I think the best way to approach this book is not to think of it as a modern novel but instead imagine that you are being told this story by a grandfather or a bard in an inn on a stormy night.
The Long Ships falls somewhere between epic poetry, an oral story, and a history of the Vikings; the book is not, however, a study of complex characters with deep psychologies and nuance. What you’ll find here is a rip-roaring yarn about the various heroic adventures of Red Orm and his friends as they travel into Muslim lands and even as far away as modern-day Russia, and they’ll fight and kill and marry and get religion and behave much more like regular people than what preconceptions about Vikings tend to describe.
The only real complaint I have about many of these adventures (and the book in general) is that too often there is very little sense of danger for Orm – I never felt like anything really bad was going to happen to him and so even though the book is very well written (it moves at a great clip) there is no real tension moving the action forward. Basically we know Orm is going to be alright and so we just need to sit back and enjoy learning how he became alright. And that’s not really a bad thing, but even Homer was able to place Odysseus is much tighter spots whose outcomes didn’t always feel inevitable.
Bengtsson’s strength in the book is portraying the Vikings as real, living, breathing people and not just blood-thirsty killers bent on raping everything they see. Orm is a generous king, one who even converts to the strange and foreign (even undesirable) religion of Christianity. He treats his friends well, is fair to everyone fair to him, and is basically the ideal of a great warrior king – sort of like a Camelot but with more beards. I got the impression that Bengtsson wanted to celebrate his people’s heritage by lending his characters all the good qualities other writers and historians have managed to overlook when dealing with these people. Of course this means the pendulum swings hard the other way and so this book can only be taken as entertainment with a heavy dose of ancestral pride.
Yet it would be unfair for me to require Bengtsson to do anything more than what he has. He has written a story that is, above all else, fun to read and hard to put down. I mean, we’re talking Vikings here and that’s a subject nearly impossible to screw up. Is it uneven? Sure, but so what? I had fun with it.
I would like to add that I find it really strange that this book is not more well known. This book deserves a much wider readership outside of its native country. Thankfully the New York Review of Books have created a wonderful edition (and they always do, too) and hopefully more people will discover this hidden treasure.
This final adventure has a cautious, but also a needlessly unnecessary quality to it. Everyone is older and comfortable so it makes sense to test the waters one more time and prove everyone is still a warrior, but Orm is spending more than he’s making and he’s taking no chances. He’s much different than he was at the beginning of the saga and it shows.
Bengtsson does a good job of describing what it would be like converting people of one belief to another. Much of the spread of Christianity had to do with how it incorporated local belief into canon. These examples could also parallel Native American peoples with the settlers.
I know it’s not fair to judge a book on what I want it to be, but it would be nice if it felt like Orm was in at least a little danger. As he is he is never really in any threat and when something does happen he escapes mostly unharmed and unchanged. It’s the lack of any real arc for Orm that sort of lessens an otherwise great epic tale of viking culture.
The meeting at the stone gives a very different impression of the vikings than what we’ve had up to this point.
Even with a couple of dead goats still hanging from the stone, these men all sit around judging the matters before them a civilly as any Christian nation (and that juxtaposes nicely with Toke’s impression of the god-lovers), but they also seem very poor, too. These were hunters and trappers, not rich men
Knowing less than nothing about viking culture I can’t speak to the historical authenticity of the rituals Bengtsson writes about here. However, they are so vivid and seem so natural that I would not be surprised if much of what goes on in this book is based on actual data.
It’s too bad we don’t know more about Viking culture, but maybe that’s part of their appeal, too. They are a lot like the magister here.
the broad strokes that Bengtsson writes in really does work nicely in this book. For example, even though he doesn’t spend much time describing what it was like for Orm and his men to build a new town by the river, when you put the book down and think about that scene, and scenes like it, you sort of get caught up in it the way you do with Homer in the Odyssey. It really is a lot of fun.
This book is at its best when there is a lot of action and the stakes are clear. Orm is a man of action and of few words so that when he’s in a situation where the greatest controversy is christian conversion (a matter of considerable words), Orm is sort of wasted as a character. Luckily Father Willibald, though just as fiesty, is a great partner and foil, however, there needs to be more for him to do.
The bit here about Orm getting baptized is kinda dull, but it does do a nice job of showing us how temperamental and opportunistic he can be.
Not that I’m surprised that events in the book are based on real historical events, but it was fun reading about the Battle of Maldon in 991 from the point of view of the Vikings.
I also enjoyed how vexed the Vikings were at dealing with the people in the tower who, though starving to death, still sang and throw stones.
If Orm and Toke keep at it, they will unite every king and ruler on earth against them.
I liked how because there was no lice in his hair that Orm thought his blood was poisoned and he was soon to die. No wonder plaiting was so popular back then.
These days a disagreement over the rightful owner of an object would be dragged litigiously through the courts by an army of well heeled lawyers. Orm, however, takes a more hands on approach and never looses his head
I’ll admit that a chapter devoted to a winter feast in a great hall with warriors and their king, all drunk and telling tall tales is cliché, but when it’s done well it is so much fun and helps weave the epic thread of the overall story
Wisely, Orm uses the giant bell as a gift for his converted King. I’m sure the gold he gave the monks will pay dividends later on, too. The mixing of people and religions is interesting and probably close to truth. This is how the modern world began again after Rome fell.
Almost better to be quick with one’s wit as it is to be quick with one’s sword. Orm always knows the exact correct thing to say when the odds are slim.
I love the image of the slave ship carrying a giant bell as it floats through the fog and each peal is answered by a softer, more distant peal. Beautiful imagery.
We’ve now moved into the Ben Hur chapter of the saga where Orm and his friends are taken captive by the Muslims and pressed into service as galley slaves.
Orm is quite the character with a great wit and the plotting of the story is pitch perfect. There is a rhythm to the story that makes it feel like you’re watching a epic film and even visually the story takes you directly to the exotic locations.
I love it!
Bengtsson pulls a neat trick in creating his characters – he lets them be defined pretty much by their actions with extremely brief but memorable snippets of dialogue.
There is no psychological realism, the characters are all stock, yet they feel alive anyway. It’s a gripping tale as Pillars Of The Earth and I love the use of starfish as a verb.
Vikings! Action! Plunder! Adventure under grey skies upon rough seas during troubled medieval times!
How have I never heard of this book before? How am I going to be able to not try and read the whole thing in one sitting?