When Orm heard this, he seemed to get in a better mood and began to eat. But after a while he asked:
—Who was it that felled me?
Krok sat a distance away and heard his question. He laughed and lifted his axe and chewed out and said:
—This is the girl that kissed you, and if she'd bit, you wouldn't be asking.

The Long Ships is the English title of Swedish essayist Frans G. Bengtsson's novel Röde Orm, Swedish for Red Serpent, the name of its main character. Orm is a viking, and the novel, divided into two parts, follows him on his journeys, first in the west, then in the east. Of these the first part is, I would say, unquestionably superior, but the second is also well worth reading. By and large, it's the best novel about vikings that I know of; and it's a classic of Swedish literature, to the extent that such things exist.

Orm is a boy from Scania, now in south Sweden, but which was then part of the land of the Danes; his hair is red and he's a mild hypochondriac, but otherwise courageous and strong. After a chance encounter with a crew going viking, including the captain Krok (meaning Hook — yes, it's probably intentional) and the huge, friendly Toke (Maniac, for reasons which subsequently become clear), he sets out in a somewhat unorthodox way on his first trip; and the journey becomes much longer than intended. It takes him to Andalusia, to Asturias, to England, and briefly to Ireland. Along the way he meets Yakub Almanzor, Ethelred the Unready, and Harold Bluetooth, King of the Danes and thus the world; he accidentally turns left-handed, fights in the Battle of Maldon and drinks Yule at Jellinge. This latter chapter especially and in particular is a treasure of Swedish letters, and I like to reread it over Christmas. Usually that turns into a full re-read.

When the pork came to Orm and Toke, they sat motionless, turned to the cauldron, and followed with care how the servant searched with the spit. They sighed for joy when he brought out fine pieces of pork belly for them; and they reminded each other how long it was since last they sat at such a meal, and marveled how for so many years they could have endured in a porkless land. But when the blood sausage came, they both of them got tears in their eyes, and it seemed to them that they had never had a decent meal ever since they had sailed out with Krok.
—That smell is best of all, said Orm quietly.
—There's thyme in it, said Toke in a cracked voice.

In the second book there are functionally two parts: the first concerns Orm's business at home, dealing with his farm, and in the second part the unexpected return of Orm's long-lost brother, thought dead, from the East and Miklagård precipitates another voyage, this time down the Dniepr Route in search of the great treasure of the Bulgar Gold. Although good, this second book lacks the careening-across-history feel which enlivens the first book of the novel, as well as the masterful incidents which illuminate it and raise it to the level of a timeless classic. Many, many more people can quote or recognize some particularly good part out of the first book than can do so out of the second, and it's not merely because they lost interest: it's because there is just less of it there. But the book is quite good, well worth its place in the canon of adventure stories; really, it's only in comparison with its masterful predecessor, its abundant incidents and laconisms, that it comes up short. It's often that way with books; if only Verne had never written 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea or From The Earth To The Moon, we would be praising Hector Servadac. But an even closer analogy is The Three Musketeers, which is also divided into two books, and in which also the first half contains the majority of all its readers know and love — yet no one, surely, would be so foolish as to say that there is anything wrong with the second half.

Typical is the example of the gods. One of the great pleasures of The Long Ships is the attitude of the vikings to religion, a subject on which they are pragmatists to the fingertips. At one point, caught in a storm, they sacrifice meat and beer to Ägir, Allah and Santiago at once in the hope that one of them might placate the sea, because they don't know where they are, so they can't tell which has power over that particular area; in another case, they think they had rather convert to Islam because it's too warm for their own gods, and too far away — as demonstrated by the last time they sacrificed to one, and nothing good at all happened. They find the ban on pork ludicrous, but reason that Allah must like it so well that he is jealous of anyone else having any, which they could understand — and at any rate, he makes it up to them somewhat by letting them have four wives. Earlier they speculate on how the Christians could consider a man to be a god even after he'd been nailed to a board and died, just as the Lođbroksons did to the high priest of England of old. Such common treatment at the hands of mere men should not do in a god, they feel.

Unfortunately, this sort of business is wholly absent in the second book, at which point the characters have all made their minds up solidly; it makes sense from the perspective of the narrative, but still something is lost.

Ever since their arrival at Maeldun the two bishops had done their best to gain the chieftains for Christendom; thus king Ethelred and his archbishop had commanded them, since the king's honor would be greatly increased thereby before both God and man. [...] And with Jostein it had not gone better for them: [...] he threw his hat on the floor and asked them if they held him to be a witless man.
—I have been a priest at the big sacrifice in Uppsala twenty-seven winters, he said; and it is showing me little respect to come to me with such talk as this, which can suit children and crones. With this axe you see here, I've struck those who were sacrificed for good harvest and who were then hung up in the holy tree before the temple; and Christians among them, and priests too, naked on their knees in the snow lamenting; and tell me what benefit they had of their God.
Then the two bishops had shuddered and crossed themselves and understood that it was no use to cajole such a man.

The book is notable for including little to no description of people's thoughts, preferring to show the expression of these thoughts in their actions; Bengtsson himself loathed »psychological realism«, and wanted nothing to do with it. He may have gone a bit overboard in refusing to discuss thoughts at all, which even Dumas does, but the end result is definitely better than the alternative. People more obsessed with the fine details of the book than I am assert that the prose is sparse in adjectives. I choose to believe them. (The original Swedish prose is also a bit archaic for its time, but contrary to frequent assertion, this is not for effect: it's just that Bengtsson considered the written Swedish of his time ugly and slovenly and refused to write that way.)

Bengtsson made a number of remarks about writing the book over the years which have proven lasting. When asked whether it was hard he is supposed to have replied that »the first page was immensely difficult; figuring out the tone to use in the prose. After that it was easy«. Another time, a fellow Swedish author asked him what he intended the theme of the story to be; he replied »Themes? I didn't think about anything like that, I just wanted to write a book that people could like to read, like The Three Musketeers or The Odyssey«.

That is the most difficult task of literature, and in it he succeeded. I recommend the book wholeheartedly.


Krok staggered but kept his eyes on what could be seen of the overseer; he laughed and said:
—Now my luck is bettered.

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