The Long Ships

This lively tale of 10th-century Viking exploits can best be described as a Scandinavian swashbuckler.

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    The Long Ships
    By Frans Bengtsson
    NYRB Classics
    520 pp., $17.95
    View Caption

Perhaps you need a late-summer break from Girls With Dragon Tattoos Who Play with Fire and Kick Hornet’s Nests.

In keeping with the theme of Swedish authors whose thrilling works outlive them – as was the case with Stieg Larsson – the time is just right for what, in the interest of symmetry, should be re-named “The Boy With Dragon Ships.”

Meet none other than Red Orm, a wandering über-Viking blessed with impeccable timing, incredible strength, and a lively spirit.

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Orm is the creation of Frans Bengtsson, the author of a pair of Scandinavian swashbucklers published during World War II and recently brought back to life by the New York Review of Books in a one-volume edition titled The Long Ships. (They were originally published in English translation in 1955, also as a single volume.)

Bengtsson, we can all agree, is less than a household name 50 years later. Were it not for the intervention of genre-bending novelist Michael Chabon, one suspects his magical Viking tales would have been lost for many more years.

But since this is a tale of epic heroism, let Chabon’s be the first of many brink-of-destruction dodges.

Frans Bengtsson, who died in 1954, was a poet, essayist, translator, and biographer – and distinguished, at that – during his varied writing career.
If he is to be remembered, though, it should be for Orm and “The Long Ships.” In it, Bengtsson channels Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, among others, in his now-revived tales of Danish and Swedish derring-do.

Or, as Chabon writes in a glowing introduction to the new edition of Bengtsson’s lost-and-found adventure story, “The Long Ships” offers “irony as harsh and forgiving as anything in Dickens, a wit and skepticism worthy of Stendhal, an epic Tolstoyan sense of the anti-epic, and the Herculean narrative drive, mighty and nimble, of Alexandre Dumas.”

Just as important, it’s terrific fun, the kind of book that moves the fustiest of critics to pronounce it a rollicking yarn or something to that effect.

Translation for us mere mortals: There are no boring parts to skip.

Set in the latter part of the 10th century, “The Long Ships” takes Orm from boyhood into middle age, wrapping the story of three far-flung sea voyages around a period of relative domestic tranquility. (Bengtsson’s notion of domestic tranquility does include beheadings, the occasional cuckold, and all manner of religious strife and debate, but, hey, no family lacks a bit of drama from time to time.)

Lest the prospective reader fear that the narrative drifts too far into sociology and history, be not afraid. Bengtsson writes the most delightful version of historical fiction, getting the details to read right while never letting the particulars of culture and custom interfere with Orm and his merry band of fierce plunderers, steely wives, impatient mothers, put-upon fathers, and so on.

Orm, the youngest son, is an unlikely hero when the story begins with him as a boy in the southern part of Sweden, then under Danish rule. Orm’s mother frets over his size and what she considers his fragile health. His father is an aging but still effective Viking, sailing to Ireland and beyond for half the year in search of booty and treasure. Though Orm longs to take part in his family’s adventures, his mother forbids it.

As with all good adventure stories, fate and irony come to the reader’s rescue. While his father and brother are off “a-Viking,” as Bengtsson describes these mercenary mariners’ forays, another band of opportunistic thieves comes ashore in search of provisions.

Their haul includes sheep – and a stubborn boy who pursues the bandits with relentless rage. The stubborn youth is Orm. A fortuitous stumble during the chase spares him a spear in the gut. He revives and kills a man, only to be knocked unconscious by the bandits’ chief, who decides to take Orm aboard his ship and have him assume the rowing duties of the man Orm killed.

With that, Orm becomes an improbable adoptee of a Viking crew he had tried to wipe out a few hours earlier. Before long, he and the others aboard befriend a heroic Jewish interloper, are taken as slaves, and then made into bodyguards among the Moors in Spain. These hardy Scandinavians will, at the same time, adopt Muslim vows and – to finish off their spiritual sampling – undergo Christian baptism after being freed.

Somehow the blood and laughs keep flowing even as Bengtsson explores rigid religious belief and stubborn superstition, lightened by a more than a few instances of unindicted co-conspiracy.

Sly humor keeps the adventures from tilting into parody. To cite but one of many examples: Orm reunites with fellow Viking and friend Toke years later in the Swedish countryside. Each man relates the story of the intervening years since they last met. Toke, it is related, wandered north after what is described as a fearful misfortune: being speared in the buttocks after an alcohol-induced nap on the privy.

“[W]hen I tell you what happened, you may both laugh without fear that I shall draw upon you, though I have killed more than one man for twisting his mouth at this affair,” Toke tells Orm and his ever-present Christian companion, Father Willibald. “Of all the things that have happened to me in my life, this was the worst – worse than being a galley slave among the Andalusians.”

On another occasion, Orm and fellow Vikings prod a feckless British king to make good on promises of silver offered by English bishops in fearful surrender. King Ethelred, he of the dignified bearing, hears the negotiated terms spelled out with the bishops and Vikings as his audience. Frayed nerves abound, inflamed by the king’s sudden, violent move to smash the arm of his throne with his scepter:

“ ‘Look!’ he exclaimed to the Archbishop, who was seated by his side on a lower chair. ‘Four flies at a single blow! And yet this is but poorly shaped for the work.’ The Archbishop said he thought there were not many kings in the world who could have performed such a feat, and that it testified to both his dexterity and the excellence of his luck. The King nodded delightedly; then the envoys proceeded with their narration, and everybody began again to listen to them.”

Sharp observation and wit never come at the expense of classic adventure, though. Does Orm fight to the death? Yes, and many times. Is there a king’s daughter whose love for our hero must go unrequited because of the father’s meddling? But of course. And do chance and bit players later turn into walking weapons of delightful deus ex machina disruption? Why, yes indeed.

Before Orm can have any chance at a lasting peace, he must first embark on another odyssey. Now a grizzled, aging Viking (think Brett Favre swigging ale and dodging tacklers out of the shotgun formation), Orm assembles his own Ocean’s Eleven in a quest for buried treasure in Eastern Europe. It’s a dazzling final act, worthy of Chabon’s assertion that “The Long Ships” “stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.”

Here is the buried treasure, readers, newly unearthed. Now, go forth and read.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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