Röde Orm by Frans G. Bengtsson
Published in 1941 and 1945, first published in English in 1943 as The Long Ships
Michael Meyer translation
Genre: Adventure saga
“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 the greater security; for ships rounding the Skanian peninsula 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.”
The Long Ships is an epic that would feel welcome on a mahogany bookshelf sitting between Beowulf and The Odyssey. At least, that’s my understanding. I’ve never read Beowulf and it has been years since I read The Odyssey so I kind of have to take people at their word as far as that comparison goes. I also arrange my bookshelf by author and when there are multiple books, by date of publication.
Anyway, The Long Ships focuses on the tale of Orm, who comes to be known as “Red” Orm due to his red hair (clever, no?) and his temper (racist). Orm finds himself the reluctant hero in that the story begins with him being captured by a group of Vikings. His village is attacked and he runs out to fend off the assailants, only to be knocked unconscious and taken prisoner. Not a great start, but he proves himself to his captors and so begins a journey that spans the remainder of his life and a little over 500 pages.
The Long Ships packs quite a bit of action into the first 100 pages, giving the reader all the blood, pillaging, tough talk and chest beating that they expect from a tale about a Viking warrior. However, though many miles are traveled and years spent in those pages, it is Orm’s return home that really lifts The Long Ships above other tales of action and adventure.
Orm becomes a farmer. Yes, Red Orm, wielder of the sword Blue-Tongue (awesome name) and leader of Viking raiding parties comes home to his mother and they build a farmstead on her family’s old land.
This is the bit of the book that really stood out to me because it is where we see Orm come into his own as a man. Yes, he has spent years fighting and amassing a small fortune in silver, but it is in the glimpses of the daily life of these men and women from the North that the true value of The Long Ships can be found. There are passages about how he takes the land and bends it to his will, building not only a home for himself and his family, but an entire farmstead. He helps his neighbors by buying local and organic, and quickly becomes a leader among the people of the border land. The time on the farm helps us to identify with Orm. It has been quite some time since I have personally pillaged anything, so this really acted as an aid to my enjoying the story. I need to get back into it, but it is difficult to put yourself out there and no one really enjoys pillaging alone, ya know?
While the book does return to action in order to keep itself from becoming a Swedish version of Little House on the Prairie, albeit with more decapitation and gold hoarding, it is the peaceful and quiet passages that struck me most because it showed a kinder side to the stereotype that we are all familiar with. It shows Vikings as something other than blonde bearded men with horned helmets (which is a false stereotype that continues to be perpetuated by the Minnesota football team. Skol Vikings my butt).
These were men and women who valued warriors for not only their strength, but also their skill with poetry (ladies?). There is a surprising amount of levity that can be found throughout, and for anyone with a sarcastic sense of humor, there are some real gems of interaction between Orm and his counterparts.
The Long Ships has become one of my favorite books through Bengtsson’s masterful storytelling and the epic of Orm’s life. Any fan of the history of the Vikings and Norse people will enjoy the book, though they are most definitely not the only people who will benefit from reading it.
Verdict: Four drinking horns of ale out of five.
Recommended for: Lovers of adventure, Vikings, Swedish books translated into English, historical fiction.
Not recommended for: Those who balk at the idea of pillaging and taking what you want through strength of arms. Honestly, if you aren’t in the mood for a well written adventure tale that travels all over the geography of Europe in the late 10th century with strong anti-hero characters taking charge and performing feats of daring and strength, don’t even look at the cover.