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The Long Ships (New York Review Books…

The Long Ships (New York Review Books Classics) (original 1941; edition 2010)

by Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer (Translator), Michael Chabon (Introduction)

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1,265416,244 (4.17)1 / 257
Title:The Long Ships (New York Review Books Classics)
Authors:Frans G. Bengtsson
Other authors:Michael Meyer (Translator), Michael Chabon (Introduction)
Info:NYRB Classics (2010), Paperback, 520 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, History, Scandinavia, Saga, Novel, NYRB

Work details

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson (1941)

  1. 30
    Egil's Saga by Anonymous (rocks009)
  2. 30
    Röde Orm : del I-IV samlingsalbum by Charlie Christensen (andejons)
    andejons: Charlie Christensen has created a comic novel adaptation which follows the original quite close.
  3. 20
    The Men of Ness by Eric Linklater (andejons)
    andejons: Bengtsson translated Linklater's book and was probably partly inspired by it. However, apart from being good novels about seafaring vikings, they are rather different in style, with Linklater reading more like a pastiche of Icelandic sagas.
  4. 10
    The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (DCBlack)
    DCBlack: Viking historical fiction with some folkloric and fantastic elements.
  5. 10
    The Sagas of Icelanders by Örnólfur Thorsson (chrisharpe)
  6. 00
    The Odyssey by Homer (chrisharpe)
  7. 01
    Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell (jtp146)
    jtp146: Epic historical fiction with exploration.
  8. 01
    Memed, My Hawk by Yashar Kemal (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: Both are tales of adventure, different in time and place, but equally elegantly told.

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English (35)  Swedish (4)  Danish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (41)
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
I've read this excellent historical fiction long time ago as YA but I bet I would enjoy it even today. Maybe I'll try. ( )
  parp | Aug 29, 2016 |
As anyone who follows me on GoodReads already knows, I spent the first few chapters of The Long Ships pretty much just giggling at the character names. I kept imagining Danish King Harald Bluetooth* wandering around the tenth century equivalent of a supermarket looking like he was talking about himself, for instance. Toke, well, that's pretty self-explanatory. And then there's Brother Willibald, the Christian monk who comes home with Orm from his adventures in Ethelred the Undready's England. Heh. Willibald. And there's another man named Ugge the Inarticulate. I mean, come on.

But then there's our hero, Orm. My reaction to this name only makes sense to fans of Walter Moers' Zamonia books, in which "Orm" is the name of the universal source of creative power, especially in literary terms. Here, of course, it merely means "serpent", and is usually accompanied by the epithet "red" because of his hair.

So, the cover and the era in which this book is set and the ethnicity of its characters should give away that this is, in fact, a Viking novel, but what they won't necessarily tell you is that it is regarded as a veddy veddy literary work, bearing the aegis of no less an entity than the New York Review of Books, who published it as one of its NYRB Classics series,** which is how I came across it. And there is good reason for it to get this stamp, for it's an ambitious and interesting work; more than just an adventure tale (though it's a very good adventure tale), it's also the story, really, of how Scandinavia went from the rough, violent, pagan land as depicted in the sagas to the more settled, orderly, responsible and overwhelmingly Christian one of, say, Sigrid Undset's work.

But don't let the high culture imprimatur deter you from the great fun to be had here, for The Long Ships has enough fun and fighting, and very funny imagery (like a huge stolen bell from a church in Asturia being hit, gong-style, at regular intervals, to help a bunch of untrained galley slaves row from Spain to Ireland) to satisfy even the guy who only wants to read Terry Brooks and David Eddings and Robert Jordan over and over again until the end of time (and yes, those guys really do exist; there's one on my old bar trivia team).

