The Long Ships

Before I go on about what a wonderful book this is, I should mention that this new edition of Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships is introduced by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who knows a thing or two about storytelling.   In his opening paragraph, the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, declares that Bengtsson’s great Viking adventure novel  “stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.”

Readers already familiar with The Long Ships will be charitable and forgive Chabon this cautious, wimpy understatement.

As is well known, historical novels tend to be of two sorts: those that are utterly dreary and those that are very nearly the most entertaining books in the world. In this latter category one can point to Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin naval adventures, Georgette Heyer‘s Regency romances, the Flashman novels (and The Pyrates) of George MacDonald Fraser, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its sequels, the Lymond Chronicles of Dorothy Dunnett, and, of course, the celebrated swashbucklers of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini. The Long Ships belongs in just such mighty company.

Now I’m sure that some lynx-eyed readers have already noticed that The Long Ships is translated from the Swedish. Swedish! Everyone knows what that means—the book will be dark and lugubrious, like one of those Bergman films set in the Middle Ages, such as The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring.  Not in the least. Michael Meyer renders Bengtsson’s prose into the kind of elegant, slyly humorous English that most of us can only dream of writing. “Utter deliciousness” is the phrase that Chabon uses to describe it.

Set in the years just before and after 1000 A.D., The Long Ships follows the life and exploits of red-haired Orm Tostesson, later known as Orm the Far-Traveled.  From the age of 18, when he is kidnapped by marauders, Orm adventures far and wide around the Baltic and across Europe. But then, what better life is there? As the hard-drinking poet and warrior Toke Gray-Gullsson says:

“It is good to sit contented ashore, and no man need be ashamed to do so; but a voyage to a far land, with booty awaiting a man and this smell [of the sea] in his nostrils, is as good a lot as could be desired, and a sure cure for age and sorrow. It is strange that we Northmen, who know this and are more skillful seamen than other men, sit at home as much as we do, when we have the whole world to plunder.”

Over the course of his young manhood the likeable, slightly hypochondriacal Orm will storm fortresses, spend four years as a galley slave, fight as a mercenary for the Caliph, gain through his valor a wondrous sword called Blue-Tongue and a great necklace of gold,  win the love of a daughter of King Harald Bluetooth,  participate in the Battle of Maldon, and finally undertake one last great exploit: a river voyage across Europe to steal an Emperor’s hidden treasure.

Now that’s what I call living.

About that imperial treasure:  Orm learns of it from a mutilated blind man, who has had his tongue torn out and one of his hands cut off. Nonetheless, through the clever use of runes, the poor wretch is eventually able to describe the location of the trove:

“In the river Dnieper, where the portage climbs beside the great weirs, just below the third weir as a man come from the south, off the right bank between the skull-mound of the Patzinaks and the small rock in the river on which the three rose-bushes grow, under the water in the narrow channel where the rock-flat is broken, hidden beneath large stones where the rock-flat juts out and hides the bed beneath—there lies the Bulgur gold, and I alone know its hiding-place. As much gold as two strong men might carry lies drowned there, in four small chests sealed with the Emperor’s seal, together with silver in five sacks of skin, and the sacks are heavy.”

And that’s how riches should be hidden. Robert Louis Stevenson or Rider Haggard couldn’t have done it better.

En route to that third weir on the Dnieper, Orm’s ship is hailed by three Gothlander vessels, moving downstream:

They had come from great Bulgaria, on the river Volga, and had rowed down the river to the Salt Sea, where they had traded with the Arabs. They were carrying a good cargo home, they said: fabrics, silver bowls, slave-girls, wine, and pepper; and three men in the second ship held up a naked young woman and dangled her over the side by her arms and hair, crying that she was for sale for twelve marks between friends. The woman shrieked and struggled, fearful lest she should fall into the water, and Orm’s men drew deep breaths at the sight of her; but when, nobody having made an offer, the men drew her in again, she screamed foul words and thrust her tongue out at them.

After the ships have passed each other, Orm’s men discuss the Gothlanders’ offer:

“That woman was not contemptible,” said Toke thoughtfully. “By her breasts, I adjudge her to be twenty at the most, though it is always difficult to be sure with a woman when she is hanging with her arms above her head. But only Gothlanders could ask twelve marks for a slave-girl however young. None the less, I expected you, Olof, to make a bid for her.”

