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Literature / The Long Ships

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"I think he's done pissing, now!"

The Long Ships (original title Röde Orm) is the most famous work of Swedish author, poet and translator Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. The book is an adventure novel written in somewhat of the same style as The Icelandic Sagas, and chronicles the life and voyages of Orm, son of Toste, known as Red Orm. The novel was published in two parts. The first appeared in 1941, the second in 1945. The action takes place in the years 982 to 1007.

Orm is the youngest son of the Scanian chieftain Toste, and is kidnapped as a young man by raiders, and goes a-viking to Spain, where he is captured, and later becomes a member of the lord Almansur's bodyguard. After an incident where he kills the slavemaster from the galley, who killed his chieftain, he is forced to flee.

Was adapted into a series of four Comic Book-albums, between 1999-2004, by Charlie Christensen of Arne Anka fame. A movie adaptation was made in 1964, which more or less had nothing to do with the source material except the name. It has also been performed as a Radio Drama in the 90's.

A new movie as well as a TV-series has been talked about since the 80's and in Development Hell since 2011. Originally, a Swedish company was going to do it, but the rights were then sold to Lars Von Triers company, Zentropa. So far there's been no movie, but it was turned into a stage play, which apparently was the biggest one in Danish theater history.

This book contains examples of:

  • Agent Peacock: Olof Styrsson is so obsessed with flashy clothes and jewelry his own men needle him for his dress sense, giving him the nickname "Summerbird" for his resemblance to a bird in mating season. Olof, the narration notes, actually likes the name. As for his badass credentials, he was a fighting member of the Varangian Guard for nearly a decade, and is capable of doing a Catch and Return with javelins.
  • Armor Is Useless: Lampshaded and subverted. During the duel with Sigtrygg, Orm is injured and credits his Spanish mail shirt with his survival. Chapter two also gives us this:
    Krok: No man charges into battle without helm and shield for the sake of a few sheep, no, not even if it is his wife that has been stolen.
    • Played straight in the comics. Only one single man is ever seen wearing a shirt of mail.
  • A Tankard of Moose Urine: Orm is not taken with kumis (fermented horse milk). It's strong, and that's the nicest thing he has to say.
  • Badass Preacher: The Archimandrite of Alexandria is mentioned to have been a bandit in his earlier life, and kills a member of the Varangian Guard with a single blow from his lead-beaded rosary.
    • Father Willibald has his moments too, most notably when he manages to hit king Sven in the mouth with a thrown rock, a feat which earns him the respect of Orm's rather rowdy and sceptical neighbors.
    • Orm also mentions in passing that he encountered a fair number when fighting alongside Almansur in Castile, and that they always stood in the front ranks and fought well.
  • The Berserker:
    • Berserkers are talked about but we never actually see one in action.
    He cleared the ship, helmless and shieldless and hewing about him with both hands, and all who heard this agreed that berserking was not seen often nowadays.
    • On one occasion seven men clear an entire boat (maybe fifty men), with enemies panicking and jumping ship in droves because they think the seven look like they might be berserkers. Then again, if seven unarmoured men attack fifty heavily armoured, the assumption isn't unreasonable...
    • At one occasion two men who are given to Orm as servants by a jealous neighbor. He is told that they are berserkers, but will not berserk if they are kept fed, and are the hardest workers in Skania. Orm thinks he may have been bluffing for some time, as they eat so much that he thinks the neighbor wanted to bankrupt him. Only then he sees them work, and work they do. As much as several men. However, when his daughter Ludmilla says she will sit by the river with the stronger, in the ensuing battle they both prove that they truly were berserkers. Then Orm kills them both with a broom handle.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Discussed when Orm and Toke come home after their first journey, and Orm pontificates about all he has won and lost.
    Toke: You have won a sword and a ship, and I have won a sword and a woman, and not all who set sail with Krok did that well.
    Orm: We have also won the wrath of two great kings, and no man can carry a worse burden.
  • Bond One-Liner: Just as in real life, the Norse are fond of these. The most famous one may be Toke's, after he has gone out "to piss" with a mouthy relative of an enemy of Orm's (in fact, they are going to fight, and the fiction is to avoid breaching the peace of the hall they're in):
    I think he's done pissing.
  • Broken Ace: Al-Mansur is the greatest ruler in the history of Muslim Spain, but because he gained his power by de-facto usurping the rightful Caliph he is wracked by guilt and fear of hell so that he constantly makes war on the Christian kingdoms in the hopes of placating Allah.
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards:
