Book Review: “The Long Ships”

Vikings. The term evokes a sense of adventure; a faint odour of salt in the clammy air; a satisfying feel of fine woodwork in a newly-built ship; an indomitable determination to sail, to discover, new lands, peoples, cultures; an intense desire to know what lay beyond.

If the term makes you imagine horned helmets, you need to read more about them. The horned-helmet thing was a Disney cliche, which stuck.

Of course, not everything about the Vikings was idyllic or exciting. For starters, they were unarguably cruel–they killed, raped, pillaged and plundered. They slew and tortured armed and unarmed, men and women, adult and children without a single shred of remorse. Even their faith was pretty ruthless. According to Norse mythology, the Vikings warriors who died in battle would enter Valhalla (literally, Hall of the Slain), where they would help Odin in the battle with Fenrir at Ragnarok. In other words, more fighting. You did not need to have a conscience or a moral code or anything like that – just possessing great martial prowess was enough for Odin to deem you worthy of the Hall of the Slain.

But still, there is a certain charm about these ancient Norse people. The more I read about them, the more I’m impressed by their incredible pragmatism, carefree ways, hardiness and uncomplicated lifestyle. Also, they make for great adventure stories. And that is where The Long Ships comes into the picture. The Long Ships is a Swedish novel written in two installments by Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson. Obviously, I bought an English translation by Michael Meyer. I read somewhere that the original Swedish version had a deliberate archaic writing style for the sake of quaintness. The translation, though, is modern standard English.  The Long Ships tells the story of Red Orm, a Viking warrior, and his life adventures. The story begins with a brief introduction of Orm’s family–his father, brother and mother–and then continues with his abduction by a raiding party led by a chieftain named Krok. After that, Orm and his friends (his abductors, which he later befriended) undergo a lot of adventures in Andulasia, Denmark, and England. He finally returns after being baptised to his home estate in Skania with his new wife and friends. That is where he meets his long-lost brother, Are, now crippled, who prods Orm to go on his final adventure, a quest to reclaim a treasure. As it happens, it is far from Orm’s final adventure.thelongships It is a fun, eventful book. Even though it tells a story about a bunch of marauders, it is also very human in nature. It proves that even Vikings, who were as tough as a people can be, at least superficially, could be utterly vulnerable, deep-down. What I liked most about the book is the narration, which plunged me into the sea of nostalgia. The story is told in the third-person omniscient mode–just like those classic adventure stories you may have read in your childhood. For this reason, there is also little character development, but you will be too busy enjoying the book to notice something as trifling as that. This book also pits the practicalities and freedoms of Norse Paganism against the shackles of organised religions like Islam and Christianity. Even after Orm becomes a Christian, through and through, he still makes a prayer to Thor when he sails. This explains why it took so long to Christianise Scandinavia…

This is the first book I read which was centered on Vikings. Before this, my experience on Viking literature was limited to random short stories set in Scandinavia and a few Norse characters dispersed in different books. So I’m in no position to tell you how it compares to other books which portray these people. But I can guarantee that you will love reading this book, irrespective of your knowledge of Vikings and Norse people. It doesn’t dwell too much on the culture and the ways of the Vikings (thankfully), and focuses mostly on things Vikings did best: fighting and raiding.

Rating: 4.5/5


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