For me, well, Orm reminds me a little bit of Jack/Bobby Shaftoe, Neal Stephenson's hilariously hapless bad ass adventurer from the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon. He shares the Shaftoes' bumbling heroism, right from the start with how he comes to go a-Viking: he is knocked on the head while defending the family farm from the followers of Krok (Worst Viking Chieftain EVER, is Krok), who are on a provisioning raid. They bear away the sheep and the young man, whose mommy had kept him home for one more season because he was her favorite and was too young and delicate yet.

But, he acquitted himself well before getting knocked out, even killed some of the raiding party, so he is allowed to join Krok, Toke and the gang on their rather slapstick voyage. As I said, Krok is the WVCE. But that's just the first bit of the book, which is basically told as Orm's life story, and once he's free of Krok (but he takes vengeance, oh yes he does, because he is a Danish Raider a-Viking) he starts gallavanting all about the known world, Moorish Spain, Ireland, Aenglaland... and, we learn later, his big brother spent quite a lot of time in Byzantium, which news drives most of the plot of the last quarter of the book.

Really, the only thing I don't like about The Long Ships is the way the narrative is framed, though it's a common enough device. Throughout the story we are treated to authorial/narrative intrusions indicating what Orm said about a given situation as an old man. It's usually something wise and often something witty, but never enough of either to justify the constant intrusion and the robbing of scenes of any sense of jeopardy. See also Doctor Who.

Maybe it's just George R.R. Martin's fault that this bothers me now? That makes me expect primary characters' danger to be real? At any rate, knowing ahead of time that the hero is going to make old bones often robs his story of some, or a lot of, its joy for me these days. I'd probably bitch about Conan the Cimmerian, too, nowadays, though maybe not because Conan!!!

At any rate, Orm's Viking picaresque is still plenty enjoyable. And as an added bonus, depicting as it does a society in which "any man who could not understand poetry would be regarded as a poor specimen of a warrior", there is more than a little bit of what amount to tenth century poetry slams, in which burly, drunken, beardy men strive to outdo each other in witty and lyrical depictions of their adventures and, sometimes, pratfalls. I'm not sure how well their efforts survive this translation into English, but the flavor of them is still there in trace amounts, as is the overall dry wit of the narrative tone; Halldor Laxness did not invent this tone, he just won a Nobel with it. As have so many of his regional fellows over the years.

The Long Ships is not necessarily Nobel material, but it's high quality entertainment -- rendered even more so by my contemporaneous choice to start playing Skyrim at long last. Skyrim is The Long Ships with dragons and lizard men, you guys. Well, sort of. At least it looks and sounds that way. But I haven't even found High Hrothgar yet, so, you know...

*Who is not himself much of a character per se, but the events take place during his reign.

**I had better just get this out right here: I am a big fan of NYRB Classics, and regard them as sort of my highbrow Angry Robot Books (which I doubt they'd appreciate) in that they are a go-to house for quality reading material when I want literary rather than genre fiction. They, like AR, have not yet let me down, at least inasmuch as what I've chosen from their offerings I have always, always liked. And lookie, they've sort of, kind of, taken a page from AR's playbook in that they now have a subscription program! Alas, it is dead tree only, and until my elbow/arm problems are sorted I'm ebook-only. I tweeted them about considering offering an ebook subscription but so far have gone ignored. Tristesse. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
I loved this book, which relates the story Orm, as he goes "a-Viking" in a vividly recreated 10th Century. There is nothing boring about his adventures, and I think this would be an enjoyable book even for those with no interest in Vikings or the 10th Century. Orm is an irresistible character, despite his frequent violence, and a reader can almost understand his enthusiasm for plundering and killing.

