Orm is a Viking. He’s been one ever since he was kidnapped as a young man. Instead of becoming their slave, he suggests he join their crew and share in the booty. The chief thinks this isn’t a bad idea and Orm becomes one of the best Vikings in all of Vikingdom. The Long Ships is the story of Orm’s three voyages and his time in between when he becomes a Christian, marries, and has some kids.
I loved the plot of The Long Ships. It’s all adventure all the time. Orm falls in with the Vikings and everything takes off from there. They find a guy which leads to some fighting and pillaging, which leads to some other guy who takes them to a battle and booty, rinse and repeat. There are many coincidences and “Hey, we know that guy!”’s and it’s a small Viking world but it doesn’t matter. It’s good times.
Orm travels far during his adventures, into Spain and England, and later down the Volga. He meets a variety of people: a Jewish silversmith, a Muslim conqueror, the Kings of England and Scandinavia, Christian priests, wildmen and beautiful women. His quick mind and ability to see a problem from every angle impress everyone he meets and gains their respect. He very quickly becomes a chieftain. The Vikings’ practicality is a source of much of the humour of the book. When Solomon, the silversmith, agrees to show the Vikings a city they can plunder with the stipulation that he gets to pluck out the nasty chieftain’s eyes, they “agreed that this was a reasonable request.” Another time the Vikings have chased some Christians into a tower. They refuse to come down. Orm tries to reason with them, telling them that they aren’t going to hurt them they just want their stuff. The Vikings turn to one another and shrug, really what’s the big deal, they just need to give us all their belongings is all.
These aren’t angsty men who spend much time thinking about the meaning of life. When a friend is killed, they tell one another, “yes, we’ll get revenge, but later, we have business now.” Most of the battles are carried out in a business-like manner. It’s just another day at the office. Even religion is looked on with an eye to the business side of things. Converting to Christianity is seen as a kind of insurance policy for the End of the World and the priest complains that most of his converts want a free goat before they agree to a baptism.
There’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the book as Orm takes care of domestic issues, but by Part 3: Bulgar Gold things pick up again. Despite all the murdering and violence, The Long Ships is a fun, though time consuming, read. It’s full of humour, irony, and adventure. I highly recommend it.
Michael Meyer is the translator of this NYRB edition.