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The Long Ships : A Saga of the Viking Age Alfred A. Knopf Frans G. Bengtsson


11th July 2013 Literature & Fiction 34 Comments

This saga brings alive the world of the 10th century AD when the Vikings raided the coasts of England. Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, this engaging saga of Viking adventure in 10th century northern Europe has a very appealing young hero, Orm Tostesson, whose story we follow from inexperienced youth to adventurous old age, through slavery and adventure to a royal marriage and the search for great treasure. Viking expeditions take him to lands as far apart as England, Moorish Spain, Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia), and the long road to Miklagard. The salt-sea spray, the swaying deck awash in slippery blood are the backdrop to fascinating stories of King Harald Blue Tooth, the Jomsvikings, attempts to convert the Northmen to Christianity, and much else. Like H. Rider Haggard, Bengtsson is a master of the epic form.

“It’s terrific fun, the kind of book that moves the fustiest of critics to pronounce it a rollicking yarn or something to that effect.Translation for us mere mortals: There are no boring parts to skip…Bengtsson writes the most delightful version of historical fiction…Here is the buried treasure, readers, newly unearthed. Now, go forth and read.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“The literary equivalent of an action- and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won’t insult your intelligence…Orm is a charismatic character, and Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer — even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages. All novels should be so lucky as to age this well.” –NPR

“A household name in Scandinavian literature since its publication during World War II, the titleThe Long Shipsis recognizable to English-speakers, if at all, from a tenuously related 1964 epic with Sidney Poitier.New York Review Books reckons to remedy that with this 500-page hunk chronicling 20 years in the life of Red Orm,a son of Skania, born during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, who first goes a-viking as a teen….Andif the company of so many burly, bearded heroes can weary, Bengtsson’s clear-eyed witnessing of a new world dawning does not.”—L Magazine

“This extraordinary saga of epic adventure on land and sea…is a masterpiece of historical fiction…The Long Ships should be a rare delight. And not least of the rewards of reading Mr. Bengtsson’s gorgeous romance is the sly humor that is sprinkled through it.” -Orville Prescott, The New York Times

Bengtsson “keeps his readers eager for the next chapter. He has a sharp eye for the picturesque and the comic in daily living, and though his style is sophisticated he often writes with a kind of festive abandon.” -Hudson Strode The New York Herald Tribune

“This is a lusty man’s book that women, too, will enjoy.” -Margaret Widdemer, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Long Ships has many virtues of the true story-teller’s art…Under the merriment and the fighting there is a great deal of scholarship as sound as it is imperceptible. Reading this marvelously good-humored ale-broth of a book, you say: this is how it must have been to be a Viking chief a thousand years ago. And not such a bad life at that.” -Burke Wilkinson, The New York Times

A “wonderful adventure novel…” -Phillip French, The Observer

“Offers lusty Vikings lusting and looting, bedding and battling across Europe from the Ebro to the Dneiper.” -Time Magazine

“A splendidly robust saga of the Vikings…crackles with humour.” -Daily Telegraph

“The author and his excellent translator bring that old, warrior world alive with such vigorous enjoyment and simplicity that the deeds of those men roving about the world in their dragon ships seem as marvelous as those of our atomic age.” -Daily Telegraph

“A boldly illuminated picture of the Northmen…confidently recommended.” -The Times (London)

“A remarkable panorama of a vanished way of life.” -Times Literary Supplement

“A banquet of adventure by sea and land, with man-size helpings of battle and murder, robbery and rape.” -New Statesman

“Lusty and uninhibited…a tour de force.” -Evening News

“Still the king of books about Vikings…the Vikings liked to row and sail and fight. That’s what they do in this action-packed epic.” -Bookmarks Magazine

“Even though The Long Ships was first published in 1941, it remains the literary equivalent of an action-and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won’t insult your intelligence…Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer–even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages.”

–Michael Schaub, NPR.org

–This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Frans G. Bengtsson, Swedish essayist, novelist, poet, and biographer, was born in Tossjo, near Kristianstad, as the son of the manager of an estate in Skane. Bengtsson was the first successful practitioner of the informal essay in Sweden, a genre that he virtually introduced to the literature of his own country. His best-known novel is Rode orm (1941-45, The Long Ships), a Viking saga written in an ornate and romantic style. –This text refers to the Paperback edition.

“It’s terrific fun, the kind of book that moves the fustiest of critics to pronounce it a rollicking yarn or something to that effect.Translation for us mere mortals: There are no boring parts to skip…Bengtsson writes the most delightful version of historical fiction…Here is the buried treasure, readers, newly unearthed. Now, go forth and read.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“The literary equivalent of an action- and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won’t insult your intelligence…Orm is a charismatic character, and Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer — even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages. All novels should be so lucky as to age this well.” –NPR

“A household name in Scandinavian literature since its publication during World War II, the titleThe Long Shipsis recognizable to English-speakers, if at all, from a tenuously related 1964 epic with Sidney Poitier.New York Review Books reckons to remedy that with this 500-page hunk chronicling 20 years in the life of Red Orm,a son of Skania, born during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, who first goes a-viking as a teen….Andif the company of so many burly, bearded heroes can weary, Bengtsson’s clear-eyed witnessing of a new world dawning does not.”—L Magazine

“This extraordinary saga of epic adventure on land and sea…is a masterpiece of historical fiction…The Long Ships should be a rare delight. And not least of the rewards of reading Mr. Bengtsson’s gorgeous romance is the sly humor that is sprinkled through it.” -Orville Prescott, The New York Times

