ISBN: 1590173465

The Long Ships is a novel that chronicles the lives of several Vikings as they pillaged their way across Europe. It is the Scandinavian Odyssey.

Scandinavians used to have a principal profession of killing, robbing, and kidnapping. This wasn’t just a few bad apples in Scandinavian society but a cultural norm where the word “viking” was a verb that meant the invasion of other lands. They robbed and murdered with impunity, even on each other.

One of the twenty men who had followed Krok up the ladder was hanging from the stockade with an arrow in his eye, and three others had been hit in their passage along the bridge; but all those who had managed to reach the ground safely packed themselves together in a tight phalanx and, raising their battle-cry, fought their way with spear and sword to the gate. Here it was very dark, and they found themselves hard pressed indeed, with enemies behind as well as in front of them.

[…]

“For no man,” he said, “complains of the weight of the cargo when it is his own booty that is putting strain on his oar.”

One of the main characters, Orm, became a galley slave on an enemy ship, rowing endlessly and often being whipped, but when the narrator describes his massive increase in strength and endurance, I couldn’t help but slightly admire his misfortune. How full of malaise is modern life where you romanticize about being a slave on a cramped boat?

…when the bride, who belonged to a well-known local family, saw her uncle’s eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom’s kinsmen, she had seized a torch from the wall and hit her bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids, with great presence of mind, had forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death; so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered. The bride and bridegroom were now living together in blissful happiness, though he had not been able to grow new hair to replace that which he had lost in the fire.

The story proceeds at a crisp pace, introducing brief side stories that add to the Viking atmosphere. This was a hard book to put down.

Then the swords were passed round the whole table, for many of the guests were curious to examine such fine weapons, and Orm fidgeted nervously until he had Blue-Tongue back at his waist again, for he felt half naked without her cheek against his thigh.

[…]

Everyone in the hall was happy to see that there was a good prospect of an armed combat; for a fight between two such men as Orm and Sigtrygg was sure to be worth the watching. Both King Sven and Styrbjörn expressed their opinion that this would add pleasant variety to the Yuletide drinking.

[…]

“I have never myself met any of these Norwegians,” he said, “but everyone knows that an encounter with them always provides fine fighting and good tales for the survivors to tell their children.

Foreign girls were attracted to the Viking men..

When the crews caught sight of several fine young women among them, they shouted enthusiastically to them to make haste and come down, promising that they would find good prizes aboard, silver and merriment and bold men, as well as plenty of priests to pardon their sins in the best Christian manner. One or two of the young women giggled coyly and answered that they had a mind to do as the men bade them, but that it was a long way to jump; whereupon they were immediately grabbed by the hair by furious kinsfolk, who promised them the birch on their bare bodies for indulging in such lewd chatter with heathen men.

Unfortunately for the men, isolation with a woman was almost impossible. Heavy “coercion” of foreign women seemed to be the primary means Viking men had pre-marital sex. The sexes were kept separate because everyone knew that sex was almost guaranteed to happen once a man and woman were alone. This was undesirable because such an act would impede on a woman’s honor and make it harder for her to find a husband. Times have since changed.

…while to look for truth in a man can be like looking for a cuckoo in a dark wood, to look for the truth in a woman is like looking for the echo of the cuckoo’s voice.

[…]

The women of Miklagard are worth little. As soon as they marry, they become thoughtless and lazy, and childbearing ages them and makes them fat and insubordinate. When their husbands try to tame them, they run shrieking to their priests and bishops. They are not like our women, who are understanding and work diligently and whom childbearing makes wiser and more comely.

[…]

“I have killed him,” he said, “though he was my kinsman. But I do not intend that any guest of mine shall be attacked, even by a madman. Besides which, his spear broke my feasting-cup; and whoever had done that, I would have killed him.” The cup lay in fragments, and he was much grieved at its loss, for such a one he would not easily find again.

[…]

…a well-manned ship is the best of all things. It is good to sit contented ashore, and no man need be ashamed to do so; but a voyage to a far land, with booty awaiting a man and this smell in his nostrils, is as good a lot as could be desired, and a sure cure for age and sorrow.

Not much more can be said of a book that is entertaining and captures the essences of masculinity long past. I highly recommend it.

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