Those who like adventure and historical novels will be well served by Frans G. Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. It is set in the 10th century and tells of the adventures of Red Orm, a young Viking from what is now Southern Sweden. He is the son of a landed chieftain but is captured and put to row on a long ship as a slave. His adventures take him to Spain, where he is forced to convert to Islam, to Ireland where he meets a bunch on interesting Christian monks (who do not manage to convert him), to the court of King Harald Blue-Tooth in Denmark, where he falls in love with King Harald’s daughter, on to England for a stint of plundering, where he converts to Christianity as part of the deal that enables him to marry King Harald’s daughter, who was at the point a prisoner of King Ethelred of Great Britain. Red Orm brings back riches and settles inland on a farm and becomes a prosperous landowner. In the end, Red Orm and his best friend Toke live to a ripe old age, with no more adventures, but they were found of telling of the adventures they had as young men.
There are many descriptions of the fearlessness and cruelty of the Vikings, who did not hesitate to take revenge on slights by killing the culprit. But there is also a great enjoyment of life and much sharing of food and ale. Showing hospitality to visitors is greatly valued, as it the ability for warriors to compose verses about their adventures.
The author uses a great deal of irony in describing religious practices (be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or the worship of Northern gods).
He also pokes fun at gender relations. At one point, when they are trying to pass judgment on a criminal act, the following comment is made on allowing women to appear as witnesses:
“According to our ancient laws… women can be regarded as admissible witnesses; though how such a decision ever came to be arrived at is more than a man can guess. It is not our custom to use women’s evidence where we can avoid it; for while to look for truth in a man can be like looking for a cuckoo in a dark wood, to look for the truth in a woman is like looking for the echo of the cuckoo’s voice.” (p. 354)
Interesting comment… though other works of fiction featuring medieval women, in Scandinavia or other geographical areas, often show then as full contributors in the household and wielding considerable power when the men are away, at war or for other reasons.
Bengtson, Frans G. The Long Ships. New York Review Books, New York, NY: 2010 .