Bengtsson “keeps his readers eager for the next chapter. He has a sharp eye for the picturesque and the comic in daily living, and though his style is sophisticated he often writes with a kind of festive abandon.” -Hudson Strode The New York Herald Tribune

“This is a lusty man’s book that women, too, will enjoy.” -Margaret Widdemer, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Long Ships has many virtues of the true story-teller’s art…Under the merriment and the fighting there is a great deal of scholarship as sound as it is imperceptible. Reading this marvelously good-humored ale-broth of a book, you say: this is how it must have been to be a Viking chief a thousand years ago. And not such a bad life at that.” -Burke Wilkinson, The New York Times

A “wonderful adventure novel…” -Phillip French, The Observer

“Offers lusty Vikings lusting and looting, bedding and battling across Europe from the Ebro to the Dneiper.” -Time Magazine

“A splendidly robust saga of the Vikings…crackles with humour.” -Daily Telegraph

“The author and his excellent translator bring that old, warrior world alive with such vigorous enjoyment and simplicity that the deeds of those men roving about the world in their dragon ships seem as marvelous as those of our atomic age.” -Daily Telegraph

“A boldly illuminated picture of the Northmen…confidently recommended.” -The Times

“A remarkable panorama of a vanished way of life.” -Times Literary Supplement

“A banquet of adventure by sea and land, with man-size helpings of battle and murder, robbery and rape.” -New Statesman

“Lusty and uninhibited…a tour de force.” -Evening News

“Still the king of books about Vikings…the Vikings liked to row and sail and fight. That’s what they do in this action-packed epic.” -Bookmarks Magazine

“Even though The Long Ships was first published in 1941, it remains the literary equivalent of an action-and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won’t insult your intelligence…Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer–even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages.”

–Michael Schaub, NPR.org

–This text refers to the Paperback edition.

The Long Ships : A Saga of the Viking Age










  • 34 responses to "The Long Ships : A Saga of the Viking Age Alfred A. Knopf Frans G. Bengtsson"

  • MrObvious
    2:55 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Exceedingly well translated, humourous description of Orm and his viking ilk. Certainly attests to the liberal thinking and philosphical candor of the viking era and pokes fun at the norms of the times. My paperback edition was given to me in tatterns and our family is reading it – loose page by loose page. A great book for precipitating conversation about historic perpectives and value systems. I strongly recomend this book be read by both teens and their parents so that they can laugh and learn together. DOES ANYBODY HAVE A HARDCOVER COPY IN REASONABLE SHAPE THAT I CAN BUY?

  • Sean O
    4:44 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This may be the most beautifully written, wise, and fun book I have ever read. Maqroll is the perfect companion: he goes everywhere, knows many remarkable and delightful people in every spot, and speaks with wisdom, joy, and sadness all at once.
    Each sentence is a gem: taken together, they create a world that transports the reader into a world of adventure, danger, love, friendship, and insight.
    Imagine Cervantes mixed with Pynchon, with a little Groucho Marx thrown in: this is a work to savor and Maqroll is a wise and loving guide to a world of breath-taking beauty, where each day holds new treasures.
    This is the closest thing to a perfect book I have come across. It is a true classic, as readers of Spanish literature have known for some years.

  • Brian T
    5:57 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Having heard so much about this saga-type novel I sought it eagerly & finally broke down & bought it via amazon uk (after a long & fruitless hunt stateside). Rather expensive for this paperback w/lots of typos & editing problems, I thought. But the book, I judge, was worth it in the end. The tale of Orm Tostesson & “friends”, this book follows the adventures of this typical late tenth century viking through nearly all the high-points of vikingdom in the period. From raids & servitude on the coasts of Moorish Spain, to visits with Irish monks and dinner with the Danish King, Harald Bluetooth, and his assorted guests, including no less a worthy than Styrbiorn Olafsson, the Jomsviking and claimant to the Swedish throne about whom E. R. Eddison wrote so brilliantly in his own viking novel, Styrbiorn the Strong, this book takes us through all the paces. Orm ends up with a very noble wife living in a backwater part of Scandinavia (the borderlands between Sweden and medieval Denmark) but even there he gets no peace since his enemies and adventures pursue him. And in his maturity another and final adventure comes his way when he is summoned to the eastern reaches of far Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia) to claim an “inheritance” of great value. Along the way, Orm makes some good friends, some bad enemies, participates in some (but by no means all) of the great events of viking history in that period, and finally mellows to become a better man who embraces the new way of thinking while yet feeling at home in the old.

    I did think the book a bit too episodic though this is no indictment of it since the sagas themselves are nearly always such and the “voice” smacks very much of the sagaman’s art. However, a close reading makes this very clearly a modern novel for the humor is quite bracing and alone marks this tale out as one of ours and not one from an earlier time. I especially appreciated Orm’s hypochondria, despite his courage in the face of battle, a very human and humorous touch! And the fighting is all very realistic, no great superhuman feats of derring do (except occasionally as we find in the real sagas). Some of the literary technniques used, besides the marvelous sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, are also quite contemporary. I did think the tale a bit slow in places, especially at the beginning, and rather more predictable than not.

    And, more, it is not, in my opinion the best of the viking or saga novels despite what others have said here. For tautness and action, none have yet done it better, in my opinion, than H. Rider Haggard with Eric Brighteyes. For the pure poetry of style, Eddison’s STYRBIORN THE STRONG still has my vote. And for the resounding greatness of the tale and the power to move, no modern author has ever penned a better saga novel than Hope Muntz did with The Golden Warrior. But Bengtsson did a very nice job and deserves five stars for it. I take my hat off to him and to those here whose reviews obliged me to obtain and read this fine viking tale.

