‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

The Long Ships

Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death, so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered.

Sometime last week it occurred to me that, although I’ve been praising the book to people most of my life, it’s actually been decades since I read Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. My old copy, printed in the 1960s, with a cover that doesn’t even appear on Amazon, is pretty much going to pieces, but it’s not terribly expensive to get a Kindle copy.

I’m happy to report that the book is as good as I remembered. Better. I still nominate it for the best Viking novel ever written – though a lot of Viking novels have been written in the last few years, and I haven’t read most of them. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could do it better than this. (Pay no attention to the 1964 movie starring Richard Widmark. It’s a travesty.)

The Long Ships (Swedish title, Röde Orm), is the story of Red Orm Tostesson, younger son of a chieftain in Scania, which is part of Sweden today but was Danish back in the Viking Age. Early in the story he’s kidnapped by a Viking crew, who take him away into the Baltic and then south to Spain. There they, more or less by happenstance, “rescue” a Jewish slave from another Viking crew. He directs them to a rich city they can plunder, which eventually leads to their enslavement by the Moors, slavery in a galley, and then military service under the caliph of Cordoba. Further adventures bring them back to Denmark, into the favor of King Harald Bluetooth (the guy your wireless device was named after), and then home again. Followed by participation in Thorkel the Tall’s invasion of England, and an epic voyage into Russia in search of a hoard of gold.

It’s quite a story. And it’s not just that the action is exciting – it’s all in how it’s told. A Viking story necessarily involves a lot of violence and cruelty. Author Bengtsson deals with that problem through black humor. We are led to laugh at the Vikings’ (and others’) attitudes and world view, which cushions our moral outrage. As a result, it’s a very funny book.

The issue of religion is large in this story, which is set in the time of Christianity’s triumph in Scandinavia (roughly contemporary with my Erling books, as a matter of fact). Orm himself is converted, but all religions in this story get the same satiric elbow in the ribs. There are bad Christians and good Christians, bad heathens and good heathens. Christianity comes in for some hard knocks, but some of the best characters in the story are Christians as well. So I took no offense. The story of Magister Rainald, at the end, is a bit of a shocker, but the reader will make of that what he will.

All things taken together, this is one of my favorite novels, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

(Oh yes, good news. From what I can find on the internet, a Swedish movie project of (three films and a miniseries) is scheduled to begin production this year.)

2 thoughts on “‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson”

  1. Agreed, Lars. This book is a delight to read. The translator must’ve done a great job in communicating the subtle humor (I only read English). He manages to get the cherry on top of the whipped cream again and again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.