The Long Ships

by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

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

The Long Ships appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other Viking adventure novels:

The Deepest Sea by Charles Barnitz (1996), historical fantasy about the sea voyages of the son of a Viking settler in Dublin. See review or more info at

The Whale Road by Robert Low (2007), about a young man who joins a group of Viking raiders searching for a treasure with a curse on it; #1 in the Oathsworn series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Blood Eye by Giles Kristian (2009), about a carpenter's apprentice taken prisoner by Viking warriors, who comes to enjoy their life of adventure and savagery; #1 in the Raven series. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Vikings:

The Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson (2009). More info

The World of the Vikings by Richard Hall (2007). More info

A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones (2nd edition, 1984). More info

At the Movies:

The Long Ships, the 1964 Viking adventure movie based on Bengtsson's novel, starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier.


Vikings at the BBC History website

Back to Novels of Scandinavia and the Vikings

Back to Directory of Book Reviews

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