    (For those with an interest in the saga as novel, a few other good ones I’d recommend include Cecelia Holland’s very modern and psychological Two Ravens, a glimpse into the hot-house environment of an Icelandic farm, and Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders which tells of the final days of the the Norse settlement in Greenland as the cold and the Eskimos closed in around the settlers there. And if you still have any patience and want more, perhaps you’d want to try my own small effort, THE KING OF VINLAND’S SAGA, which I wrote to be the saga I’d always wished had been written and preserved about the Norse excursions to this part of the world. All, I believe, are available in some form or another on-line. Mine I know is.)

    Stuart W. Mirsky
    Author of The King of Vinland’s Saga

  • Mostly.d
    6:22 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This book, so rousing and delightful, bogs down depressingly in the middle half. The Border Lands section is a terrible slog. Otherwise, spending time with Orm and his sweaty friends is the most fun I’ve with a book in ages.

  • James R Brown
    6:45 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Having heard so much about this saga-type novel I sought it eagerly & finally broke down & bought it via amazon uk (after a long & fruitless hunt stateside). Rather expensive for this paperback w/lots of typos & editing problems, I thought. But the book, I judge, was worth it in the end. The tale of Orm Tostesson & “friends”, this book follows the adventures of this typical late tenth century viking through nearly all the high-points of vikingdom in the period. From raids & servitude on the coasts of Moorish Spain, to visits with Irish monks and dinner with the Danish King, Harald Bluetooth, and his assorted guests, including no less a worthy than Styrbiorn Olafsson, the Jomsviking and claimant to the Swedish throne about whom E. R. Eddison wrote so brilliantly in his own viking novel, STYRBIORN THE STRONG, this book takes us through all the paces. Orm ends up with a very noble wife living in a backwater part of Scandinavia (the borderlands between Sweden and medieval Denmark) but even there he gets no peace since his enemies and adventures pursue him. And in his maturity another and final adventure comes his way when he is summoned to the eastern reaches of far Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia) to claim an inheritance of great value. Along the way, Orm makes some good friends, some bad enemies, participates in some (but by no means all) of the great events of viking history in that period, and finally mellows to become a better man who embraces the new way of thinking while yet feeling at home in the old. I did think the book a bit too episodic though this is no indictment of it since the sagas themselves are nearly always such and the “voice” smacks very much of the sagaman’s art. However, a close reading makes this very clearly a modern novel for the humor is quite bracing and alone marks this tale out as one of ours and not one from an earlier time. I especially appreciated Orm’s hypochondria, despite his courage in the face of battle, a very human and humorous touch! And the fighting is all very realistic, no great superhuman feats of derring do (except occasionally as we find in the real sagas.) Some of the literary technniques used, besides the marvelous sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, are also quite contemporary. I did think the tale a bit slow in places, especially at the beginning, and rather more predictable than not. And, more, it is not, in my opinion the best of the viking or saga novels despite what others have said here. For tautness and action, none have yet done it better, in my opinion, than H. Rider Haggard with ERIC BRIGHTEYES. For the pure poetry of style, Eddison’s STYRBIORN THE STRONG still has my vote. And for the pure greatness of the tale and the power to move, no modern author has ever penned a better saga novel than Hope Muntz did with THE GOLDEN WARRIOR. But Bengtsson did a very nice job and deserves five stars for it. I take my hat off to him and to all those here whose reviews obliged me to obtain and read this fine viking tale.

    (For those with an interest in the saga as novel, a few other good ones I’d recommend include Cecelia Holland’s very modern and psychological TWO RAVENS, a glimpse into the hot-house environment of an Icelandic farm, and Jane Smiley’s THE GREENLANDERS which tells of the final days of the the Norse settlement in Greenland as the cold and the Eskimos closed in around them. And if you still have any patience and want more, perhaps you’d want to try my own small effort, THE KING OF VINLAND’S SAGA, which I wrote to be the saga I’d always wished had been written and preserved about the Norse excursions to this part of the world. All, I believe, are available in some form or another on-line. Mine I know is.

  • shaniskinny
    10:39 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Alvaro Mutis wrote several superb short novels about the travels and trials of his creation, the wandering sailor Maqroll, gathered here in one volume in an excellent translation. Adventure, friendship, obsession, loyalty, bad judgment, and hilariously (sometimes tragically) desperate situations play out in obscure and exotic locations. “Maqroll” is an excellent companion for your own world travels.

  • Headline off
    12:22 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    THE LONG SHIPS is old-school narrative with a very traditional feel, as Frans G. Bengtsson weaves historical fiction from a Viking point-of-view. There’s a sweep to it, yes, as it follows the life of Orm Tostesson from his youth to older age. Episodic, it is also interrupted in the classical way as brief stories are told by new characters who happen into the narrative.

    To start, Orm goes to Muslim Spain where he is captured by the Moors and forced to convert. He becomes the bodyguard of a wealthy Muslim caliph. After a series of adventures there, the action shifts north to Ireland and then England under the inept King Ethelred. Yes, you will learn some history reading this book, as Bengtsson allows Red Orm to interact with real characters throughout. Part Three of the book takes us to Orm’s homeland and concerns marriage, conversion to Christianity, and children. Of course, to keep readers interested, violence remains a way of life, even here. And in the final section, Orm seeks a treasure in the lands past Kiev. This part was too brief and seemed to have more possibility to it.

