Book Review: The Longships

29 Jun

Your summer beach read doesn’t have to be the latest Top 10 disposable dreck, the literary equivalent of Ke$ha and Katie Perry. Challenge yourself just a little, and try on this entertaining romp: The Longships by Frans G. Bengtsson.

I am often humbled to learn that the “new” book I just “discovered” from a friend’s recommendation is actually classic beloved literature in its home country. The Longships is now nearly seventy years old and still immensely popular in Scandinavia. My first dog-eared paperback copy was appropriately loaned to me by a Danish friend when we studied together fifteen years ago in England, and viking voyages of exploration around Europe and Asia coincided with my own train rides across new lands. A nice symmetry, to be sure, but not required to appreciate the adventures of the Poet-Warrior Chieftain Red Orm, as I learned upon acquiring the newly released handsome New York Review Books Classic edition and re-reading it again for the first time this year.

You can read The Longships for the action, battles and pillaging good fun. You can read it for insight into the world view of tenth century Europe and the vikings who harried it. I recommend, however, that you read it for the humor. Can bashing someone’s head in be laugh-out-loud funny? It is when Bengtsson is at the helm.

Perhaps the tale’s most fascinating attribute is how the clever turn of phrase survives the translation. Deft wordsmiths are required on both sides of the writer/translator divide for sarcasm and dry wit to survive the process. But survive it does, in spades. As an example, here are typical thoughts on the hazards of long voyages:

Toke said that the thing that troubled him most was the fact that the ale was now finished. He was, he assured them, not a fussy man, and he reckoned he could stomach most things when necessity demanded it, not excluding his sealskin shoes, but only if he had good ale to wash them down. It would be a fearful prospect, he said, to envisage a life with out ale, either on sea or ashore.

Or the challenges of fighting a duel to the death during winter:

 “It is not the fighting that worries me,” said Orm, “but the cold. I have always been a man of delicate health, and cold is the thing I can least endure. Nothing is more dangerous for my health than to go out from a hot room, after heavy drinking, into the cold night air. I do not see why, to please this Sigtrygg, [that I after I kill him] I should have to endure being racked with coughs for the rest of the winter…my mother always used to say that they would be the death of me if I did not take good care of myself.”

At last King Harald said: “I am sorry to see that young men are growing soft nowadays. They are not what they used to be. The sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks never bothered about such trivial considerations as their health or the weather.”

Gems like these pervade the book, and augment would already be a harrowing tale of Orm’s capture, sale into slavery, travels throughout Arabia, escape, sacking of the English coast, personal growth into responsible Chieftain, and final quest to steal Bulgar gold hidden deep within feudal Russia. While this is no deep character study, Orm and his compatriots are not two-dimensional caricatures. When Orm is wounded in a duel he sinks into deep melancholy that he will never sail and sack again. We may not share the specifics of his anxieties (sacrifices to sea gods for Weather Luck and defending against brigands burning down his farm), but worries build genuine endearment and interest in his ultimate fate. Throw in Orm’s love of composing the perfect poem for each battle, birth, or drinking game, and you have a genuinely compelling character that keeps the pages turning on your summer vacation. I’ll leave you with such poetry, to whet your appetite for more:

In my throat there is a feeling
Of dry rot most unblest.
Do physicians know the healing
For me, that ale is best?
Thirsting I rowed for many a year,
And thirsting did good slaughter.
All praise to thee, Gorm’s gracious heir!
Thou knowest my favorite water.

Contribute To The Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: