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A-Viking You Should Go,
This review is from: The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age (Paperback)
English literature began with a Viking story, "Beowulf," but have you ever tried reading it? My own "Beowulf" experience led me to believe Viking literature is right down there with Viking cuisine in terms of digestibility. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a novel about Vikings, written over half a century ago, to be as thrilling, fantastic, and engaging as "The Long Ships."
It's the story of Orm, a farmer's son in southern Sweden in the late 900s who one day finds himself a prisoner of a merry gang of Vikings. They quickly adopt him, and set out for adventures off the northern and southern coasts of Europe. Before the book is half over, Orm has found himself in courts from Spain to England, espoused three different religions, slain several dozen foemen, and found a princess to be his bride.
Frans G. Bengtsson's novel, originally published in Sweden in 1945, showcases two things I didn't expect from a Scandinavian academic, brevity and humor. Sure, the book is nearly 500 pages long, but Bengtsson crams a lot of incident in every page, describing events in broad strokes and letting the reader's imagination do the rest. Bengtsson's style, preserved marvelously by Michael Meyer's 1954 translation, is to consciously evoke the elliptical prose of ancient Viking sagas, but in such a way as to allow for a modern, tongue-in-cheek sensibility to come through, one that reflects a Viking world, however hard-bitten, of great wit and depth.
"The Long Ships" is marvelously quotable: "For no man complains of the weight of the cargo, when it is his own booty that is putting strain upon the oars." Or: "Only poets can win wealth with empty hands, but then they must make better songs than other poets, and competition spoils the pleasure of composition."
The book jacket includes an enthusiastic reviewer describing "man-size helpings of battle and murder, robbery and rape," which captures some of the tone of "Long Ships" but misses most of the point. Orm is no savage bandit, but a thoughtful, evolving character of great honor. The Vikings he travels with do some robbing and killing, but in a measured way. As the novel goes on, a sense of social responsibility, manifested in Orm by his adoption of a somewhat twisted form of Christianity, comes through.
You might say the story of Orm is the story of the Christianizing of Scandinavia, told from a rather neutral viewpoint that respects Christianity's mellowing influence without being blind to its flaws in practice. You might also call it a straight-up adventure yarn of many threads. After a battle, Orm and his comrades may retire to a feasting hall to hear stories of brave deeds that fill pages and then never come up again. Or else we might get stories like that of a pair of jesters, forced to entertain the slayer of the king they loved, who come up with a marvelous form of vengeance right out of Monty Python.
One thing you can't call "The Long Ships" is dull. Even when Orm is not actually at sea (he actually spends a good deal of time raising a family on a farm), the book stays busy. Some old enemy is trying to take his head off, or else he is having another marvelously circuitous exchange with his dyspeptic priest friend, Father Willibald.
And the voyages Orm takes are a lot of fun, encompassing as they do the whole of the known world at that time, from Ireland to the Dnieper River and many points in-between. While a work of fiction, Bengtsson finds ways of introducing a lot of relevant Dark Ages history, even if some of it, like an enjoyably arch Y1K scare, may not be 100% accurate.
Other books are fun to read. "The Long Ships" is a book to get lost in. You will feel like a teenager again as you take the long way home with Orm, enjoying his simpler yet wondrous time and wishing the world could have stayed so forever.