    Nevertheless, there’s no denying the bond that will form between reader and Orm. Although it might be called a man’s book, it holds strong female characters, too, especially Orm’s wife Ylva, daughter of Harald Blue-Tooth. And through it all is a sense of humor. Can you do worse than that, between all the looting and bloodletting? I thought not. If you’re looking for a book of the sort you read as a kid — the kind you just ate up due to its “story” — this is a distinct possibility. Adventure and history make wonderful bedfellows, and nothing proves it as much as THE LONG SHIPS.

  • Randall Bennett
    14:20 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Friends of mine in Mexico City who know Marquez say that Marques worships Mutis. They’re both Colombians living in Mexico City, but they’re the comparison ends. Mutis to me is Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Jean-Louis Ferdinand Celine rolled into one. With a little Sartre for seasoning.

    I really wish more of his work would be translated, but I enjoy Mutis so much I’m tempted to just bite the bullet and read his work in Spanish even though it would take me 20 times as long.

    Maqroll and Bashur are two of the greatest literary characters to come by in a very long time.

    Viva el Gaviero!!

  • Gary Denton
    15:33 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    What can I say… I have read this book a lot of times, in swedish that is, it is easy to find here. What is so special with it is that the big things in the book is accurate historicaly, but well it is not a dry book about what actually happened. I have read the old stories or Sagas of the north, and in this book the same feeling is there, the dry humour, the witty remarks and the tradition. When Toke get in to see Orm finish his enemy in an “Envigg” they asked him what happened, he said “well he was hard but now he has finished peeing” thats nothing special just like the old sagas of the north… As far as I know no one have regretted reading this book. But I am Biased, I am scandinavian….

  • Lisa Myers
    17:27 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I heartily endorse all of the accolades heaped upon this novel by the other reviewers. It is a rollicking good tale chock full of more adventure per page than any other book I can think of. A good measure of ironic humor adds to the fun.

    However, the potential reader deserves a few observations absent from the other reviews.

    1.Episodic: The book is basically a fictional biography of Orm which recounts his many violent military adventures. In most cases Orm is the aggressor. Although some conflicts do arise as revenge for previous battles, most are stand alone events and could have occurred in any random order. Like most serialized TV series or movie serials from the 1950s, each adventure is pretty much unrelated to the others except that usually the same protagonists fight different enemies. Of the 50 or so “adventures” at least half a dozen are accounts by third parties that Orm meets who tell the story of their own adventures.

    I say this to contrast the Long Ships to other sweeping novels that some other reviewers have compared it to, such as The Count of Monte Christo, or Les Miserables. These novels also include many adventures but they all are integrated within a single overarching conflict which organizes the entire story and gives it compelling moral force. Since these novels merit 5 stars, I have to give the Long Ships only 4.5.

    2.Anachronistic:Often historical novels fascinate by helping us to wonder how people in the distant past thought the way they did. How did the Greeks and Romans produce wonderful poetry yet practice slavery and ritual murder? What attitudes do we have today that will be similarly scorned by future generations? To be believable, it helps if the author attempts to convey the way these figures may have actually talked and thought. But in the Long Ships the characters speak with a clarity of thought and introspection that modern men seldom attain even in written communication. The contents of their thought and attitudes are foreign to us, but their style of communication seems much too modern to be believable. It may be funny and charming to hear talk of raping and pillaging spoken like Victorian gentlemen at their tea, but more realism is usually necessary for the suspension of disbelief. I suspect actual Vikings spoke and thought more like modern biker gang members. But them the humor would disappear.

    3.Narrow Focus:I admire historical novelists (Patrick O’Brien comes to mind) who attempt to infuse all aspects of daily life into their stories. Here the long ships comes up short. There is plenty of (what we would today call) politics, sex, religion and violence. But never a mention, for example, of how a long ship was built or who built them.

    4.Satire on Religion:The story of the Long Ships occurs during the period when attempts were being made to convert the Vikings to Christianity. Many do become Christians but their reasons for doing so are just as silly as the old pagan superstitions they had before. Often they keep both sets of belief. This thread of satire is woven throughout the novel to great comic affect.

    Enjoy.

  • anne marie
    18:40 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This book was recommended to me in a book store while visiting London. Although the cover gets 2 stars in the paperback english version, the contents, story, and history was excellent. It gives great accounts as to the culture of the times!!I would love any recommendations for something similiar

  • Jordan Gottlieb
    18:52 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    It’s very hard to put this book down. Mutis resembles no one writing today, his prose is immaculate and his stories indescribable. He is one of a kind. This is a treasure; one only wishes there were more.

  • ooooohhh
    20:14 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    It’s no surprise that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has described Columbian writer, Alvaro Mutis (1923-), as “one of the greatest writers of our time.” The seven tales of tenderness, sorrow, and foolishness collected in this 700-page book follow Mutis’s Don Quixote-like protagonist, Maqroll the Gaviero (or Lookout), through seedy ports, deserts, Amazon jungles, and over Andean peaks, across rivers and seas, and from ancient cities to run-down Los Angeles. Along the way, readers discover Maqroll is a “madman,” an “unrepetant vagabond,” forever lost, like “a sailor who’s been thrown off his ship” (pp. 218; 250). “There is no cure for my reckless wandering,” he explains, “forever misguided and destructive, forever alien to my true vocation” (p. 37). He is also an experienced lover of women, who makes love, again and again, “with the slow, meticulous intesity of people who don’t know what will happen tomorrow” (p. 343). Winner of the 2002 Neustadt Prize for World Literature, this slow-paced collection of entertaining adventures and misadventures is highly recommended.

