Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Long Ships: "It's really good." Really.

Book Three: The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, translation by Michael Meyer

In his introduction to Fran G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships, author Michael Chabon assures us "it's really good."

Chabon is spot on. It is good. Damn good.

Books like The Long Ships are the reason I read.

Bengtsson was born and raised in the southern Swedish province of Skåne. He published Red Orm on the Western Way in 1941. Red Orm at Home and on the Eastern Way followed in 1945.  The two books first appeared in America and England in 1955 in a single volume titled The Long Ships.

The Long Ships is the story of Red Orm. While still a youth, Orm, a Dane, attempts to prevent Viking raiders from absconding with the family livestock, only to find himself a captive aboard the radiers' ship. It isn't long before the youth convinces the raiders to return his sword and make him a part of their party.

And that quickly we're off on a propulsive series of adventures: Orm becomes a prisoner of the Moors in Spain, he later journeys to Iceland, finds himself at the Scandinavian court of King Harald and ransacks England only to meet King Ethelred and convert to Christianity.

What begins as a series of high adventures in the first books, develops, in the second half, into a satisfying story of Orm's life from his hasty marriage and baptism to the settled life that follows. Those seeking the thrills of the first part of the books need not fear, The Long Ships concludes with not one but two final adventures: the first to recover hidden gold and the second to reclaim his daughter from a rogue priest who now leads an outlaw band.

Bengtsson is a master of pace. Whether its swords and sea and high adventures or sewing crops, rearing children and raising churches, there is a gentle but insistence pace to the narrative that propels the reader from page to page.

The sly and subtle humor is The Long Ships most unexpected feature, and one of its best. Consider this excerpt:

The twelve Virds sat in the center of the half-circle, and their chieftain rose first. His name was Ugge the Inarticulate, son of Oar; he was an old man, and had the reputation of being the wisest person in the whole of Värend. It had always been the case with him that he was never able to speak except with great difficulty, but everyone agreed that this was a sign of the profundity of his thinking . . . 

Fans of everything from sword and sorcery to historical fiction -- from Robert E. Howard's Conan to Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series -- will embrace this brilliant and buoyant novel. It's the slap of an ocean wave against a dragon-prowed ship, the clash of tempered steel, a quaff of cold ale.

Yes, it's really good.

No comments:

Post a Comment