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The Long Ships (New York Review Books Classics) - Frans G. Bengtsson ”His voice became frenzied, and he glared wrathfully from one to the other, brandishing his arms and crying: Blood-wolves, murderers and malefactors, adulterated vermin, Gadarene swine, weeds of Satan and minions of Beelzebub, generation of vipers and basilisks, shall you be cleansed by holy baptism and stand as white as snow in the regiments of the blessed angels? Nay, I tell you, it shall not be so. I have lived long in this house and have witnessed too much; I know your ways. No bishop or holy father shall ever persuade me that such as you can be saved. How should men of the north be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? You would scrabble at the blessed virgins with your lewd fingers, you would raise your war-whoops against the seraphim and archangels, you would bawl for ale before the throne of God Himself! No, no, I know what I speak of. Hell alone will serve for such as you, whether you be baptized or no. Praised be Almighty God, the One, the Eternal, amen!”

Okay so Brother Willibald has good reason to be suspicious as to whether Norsemen will make good Christians. They spend a good bit of their adult life scouring the world for plunder, women, treasure, and have been known to lop off a fair number of priestly heads in the process. When they are not out perpetrating murder and mayhem they are dreaming about it. They are ruled by impulses and pride. When they are not fighting others they are fighting among themselves. For churches (cash cows) to stay built and not to be continually razed to the ground a certain level of civilization has to be achieved. Conversion of the Vikings from the warrior gods Thor and Odin is in the best interest of the world.

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Our hero of this epic tale is Orm (serpent). He sports a mane of red hair and a fiery temper and is at times is referred to as Red Orm. He is the third son which would be a problem leaving him what seems an insurmountable distance from his father’s inheritance, but given the nature of the Viking life span he is only a descending axe blade, a wreck at sea, or a well placed sword thrust away from being the heir. His mother Asa dotes on him and practically makes him into a hypochondriac. Throughout his adventures as he is speared, stabbed, bashed, thumped, and smashed he embraces his injuries for much longer than what a manly Viking should. This creates many opportunities for humor.

I might want to confess at this time that I laughed out loud several times, more than once, while I was sandwiched on a cattle car we call planes. As I lost feeling from the knees down and the ache in my back finally shorted out all the pain sensors in my spine and my head became woozy, no not with mead or ale or wine, but with the stale air we are forced to breath, thank goodness Orm and his band of Viking brothers took me away to a ship where at least when the waves became choppy I could lean over the side and spew my breakfast without fear of sharing the fumes with all my fellow travelers.

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Viking Prow to instill fear in their enemies

Orm is taken capture right off his father’s sheep farm. Viking plunder ships are always in need of more arms and shoulders for rowing. In a battle at sea Orm and eight of his companions are taken captive again this time by the Andalusians and are forced to row for their fleet. Because of his position on the rowing bench Orm becomes left handed. He rows for two years and in that time becomes quite the manly specimen with bulging muscles and a thirst for adventure. Al-Mansur knowing what fierce fighters Norsemen are and makes them part of his body guard on one condition that they switch their religion to Islam. With a sword blade against one’s neck one tends to say...YES. Orm didn’t really mind this new religion, but he did become tired of smashing his head against the ground. As soon as they leave Al-Mansur’s service they return to their old ways. Orm and his friend Toke acquire lifetime companions while in Andalusia, swords made of the finest Spanish steel.

King Harald and Styrbjorn expressed their wish to see these swords; so Orm and Toke passed Blue-Tongue and Red-Jowl up the table. King Harald and Styrbjorn drew them from their scabbards and weighed them in their hands, studying them carefully; and both agreed that they had never in their lives seen finer swords than these. 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.”

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Frans G. Bengtsson

Franz G. Bengtsson is a Swedish novelist who published his “masterpiece” in two parts. The first part was published in 1941 and the second part in 1945. Others consider his biography of the Swedish king Charles XII to be his magnum opus. He wrote many well respected essays about many leading historical figures. Bengtsson once said: "Joan of Arc, Charles XII, and Garibaldi are the persons I would like to meet - for them the truth was more important than intrigues."

Poetry is considering almost as important to Norseman as a good sword arm. They love telling stories and while reading the book I really felt like I was curled up by a roaring hearth fire listening to the men tell of their exploits punctuated by ale pots crashing against the table and the squeals of women who wandered too close to curious fingers. If you had told me this was written a 1000 years ago I’d have almost believed you.

You challenged a priest,
And that was the least.
For he toppled you into
The mud, King Sven!
You were always greedy for
More, King Sven!
You thought yourself greater than
Thor, King Sven!
But the priest threw a stone
And down with a groan
You fell on your face to the
Floor, King Sven!

Ahh yes our favorite priest Father Willibald is commemorated in verse by Orm. He is making progress converting the heathens to Christianity. His ability to heal the sick, something that Orm is usually in great need of, convinces many of the Norsemen that his god is stronger than theirs.
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The Christian God is stronger.

As we approach 1000AD the Christians are convinced that Judgement Day is nigh and use this impending event to win converts faster. The Norsemen have a different idea about the end of times than what Willibald expected.

”From the very first day of this year every young Christian woman had sought the delights of bodily pleasure more greedily than ever before, for they were uncertain whether this pleasure would be allowed them in heaven and were therefore anxious to enjoy as much of it as they could while there was yet time, since, whatever form of love heaven might have to offer them, they doubted whether it could be as agreeable as the sort practiced on earth.”

By the time they realize they have been Cotton Mathered every woman in the village is pregnant. It is hard for the Vikings to understand how pleasure, in all its forms, can be looked on as a deficit against their ability to achieve heaven. If you are having a good time your soul is in jeopardy, but ”stories about sin are always good to hear.”

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The names are so wonderful: Harald Blue-tooth, Sven Rat-Nose, Ivar Broad-Hug, Sone the Sharp-Sighted, Kolbjorn Burnt-in-His-House, Gudmund of Uvaberg, Widow Gudny (She was of powerful and impressive appearance, not yet old enough to frighten men.),Thorkell the High, and One-eyed Rapp just to name a few. Characters will appear and disappear only to reappear much later, but Bengtsson deftly gives us little hints to refresh our memory to the placement of these people in the plot.

There is romance; in fact, Orm converts to Christianity as part of a plot to see the love of his life Ylva, the daughter of King Harald Blue-Tooth. There is adventure with many mishaps and many opportunities for Orm to show his craftiness when over-matched by sword arms. As I finish this review I feel a bit lovelorn myself with many fine memories of eagerly turning pages and experiencing right along with the characters the smashing of a blade against my shield, the salt air in my nostrils, the good cheer of a good meal of food and stories, and maybe even a willing young woman to warm my blankets. I’m going to grow my hair out and learn to snarl.