    G. Merritt

  • Mary Karriker
    21:51 on July 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Let’s get this out first. The cover to this book is just plain awful. Normally I would pass this book by figuring if the publisher didn’t care enough about it to pay for a decent artist how good could it be? Thankfully, some of the reviews here encouraged me to take a chance and I definately didn’t regret it.

    I don’t know if it’s due to the translation or the author’s style but the writing is absolutely superb in conveying the feeling of the time. You could just imagine this story being told in exactly the same way hundreds of years ago across a campfire or over a good cup of mead.

    A great story that takes place in a time and among a people who don’t get many (good) books written about them. Check this one out!

  • cdrive
    1:23 on July 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Two Finnish Swedes gave me this book as a house present long ago. They said it was well known and loved in Swedish. I had always liked Viking sagas and Norse mythology, but the book’s cover makes it look like an airport novel, so I opened and glanced at it without high hopes. It took me by surprise, it was so good.I soon climbed into the long ships to go marauding with Orm and his friends and never looked back. Twenty years later, I often find myself still thinking about those Vikings and their adventures in Spain, in Bulgaria, back home with their girls who don’t respect wimps….My husband, who thought he was not the least interested in Vikings, was also enthralled. The translation is great and it reads like an English novel.

    Someone “borrowed” my book so I am hoping it will be republished as a hardback. It well deserves it.

  • Andy Mallon
    4:41 on July 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    As with several other of the reviewers, I first read this book long ago, and probably five times since. It is not only the adventure, the scholarship and the huge geographic extent, but above all the dry humour which appears on every page and has me chuckling although I practically know it by heart.And they say the Swedes have no sense of humour. Maybe Bengtsson was from Skania and therefore really a Dane, like his creation. The translation is a work of almost equal genius; the English reader thinks he is reading an original stylist, not a translation. But alas, I couldn’t steal my father’s copy, and have lost two of my own (well, something happened to them). WHEN WILL SOMEONE REPUBLISH? It has a guaranteed sale . . . .

  • Andy Mcmillan
    5:13 on July 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Yes, I agree with the other reviewers who have asseverated that this is a great book. But they don’t seem to want to spell out why exactly it is a great novel, or, rather, series of picaresque adventures. – Perhaps they’re simply tired due to the 700 page literary trek. – But, come now, a great novel because of tramp steamers and the sea? While the sea is certainly the element in which Maqroll feels most at home, there are, literally, hundreds of novels about the sea and the love of it (In particular, there’s one author who’s made himself into a multi-millionaire by churning out these books like a sausage-machine).

    No, what makes this book great is the underlying fatalism of the work sweepingly on display in Maqroll and the several other characters, and in the finely wrought passages on what this life offers us, picaresque vagabond or not. Many comparisons have been made to Don Quixote. – But not in the right way – Maqroll is Don Quixote’s Twentieth Century doppelganger, or spectral double: Spectral, as is the case with many doppelgangers in fiction, in that he is the Knight’s opposite. Where Don Quixote is chaste, Maqroll is licentious, where Don Quixote is na?ve, Maqroll is instinctively wise to the ways of the fallen world etc. etc. — In literary terms, Don Quixote is a Romantic. Maqroll is Tragic.

    I wonder, reading the other reviews, if the other readers may have just possibly skimmed over the philosophical passages that glower at one on every other page or so. It is these passages, these lyrical, defiant, essentially dark reflections that make this much more than any mere sea novel or rollicking picaresque.

    For Example, for starters:

    “…it’s not worry I feel but weariness as I watch the approach of one more episode in the old, tired story of the men who try to beat life, the smart ones who think they know it all and die with a look of surprise on their faces: at the final moment they always see the truth – they never really understood anything, never held anything in their hands. An old story, old and boring.” P.24

    And again:

    “He thought that the real tragedy of aging lay in the fact that the eternal boy still lives inside us, unaware of the passage of time. A boy whose secrets had been revealed with notable clarity when Maqroll withdrew to Aracuriare Canyon, and who claimed the prerogative of not aging, since he carried that portion of broken dreams, stubborn hopes, and mad, illusory enterprises in which time not only does not count but is, in fact, inconceivable. One day the body sends a warning and, for a moment, we awake to the evidence of our own deterioration: someone has been living our life, consuming our strength. But we immediately return to the phantom of our spotless youth, and continue to do so until the final, inevitable awakening.” P.261

    And again, and again, and again…

    Yes, there are mad illusory enterprises throughout the book- And jolly fun they are to read – But, like a requiem continually droning in the background, we are given, in Maqroll’s reflections, that he is aware exactly how mad and illusory these enterprises are.

    Fatalistic literature has never been popular, in America especially, which was founded on principles contrary to it, and where the recurrent mantra is, “You can be anything you want to be.” This book shows, time and again, that you can’t. It’s no wonder Maqroll is enamoured of, among others, the Ancient Greeks.

    Summing up, this is a great book because Mutis does the seemingly impossible here, giving us the pleasurable, lilting melodies of the sea yarn and adventure story, all the while beating the steady drumbeat of mortal doom.

  • LUCKY LUCKY
    7:31 on July 12th, 2013
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    Very well done. Definitely shows where Robert Low’s inspiration for the Oathsworn series appears to have come from (from title character on through the story). The dry, understated humor is excellent, as advertised. NOTE: this is not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em Viking action story, but much more of an updated Saga. The cultural insights are superb and it is overall a very enjoyable read once you get into the rhythm of the writing.

