My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Basically, at it’s heart, this is about the end of the Viking world as they knew it. And as with a lot of books, novels, about the Vikings, Christianity is the culprit.
As the title proudly states, The Long Ships, has been ‘in print since the 1940s.’ It reads a little that was as well, though that’s absolutely no criticism of the writing style at all. It is a refreshingly open and inviting style, full of interesting observations and comments, with a ‘glint in the eye’ as we say over here in Denmark.
The story concerns the life of one Red Orm. Who, as a young man in Denmark (Hurrah! That’s where I live), is captured (kind of) by Vikings and taken off as an oarsman on their ship bound westward and headed for adventure. The whole ethos presented here, is that people we out to enjoy themselves, capture a whole load of money on the way and therefore have enough money to enjoy themselves some more. If you’ve seen any of the film The Long Ships with Sydney Poitier and Richard Widmark (amongst others) you’ll know some of the plot. Though the film, to my recollection concentrates (wisely) on what is in essence, the first third of the book. Which is very good. The Vikings, with Orm becoming a fully fledged member and later leader of the group, sail south, maraud (as the book cover says) through Viking Europe and into trouble. They are captured and forced into service by the Muslim rulers of what nowadays is Spain. After many years service, they leave/escape and find their way home to Scandinavia. There, the surviving members of the group go their separate ways, though the story follows Orm’s life from there on as well.
The book was clearly written with an agenda of some sort in mind. But I can’t really make up my mind what it was. Apart from highlighting the death of the Vikings at the hands of Jesus Christ. The writer, seems very pro-Christianity coming to the frozen north (as my mother once described Denmark, where I live) and I partly thing it was a way of bolstering Christianity in Sweden, Scandinavia at the time. Not having been in Sweden or Scandinavia at the time, I don’t know. But it is clear that the writer thought he had a purpose to telling the tale. From the point where Orm and the survivors reach Denmark and ‘Jellinge’ (you can tell it’s been translated from the Swedish, by someone who has never actually been to Jelling, in Denmark), to the point of Orm and the others setting about their final mission, the story does sag tremendously. And you can see why, as far as I can remember, the film version stuck, wisely, to the first sections. It is a collection of visitors popping up, telling their fable-like tales, though some characters have a bearing on later events. The stories are a look at Viking characters, history, morals and traditions and surely, by a modern author, would have been welded into a better story than just having ‘one day, two people turned up at the house…’ kind of thing. The book is about Christianity worming its way into Viking society (‘Orm’ means ‘worm’ in Danish after all), but interestingly, the author has the majority go his converting Vikings doing so for the perfectly sensible reason of being a Christian increasing their all-important ‘luck.’ I suppose the middle section does highlight the Vikings love of words, word-play and their oral story-telling traditions, but whilst it can be heavy going, you’ll be fully rewarded if you keep going, because the final section is one of the best you’ll come across.
Word of warning!
Only buy it if the cover looks like the above. As it’s been around since the 1940s, there are some truly dreadful cover versions out there. Be warned, don’t even look at them, once seen, the can’t be unseen and will spoil your enjoyment and the taking seriously of the book.
Buy this version of The Long Ships at The Book Depository