Mary Ronan Drew's Reviews > The Long Ships

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
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Apr 24, 12

Read on April 24, 2012

In his introduction to Frans G Bengtsson's The Long ShipsMichael Chabon has this to say about the novel:

In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all three of them, like me, loved it immoderately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.

Let me make that five out of five. I am immoderately excited about this novel, a story in a genre that I never, ever read - slam, bang adventure, war, sea stories taking place in the 9th century. But this tale about a red-haired Dane called Orm, who accidentally goes off on an adventure with a ship full of Vikings and comes home a hero is irresistible.

Red Orm is kidnapped and becomes one of the adventurers in an open boat that heads for the south coast of England to rape and pillage. They pick up a slave from some other adventures who don't want him because he won't eat pork and refuses to row on Saturdays. He turns out to be a Jew from Spain, which had not too long before been conquered by the Moors. He is a wealthy goldsmith, who directs them to Cordova, where they are themselves enslaved by the caliph.

Orm is a sensitive lad, at least by Viking terms, and a bit of a hypochondriac. He gets nervous when the slave next to him on the rowing bench has a cough. There is an adventure a minute in this book and before you know it Orm and his friends have stolen a bell from Santiago de Compostella, summered with some monks in County Cork, and offered the bell as a gift to King Harald Bluetooth.

There are other adventures, sword fights, a bit of wooing, and a trip to the Black Sea, all moving along at a brisk clip. The book is surprisingly entertaining in many ways, not least of which is the dry, understated wit of the author as he regards the world the Danes look on as normal and we look on with horror. His religious characters are a delight, especially the poor monks who are trying to convert these warriers to Christianity while they continue to attribute their luck or lack of it to the old gods.

This book stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to almost any reader. It has done so for me.

2012 No 70

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