Day 496: My First Classics Club Review! The Long Ships

Cover for The Long ShipsBest Book of the Week!
Today I’m posting my first review for The Classics Club, the one chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #5!  The Long Ships is a great start to the Classics Club for me. I found it to be a rousing adventure story full of deadpan humor.

This book is the result of Bengtsson’s desire to write a realistic novel about the Vikings. A poet, Bengtsson also wrote essays and a biography of Charles XII, but he became more widely known for The Long Ships.

His protagonist Orm Tostesson is only a boy when the novel begins. Orm is eager to go a-viking to Ireland with his father and older brother, but his mother tends to be protective of him, so he stays home. Shortly after the men leave, he attempts to stop some sheep stealing on the part of a group of Vikings from Lister and is kidnapped by them. The Vikings soon find him an able and intelligent companion, so he becomes part of their crew rather than being kept a slave.

In the course of their adventures down the western coast of Europe, they are initially successful but eventually are captured and sold as galley slaves. In return for a service they performed for a Jew from Córdoba, they are freed to serve as bodyguards for lord Almansur, the regent and imprisoner of the young Caliph of Córdoba. There they serve for years until circumstances force them to flee for home.

This voyage is the first of three related in the novel, during which “Red” Orm meets his bride to be, loses her when his best friend Toke steals her father’s concubine, goes a-viking to England to try to retrieve her from English priests, and many years later travels down the Dnieper to bring back a stash of hidden gold. Even when he is settled at home, he is involved in tiffs with his neighbors, attempts to murder him on the orders of the evil King Sven, visits from unusual acquaintances, rowdy celebrations, and a Thing, a convocation of various groups of Vikings for settling their differences.

There is plenty of action in this novel, but what I find most charming are its air of insouciance and its ongoing (although somewhat grisly) humor. It has a sense of playfulness, especially about the differences between the Norsemen’s old religion, Christianity, and Islam, to which Orm and his fellows are temporarily forced to convert. Take, for example, this passage from the prologue, about the arrival of the shaven men, or priests, in Skania:

They had many strange tales to relate, and at first people were curious and listened to them eagerly, and women found it pleasant to be baptized by these foreigners and to be presented with a white shift. Before long, however, the foreigners began to run short of the shifts, and people wearied of their sermons, finding them tedious and their matter doubtful . . . . So then there was something of a decline in conversions, and the shaven men, who talked incessantly of peace and were above all very violent in their denunciation of the gods, were one by one seized by devout persons and were hung up on sacred ash trees and shot at with arrows, and offered to the birds of Odin.

To give you another idea of the humor in this novel, a Viking tells a story of a wedding that broke up into a fight. When the bride sees the groom’s friends beating up one of her relatives, she hits the groom with a torch, which starts his hair on fire, beginning another fire in which 11 people are killed. Everyone agrees that it was the best wedding they ever attended.

The story of Red Orm is told in a detached manner but by a truly talented storyteller. It is full of sly humor and observations of human folly. I really enjoyed it.


18 thoughts on “Day 496: My First Classics Club Review! The Long Ships

  1. Cedar Station April 2, 2014 / 1:29 pm

    This has been on my list since it come up for you as a spin pick! Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  2. Candiss April 2, 2014 / 1:36 pm

    Excellent post! I’m eager to read this one, in large part because the humor is right up my odd little alley.

    I’m glad the Spin was kind to you.

    • whatmeread April 2, 2014 / 1:39 pm

      Yes, this was a good one! I wasn’t sure anyone would appreciate my examples of the humor, although when I read that paragraph about the priests to my husband, he laughed out loud.

  3. Naomi April 2, 2014 / 2:25 pm

    I have never heard of this one, but I’m glad I read your review, because it does sound good! I wouldn’t have been drawn in by that cover, either. Glad you enjoyed your first spin pick!

    • whatmeread April 2, 2014 / 2:36 pm

      Really? I liked the cover. I guess it does look a little comic bookish.

  4. trish422 April 2, 2014 / 5:27 pm

    This is the first I’m hearing about this one, but I do so love a grisly sense of humor, so thanks for the suggestion!

  5. Audra (Unabridged Chick) April 3, 2014 / 10:03 am

    This one kept coming up a few years ago on a email list about excellent, but forgotten, hist fic. I had forgotten about it until this review — now I really really want to read — it sounds just marvelous!

    • whatmeread April 3, 2014 / 10:49 am

      Great! I hope you get to read it.

  6. Cecilia April 9, 2014 / 9:20 am

    That is pretty funny! I’m so glad you had a good start with the Classics Club. I feel kind of lame for spurring you all onto this but failing to do my own read. I don’t dislike my pick (The Grapes of Wrath) but got more engrossed in Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary. Maybe I need to update my list.

    • whatmeread April 9, 2014 / 9:33 am

      You are encouraged to change your list at any time, and those books are certainly considered classics! Go for it! I have about a dozen rereads on my list as well.

      I think I have already read two or three on my list but not yet posted their reviews. I can’t say I have liked every book so far, but this is a good way to encourage ourselves to catch up on older books we haven’t read yet, since we tend to try to keep up with the newer ones everyone is talking about. If I were you, I would just update my list and not feel guilty. Not having read a particular book is just something to file for later, not to feel guilty about.

      • Cecilia April 9, 2014 / 10:16 am

        Thanks! Why is it so easy to feel guilty about books?? I do think I have a much stronger interest in 19th century works. I’ll also look forward to your reviews. By the way, I recently found and bought a couple of books that I had learned about through your reviews (The Map of Love and Independent People).

      • whatmeread April 9, 2014 / 10:18 am

        Oh, great! I hope you like them! Thanks for the compliment of your attention. I enjoy your posts because they are often about things I don’t think about much.

      • Cecilia April 9, 2014 / 10:49 am

        You definitely introduce so many books that we would otherwise not know about. Thanks for your compliment too! I started out just writing about life until I got into books, and wasn’t sure how it would work to combine the two, but I know I don’t have time to keep up 2 separate blogs. So I really appreciate your reading 🙂

      • whatmeread April 9, 2014 / 11:16 am

        I think the combination works just fine. It’s like you write what you’re thinking about that day, and when you’ve finished reading a book, you’re thinking about what you want to say about it.

      • Cecilia April 9, 2014 / 11:23 am


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