The Long Ships
By Frans G. Bengtsson, Trans. Michael Meyer
New York Review Books
A household name in Scandinavian literature since its publication during World War II, the title The Long Ships is recognizable to English-speakers, if at all, from a tenuously related 1964 epic with Sidney Poitier.
New York Review Books reckons to remedy that with this 500-page hunk chronicling 20 years in the life of Red Orm, a son of Skania, born during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, who first goes a-viking as a teen. Over the book’s four parts, Orm tours Spain under the Moors, plunders and hews his way through England after the Battle of Maldon, manages the affairs of his homestead, and sets East for “Bulgar gold.” But, no mere Boy’s Own Adventure, The Long Ships has also a droll twinkle—key to enthusiast Michael Chabon’s introductory endorsement—provided by Orm’s chronicler, one Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954), a Swedish translator and writer of antique verse.
Bengtsson plays wry Herodotus to the world in the first millennia, AD—years when competing gods jostle for Europe’s soul. Thor and Odin are but casually remembered for “weather-luck”; serving under the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba, Orm and company swear fealty to Muhammad and harry Christians; returning home to find his jihad victims now in the favor of the court, Orm shrugs and moves with the times, “faith” inflamed by desire for a Christian wife.
With Orm’s conversion, the narrative is concerned with evangelical efforts to civilize the North, through honest good works, looming chiliastic threat, cunning bribery, and any-means-necessary (Orm’s priest debates the church’s position on baptizing men rendered unconscious with drink). And if the company of so many burly, bearded heroes can weary, Bengtsson’s clear-eyed witnessing of a new world dawning does not.