Book Column: ‘The Long Ships’

“The Long Ships” is a Viking tale written by Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson and published in 1941 during World War II. It was his only fiction book. Still, I can say with confidence that it’s been my favorite book of recent years and has given me lasting memories that I often think back on fondly. 

“The Long Ships” follows the story of Red Orm, a red-haired Viking, who we observe from childhood with a crew of companions he meets along his journey around Europe and the Middle East who have their own individual lives and character development. The tone of his journey is upbeat and hopeful but, at the same time, depicts a harsh reality of the period, evidenced by the lawless and militant world. One of the most unique and enjoyable aspects of the book is that the characters don’t seem to talk to the audience; the narration tells the story through the characters’ actions and dialogue instead of explicitly voicing feelings, commentary and characteristics to convey a perspective. 

This little-known but fantastic book depicts a surprisingly vivid and realistic picture of what life was like for a robust and intrepid Viking. Still, in addition to the straightforward but endearing character, it creates a mysterious, almost fantasy feel because of how much belief, religion and culture play a role throughout the cast’s lives. This book exhibits the traits of an exhilarating historical action-adventure book with a powerful main character that, I think, would excite most who are fans of World History or action films. The story spans from the late 900 AD to the early 1000 AD and manages to fashion a vivid picture of many significant real historical events occurring, like the Holy Wars in the Middle East featuring the Abbasid Caliphate and the Viking invasions in England led by Thorkell the High, in harmony with the fictional story of Red Orm. 

Although it was written only 81 years ago, the worldview cast by the Vikings and the foreigners they meet on their journeys through the old world are so different from how today’s society seems to handle the interactions between different races, cultures, beliefs and religions that I can’t help but feel it’s an entirely new world. Orm and the many people he meets act rationally and realistically because their Viking lives were always at stake, which gives a sobering effect compared to contemporary literature and leaves the impression of truth and factuality. At one point, Orm and his companions save an enslaved Jewish person who jumped his ship to board theirs, and instead of trying to proselytize, reject or, alternatively, comfort the Jew, which are all familiar tropes, Orm and his companion try to learn about his religion, language, culture and life experiences; Orm ends up learning Arabic. It’s essential to remember that this was published at the height of the Nazi power in Europe and Sweden, so even this soundbite shows the lengths the author would go to make an exciting and realistic story.

I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve tried to convince everyone I meet to read it. My political science/international relations professor, Rachelle Walker, is one of those who read it. She told me her favorite aspect of the book is that “It is such an enchanting portal into the past — a world of polytheism and young monotheistic religions trying to understand one another, a world before formal law, when honor, skill and chance are all that you can depend on.” Walker went on to say that, “It might be called historical fiction today, but the story stands on its own in the tradition of an epic. It feels like the “Odyssey” in its scope, with many characters and lands, but it is much more light-hearted.”

I agree entirely with my professor’s deduction. Like the “Odyssey” and other Greco-Roman epics, it lets the characters tell the story through their interactions instead of an overarching narrator.

Michael Chabon, one of the few critics who’ve reviewed this book, also provided high praise for the novel, writing the following on the Paris Review:

“In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all of them, like me, loved it immoderately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.”

Now it’s six for six when it comes to endorsers of this book, counting Walker and myself. “The Long Ships” aims to give people excitement and thrill through a wholesome and realistic story that lets you enjoy the action content while still being able to derive deep meaning, rather than being told the narrative or the plot. I hope, over time, this obscure book gets the recognition it deserves, and everyone reads it so you can find the entertainment and imagination we did.