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The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (thoughts)

December 5, 2011

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.

. Word.

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?)
28 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2011 6:11 am

    So you liked it then…

    I can’t say I’ve read much Viking-Lit, but if I start, rest assured, this is where I’ll go first ;)

  2. December 5, 2011 6:37 am

    With a review like that I just have to go out and get the book. Could you have been any less convincing?

    • December 15, 2011 11:15 pm

      Oh yay: I really think you’ll love it! :) I already made my mom read it & she loved it so much she’s getting it for my dad for Christmas. It starts getting super, super good around 100 pgs.

  3. December 5, 2011 8:11 am

    Wow, I’ve never heard of this book, but now I have to read it! I’m adding it to my list of books to look up next time I’m at the library.

    Thanks! :)

  4. December 5, 2011 8:43 am

    I have had this on TBR list for ages and have even checked it out from the library a few times but I have yet to read it, even though I remain excited to. This review has settled it though: I must read this soon, preferably over my Christmas holidays!

  5. December 5, 2011 8:55 am

    I have been intrigued by the cover. Now I am adding it to my TBR list!

  6. December 5, 2011 9:22 am

    I read a rave of this over at Sasha & the Silverfish and kind of looked for it when I was home in the summer – you know, glanced the nyrb shelf of ONE bookstore. Given this second endorsement, I’ll be more serious about finding The Long Ships next time I’m in the States!

  7. December 5, 2011 9:46 am

    It’s the first time I’ve heard of this one, but you sold it to me perfectly. Last year I read and loved Kristin Lavransdatter, so if it’s half as good, it’s good enough for me to want to read it :)

    • December 15, 2011 11:17 pm

      Yay for another KL lover! There was a blogosphere read-a-long a couple of years ago (I think), and it wasn’t the most popular book. lol

  8. December 5, 2011 10:28 am

    I haven’t read it but I found your comment about how it would fit anyone interesting as the other place I have heard this book mentioned was in a thesis on reluctant readers. This book was given as an example of a book that boys who are reluctant readers often like.

    • December 15, 2011 11:17 pm

      Oh, I can see that! Although I think reluctant girl readers would get on with it too.

  9. December 5, 2011 10:37 am

    I’m sold! It sounds good.

  10. December 5, 2011 10:53 am

    Recommended by Eva and Michael Chabon? I think I’d be remiss not to pick this one up!

    • December 15, 2011 11:19 pm


      I love being in the same sentence with Chabon!

  11. December 5, 2011 2:31 pm

    I love everything Viking, I even spent a semester in Norway in my early 20s because I was interested in the history of the Viking period. The Long Ships was actually one of my Dad’s favorite books when he was a boy. He’s told me how much he liked it, but somehow I haven’t read it yet. After reading your thoughts, I think I simply must read it!

  12. December 5, 2011 5:56 pm

    >>The Long Ships is that rare delight: an intellectually satisfying comfort read.

    Ah, so well put. That’s exactly why I love Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane mysteries so much. They are exactly this, intellectually satisfying comfort reads.

    Ordinarily I would not even bother with a book about Vikings, but since you and Michael Chabon have both loved it so, and Michael Chabon has produced such compelling statistics…I am a sucker for books that nobody has heard of. If somebody ever says “Nobody’s heard of this…but it’s SO GOOD”, it’s like catnip to me. Don’t know why.

    • December 15, 2011 11:20 pm

      I’m the same way re: rare books that people rave about! This isn’t intellectual in the same way as the Vane books (*sigh*), but I can see Sayers reading it and enjoying it. hehe

  13. Louise permalink
    December 6, 2011 5:08 am

    A brilliant review, I’ll be reserving this at my library asap! I do like the Vikings,( I think Alexander Skarsgard has a lot to do with it ;-) ) and I’m intrigued by the coldness of the countries associated with them, I can’t wait to get this!

  14. December 7, 2011 7:02 am

    I’ve seen this book in the store several times and been tempted. But I kept thinking, do I really like Vikings enough to read such a long book about them. I think I do now. Thanks for this review. Next time I see a copy, it will be mine!

  15. December 7, 2011 10:23 pm

    I have had this on my wish list ever since first seeing it in an email from NYRB! I admit that I first put it on my wish list because the cover is SO AWESOME, and then I read about it and kept it on my list and now I’ve read your review and I may just move it from the wish list to the TBR…

  16. December 8, 2011 9:11 pm

    Sold! I love what you say and what Michael Chabon says about it – it makes me want to be part of this book’s ardent fan club and I haven’t even read it!


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