The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (thoughts)
Prepare yourselves for a gush fest, one that I will not apologise for as Michael Chabon uses his introduction for the exact same purpose in the NYRB Classics edition of The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson that I so grudgingly returned to the library this week. Written in the mid 1940s, originally published in two volumes, The Long Ships follows the live of Red Orm, medieval Viking extraordinaire. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this book! It was 500 pages long, and when I came to the end I actually began crying, not because of anything in the book, but because the story was over and it had been so perfect and Bengtsson didn’t write any more novels for me and it’s just not fair. Then I began to mentally castigate Bengtsson for not making The Long Ships at least a thousand pages (I mean, Sigrid Undset managed it!). And finally, I just sighed and felt lucky to have found another one of my ‘soul mate’ books.
What made me love it so much? Well, there were the characters: loveable, honourable, and brave (including a woman! although she takes over a hundred pages to turn up, she’s worth the wait). Then there was the always-moving plot, filled with three long voyages to the edge of Orm’s known world, not to mention a wonderful more domestic interlude. But primarily it was the tone: it manages to ‘feel’ medieval without being at all musty, upbeat without romanticising the period, and most of all very, very funny in the most subtle, sly, poker-faced way imaginable. Here is a taste of what I mean:
As the pork approach Orm and Toke, they sat quite still, with their faces turned toward the pot, watching the boy closely as he fished for the meat. They sighed blissfully as he lifted out fine pieces of shoulder pork to put on their plates, reminding each other how long it was since they had last eaten such a dinner, and marveling that they had managed to survive so many years in a country where no pork was allowed to be eaten. But when the blood-sausage arrived, tears came into their eyes, and they declared that they had never eaten a meal worthy of the name since the day they had sailed away with Krok.
“This is the best smell of all,” said Orm in a small voice.
“There is thyme in it,” said Toke, huskily.
Other than that, I want to leave you to discover this on your own. I went into it completely blind (I even saved Chabon’s introduction for the end, although he actually doesn’t give anything away!), and it only enhanced my delight. The Long Ships is that rare delight: an intellectually satisfying comfort read. I definitely intend on buying a copy for my shelves, so that I can reread it over and over. It has joined the short list of ‘Eva’s favourite books of all time,’ and unlike some of its companions, I think this one has universal appeal. I highly, highly recommend it to everyone (even if you don’t share my Viking obsession…I’ve realised that perhaps as a twenty-first century liberal vegetarian feminist committed to social justice, Vikings are probably my true odd shelf), and Chabon agrees with me:
In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all of them, like me, loved it immoedately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human begin on the face of the earth.
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Far Traveller by Nancy Marie Brown (One of my favourite popular history reads ever, this is a biography of a strong, medieval Icelandic woman who went on several voyages of her own.)
- Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (While this book is also set in medieval Scandinavia, it’s pretty much the mirror image of The Long Ships: features a heroine who stays on land, a slow-moving plot that is definitely not comforting or feel-good, and deals with very heavy themes, especially those of guilt and religion. That being said, I loved it as well, and I think comparing the two would be fascinating!)
- The Sagas of the Icelanders (Penguin edition), trans. by various (I haven’t blogged about this, but I read it in January, and it was so much fun! Next year I plan to read more viking sagas, but this was an excellent place to start. It’s so neat to contrast historical fiction to the original thing, isn’t it?)