    • After being captured and enslaved in Spain, Orm and his companions serve for several years in the guard of Al-Mansur, de facto ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia.
    • Olof Summerbird and Orm's brother Are served in the Varangian Guard for the emperor in Constantinople.
  • The Casanova: Subverted by Rainald. He tries to live in celibacy, but he can't keep his hands off women, and vice versa...
  • Catch and Return: During an altercation with the crew of a ship from Östergötland, the angry captain of the Östergötlanders hurls a spear at Orm. Olof Summerbird, standing beside Orm, catches it and throws it back, hitting the man in the shoulder. This draws much admiration from his friends and also seems to awe the Östergötlanders, who retreat without further provocations. When questioned, Olof claims it's something he learned young, but never succeeded in teaching to someone else. He also says he doesn't tell people about it after one of his cousins was severely wounded trying to repeat the stunt. This is a Shout-Out to Njal's Saga, where this feat occurs several times.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The third sin of Rainald.
  • Converting for Love: Orm has to convert to Christianity to marry Ylva. He takes it in his stride, having already converted to Islam when living with the Saracens.
    • Olof Summerbird converts to Christianity to marry Orm's daughter Ludmila. Considering that this is the same man who advocated for murdering all Christians on sight... yes, it's a big step, and portrayed as such.
    • Toke inverts the trope, refusing to convert because of love. His common-law wife is Muslim and spent many years as a prisoner/slave among Christians. She hates Christianity with a passion. Toke outright says that as much as he likes Orm and Father Willibald, he is not prepared to go against his wife in this.
  • Cool Ship: Averted. The ships are barely mentioned, in spite of the title (which is the English translation only; the original Swedish is simply Röde Orm)
  • Courtroom Episode: The Thing at Kraka-Stone.
  • Cultured Badass: While celebrating Yule at king Harald's it is mentioned that it is considered unbecoming for a true Viking warrior to not understand poetry. In the same scene Toke (who prided himself on his skill with verse) breaks down crying, when he hears a poem by one of Styrbjörn's Icelanders and realizes he will never be that good.
    • Both Orm and Toke, who are acknowledged as exceptionally badass even by Viking standards, are also both decent amateur poets. Orm is also noted from early on as being a very good storyteller.
  • The Dandy: Olof Styrsson received the nickname "Summerbird" for his flashy clothes.
  • Decapitated Army: Styrbjörn's death at Uppsala. Justified since the whole point of the campaign was to make Styrbjörn king, and with him dead there wasn't much point in continuing.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Since the book is set the late 10th- early 11th century, and is written in the styles of the Icelandic sagas of the period, there is casual slavery, casual warfare, casual robbery, and casual religion switching for pragmatic purposes.
    • Olof Summerbird's Norse values clashed hard with the Decadent Court of Byzantium. Above all, he considers the Byzantine belief that it is less evil to mutilate than kill proof that all Christians are irredeemably evil and should be killed on sight (though he considers both Orm and Father Willibald honourable and "as good men as if they had never been in contact with Christianity").
  • Die Laughing: Styrbjörn is killed at Uppsala by a spear through the neck just when he is laughing at the approaching Swedish army.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: To a modern reader, the "curse of the Uppsala kings" that afflicts Styrbjörn is easily identifiable as textbook untreated Bipolar Disorder.
  • Dowry Dilemma: When Orm first approaches king Harald to ask about marrying Ylva, Harald chastises him (gently) for not knowing his financial status, and if he is capable of supporting his daughter in style. However, he also notes he won't hold it against him, since he is young and in love, and has been abroad for a long time.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Åsa, somewhat unreliably.
  • Driven to Madness: Östen did not take being baptised well, becoming a loner and developing a frothing-at-the-mouth hatred of all Christians, to the point where he bought two priests as thralls just to kill them.
  • Duel to the Death: Orm and Sigtrygg.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Defied by Olof Summerbird, the narration notes that "he was well pleased with this name".
  • Emergency Multifaith Prayer: Orm and his friends have a rather lackadaisical view of religion. At one point they are facing hard weather at sea and decide to make sacrifices to the norse god of the winds, to a Christian saint, and to Allah, just to cover all their bases.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Rainald
  • Gold Fever: Gets a mention. The Gotlanders who brought the blind, mute and crippled Are from the east show that he has silver left, and use the fact that they have only taken a reasonable sum to pay for his board and passage as proof of their honesty. They then say that if he had had gold, they would have stolen it and pitched him over the side because "no man can resist gold".
  • Happily Adopted: Ulf Glade.
