventures the novel is interspersed with the stories of just about everybody they run into. The Vikings loved stories and poems and there are many different tales told by many different personalities, many of which are of some length, and all of which are bloody and riveting.
So there is adventure a-plenty here but the novel is also very well-written, filled with wit, irony and humor. Orm is grievously wounded after a bloody battle to the death and is tended to by King Harald's daughter. (The Vikings had a pretty sophisticated system of justice, but, alas, when all else fails, it's a kill or be killed.) In any event, she tells Orm that she was betrothed to the person that he killed. Orm is, naturally, worried that she will seek her revenge on him. She tells him that she hated the man that Orm killed, and would have murdered him in his sleep. Eventually, Orm begins to take to her, and starts to woo her: "You told me that if you had been forced to marry Sigtrygg you would have driven a knife into him in his bridal bed," he says to her, after suggesting that he wanted to marry her, "and I should like to be sure that you feel differently towards me." She laughs, "merrily." The book is filled with clever wordplay such as this on just about every page, and you will find a smile coming to your face often.
Some reviews here have expressed doubt that these illiterate Vikings would be so articulate, but I'm not so sure. No, they were not educated to any extent, but it must be remembered that there were few forms of entertainment in those days other than story-telling and word-of-mouth, so it is quite likely that to entertain or to be entertained, one may very well have had to cultivate linguistic skills.
Lastly, the novel is rich in historical detail, especially that having to do with the mindset of those that lived back then. The Vikings were somewhat religious, but not terribly so, and were far more interested in doing whatever it was that would bring them "luck." Indeed, they become Muslims while in Spain at the insistence of their Muslim superiors. "Our Gods don't seem to be too powerful here," one remarks. Eventually, Orm is persuaded to become a Christian, not because of a new found love for Jesus, but primarily due to convenience. There is a great deal of discussion of Christianity in the novel, the way it was practiced, and the pragmatic, unconventional ways by which the priests tried to gain converts. It is quite interesting and has the ring of truth to it.
There is also the Viking way of life, their customs and their culture. Farming, mostly; some trading. They loved women and they loved boozing. As much as anything, though, it was raiding and fighting and maintaining one's honor. A brutal way of life, to be sure, but that was the way in northern Europe. And there are many descriptions of foreign climes as well: northern Europe to be sure, but also England, Ireland, Spain, central Europe, and Russia. It is, simply, fascinating.
Great novel. Ranks up there with the best historical fiction.