Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Long Ships is among the most satisfying novels ever written about the Viking Age. As with many novelists tackling this era, the primary inspiration for Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s style comes from the great Icelandic sagas. In this case their spare, matter-of-fact voice is enlivened by the apparent injection of some stem cells from Mark Twain. The result is a swift and engaging series of adventure tales told with a delightful seasoning of poker-faced humor.
The time is the late tenth and early eleventh centuries; the place much of the far-flung world traversed by Scandinavian traders and adventurers, from the realms of both Christian and Moslem Spain, to the isles of Ireland, back to the heartlands of Denmark and Sweden, and climaxing in a journey up and down the rivers of the embryonic Russian state, including a surprise visit to the horsemen of the steppes. The hero is the young warrior Orm, whose coming of age includes surviving a harsh stint as a Moorish galley slave and collecting some unlikely friends. He eventually becomes a successful leader of men and an acquaintance of more than one king, although his options are occasionally constricted by the actions of his friend and companion Toke, whose easy way with women is a mixed blessing. The Long Ships also offers a wry view of the slow Christianization of the northern lands, in which Orm plays a role, with a cheerful depiction of the pragmatic compromises which made that conversion possible. Along the way you can enjoy some subtle cuckold humor, the full implications of which require an alert reader, whose reward will come in recognizing the veiled ironies of the story’s conclusion. Bengsston’s novel seems to have found an audience - I needed to place a hold to snag it from my local library system - and would be a good pick for anyone constrained, presumably at sword-point, to read only one Viking Age novel. (1941-1945 in the original Swedish, 528 pages in the 2010 New York Review Books Classics edition in English)More about The Long Ships at Powell's Books or Amazon.com