It is time to engage in a little bit of blog resurrection. My reading has been somewhat haphazard in the last few months, so choosing a book to review is not an easy task. The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson is a novel I finished more than half a year ago; maybe I could have written a proper, detailed review in the beginning of 2013, but that’s not the case now. I feel, though, that I must write something about it. For this is the sort of novel you discover unexpectedly, like a hidden treasure buried in the piles of rubble you were distractedly raking through. Such gems must not remained unmentioned. The distance of time may not permit me analytical sharpness, but effusive enthusiasm I still have aplenty, so I will focus on that and try to tone down the effusive bit as much as possible.
In the introduction to the book Michael Chabon calls it a work of fiction that “stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth.” What a way to negatively bias the readers. And yet, if Chabon’s impossible breed of a book ever existed, The Long Ships has its genes. It is not simply a good story well written; it is a bridge in history, genre genealogy and psychology. Originally titled Röde Orm (Red Snake, from Swedish), the novel tells about its eponymous protagonist Red Orm, a native of Scania – one of the southern provinces of Sweden. The narrative takes off around the turn of the millennium, a time when time would end, as many Christians believed. Still a youth living with his family, Orm is taken captive by Viking raiders and is quickly accepted as a member of one of the three crews commanded by the chieftain Krok. Soon enough the Norsemen get tired of their futile attacks against the fierce but piss-poor Slavs and unanimously decide to take a turn to the south. This is when Orm’s adventures start in earnest.
His first (and longest) journey takes him to Andalusia where the Vikings pillage and plunder in good measure, to be in turn enslaved by Muslim soldiers. Orm and his best friend Toke survive the years of blood and toil thanks to their big muscles, quick wits and hard-won good luck. The concept of luck is pivotal to the novel and also perhaps to understanding the Viking mentality that Bengtsson has conjured from the depths of history and imagination. The paramount good thing a Viking can have in his life is not love, riches, lands or honor, you name it – but luck. Every decision is taken after weighing the hypothetical gain in this slippery resource it will eventually yield; everything else in the world is seen as secondary, incidental almost. When Orm and his Viking companions are finally freed from slavery, they are offered the opportunity to serve a great lord, but to do that they must convert to Islam. Here is how they settle the issue:
“He says that we must worship his God. He has only one God, who is called Allah, and who dislikes all other gods. My own belief is that his God is powerful in this country, and that our gods are weak so far away from our homeland and theirs. We shall receive better treatment if we follow the custom of the people in this matter, and I think it would be foolish of us to go against Almansur’s wishes.”
These Vikings see the world in a way that is fully alien to their monotheistic contemporaries, and for that matter to many modern readers as well. History is to them not something that merely happens but a process they can negotiate through wit, wisdom and the edge of a sword. Metaphysics is not set in stone by some holy document, but an open-ended question, to be reinterpreted as many times as is seen fit. Where medieval folk lived with cultural and institutional blinders, the Vikings dipped their fingers in the tides of power, tasted the substance as if it were strong or weak ale and decided their allegiances. Later on in the story Orm becomes Christian because he believes that it would bring him back to his luck, and indeed it does, a textbook example in self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m tempted to liken Bengtsson’s Vikings to applied statisticians – so deft is their judgment of the winds of fortune. They might not have a theoretical model of the world and that shows plainly in their promiscuous play with religion and politics, but they are aware of that and seem to kind of like it.
Orm’s character is a unique lens to view history through, precisely because it is as unhistorical as is conceivably possible. The Red Snake travels through Spain, Ireland, England, Denmark, Sweden, Ukraine; he meets, befriends, beguiles and battles Norsemen, Christians, Muslim, Jews, bows to all their gods, often steals their gold and sometimes their women. All in the name of luck and a good song. He has a running contest with Toke, who deems himself a great bard, which sees the two of them often in verbal duel. Getting the most luck might be the most important thing for Norsemen but encapsulating great deeds in a few pithy but colorful lines is their way of putting the cherry on top of it all. The Long Ships is indeed a splendid song and I have to agree with Chabon’s statement: maybe not with its validity as a hard-and-fast rule, but I’m inclined to think that it holds at least statistically.
Had it been only for the great adventures of Orm, the novel would have still counted as a marvelous piece of fiction. It is, however, much more. It shows an extraordinary snapshot of a world in flux, from the viewpoint of an honorable opportunist whose supreme god is a semi-conscious drive to live life fully, even art-fully. Bengtsson illuminates a central truth about the condition of Man, which has probably not changed much for ten centuries – that people and their civilizations and teleologies are constructs. We may choose to remain ensnared in them and live out our allotted dramas, or we can take to the road or the sea and reinvent ourselves as many times as the gods of luck permits us. And ultimately, those gods appear to be at least in part products of our own wits and courage. A story can rarely go more postmodern than this. At the same time The Long Ships is written in the vein of so much classic literature: from Homer, through Cervantes to Dickens. It is a sturdy bridge between old and new, familiar and alien.
Sailing and living with the Vikings is such great fun that you would probably want to return to it periodically as the years fly by. I know I will. Raiding castles and coasts, rowing on slave galleries, feasting with kings and stealing their daughters, learning the languages and religions of the world, parleying at the Norse parliament (called, in their sage way, the Thing), going berserk from time to time, singing songs, raising large families and seeking the mythical Bulgar gold–– this is the art of always being at the crux of history and yet standing outside of it. If we are to believe Bengtsson, the Vikings knew that art more than passing well. Small wonder they believed the finest of them would feast eternally in Valhalla – they goddamn deserved it. Bengtsson’s novel impies, I think, that this is an art that can never be truly lost, and rediscovering it might well be one of the important tasks ahead of the modern man.