The Long Ships
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|The Long Ships|
|Author(s)||Frans G. Bengtsson|
|Original title||Röde Orm|
|Published in English||1943|
|Pages||603 (total pages)|
The Long Ships or Red Orm (original Swedish: Röde Orm) is an adventure novel by the Swedish writer Frans G. Bengtsson. The narrative is set in the late 10th century and follows the adventures of Orm ("serpent"), called "Red" for his hair and his temper, a native of Scania. The book portrays the political situation of Europe in the later Viking Age, Andalusia under Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, Denmark under Harold Bluetooth, followed by the struggle between Eric the Victorious and Sweyn Forkbeard, Ireland under Brian Boru, England under Ethelred the Unready, and the Battle of Maldon, all before the backdrop of the gradual Christianisation of Scandinavia, contrasting the pragmatic Norse pagan outlook with the exclusiveness of Islam and Christianity. The novel is divided into two parts, published in 1941 and 1945, with two books each.
It is one of the most widely read books in Sweden, topping the charts of most loaned books at Swedish libraries for many years. The first part was translated to English by Barrows Mussey as Red Orm in 1943, but later editions and newer translations by Michael Meyer use the title The Long Ships. The book has been translated into at least 23 languages.
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The first book covers the years 982 to 990. While still a youth, Orm is taken captive by a Viking party raiding the sheepfold of his father's farm in Skåne after an unprofitable campaign among the Wends. The party consists of three ships, some 180 men, led by Krok. Orm is accepted as a crew member and makes a lifelong friend of Toke Greygullson. They sail south, along the coast of the Frankish Empire. They collect an escaped prisoner, Solomon, an Andalusian Jew. Solomon guides them to the castle of the Castilian Margrave who had betrayed him. The Vikings sack the castle and take the spoils to the ships, Solomon returning to his own land. As they sail off, they are attacked and defeated by an Andalusian fleet, and Orm together with Krok and seven others are captured and made slaves.
They serve as galley slaves for more than two years, during which time Orm becomes left-handed (due to his position on the rowing bench), and Krok dies killing their hated supervisor. Thanks to the intervention of Solomon, the surviving eight Norsemen are made members of the slave-bodyguard of Al-Mansur. They nominally convert to Islam and take part in Al-Mansur's campaigns in the Marca Hispanica for four years. Raiding Iria Flavia, the burial place of St. James, Al-Mansur charges the Norsemen with shipping a captured bell of the Christian church back to Cordova. On their way back, they encounter and slay the killers of Krok, and are forced to flee Andalusia, taking the bell with them. They cross to Ireland, and learning that Brian Boru has gained the upper hand over the Norse there, continue directly to the court of Harold Bluetooth.
Harald has recently converted to Christianity, and they present him with the bell of St. James, upon which Harald invites them to celebrate Yule with him. Both Orm and Toke are wounded in duels during Yule. After convalescence, during which he meets Ylva, daughter of Harold, and presents her with a golden necklace given to him by Al-Mansur, Orm returns to Skåne. Toke runs off with an Andalusian slave-concubine of Harald's and continues back home to Blekinge. The one-eyed Rapp, another of Orm's companions from Andalusia, stays with him, being an outlaw in his home district.
After King Harald dies in exile, and Styrbjörn the Strong in the Battle of the Fýrisvellir (moved to 991 in the book, historically probably taking place a few years before), Orm and Rapp join a Viking party raiding England under Thorkell the High, participating in the Battle of Maldon. The Norsemen set siege to the church of Maldon, and after negotiation with two English bishops agree to accept payment of Danegeld. The chieftains agree to be baptized, and travel to London for the occasion. Orm, having learned that Harald's daughter Ylva is staying in London, agrees to be baptised, and Poppo, former bishop of Harald, joins them in Christian matrimony. Orm, Ylva, Rapp and the priest Willibald leave London for Denmark, and collect the necklace Ylva had hidden in Jellinge, now Sweyn's stronghold. Sweyn's men discover them, and fleeing, Willibald wounds Sweyn with a stone throw.