  • James Hunter
    8:44 on July 12th, 2013
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    This book by the great Colombian novelist and poet Alvaro Mutis, and translated by the wonderful Edith Grossman (author of WHY TRANSLATION MATTERS and one of the best translators of Spanish-language literature of our time) is actually a collection of seven novels (the last being in turn a collection of three stories) about the msyterious sailor known as Maqroll el Gaviero (the Lookout). Maqroll has no well-defined point of origin or national identity; he usually travels with either expired papers or with forged papers; he skates close to the law’s edge and sometimes goes over the edge; and none of his ventures, whether romantic or business, ever seems to prosper. He views his life and the human beings around him with fatalistic serenity bordering on pessimism, finding solace in reading one or another obscure historical or biograp[hical work about some doomed souls in the European past. He has friends who care about him, some who join his dubious enterprises and some (like the author) who simply bear witness. Some of the novels are in Maqroll’s first-person voice; others are narrated by Mutis as Maqroll’s friend.

    These are slow-paced, ruminative novels — anyone looking for a thriller should find something else to read. Nonetheless, they are gripping and entertaining, and after you have finished reading them, they stay with you forever. Readers would be best advised to read one novel at a time, and let time pass from novel to novel. Mutis’s works remind me of the more serious writings (not the “entertainments”) of Graham Greene and the works of Joseph Conrad.

    THE SNOW OF THE ADMIRAL, the first novel about Maqroll, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS in that the core of the novel is Maqroll’s journey up a tropical river in pursuit of a goal that, though superficially clear and well-defined, becomes as mysterious and hopeless as the incidents that happen to him.

    ILONA COMES WITH THE RAIN features a woman who is brainy, beautiful, sexually venturesome, occasionally larcenous, a fit match for Maqroll. She almost steals the novel from him (why not, given that she’s the title character?), and yet…. This may have been my favorite among the novels collected here.

    UN BEL MORIR (A Good or Beautiful Death) is a grim and sad book in which Maqroll yet again is pulled into a venture of questionable morality. Some (including Francisco Goldman, who wrote the introduction to this collection) say that it’s the best book in the collection; I disagree, but not because UN BEL MORIR is a bad book — far from it.

    THE TRAMP STEAMER’S LAST PORT OF CALL manages to make a rusty tramp steamer as important a character in the book as Maqroll himself.

    AMIRBAR is a tale reminiscent of THE SNOW OF THE ADMIRAL, except that it takes place nearly completely on land, with Maqroll engaging in an attempt to revive an old mine and falling under its spell.

    ABDUL BASHUR, DREAMER OF SHIPS introduces us to a character who is mentioned in all the earlier books, Maqroll’s closest and most trusted friend, Abdul Bashur, a Levantine who is obsessed with finding the perfect tramp steamer, yet who also is Maqroll’s partner in may of his most ethically-questionable ventures.

    TRIPTYCH ON SEA AND LAND, as noted, is actually a collection of three shorter pieces, which somehow hold together and have the effect of turning Maqroll in the light like a gem, illuminating some and now other facets of his character and personality.

    I repeat: don’t try to read these all at one go. Read them in order, but be prepared to read one novel and then lay the book aside for a while, and then return to it. That is the way that I read it, and you won’t be disappointed.

  • STEVE WATERS
    10:46 on July 12th, 2013
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    I f the Vikings did not really live like this Frans Bengtsson persuades us that they did. All the characters live in my mind still although I have not read it for many years. It is a vivid recreation of a fascinating age. I wish the publisher would re-issue it so that I could sail with Orm Tostesson and his crew again.

  • Solitary
    11:47 on July 12th, 2013
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    This book is an eternal classic. Set in the height of Viking Age it tells us how Orm (Snake) is kidnapped by a band of marauding vikings. He then serves as a slave on a moorish ship, he is a mercenary among the muslims, he is marauder in England. He marries royally, settles, and goes on a treasure hunt for stolen gold in Russia. Bengtson uses the laconic language of the vikings to hilarious effects. The translator manages to keep it, which is great. The book is historically accurate with many historical events and persons interwoven in the narrative.

  • Aaron Longnion
    12:59 on July 12th, 2013
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    READ THIS BOOK! If Dylan and Pablo Neruda collaborated, this would be the result. Lyrical, funny, heartbreaking stories set around the fringes of cities and backwater towns. Do these places even exist anymore? There is a homeric quality to the stories that transforms the flotsome and jetsome lives of the charaters. I cannot say it enought, READ THIS BOOK

  • Mr. E
    13:44 on July 12th, 2013
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    This book was recommended to me in a book store while visiting London. Although the cover gets 2 stars in the paperback english version, the contents, story, and history was excellent. It gives great accounts as to the culture of the times!!I would love any recommendations for something similiar

  • Javier Hasbún
    16:09 on July 12th, 2013
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    English literature began with a Viking story, “Beowulf,” but have you ever tried reading it? My own “Beowulf” experience led me to believe Viking literature is right down there with Viking cuisine in terms of digestibility. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a novel about Vikings, written over half a century ago, to be as thrilling, fantastic, and engaging as “The Long Ships.”

    It’s the story of Orm, a farmer’s son in southern Sweden in the late 900s who one day finds himself a prisoner of a merry gang of Vikings. They quickly adopt him, and set out for adventures off the northern and southern coasts of Europe. Before the book is half over, Orm has found himself in courts from Spain to England, espoused three different religions, slain several dozen foemen, and found a princess to be his bride.

