Sunday, June 23, 2013

Francis Bengtsson's THE LONG SHIPS

As anyone who follows me on GoodReads already knows, I spent the first few chapters of The Long Ships pretty much just giggling at the character names. I kept imagining Danish King Harald Bluetooth* wandering around the tenth century equivalent of a supermarket looking like he was talking about himself, for instance. Toke, well, that's pretty self-explanatory. And then there's Brother Willibald, the Christian monk who comes home with Orm from his adventures in Ethelred the Undready's England. Heh. Willibald. And there's another man named Ugge the Inarticulate. I mean, come on.

But then there's our hero, Orm. My reaction to this name only makes sense to fans of Walter Moers' Zamonia books, in which "Orm" is the name of the universal source of creative power, especially in literary terms. Here, of course, it merely means "serpent", and is usually accompanied by the epithet "red" because of his hair.

So, the cover and the era in which this book is set and the ethnicity of its characters should give away that this is, in fact, a Viking novel, but what they won't necessarily tell you is that it is regarded as a veddy veddy literary work, bearing the aegis of no less an entity than the New York Review of Books, who published it as one of its NYRB Classics series,** which is how I came across it. And there is good reason for it to get this stamp, for it's an ambitious and interesting work; more than just an adventure tale (though it's a very good adventure tale), it's also the story, really, of how Scandinavia went from the rough, violent, pagan land as depicted in the sagas to the more settled, orderly, responsible and overwhelmingly Christian one of, say, Sigrid Undset's work.

But don't let the high culture imprimatur deter you from the great fun to be had here, for The Long Ships has enough fun and fighting, and very funny imagery (like a huge stolen bell from a church in Asturia being hit, gong-style, at regular intervals, to help a bunch of untrained galley slaves row from Spain to Ireland) to satisfy even the guy who only wants to read Terry Brooks and David Eddings and Robert Jordan over and over again until the end of time (and yes, those guys really do exist; there's one on my old bar trivia team).

For me, well, Orm reminds me a little bit of Jack/Bobby Shaftoe, Neal Stephenson's hilariously hapless bad ass adventurer from the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon. He shares the Shaftoes' bumbling heroism, right from the start with how he comes to go a-Viking: he is knocked on the head while defending the family farm from the followers of Krok (Worst Viking Chieftain EVER, is Krok), who are on a provisioning raid. They bear away the sheep and the young man, whose mommy had kept him home for one more season because he was her favorite and was too young and delicate yet.

But, he acquitted himself well before getting knocked out, even killed some of the raiding party, so he is allowed to join Krok, Toke and the gang on their rather slapstick voyage. As I said, Krok is the WVCE. But that's just the first bit of the book, which is basically told as Orm's life story, and once he's free of Krok (but he takes vengeance, oh yes he does, because he is a Danish Raider a-Viking) he starts gallavanting all about the known world, Moorish Spain, Ireland, Aenglaland... and, we learn later, his big brother spent quite a lot of time in Byzantium, which news drives most of the plot of the last quarter of the book.

Really, the only thing I don't like about The Long Ships is the way the narrative is framed, though it's a common enough device. Throughout the story we are treated to authorial/narrative intrusions indicating what Orm said about a given situation as an old man. It's usually something wise and often something witty, but never enough of either to justify the constant intrusion and the robbing of scenes of any sense of jeopardy. See also Doctor Who.

Maybe it's just George R.R. Martin's fault that this bothers me now? That makes me expect primary characters' danger to be real? At any rate, knowing ahead of time that the hero is going to make old bones often robs his story of some, or a lot of, its joy for me these days. I'd probably bitch about Conan the Cimmerian, too, nowadays, though maybe not because Conan!!!

At any rate, Orm's Viking picaresque is still plenty enjoyable. And as an added bonus, depicting as it does a society in which "any man who could not understand poetry would be regarded as a poor specimen of a warrior", there is more than a little bit of what amount to tenth century poetry slams, in which burly, drunken, beardy men strive to outdo each other in witty and lyrical depictions of their adventures and, sometimes, pratfalls. I'm not sure how well their efforts survive this translation into English, but the flavor of them is still there in trace amounts, as is the overall dry wit of the narrative tone; Halldor Laxness did not invent this tone, he just won a Nobel with it. As have so many of his regional fellows over the years.

The Long Ships is not necessarily Nobel material, but it's high quality entertainment -- rendered even more so by my contemporaneous choice to start playing Skyrim at long last. Skyrim is The Long Ships with dragons and lizard men, you guys. Well, sort of. At least it looks and sounds that way. But I haven't even found High Hrothgar yet, so, you know...

*Who is not himself much of a character per se, but the events take place during his reign.

**I had better just get this out right here: I am a big fan of NYRB Classics, and regard them as sort of my highbrow Angry Robot Books (which I doubt they'd appreciate) in that they are a go-to house for quality reading material when I want literary rather than genre fiction. They, like AR, have not yet let me down, at least inasmuch as what I've chosen from their offerings I have always, always liked. And lookie, they've sort of, kind of, taken a page from AR's playbook in that they now have a subscription program! Alas, it is dead tree only, and until my elbow/arm problems are sorted I'm ebook-only. I tweeted them about considering offering an ebook subscription but so far have gone ignored. Tristesse.

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