08
Oct
13

Swords, Ships and Jokes: Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships

The Long Ships

A wild ride through Europe c. 1000 AD, Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships is something of an overlooked classic. It’s got everything you’d want from a fun summer read: wild brawls, romance and quests for missing brides, hidden treasure and a sly sense of humour to boot.

The story follows Red Orm, the youngest of a family of Vikings in tenth century Scandinavia. Stolen aboard a Viking ship at 13, he quickly becomes friends with the crew and goes off on a journey that takes him as far abroad as Spain. Before long, he’s roaming through Europe and into the courts of Kings and Caliphs before fighting his way back with a ragtag crew. Later, he takes part in the defeat of an English army, gets wealthy, becomes a rather casual Christian and falls for a princess.

And that’s just in the first third of this book; it only gets wilder from there: a giant gathering of Scandinavians in the wilderness; a corrupt and maniacal, sex-crazed ex-priest and his band of evildoers; a secret stash of Byzantine gold hidden in a series of weirs and more fighting and pillaging than you could shake a sword at.

But like I said above, what really sets this book apart is Bengtsson’s sense of humour. What could be a simple paint-by-numbers historical novel comes alive thanks to that: the characters feel much more complete, never taking themselves too seriously. My favourite part is a recollection of a wedding where an argument over a horse deal erupts and things go crazy:

“However, when the bride… saw her uncle’s eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom’s kinsmen, she has seized a torch from the wall and the the bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids, with great presence of mind,  had forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death; so this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden…” (pg 133)

This sense of humour’s constantly there through the book. Orm is inordinately lucky, surviving a number of misfortunes, but he’s constantly wary of doing anything. His friend Toke is fond of breaking into verse when slashing people with his sword and even fonder of getting drunk afterward. Bentsson’s ironical sense of humour works wonders here, keeping the book from taking itself too seriously and giving readers a break from the also-unrelenting violence. It would’ve been easy for The Long Ships to fall into the potboiler trap of being nothing more than a series of Viking fights, catering to people who think the Sagas start and end with Thor. It’s to Bentsson’s credit that his sense of humour makes Orm, Toke and the others come alive here.

NYRB’s edition has a few maps, which are nice, and an introduction by Michael Chabon, which is well-meaning but doesn’t really add anything; “It’s a great book,” he says, over and over. I appreciate the sentiment and agree with him, but it’s easily skipped over. The translation by Michael Meyer is good, although it’s a little oddly formal-seeming sometimes (see all the passive voice in the above quote).

Rating: 9/10.  If you’re at all into historical fiction, Icelandic Sagas or even stuff like Game of Thrones, you’ll love this. It’s swordfights, jokes, plundering and more. Recommended.

 

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