    Frans G. Bengtsson’s novel, originally published in Sweden in 1945, showcases two things I didn’t expect from a Scandinavian academic, brevity and humor. Sure, the book is nearly 500 pages long, but Bengtsson crams a lot of incident in every page, describing events in broad strokes and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest. Bengtsson’s style, preserved marvelously by Michael Meyer’s 1954 translation, is to consciously evoke the elliptical prose of ancient Viking sagas, but in such a way as to allow for a modern, tongue-in-cheek sensibility to come through, one that reflects a Viking world, however hard-bitten, of great wit and depth.

    “The Long Ships” is marvelously quotable: “For no man complains of the weight of the cargo, when it is his own booty that is putting strain upon the oars.” Or: “Only poets can win wealth with empty hands, but then they must make better songs than other poets, and competition spoils the pleasure of composition.”

    The book jacket includes an enthusiastic reviewer describing “man-size helpings of battle and murder, robbery and rape,” which captures some of the tone of “Long Ships” but misses most of the point. Orm is no savage bandit, but a thoughtful, evolving character of great honor. The Vikings he travels with do some robbing and killing, but in a measured way. As the novel goes on, a sense of social responsibility, manifested in Orm by his adoption of a somewhat twisted form of Christianity, comes through.

    You might say the story of Orm is the story of the Christianizing of Scandinavia, told from a rather neutral viewpoint that respects Christianity’s mellowing influence without being blind to its flaws in practice. You might also call it a straight-up adventure yarn of many threads. After a battle, Orm and his comrades may retire to a feasting hall to hear stories of brave deeds that fill pages and then never come up again. Or else we might get stories like that of a pair of jesters, forced to entertain the slayer of the king they loved, who come up with a marvelous form of vengeance right out of Monty Python.

    One thing you can’t call “The Long Ships” is dull. Even when Orm is not actually at sea (he actually spends a good deal of time raising a family on a farm), the book stays busy. Some old enemy is trying to take his head off, or else he is having another marvelously circuitous exchange with his dyspeptic priest friend, Father Willibald.

    And the voyages Orm takes are a lot of fun, encompassing as they do the whole of the known world at that time, from Ireland to the Dnieper River and many points in-between. While a work of fiction, Bengtsson finds ways of introducing a lot of relevant Dark Ages history, even if some of it, like an enjoyably arch Y1K scare, may not be 100% accurate.

    Other books are fun to read. “The Long Ships” is a book to get lost in. You will feel like a teenager again as you take the long way home with Orm, enjoying his simpler yet wondrous time and wishing the world could have stayed so forever.

  • Satish KC
    16:24 on July 12th, 2013
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    A brilliantly written tale, it smacks of the Nordic sagas in style but never heavy. Many here have given it five stars; I have not only because I reserve five for the fabulously great that I don’t think any educated person should fail to read. This might not quite gain those heights but it nevertheless was a fabulous read.

  • Daniel Harris
    19:17 on July 12th, 2013
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    I find that I agree with all of the positive reviews, but indeed what most haunts me about Mutis is his deeply introspective writing style. I read the book in Spanish (my native language, btw) and the language is enthralling and personal… If you took away the background, most of Macqroll’s fears and feelings are rather universal, and as you read the book (especially that WONDERFUL! first chapter) the book becomes an introspective exercise, made bearable simply because Mutis takes you there with the gentleness of his writing, the magic of the geographical settings (and their descriptions) and the company of the most human and flawed characters (Ilona being my personal favorite).

  • Inconsistent
    19:51 on July 12th, 2013
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    If you liked Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, you will love this, which I believe was the inspiration for that first book. Published in 1954, it is by turns, epic saga, straight forward, historical, engaging and sly, and generally a satisfying old yarn about the Vikings in Scandinavia in the 10th century. Adventures on the high seas, romance, and kidnapping abound. Released as a New York Review Books Classic. Enjoy.

  • Terrman
    2:02 on July 13th, 2013
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    I was hesitant about this book at first, despite the consistent high marks that other reviewers have given it. But it seemed like something I would probably like, so I tracked down a copy. One word: wow! What a terrible shame that this book isn’t currently in print. Absolutely fantastic. I love good historical fiction, and The Long Ships is the best of the best. Intelligent humor and bold adventure in equal measures. I just finished it this morning, and I’m already thinking about the next time I’m going to read it. How many books can you say that about? I can’t think of any in recent memory. Easily as good as, say, The Lord Of The Rings, but with the added bonus that it might have actually happened.

  • PeterCao
    2:30 on July 13th, 2013
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    There were some things to like about this book.

    *It transported me to another time, another way of life. I’m not sure how accurate a portrayal of the times this book managed but I’m pretty sure there was much about it that caught the flavor of the time. Fighting hard and thieving adventures with ominous dangers all served to remind, we weren’t always washing our hands with anti-bacterial soap and recording three television shows while watching a fourth. Mankind has a colorful past and this is a part of it I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about but I enjoyed my immersion into the Viking world with all those men and all those kings.

    *The humor was sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but definitely there and woven effortlessly throughout. I found myself giggling and snickering and snorting on occasion and smiling through much of this book.

    *I like a good action movie and I like adventure stories and there was definitely some good adventure in this book.

    But to me this book had some big problems.

    *It was episodic. Not a bad thing per se if you’re picking it up over a number of weeks, months, and reading it like a serial. But I was reading this as a book group selection and had to keep trudging through it even when I would normally have put it down. It just didn’t hang together for me as a novel, more as a series of short stories.

    *The characters were simple, not too deep, and they fit with the stories but it was hard for me to care, too much, about any of them. I have trouble when I can’t invest in at least one of the characters.

    *Finally, and most importantly, it was too long. I have two or three other books on my shelf and about a third of the way through this one I kept wishing I could put it down and read something else, something that would excite and interest me more deeply.

