book-reviews

The Long Ships

by Frank Bengtsson (tr. Michael Meyer)

The Long Ships is a rip-roaring Viking adventure story told in the style of an ancient saga. We follow a level-headed protagonist, Orm, from his very earliest adventures all through his life to his peaceful retirement. The rich historical setting -- Orm meeting many famous names and hearing of a number of famed events -- combine with the wisecracking pragmatism of the central cast to make the whole thing engaging and chortleworthy.

Bengtsson paints no rose vision of the Viking world. Men are routinely killed, sometimes gloriously and often not, and women routinely captured and carried off (the rape itself, it must be said, is glossed over). Orm's first roving was the result of his being captured by sheep-thieves and pressganged, and not long after that he would find himself in the slave galleys of the south. The story doesn't hone in on this dreariness, but includes it as part of the adventure, the realism helping spice the fun in a way many modern attempts might fail to.

A recurring point of discussion is the advance of Christianity into the pagan world. At first, Orm himself is pagan, and along with many others he mocks the ridiculous monotheist doctrines, despite befriending a Jew, serving Allah and being healed by a Christian monk. The pragmatic nature of the Norse means they have no qualms with bowing to Meccah when their employer demands it, nor with offering Allah and Christian saints sacrifices to match those for their own gods, when they really need to get their ship moving. Eventually, a discussion with a priest over the matter of a woman gets Orm to convert, and he eventually becomes a stout defender of Christianity, presenting an example to those in the far north that not all Christians are corrupt.

The Long Ships is fine historical adventure in the same vein as The Oddessy or Robinson Crusoe, but shaped with northern sensibilities and a helping of dry humour. Perfect for anyone with a hunger for fantasy and adventure, be they eight or eighty.