Monday, May 13, 2019

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

The best Viking novel you’ll ever read
Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) was a poet, essayist, and biographer before writing his one and only novel, The Long Ships. The book was originally published in Sweden in two parts in 1941 and 1945 under the title of Röde Orm before being published in English translation in 1954. One of the most widely read books in Sweden, The Long Ships is an adventure novel set in the time of the Vikings, around 1000 AD. It chronicles the adventures of Orm Tostesson, also known as Red Orm, a Danish Viking who hails from Skania, a portion of present-day Sweden that was at that time under the rule of Denmark. When a young man, Orm is stolen from his home by maritime marauders who make him a willing member of their crew. His subsequent voyages take him from Moorish Spain to the British Isles to the Ukrainian steppe in search of treasure, love, and a peaceful home to call his own.

I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but The Long Ships is easily the best work of Viking fiction that I’ve ever read. It is much more lively and engaging than Poul Anderson’s historical novel The Golden Horn, for example. Pulp adventure writers who are known for this sort of thing, like Harold Lamb or Robert E. Howard, tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of armor and weapons in an attempt at historical authenticity. Bengtsson, on the other hand, doesn’t emphasize the visual trappings of the time period but instead really adopts the mindset of his Viking characters. He does a splendid job of thinking like a Viking, which enables him to come up with surprising details that delight the reader with their ingenuity. Though written around the time of World War II, Bengtsson’s prose has the gravitas of a 19th century masterwork but a clarity and timeless creativity that make it seem as if the book were published just last week. Some credit for this is due, no doubt, to Michael Meyer, who provides the English translation for the New York Review of Books edition. In the introduction to that edition, novelist Michael Chabon accurately describes the tone of the book by stating that it “feels at once ancient and postmodern.”

Bengtsson also has a great sense of humor, and the text is riddled with wry wit. The story takes place at a time when Scandinavia was somewhat reluctantly undergoing a process of Christianization. The topic of faith is treated irreverently throughout the book, as characters tend to adopt whatever beliefs—Christian, Muslim, or pagan—that will be advantageous to them, either in the acquisition of worldly goods or simply in the never-ending quest for good luck. Christian missionaries are sometimes depicted as selfless martyrs but also as schemers aiming to tally up the most baptisms, even if it means converting ignorant Vikings under false pretenses. The book also features a Jewish character who is portrayed in a positive light and accepted by the Vikings because of his ability to lead them to treasure. In addition to religion, Bengtsson finds humor in marital relations, courtship rituals, and gender roles. He humorously captures the chauvinism of 1000 AD without succumbing to the chauvinism of the 1940s. The female characters of the book are depicted as intelligent and strong-willed, with a resilient resolve towards the horrible hardships that women faced daily in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If The Long Ships has a flaw, it would be its somewhat excessive length. For an adventure story, the pace can get a bit lethargic at times. Though each chapter is engaging, after finishing one I can’t say I felt compelled to immediately start another. Still, in the end this pleasant surprise proved itself worth the effort and a very enjoyable read.
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