    For these reasons I can only give this book three stars and would only recommend it with caveats.

  • Dave Peck
    2:46 on July 13th, 2013
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    It is densely written and discursive . . . relentlessly so, for 700 pages. Perhaps you will find this poetic, profound, or even titillating. Perhaps not. Perhaps, instead, you will think that Mutis is a brilliant, verbally gifted man in need of lithium and a good editor, or both. In all fairness, he gives plenty of warning up front. Page 17: “Our mistake is to think it’s going somewhere, . . .” Page 19: “makes his sentences difficult to understand until we grow used to the rhythm of a language intended to conceal more than it communicates.” Page 20: “. . . filled with long, rambling circumlocutions that made no sense.” I think this award winning “emperor” is feeling a bit chilly, but laughing his chillies off.

  • teqndzndawm
    4:30 on July 13th, 2013
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    The Long Ships is a book for those of us who as boys read Sir Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, the Rover Boys Series, Mark Twain and Moby Dick as an adventure story and also for everyone of us of either sex and of whatever age who can now sit back and enjoy some great stories of Viking adventure threaded through and through with humor and not a little historical accuracy. While it’s a serious book in that I was written by an author of talent, an essayist and poet in his own land (Sweden) and is therefore well written it’s not a serious book to be taken seriously. It has no message and no moral. It doesn’t try to solve any problems. It just tells some great stories.

    For the record The Long Ships is a collection of four novellas, centered on the life and adventures of Red Orm Tostesson, a late Eleventh Century (980-1025) Viking who lived in Skania in what was then a part of the kingdom of the Danes but which now lies on the southern tip of Sweden. The stories were first written and published in Swedish by Frans Bengsston, a Swedish essayist, translator and poet, in 1940-41 and then translated and published in English in 1954, 15 years later

    All four of these novellas contain a heady stew of history, derring-do, adventure, love, fortune, friendship and – always – violence. In the first story where Red Orm, the son of Toste and his wife Asa, goes a-Viking in Krok’s ship with his friend Toke, plunders the coasts of Normandy and Northern Spain, is captured by the Moors, spends six years as a galley slave, becomes a member of the Empower Alamansur’s bodyguard, steals the world’s most valuable necklace and then the largest bell from the Monastery of St James (now Santiago de Campostella in Galicia) escapes and returns home safely there is enough material for a year’s season of TV episodes.

    The same is true of the next three – in the first of which (he second of the novellas) Red Orm is a part of the Viking fleet which defeats the British (read Anglo-Saxons) at the battle of Maldon and eventually procured a true King’s ransom from weak King Ethelred.

    Then in the next story (the third novella) Red Orm and his family and retainers move to a safer place in the woods above their home in Skania to escape the wrath of King Sven Forkbeard (Orm has married Ylva the beautiful youngest daughter of King Harald and sister of King Sven Forkbeard who is furious over the marriage). Here they have an almost endless series of adventures; and then, finally, in the fourth story Red Orm and his now grown sons and retainers together with his old friend Toke take a ship up the River Dvina, over “The Great Portage” to the Dneiper and down the Dneiper past Kiev to “The Weirs” where they retrieve a great treasure and return safely home to live happily to the end of their days with fortune and family. (Best I can figure the route in present day terms is that they entered the Dvina at its mouth in the Gulf of Riga in Latvia, went up the Dvina to the source of the Deneiper in Russia and down the Dneiper to what is probably site of the huge Dnipropetrovsky Dam 200 miles up river from the Black Sea. Whatever it was it was quite a journey!)

    I recommend that the book be read slowly and for pleasure, not for knowledge – although there’s a lot of history in it. . Take one novella at a time and enjoy it. I think Bengtsson wrote it for pleasure. An accomplished poet himself he larded it with the extemporaneous verses of his characters, although as translated from the Swedish, the poetry does not come through to the English reader. And he has a sense of humor. In every novella there are episodes which are simply over the top – funny – like the Flashman stories; they have all characteristics of Red Orm as Dick Armstrong the All-American Boy. In fact I think all these novellas are basically for men who are still boys at heart. Don’t take this book too seriously.

    You will however – if you read it – come away with some real feeling for history in Red Orm’s time. You will realize that there was no glamour in the Viking life. The Vikings were basically plunderers, setting out each spring in individual ships or groups of one or two to go “a-Viking” along the coast of the North Atlantic countries. They were violent men. Swordplay and battle was the rule rather than the exception and the pages of this book run red with the blood spilled by the characters in these stories. If you believe what Bengtsson writes they actually sought warfare and violence rather than peace.

    Furthermore if you read it you will have a feel for the work of the several religious orders that sent Priests to the Vikings in an effort to Christianize them and the effect on Red Orm of his baptism in Book Three. You will have a feel for the limited extent to which “civilization” as the Western World then knew it had changed the way of life of the many small tribes which inhabited the region of the Danes and how far they had to come to catch up.

    I enjoyed it and hope you do too.

  • Ed in Virginia
    5:15 on July 13th, 2013
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    Sure, the book can be taken as 7 novellas or read as a whole. As a single novel it contains some of the most wise, prophetic and beautiful passages I’ve ever read; at the same time the book is immensely readable. I am really speechless at the brilliance of this book. Mutis should be a household name in English-speaking countries. Thank you NYRB for the beautiful edition and thank you Edith Grossman for the wonderful translation.

    Anyone interested in the innocence of reading a story for the sheer joy of experience, of seeing places you could never see as a ‘student of the world’, you will leave this book enriched and all the better for it.

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