EPS Review #198 - The Long Ships

The Long Ships : A Saga of the Viking Age , by Frans Bengtsson, tr. Michael Meyer, Collins & Edito-Service, Geneva, 1973 (1941-5), 503pp.

27 keys to the octave In casting about for wholesome weekend activities, I came across Tiptree Fruit Farm, near Maldon. That in turn got me to thinking about the Battle of Maldon, in 991, one of the very few things you can read in Old English besides Beowulf. I have in fact read this, since in homage to Tolkien I took William Alfred's course when I was in college. What a cheerful man he was. Anyway, the British lost the battle, and googling Maldon led me to The Long Ships, which is supposed to be one of the most popular novels in Norway, with plenty of red-blooded Viking action. So I ordered a copy, which turned out to be a tooled leather edition with its own ribbon bookmark.

Red Orm, a Dane, is taken aboard a Viking ship, which heads as far south as Spain. They loot a castle, but then lose a sea battle and become galley slaves, eventually rising to be bodyguards of the Caliph, where Orm gets his sword bluetongue. After enjoying Moslem splendor for a while, they kill their former galley captain and have to run back off to the North, bringing along a huge church bell which they give to King Harald Bluetooth. There Orm catches the eye of Ylva, Harald's muscular and strong-willed daughter. More adventures ensue, including winning Maldon and pillaging England, naked moonlight fertility rites by a standing stone, killing a few berserkers, tall tales of jesters who killed an Irish warlord by laughter, and seeking Byzantine (Miklagard) treasure near Bulgaria. The tone is uniform wry humor: violence is all in good fun, as is sex ("it is the quality of wise men to endure women patiently"). And religion of all sorts gets lots of ironic jabs, though Orm and his entourage mostly convert to Christianity. My only complaint is that it all got a bit the same after a while.

The next day, since they had finished the Yule pork, cabbage soup and mutton appeared on the tables, which they all agreed to be an excellent change. In the evening, a man from Halland told them about a great wedding that he had been present at in Finnveden, among the wild people of Smaland. During the celebrations, a dispute had broken out concerning a horse-deal, and knives had quickly appeared; whereupon the bride and her attendant maidens had laughed delightedly and applauded, and had encouraged the disputants to settle the matter there and then. However, when the bride, who belonged to a well-known local family, saw her uncle's eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom's kinsmen, she had seized a torch from the wall and hit her bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids had, with great presence of mind, forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile, the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death ; so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered. The bride and bridegroom were now living together in blissful happiness, although he had not been able to grow new hair to replace that which he had lost in the fire.