I have read that this book is based on extensive historical research and while Orm is fictional, actual historical events intersect with his life. More than that, the setting and the environment in which Orm lived are historically accurate, and one of the strengths of the book is that the voice of Orm is so authentic, with no intrusive hint of 20th century mores or prejudices. Even when touching on important themes (for example the conflicts between encroaching Christianity and the local Paganism), there is an underlying humor. For example, Orm muses, "We men of the north do not worship gods except in times of necessity, for we think it is foolish to weary them with babbling." And when he is being pressured to convert to Islam, he thinks, "Still, I dare say he is the best god in these parts, and he has already provided us with gold. If he can manage to provide a few women too, he will rise even higher in my estimation." ( )
  arubabookwoman | Feb 24, 2016 |
This book started out very well. I really liked the author's tongue-in-cheek depiction of the characters' very human foibles, especially with respect to the conversion of the Norsemen to Islam and Christianity. Then the plot began to drag, and the ending was entirely too neat. Still, worth a read to give one an insight into life as a Viking in the 10th century. ( )
  oparaxenos | Nov 27, 2015 |
An absolute classic of adventure fiction, bounding along with energy and bravura and lashings of sly, ironic wit, following the exploits of Red Orm the Danish Viking who, despite his mother's best efforts to keep him at home, ends up haring off on a lengthy voyage against his will. Despite this apparently unpromising start, Orm fairs well at first and it looks as if all is going to go his way, but alas, luck, an all-important component of Viking life, goes astray and he ends up a galley slave for seven BUT THAT'S JUST THE START. This tale has barely warmed up before they're sneaking across from Spain to Ireland with the biggest bell in Christendom. Modern readers, like myself, may occasionally find one's attention slipping as it struggles to find purchase on the largely plotless series of events that unfolds on the page, because this is a Life, and Lives tend to be plotless, though not sub-plotless. It's episodic, but those episodes are juicy and amazing and hair-raising.

There are any number of historical novels and series and fantasies epic and grimdark for which, if one was looking for influences beyond the obvious, this must surely be the motherlode. Judgment on the Viking's antics and atrocities are very much left to the reader, but there is no doubt in their own mind that they are fully in accordance with their own rules and standards of behaviour, and the propensity for violence, rape and pillage is belied by a way of living that works and allows for functioning society with a capacity for justice, redress, fairness and progress. The rise of Christianity features heavily on the story, and while the book doesn't suggest it's a civilising influence per se - though there are occasions when it mitigates against a more sensible ruthlessness - it definitely suggests a transition of sorts, a great sea-change of which the cast are blissfully ignorant.

Big, muscular, funny, fast, filled with speeches about theology, women, law, wisdom, gold, the joys of fighting and ale and all sorts of odd digressions with wandering Irish jesters and forlornly randy magisters, this is a gem of a book that completely immerses the reader in its world. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bengtsson, Frans G.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chabon, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meyer, Michael LeversonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The action of The Long Ships covers, approximately, the years A.D. 980-1010.

Translator's note.
Many restless men rowed north from Skania with Bue and Vagn, and found ill fortune at Jörundfjord; others marched with Styrbjörn to Uppsala and died there with him.

Prologue - How the shaven men fared in Skania in King Harald Bluetooth's time.
Along the coast the people lived together in villages, partly to be sure of food, that they might not depend entirely on the luck of their own catch, and partly for security; for ships rounding the Skanian peninsular often sent marauding parties ashore, both in the spring, to replenish cheaply their stock of fresh meat for the westward voyage, and in the winter, if they were returning empty-handed from unsuccessful wars.

Chapter One - Concerning Thane Toste and his household.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This book was originally released in Swedish in two parts, in 1941 and 1945. The first part was translated into English by Barrows Mussey as Red Orm in 1943. The whole work was translated into English by Michael Meyer as The long ships in 1954. This is the record for the complete work. Copies of part 1 and part 2 should not be combined with this.
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Set in the tenth century, when Vikings roamed and rampaged from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. A boy abducted by the Vikings from his Danish home is made to take his place at the oars of their ships. Later, he is captured by the Moors in Spain and, escaping from captivity, washes up in Ireland, where he marvels at the Christian monks. Eventually, he contributes to the Viking defeat of the army of the king of England, and returns home a Christian and a very rich man.… (more)

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Average: (4.17)
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NYRB Classics

2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 1590173465, 159017416X

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