Fearing Sweyn's revenge, Orm moves to a neglected farm, his mother's inheritance in Göinge, northern Skåne, near the border with Småland. During the following years (992 to 995), Orm prospers, and Ylva gives birth to twin girls (Oddny and Ludmilla), a son, Harald, and later to another son, Svarthöfde (Blackhair in the Michael Meyer translation). Orm beats off a treacherous attack sponsored by Sweyn, and Willibald advises against killing the surviving attackers, forcing them to be baptised instead. At the Thing between the men of Göinge, Värend and Finnveden, Orm renews his friendship with Toke, who has gained wealth as a fur trader in Värend. Rainald, a Christian priest who had come to the Thing with Orm to be exchanged for a priest enslaved by the Värenders, disrupts a fertility ceremony, causing the death of a priest of Frey. He is given to the women of Värend as recompense.
The year 1000 passes without Christ returning. In 1007, with Orm now forty-two, his brother Are returns from the east, blind, mute and mutilated. He succeeds in telling of his fate with the help of runes. He had left Skåne in 978 and served in the Varangian guard of Basil II. Are participated in a raid on a Bulgar castle at the mouths of the Danube with the aim of capturing the gold treasure of the Bulgar king. The emperor's treasurer made away with the gold, heading for Kiev, and Are pursued him. He managed to recapture the gold and hid it in the Dniepr, at the cataracts south of Kiev, but was later caught and mutilated, and with much luck made his way home to Denmark. Orm decides to travel to Kievan Rus for the gold, and together with Toke and the Värend chieftain Olof (who is promised Orm's daughter Ludmilla upon their return) mans a ship. They travel by way of Visby, reaching the Dniepr via the Daugava and Beresina. They find the treasure, but are attacked by Pechenegs, and Orm's son Svarthöfde is captured. Orm pays a high ransom, but enough of the treasure remains to liberally reward his entire crew. They return to Skåne safely, just four days after Orm's farm has been attacked by outlaws, led by the former priest Rainald, who have abducted Ludmilla and other women. Orm heads a punitive expedition, the women are freed and Olof slays Rainald. From then on, Orm and Toke live in peace and plenty as good neighbours, and Svarthöfde Ormsson becomes a famous Viking, fighting for Canute the Great. The story ends with the statement that Orm and Toke in their old age "did never tire of telling of the years when they had rowed the Caliph's ship and served my lord Al-Mansur."
Writing process 
The Swedish writer Sven Stolpe reports that somebody asked author Frans G. Bengtsson "what intentions he had with The Long Ships", to which Bengtsson responded that he had no particular intentions. "I just wanted to write a story that people could enjoy reading, like The Three Musketeers or the Odyssey."
The research for the book was based largely on Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla and other old Icelandic literature, but also on medieval chronicles and contemporary research, and historic names, people and events were woven into the fiction. The language of the novel is modeled on the Icelandic sagas. Early in his career, Bengtsson had held a romantic view on the saga literature, promoting an elevated, almost sacral prose in translations, but when writing The Long Ships he instead made use of the saga's faculties for wisecracks and comic understatements. The main characters were written as likable anti-heroes, far from the romantic view of Vikings. Like the sagas, the book relies on verbs and nouns to drive the narrative, with only a minimum of adjectives and descriptive passages. In essays, Bengtsson expresses disgust with "psychological realism" in the literature of his day where the thoughts and feelings of the characters are discussed explicitly rather than indicated by actions and outward signs. In the Swedish original of The Longships, the grammar is deliberately slightly archaic.
The 1964 British-Yugoslav film The Long Ships is loosely based on the book. In the 1980s, there were plans for a large-scale Swedish screen adaptation. The film was supposed to be directed by Hans Alfredson and star Stellan Skarsgård as Orm and Sverre Anker Ousdal as Toke. The project was cancelled for financial reasons, but Alfredson's script was reworked into radio theatre which was broadcast in 1990. A comic adaptation by Charlie Christensen was published in four volumes between 2000 and 2004. In 2011 the Swedish production company Fladen Film announced they had acquired the film rights for the book, and that an adaptation was under development.
See also 
- Lönnroth, Lars (2012-02-09). "Det våras för Bengtsson och hans vikingar". Svenska Dagbladet (in Swedish). Retrieved 2012-02-09.
- "Falsk som vatten (1985): Kommentar". Swedish Film Database (in Swedish). Swedish Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
- Macnab, Geoffrey (2011-05-16). "Swedes plan huge Long Ships franchise". Screen Daily. Retrieved 2011-01-27.
- Norstedts (1983), ISBN 91-1-791702-6.
- English translations