Orm, Toke, Olof and all their comrades live by a heroic code, indeed an esthetic code. A man—or woman, for that matter—must do what is seemly, what is right, no matter the personal cost. To live and die with style—that alone brings immortality. As Orm’s mother complains when her husband says he’s too old to sail on yet another Viking expedition:

She could not understand  . . . what men were coming to nowadays; her own great uncle, Sven Rat-Nose, a mighty man among the Goings, had fallen like a hero fighting the Smalanders three years after drinking the whole company under the table at his eldest grandson’s wedding; whereas now you heard talk of cramps from men in the prime of life who were apparently quite willing to die, unashamedly, on their backs in straw, like cows.

This is a society, then, of deadly challenges and sudden vengeance, where a Yuletide feast or a wedding party isn’t counted “merry” unless it ends in drunken violence, the destruction of the furniture, and sword-fights to the death. Here is how Brother Willibald describes the people he once hoped to convert:

“Blood-wolves, murderers and malefactors, adulterate vermin, Gadarene swine, weeds of Satan and minions of Beelzebub, generations of vipers and basilisks . . .  No bishop or holy father shall ever persuade me that such as you can be saved. How should men of the north be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? You would scrabble at the blessed virgins with your lewd fingers, you would raise your war-whoops against the seraphim and archangels, you would bawl for ale before the throne of God Himself!”

But eventually Orm does accept Christianity out of love for Harald’s daughter Ylva.  Still, lingering memories of his temporary adoption of Islam—back when he served the Caliph’s regent Almansur—lead to occasional confusions, as when Orm tries to persuade the reluctant Toke to convert to Christianity:

            “All that you have to do is renounce your old gods and say ‘There is no god save God, and Christ is His Prophet.’

            “Not His Prophet!” said Father Willibald severely. “His Son!”

            “His Son,” said Orm quickly. “That is what I meant to say; I was not thinking and my tongue slipped.”

According to good Father Willibald, the end of the world is fast approaching. But when the designated year 1000 arrives, does it bring an increase in holiness among his new converts? Quite the contrary:

From the very first day of this year every young Christian woman had sought the delights of bodily pleasure more greedily than ever before, for they were uncertain whether this pleasure would be allowed them in heaven and were therefore anxious to enjoy as much of it as they could while there was yet time, since whatever form of love heaven might have to offer them, they doubted whether it could be as agreeable as the sort practiced on earth.

As this passage suggests, the women in The Long Ships may sometimes be chattels but they are seldom shrinking violets. At one point, Toke, thinking to praise Orm’s wife, points out that  she “tamed quickly and I have never heard Orm regret his choice.”  Wrong move:

“You talk nonsense, Toke,” said Ylva. “I was never tamed. We of Gorm’s blood do not tame; we are as we are, and shall be so even when we appear before the judgment throne of God Himself. But Orm killed Sigtrygg, you must remember, and gave me Almansur’s chain; and then I knew that he belonged to me, for no other man would have acted thus. But do not speak to me of taming.”

Like much heroic literature, The Long Ships not only relates its protagonist’s adventures but also interlaces astonishing stories from nearly everyone the hero encounters: a duo of Irish jesters, a Jewish poet and a Moorish dandy, the proud slave-girl Mirah, a moody Christian fanatic, the sad-eyed jihadist Almansur, and even the pale and melancholy Styrbjorn, the Achilles of this reckless age, who could “cleft shields like loaves of bread and split armed men from the neck to the crotch with his sword, which was called Cradle-Song.”

Like Sone the Sharp-Sighted, who can sometimes glimpse the future, Bengtsson periodically flashes forward to Orm’s old age when, we are told, he would talk about the adventures of his younger days. While knowing that Orm will survive his travails may somewhat lessen the suspense, this narrative technique grants the novel an epic air, a soothing sense of action recollected in tranquility. And not always in tranquility:

In his dreams he often returned to the slave-ship and saw the wealed backs straining before his eyes and heard the men groaning with the terrible labor of their rowing, and, always, the feet of the overseer approaching behind him. His bed needed all the good craftsmanship that had gone into its making to keep it from splitting asunder as he would grip one of its beams to heave at the oar of his sleep; and he often said that there was no happiness in the world to compare with that of awakening from such a dream and finding it to be only a dream.

More years ago than I like to recall, I was a student of medieval literature at Cornell University. During my first year of graduate school I signed up for Old English, Introduction to Medieval French, Chaucer, Middle High German Literature, and the Icelandic Saga in Translation–we were serious students in those days.  I learned a lot, but the Icelandic sagas completely bowled me over: Think spaghetti westerns with swords—only more thrilling.  Except for the fact that it was written in the middle of the 20th century, Frans G. Bengtsson’s magnificent book is essentially just such a saga, and if you love heroic literature, whether it be Njal Saga or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy or Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan the Cimmerian, The Long Ships is the best end-of-summer treat you can possibly imagine. 


Comments are closed.