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.