THE LONG SHIPS. (1955). Frans G. Bengtsson. ****.
Get ready for a couple of late-night readings when you first pick up this book. This edition comes with an introduction by Michael Chabon, who admits reading it for a total of four times. He also claims to know four other people who read it and also enjoyed it. Based on this small sample, five out of five, he blieves that this book will please everyone in the world. Maybe. I liked it, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s a historical novel full of action and adventure, set during the times of the Viking incursions – mostly around 911 A.D. It’s the story of Red Orm, who, as a boy was abducted from his Danish home by marauding Vikings and forced to become one of their slave rowers on their ships. The descriptive powers of the author make it seem as if you ae the one chained to a seat, manning one of the long oars. As a Viking slave, Red (he has red hair, and, later, a red beard) is forced to take part in their raids. He is then captured by the Moors when they invade what is now Spain, and ends up becoming a bodyguard for the Caliph of Cordova. He soon escapes, and, along with some of his shipmates, takes a ship and sails to Ireland, where he encounters a group of Christian monks. Along the way, he manages to pick up several languages, a talent that stands him in good stead among both his fellow former-prisoners and the people he meets along the way. There’s always lots of action that accompanies Red as he travels the known world of the Vikings, but this is not just an action-adventure story. The author manages to infuse his tale with large doses of humor that is often subtle, though often crude. It’s really a boy’s adventure book told for grownups. The author (1894-1954) initially issued this book as two separate volumes, the first in 1941 as “Red Orm on the Western Way,” and the second in 1945 as “Red Orm at Home and on the Eastern Way.” The two volumes were combined and published in England and the U.S. in 1955. Fortunately, there are also maps included with this edition, so that you can follow Red’s routes to adventure. The novel also provides a realistic look at the Vikings and their way of life and the effects they had on the development of Western Europe. They were fierce fighters and much feared by those countries on which they preyed. One fact that I didn’t know was that in 911, Charles the Simple (I love that name) ceded part of his kingdom to them; this came to be known as Normandy, the Northman’s Land. If you’re up for a good old-fashioned read, I recommend you give this book a try.