  • Historical Domain Character: Harald Bluetooth and Al-Mansur. Several other historical figures, such as Brian Boru, are mentioned, and many characters from Icelandic sagas (who may or may not have been real) are spoken of.
  • I Am X, Son of Y:
    I am Sigurd, and Bue was my father, and not all Jomsvikings are dead yet.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Father Willibald is Hot-Blooded and about as abrasive as sandpaper, but he takes his duties as a healer and spiritual leader seriously, and is more than willing to go to the wire for his patients, even the ones he doesn't like.
  • Loophole Abuse: Defied. When Orm is to ransom Blackhair from the Patzinak, he is ordered to pay the boy's weight in silver. Everyone present praises Orm for not using the obvious loophole of demanding the boy be weighed naked.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Are to Orm, and Orm to Åsa.¨
  • The Medic: Father Willibald is a skilled healer, and has the cynicism and dark sense of humour to match.
  • My Beloved Smother: Åsa, having lost three sons to various unfortunate mishaps, tends to mother Orm quite vigorously, preventing him from going raiding with his brother and father, and leaving him with something of a hypochondriacal streak.
  • Named Weapons: Orm's sword Bluetongue, Toke's sword Redbeak, Styrbjörn's sword Lullaby and Jostein's axe Widowgrief. Mythical weapons including Gram also get mentioned.
  • Odd Friendship: Both Orm and Toke find, much to their surprise, that they actually like the abrasive and angry Father Willibald. Toke puts it down to that the good Father is too much of a cynic to make any serious conversion attempts.
  • Ode to Intoxication: Khalid writes one, including a criticism of Islam for forbidding wine, which gets him convicted of blasphemy and sent to the galleys. He spends part of his captivity attempting to compose an Ode to Sobriety, but is noted to have trouble finding good things to say about water and lemon juice.
  • Pirate Booty: The main plot of the last book is about retrieving a treasure.
  • Proud Merchant Race: The Gotlanders are (or at least present themselves as) honest merchants who won their fortune without resorting to the piracy and grand-scale blackmail of their fellow Norsemen.
  • Prophecy Armor: The eleven sons of Sone who join Orm's voyage to Rus' receive a prophecy from their father that only seven of them will return to him. When four of them have died, the remaining brothers start to behave with utmost recklessness in combat, because, having absolute trust in their father's clairvoyance, they believe they cannot be killed as long as they do not return home. Even though they are somewhat dismayed by the realization that they still can be wounded, when Orm returns to Scania they decide to stay with Orm and do some more adventuring instead of going home, because in that case their lives would be no longer protected by the prophecy.
  • Prophetic Names: Inverted, characters are given names due to events or characteristics. Examples are Red Orm (Red hair and fiery temper) Olof Summerbird (colourful clothing), Kolbjörn Burnt-in-his-house (should be self-explanatory), Grinulf (Glasgow Grin), Harald Bluetooth (oversized blue eyeteeth) ...
    • Almansur considers Orm (meaning "snake" or "serpent") to have one, because of his quick tongue and fondness for snarky comebacks.
  • Revenge Before Reason: The killing of the overseer. While numerous other revenges seem only slightly reasonable under the circumstances, tradition dictates that Orm &:co must take revenge for their chief the moment they spot his killers, and damn any other oaths and obligations.
  • Seers: Åsa and Sone the Sharp-sighted, neither of whom conform to any of the usual seer tropes.
  • Situational Hand Switch: Orm is of the situational variety. After being a galley slave for years, and always rowing a port-side oar, he was "put right-handed to the oar and taken away left-handed". It is noted that he prefers to throw javelins with his right hand throughout his life, but uses his left for anything else. It is also remarked that this makes fighting more difficult both for him and whoever he's facing, since neither man can position his shield quite properly.
  • Slave Galley: A couple of years in this is the reason why Orm is left-handed.
  • Take That!: Bengtsson detested the Nazis, which is probably the reason he included the sympathetic Jewish silversmith Salaman in the story.
  • The Three Faces of Adam: The kings Styrbjörn, Erik and Harald fills this role with Styrbjörn as the Hunter, Erik as the Lord and Harald as the Prophet. Orm laments their deaths as the strongest, the mightiest and the wisest of kings, respectively.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Orm's twin daughters Oddny and Ludmilla.
  • Wine Is Classy: Wine-drinking is the province of the widely travelled, and Olof Summerbird offers Orm wine when they first meet.
    Orm:: The sweetness is good after fat, salty sausage... though I think I prefer ale.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Or rather Swedish. Averted, since while Bengtsson wrote in the style of the sagas, he consciously used the formal academic grammar and spelling of the early 20th century that he had assimilated and become a master of. Ironically, the impact of the book was so big that most Swedish authors that set out to write historical fiction emulate him. Even if they know that it's anachronistic, and especially if they try to avoid it.