Frans G Bengtsson: The Long Ships (R?de Orm: Sj?farare i v?sterled, 1941; R?de Orm hemma och i ?sterled, 1945)
Historical allegories are always useful when you live in troubled times but don't necessarily want to talk directly about them because you never know who might be listening, and obviously for painting a bigger picture with older roots than newspapers can do. Sweden was neutral in WWII and eager not to openly piss off our big neighbour in the South, and consequently historical literature got a boost; Vilhelm Moberg's Ride This Night is a thinly veiled anti-fascist tract set in 17th century Sweden, singer Karl Gerhard was blacklisted for likening Nazi sympathisers to the invaders of Troy, and Eyvind Johnson's 1946 novel Return To Ithaca lets Homer's characters live through the aftermath of a war that's ruined everything they've ever known.
The Long Ships, on the surface, doesn't have any such pretenses. It's the story of Orm Tostesson, born in what is today southern Sweden in the mid-10th century, and his life and travels as a viking. Kidnapped by vikings at a young age, he travels all over Europe - sold as a slave to the Moors, rises to chiefdom among his men, helps plunder England, goes treasure-hunting in the Ukraine, and eventually settles on a farm in Scania where he becomes old and rich. Along the way, he meets many of the great men of his time (far too conveniently at times, but hey), converts to Islam, converts back to paganism, converts to Christianity, consumes a lot of beer and pork, and makes good use of his sword.
It strikes me about halfway in that this really is a Western novel set in the Viking age. A very ambitious, fun and well-written Western novel, but still; substitute long ships for cattle trails, Englishmen, Swedes and Khazars for Indians, kings for cavalry colonels, long swords for Colt revolvers, and posses for... well, posses, and Orm could easily have been played by Clint Eastwood or James Garner. (Not Gary Cooper, though.) It's a frontier novel, a novel set at a time when new land was being claimed both geographically and philosophically. And it's tremendously entertaining but at the same time occasionally disturbing in its frankness. As anachronistic as it is on some points (more on that below), Bengtsson doesn't try to turn his hero into an enlightened 20th century man, and robbery, violence, rape and slavery are all seen as perfectly normal - though obviously something to be avoided where you yourself is concerned. The protagonists are, at first, more concerned with what's possible than what's right; if you have more gold than us, and we have sharper swords than you, isn't it fair that we should, ahem, trade?
And yet, underneath all the bawdy tales of kidnappings, beheadings, and bearded men dying with a macho one-liner (in runic verse, obviously), there's more to it.
For starters, there's Bengtsson's language, which (at least in the original, I can't speak for the translation) is a marvel to read. Terse, dryly humorous and almost completely devoid of unnecessary adjectives, both his narration and his dialogue somehow manages to carry a feeling of the old sagas despite being written in 19th century Swedish (which has about as much in common with Old Norse as Jane Austen does with Beowulf). It's a wilful anachronism, both for his own time and for Orm's, that's so obvious it seems to mean something; as if Bengtsson is deliberately setting them loose from the time they live in.
Then there's the time he sets it in, a time when everything was changing. Because the years around 1000 AD is when Scandinavia was christianised, and religion is the basis of many conflicts in the book; not only between pagans, Christians and Muslims, but also between hardliners (the missionaries sent to convert the Norse by whatever means necessary, the pagans determined to stick to their old gods) and the secularists (most of the actual vikings). Orm himself and many with him take a very pragmatic view of religion; they just want to live as well as possible (for themselves), and whichever god makes the best offer at the moment gets the nod.
It's no coincidence that one of Orm's first defining acts is to rescue a Jew who's been enslaved on another ship; he does it for his own winning's sake, sure, but as the novel progresses, the unspoken question of what's fair (to other men, to women, to other peoples) becomes more and more central. Orm starts to compromise, starts to form alliances based on more than mutual greed or lust for revenge, starts to rule by law rather than force. It's not a direct result of becoming a Christian - all sides are portrayed as being equally prone to both kindness and atrocities - but simply of growing up, of seeing more of the world, not buying into extremism but starting to develop something that 1000 years and many ethical discussions later might be called humanism. And somewhere underneath it I bet you can find Bengtsson in 1945, wishing Europe itself would do the same; that there can be another new time, a time when everything can change."I've never been so lucky in everything before as I have been since I stuck with Christ" [said Orm]. "All you need to do is to deny the old gods and instead say this: There is no god but God, and Christ is his prophet."
"Not his prophet, his son," said Father Willibald.
"His son," Orm quickly added. "That's it. I knew that."
Mind you, that's all very sneakily done. For the most part, it's rustic anecdotes about life on the high seas or in the big halls, big action scenes, strong men, strong-minded women, well-written character drama and just a heck of a good yarn.
Sex and beer and runic verse are very good indeed.