Category Archives: Long Ships, The

The Long Ships: Read from August 01 to October 31, 2013

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.

94% done with The Long Ships

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.

78% done with The Long Ships

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.

73% done with The Long Ships

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

68% done with The Long Ships

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.

62% done with The Long Ships

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.

53% done with The Long Ships

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.

16% done with The Long Ships

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!

10% done with The Long Ships

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.