On The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

#46 of 2011 • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
— translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer
— with an introduction by Michael Chabon

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an epic. An episodic epic, a gather-around-the-fire-with-your-mouth-open kind of epic. Written in the 1940s, yes, but so confidently structured, The Long Ships is patterned after the Viking sagas of yore—with plenty of chain-shouldering, swashbuckling, poetry-a-composing warriors who like to hack at things, “engage in lively sport” with the kidnapped noblewomen of pillaged lands, sidestep the gentle mania of monks converting every roughshod savage before the year 1000 [the coming of Christ, FYI]—so much fun. I sound crazy, I know.

At the center of the tale is Orm Tostesson, or Red Orm on account of his fiery hair—who I’d come to love in the course of this 500-plus-page wonder of lively literature. I love him, I am in awe of him, I want to wrap him in a fierce, warm bear hug.

Taken prisoner by Vikings whilst defending his sheep, Orm soon becomes an honorary member of the raiding Viking party, develops the beginnings of several key life-long friendships—and, well, meets hundreds of people, his exploits taking him to Andalusian lands, then falling captive (again) and serving as an oarsman for years, then becoming part of an elite bodyguard, then killing more people, then embroiling himself in royal politics, then meeting his wife, then having cute widdle babies, then killing two berserkers with a broomstick, then going treasure-hunting, and then, and then.

It’s difficult to compose myself, much less this review—I’m writing it with a maniacal grin on my face. It’s difficult to tell everyone about the wonders of this book, because there are so many, because you need to experience them yourself to know how much fun there is in here, because I really really really really love this book. [I suspect I’ll be reading this book to my unfortunate hypothetical spawn, flying-gut parts and all. I’ll be that kind of mother. Or batty baby-sitting aunt.]

I’m starting to panic at my inability to talk about this book—isn’t it funny that when I read Michael Chabon’s introduction, I thought it lame and inefficient? And now, man, I sympathize. And I understand. As much as any book this awesome demands an academic scrutiny, I know why Chabon chose to anchor his discussion of The Long Ships (not a very cute pun, yes) on personal relationships. It’s that kind of book. Also, the kind of book that has you chanting, “So good, so very good.” [Also, for those who don’t wish to go on with my thoughts—and I completely understand—this is Chabon’s book-sharing as it appeared in the NYRB edition.] [As usual, hundreds of readers’ undying gratitude to NYRB Classics for letting this tale live on.]

This is the book that had me laughing at the following scenes [a modest selection]: [01] A man thrown overboard a Viking ship because he was being meanie; [02] Our Viking hero punching a man’s jaw so hard that his chin falls to his lap; [03] A hoard of Englishmen spilling from a raided tower, kissing the ground upon their release, weeping from hunger and thirst; [04] A young, sexually-um-yippee-yay monk nearly cutting off his leg while attempting to chop some firewood; [05] A tiny little priest shouting “Love thy neighbor!” as he hurls a rock at a thunderous Dane king in hot pursuit. I am still laughing at that last one, especially.

I should be horrified, but it was fun. Central to this fun was the voice and tone, which recalls pure gather-around-the-fire storytelling. The months at sea so vivid you can retch from the salt in the air, Red Orm’s whining so telling of his adapted hypochondria that you can’t help but giggle when he refuses to duel outdoors because of the chill. The clang of swords; the welts on the sweaty brown backs of enslaved oarsmen. The bullying of otherwise adorable monks. Red Orm’s triumphs, his head-desk moments. And the adventures of all the other people in Red Orm’s life, who mirror this epic-bard-voice.

So engaging, so very rich, vibrant and vivid, so very much alive. One of the books I’m very grateful to have read—one of the books I’m sure I’ll be obnoxiously shoving into people’s hands. It’s not everyday, after all, that I wring  my hands and wail raucously in a too-public-for-racuous-wailing place upon me reaching a bloody book’s end.

Here’s to new favorite books. <3

8 thoughts on “On The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

  1. I would read this book for the cover alone… if it’s lame to admit that, well, I’ll own that your review convinced me as well. I am pretty sure that any time I comment on here it’s got to be some sort of “thanks for bringing this book to my attention” because you write about so many novels I’d never otherwise hear of – but still, thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    1. Aw, thanks, Ellen — I hope you enjoy this book when you pick it up: It exceeded my expectations. And the fear that came along with its girth, haha.

  2. It is Swedish? That’s enough to put it on my list at this moment. Missing a country where you’ve lived for a mere 3.5 months can do that to you. I’m not sure about the, what seems to be, violence? in the book. Could I laugh at it? But I’m going to trust you on this one.

    1. Yes, it’s originally Swedish, :) The violence, hm, was only really violent to me after I’ve stopped laughing. That’s me, haha, but the rollicking-adventure tone really pulls it off. :) Have fun reacquainting yourself with Sweden, dear.

  3. This is exactly the kind of book I’ve been wanting to read for the last few months – epic, exciting, bursting with violence and adventure. Something vaguely reminiscent of kids adventure books, but with all the gore and delight of catering to an adult reader.

    This sounds flipping awesome.

  4. This was my book club’s selection for April. The meeting is Thursday but I didn’t have time to read it, and therefore am sadly skipping. Now it sounds like it would make a fun discussion.


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