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