Spoils of the weekend

It was one of the most exhausting weekends I’ve had in a long time, involving considerable interaction with other human beings, always a workout for me. But nevertheless it wasn’t a bad weekend. Two things that happened, in particular, pleased me inordinately.

First of all, I got this link from my friend and sparring partner, Ragnar. They’re going to do The Long Ships as a movie again. In fact, they’re going to do two movies and a TV miniseries. They’re going to do it in Sweden, and if the Swedes are to be believed (always, ahem, a gamble), they’re going to do it right this time.

After years of ridicule and misrepresentation, the Vikings are on their way home. Plans are well under way for what the Swedish company Fladenfilm is calling “the ultimate Viking movie”. The $30m version of Frans G Bengtsson’s bloody Nordic saga The Long Ships (which is due to shoot in 2013) will comprise two feature films and a television series. What is different about this project is that it is being made by Viking nations – the Swedes in combination with their neighbours.

“The Vikings in the past have always been shown in big battle films, travelling around fighting,” says the Fladenfilm CEO and producer of The Long Ships, Patrick Ryborn. “They always were shown wearing long horns when they were fighting.”

One thing to bear in mind when reading this article is that Patrick Ryborn is an idiot. He says the Vikings “were always shown wearing long horns when they were fighting” in movies. This is simply untrue. Viking movies, by and large, have certainly been pathetic, but very few of them have shown Vikings in horned helmets (The Norseman and The Pathfinder remake are exceptions. Both stinkers). Their sins, which are many, have been other sins. He also goes on to say “this book [The Long Ships] is the only Viking story that is worth telling.” Which is a slander, not only on the mighty sagas themselves, but on the works of other Viking novelists I could name.

But setting that aside, this is very good news. The Long Ships, which was long out of print in English translation but is now available again here, is considered by many the best Viking novel ever written (to be fair, most of the critics have never read my books). The genius of the author, Frans Gunnar Bengtsson, was to bridge what I often call the “clunkiness” gap of Viking stories with humor. His characters act as saga characters should, but Bengtsson softens it all by narrating it with a comedian’s sensibilities.

It’s about a man named Red Orm, who lives in a place which is now in Sweden, but was part of Denmark at the time. He gets kidnapped (people in Viking novels are always getting kidnapped for some reason) and joins a Viking crew on a disastrous raiding expedition which ends in shipwreck and slavery in a Moorish galley. But he and his friend Toke manage to regain their freedom and serve in the forces of the Moorish ruler. Returning to Denmark, they become men of property, but have a couple more adventures, notably a treasure-hunting journey along the Russian trade routes.

It’s a rollicking story, much beloved in Sweden, and also among knowledgeable English language readers. A few pokes are taken at Christianity, but (as I recall ) more genially than is the fashion nowadays.

The story has been filmed before, more or less, in a ridiculous production starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, and Russ Tamblyn (Oskar Homolka is in it, one of its few saving graces). It’s one of those films where the writers grab a couple names from the novel, select a handful of props, and build a whole new (far inferior) story of their own, to show everybody what geniuses they are—especially those big guys who used to beat them up all the time in school.

So I’m happy about this news. Viking movies seem to be under a historical curse. Either they stink, or they never get made. Maybe this time somebody’ll get it right.

The second good thing that happened, happened on Sunday, at our semi-annual family reunion in Kenyon. One of the cousins gave me a book he’d been sent from Norway, one I’d never heard of before. It’s called Historie fra ei bygd: Bygdabok for Kvalavåg, 1850-2000 (History from a Rural Community: Community History for Kvalavåg, 1850-2000). Kvalavåg, if you haven’t been paying attention, is the place in Norway where my great-grandfather Walker was born.

I’ve shared a couple of my translations of my small collection of letters written to that great-grandfather by his father, back in the 1890s. (Here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Some years back, the relatives over there asked me to make photocopies of those letters and send them to them. I did this, and never heard more about it.

However, this book (published in 2000) makes use of “my” letters in a couple places, as documentation of conditions at Kvalavåg during that period. At one point the letters are quoted as evidence of the kind of fish catches they were getting, and later to show how road building progressed.

So once again I have achieved the status of academic citation, though anonymously (what it actually says is, “Letters privately owned”).

Still, my contributions to the world have not been major. It’s good to have one more.

3 thoughts on “Spoils of the weekend”

  1. I remember hearing about a war between Sweden and Norway where the Norwegians threw grenades over the mountain at the Swedes who then pulled the pins and threw them back. 🙂

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