Frans Bengtsson, “The Long Ships”

Well! I just spent a week reading a 500-page novel about Vikings and I adored every moment of it.

Last fall when I was doing the New York Review Books challenge, I was intrigued by the cover of The Long Ships, which has a very attractive faux-naif air. But — Vikings? Really? Frans Bengtsson’s epic just hammers home the truth that if the writing is good enough, any subject can be appealing.

The Long Ships was written in Swedish as two separate books during World War II, then translated and published as one in 1954. This date situates it squarely in that golden age of historical fiction brought to us by titans like Anya Seton, Daphne Du Maurier, even Irving Stone. (I know I’m missing authors here… who?) But what sets Bengtsson apart is his narrative voice. First, he is funny. On page 14 his young hero Orm has to go without armor “until such time as he could get himself a good [mail] shirt in Ireland; for there dead men’s armor was always to be had cheaply in any harbor.”  Later, Orm and his friend Toke are given fine swords by a powerful woman who, seeing their pleasure, says, “‘Giving a man a sword is like giving a woman a looking-glass; they have eyes left for nothing else.'” Economical, accurate, witty.

But Bengtsson is artful as well as humorous. I know little about the literature of early Scandinavia and Iceland but The Long Ships has a flavor of the saga. This is partly a question of the balance between scene and summary, the firm way the Teller of the Tale guides the reader through fallow patches of time where nothing much happens. Also important is an avowed respect for narrative, built into the culture under examination — which reveres storytelling as both entertainment and religion.

Perhaps the quality that charmed me most in this book, though, is glee. Our hero Orm the Red is a true hero: strong, wise, lucky. (Also something of a hypochondriac, the 20th-century twist of vulnerability without which he would be annoying.) He undertakes long voyages, meets enemies, makes friends. In his wiliness he is not unlike Odysseus. But The Long Ships reminded me even more strongly of  Patrick O’Brian’s work, not only for the particulars of the sea voyages but also for the cheerful mayhem and ultimate triumph of his early novel The Golden Ocean. As he travels all over Western Europe Orm meets with numerous setbacks and Bengtsson keeps the narrative tension strong by layering one conflict over another. Will Orm woo his lady? Will the evil king triumph? Who is the mysterious visitor at the gate? As one conflict is resolved another arises but we always trust Orm’s luck. Though the body count is astronomical, bloodshed and death are met philosophically.

This would be a wonderful book to take on a long plane trip — Tintin for grownups. It also demonstrates that, despite current evidence, not all Swedish writers are gloomy.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Frans Bengtsson, “The Long Ships”

  1. Heather says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one before, but your review has me intrigued. I’ll keep it in mind for my next long plane trip – though I don’t yet have any planned. (I always cross my fingers that there will be some need for me to go to England for work – I work for a company whose headquarters are in the UK – but some years there is, some years there isn’t).

  2. Annie says:

    Oh I do hope this is available in the UK. I haven’t read anything about this period since ‘Njal’s Saga’ where there was a character who loved someone so much that she gave him three long ships and Ulf the Unwashed. I have always wanted to love someone so much that I would give them Ulf the Unwashed!

    I’m sure you’ve hit on something really important when you talk about the narrative voice being influenced by the oral tradition of this culture. As anyone who has told stories to children knows you have to bring variety and enjoyment into what your voice is doing and these sounds as thought those ideas have come through into the written mode as well. What a great sounding book.

  3. carolwallace says:

    Heather, maybe if your company finds out that Orm the Red voyages to England and has contact with Ethelred the Unready they would want to send you to see if there were any traces…. oh, well. Maybe not.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Annie, there are many forms of Ulf the Unwashed in “The Long Ships.” Ragnar of the Hairy Breeks springs to mind. (And he, curiously enough, is mirrored by the film “True Grit” in which there is a fellow wearing sheepskin chaps which are surely the Wild West version of Hairy Breeks. Funny that I got those both in one day.)

    Even though it would take hours and hours, “The Long Ships” would be a wonderful book to read aloud or listen to. I didn’t even get to mention the wonderful Irish jugglers whose speech has that special fantastic and poetic Irish logic… Surely you get New York Review Books in the UK? Or maybe a second-hand bookstore could score you a copy from the 1950s.

  5. This book is new to me….you have definitely sparked my interest in it!

    • carolwallace says:

      Lisa, it’s surprisingly fun. Looking around your book club site, I’d say it’s different from the last few you’ve done — what I think of as a real “boy book” (lots of battles) but the relationships are quite subtle.

      Your book club looks like a lot of fun!

  6. Ingrid Lowrie says:

    I picked up this book in a second hand book fair here in New Zealand. I find the historical facts very interesting and entertaining and they are not handled with the heaviness of other historical fiction, even the more gruesome parts. I am half way through it and it is my read before I go to bed at night. It is definitely worth reading if you are into Viking stories.

    • carolwallace says:

      Totally agree, Ingrid, especially your point about how it’s not heavy-handed. I’d go further and say it’s fun even if you are not into Viking stories!

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