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The Long Ships ()

It's hard to find a more universally and deservedly praised historical novel than The Long Ships. Indeed, this NY Review of Books version opens with an Introduction by Michael Chabon that, by itself, will make you want to read it. Or, as I did, listen to the phenomenal audio book version so as not to get hung up on unusual names and pronunciations. So allow me just to point out a few things that really stood out to me.

The first thing that stands out is the centrality of the Vikings in a globalized economy and culture. My favorite book of all time is one I first read as a child, Frederick Coe's Knight of the Cross. It featured a young Viking whose mother pledges his life to God after a dire injury. He proceeds to travel to the Balearic Isles, where he learns to use a sling, and on to Byzantium where he meets Norman crusaders and serves the Emperor. Frans Bengtsson gives us an epic version of that sort of tale. Beginning in the late 900s, a young Viking from Skania, Orm, who becomes known as Red Orm, is taken captive by a raiding party and put to work on a ship. He experiences slavery, service to Almansur, the leader of Andalusia, leadership of his own band, marriage to a king's daughter, eventualpolitical leadership as a major landowner and then great wealth after rescuing a treasure that had been abandoned by his brother. Over the course of these adventures he befriends a Jewish silversmith, Muslims, Irish and English priests, Irish jesters, Ukranians and so on and so forth as he travels to Spain, Ireland, England, Denmark, England, Ukraine and Russia. He converts first to Islam and then to Christianity. He even learns to speak Arabic when in captivity. He is, in short, a quintessential man of the world, shattering any caricature of Vikings as mere provincial savages.

Along the same lines, while the Viking characters are violent and impulsive that largely flows from their honesty and straightforwardness. Meanwhile, as the serial conversions suggest, they are pragmatic and adaptable. Orm and his men are not born-again, they adopt Islam and Christianity because the local gods seem lucky for those who live in these lands. They work hard whether as galley slaves or Almansur's bodyguards or as raiders or as farmers. They accept life and death as they come. And they find humor in everything. You can't overstate how funny this book is, especially notable in the audio version as rendered by Michael Mayer. It's most often a dry and understated wit and it's delightful.

Finally, as befits a novel that the author quite consciously models on a saga, they are a literary people, despite not having written texts. Great chunks of the book consist of characters telling their own stories. Incidents become the basis for new stories--as when Orm defeats two berserks with just a broom handle. And men are as highly regarded for the quality of their verses as for fighting prowess. Orm takes great pride in his ability to top another character's rhyme with one of his own--a kind of Viking version of playing the dozens.

Tragically, the book was turned into a much reviled movie, but there are rumpors of a new Swedish film/tv franchise. It cries out for at least a 10-part Netflix treatment.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Historical Fiction
Frans Bengtsson Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Frans G. Bengtsson
    -BOOK SITE: The Long Ships (Penguin Random House)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Long Ships
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Long Ships (film)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One: Concerning Thane Toste And His Household
    -ETEXT: The Long Ships (Internet Archive)
    -AUDIO EXCERPT: Introduction to The Long Ships by Michael Chabon, read by Michael Meyer
    -INTRODUCTION: to The Long Ships: Unearthing a Viking treasure. (Michael Chabon, 6/28/2010, Paris Review)
    -ARTICLE: Swedes set up 'ultimate Viking movie' (Geoffrey Macnab, 5 August 2011, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, translated by Michael Meyer (Michael Dirda, B&N Review)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (MICHAEL SCHAUB, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Joe Abercrombie, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Michael Chabon, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Brian Hurley, Fiction Advocate)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (David MacLane, Historical Novels)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Erik Spanberg, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Phil Constable, NY Journal of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Michael Lewis)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (A Striped Armchair)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Speesh Reads)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Brandywine Books)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Karl Janssen, Old Books by Dead guys)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Hear the Boat Sing)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Book Group of One)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Pining for the West)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (A Little Tea, a Little Chat)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Bill Crider Pop Culture Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Perpetually Past Due)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Kate of Mind)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Inconsistent Pacing)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Andrew Forrest)
    -REVIEW: of Long Ships (Sasha Martinez, Other Sashas)


    -FILMOGRAPHY:Frans G. Bengtsson (1894–1954) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The Long Ships (1964) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The Long Ships (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILM SITE: The Long Ships (Turner Classic Movies)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Long Ships (Howard Thompson, NY Times)
    -PLAY REVIEW: Røde Orm review – the greatest saga ever told: With its rooftop setting, clashing of swords and larger-than-life characters, this Viking epic is a fitting centrepiece to Aarhus’s European capital of culture feast Clare Brennan, The Observer)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: The Viking Longship: An Engineering Marvel of the Ancient World : The favored war ships of Norsemen were fast and adaptable to various conditions. (Joshua Rapp Learn, Jun 16, 2021, Discover)
    -ARTICLE: Viking Shield Technology Revealed in New Breakthrough Study (Ashley Cowie, 10/14/20, Ancient Origins)
    -ARTICLE: A Deadly Formula - Why Viking Weapons and Armor Were So Effective (ALEKSA VU?KOVI?, 6/01/20, Ancient Origins)
    -ARTICLE: New Findings Correspond with Conclusions Drawn from Sagas (Iceland Monitor, 10/23/21)
-REVIEW: of Children of Ash and Elm: by Neil Price (John L. Murphy, Spectrum Culture)
    -ARCHIVES: Vikings (Ancient Origins)