Jun 3 2012

Long Journeys in Wild Lands


Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
But words of glory never die
for one who gets a good name.
-Hávámál, from The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

I saw the Rūs, who had come for trade and had camped by the river Itil. I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans, but a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones. From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth. –Ibn Fadlán, In the Land of Darkness


The Long ShipsIn the year 921 the Caliph of Baghdad, Muqtadir, sent an emissary north up the Volga river to a recently converted khan who was seeking religious instruction in his new faith, not to mention a surer alliance with his powerful southern neighbor. The emissary was Ibn Fadlán, a man who was both conscientious and devout, and perhaps also a little curious for he wrote a diary of his journey recording his impressions and what he observed of the customs of the people whose land he passed through on his way northwards towards the Bulghar khanate.

His account has been largely ignored by history since it lacks both what his contemporaries would call “wonders” (descriptions of miraculous things), and moral edifications of the kind that highlight the superiority of the faithful and the civilized over the barbarian unbelievers. It is, Ibn Fadlán’s fellow scribes might have commented, a remarkably dry and boring account of how a barbaric people lived–what they ate, how they dressed, (and an unflinching description of how, and how often, they had sex).

In other words, Ibn Fadlán was something of an anthropologist. And if it is clear that he wasn’t always best pleased with the circumstances he found himself in (“They have neither olive oil nor sesame oil; in place of these they use fish oil, so that everything they make with it smells bad.”) modern scholars are nevertheless indebted to Ibn Fadlán’s talent for observation and attention to detail.  His account is one of the few reliable primary sources  for the area and the era–for the people of the upper Volga known as the Rūs. Today, we would call them the Vikings.

Ibn Fadlán reached Kiev in 922. If he had made his journey a generation later, he might have run into someone like Red Orm, the engaging Viking chieftain  at the center of The Long Ships, the Danish historical novel by Frans. G. Bengtsson, newly resurrected from oblivion by NYRB Classics press. A stirring epic of a bygone age, The Long Ships is a remarkable portrayal of a northern Europe that is little understood–a Europe where the Roman Empire is a long ago legend, Charlemagne a living memory, and where Christianity was still a suspect new religion contending against pagan practices that have stood for thousands of years.

Orm is the youngest son of a Danish Thane who spends the long days of summer roving the sea with his ships, raiding coastal settlements as far as Ireland, before returning home at the end of the season, boats laden with plunder, ready to settle down and grow old with his wife and his family at their holding. This contentment lasts while the winter nights remain long, but eventually spring comes, the ale runs low, his wife tires of him underfoot, and the sea calls him back. And then he is gone again, taking his eldest sons with him.

But not Orm, who his mother keeps by her side for fear of a premonition she has had that he will die at sea.  Alas, like most premonitions, it is in attempting to avoid our fate that we cause it to come to pass, and thus it is with Orm (called “Red Orm” for the color of his beard and his quick temper).  The holding is attacked by a party of raiders, and Orm suffers a bit of bad luck and is wounded and captured. Thus, his mother’s vision of her youngest son lying bleeding on the deck of a ship comes true.

But Orm does not die. Instead, he recovers, and wins his place among the company that has captured him, and finds he likes the life of a Viking raider.  It is the beginning of his first long voyage, which takes Orm to the coasts of Northern France, all the way down to Cordoba, Spain, where he ends up as a galley slave before eventually winning the favor of the great Muslim general and defender of the faith, Almansur. He serves his new master well and is rewarded and is seemingly content with his new life, until fate intervenes again and sends Orm back to the North, this time with his own commandeered ships and treasures. He ends up at the court of the Danish King Harald Bluetooth, and earns his favor by proving to be a good fighter, a good storyteller, not to mention a man who happened to carry stolen holy relics in his commandeered ship that were able to cure the king’s debilitating toothache. Orm almost undoes all this goodwill by falling for the King’s daughter, but fate intervenes again, and he escapes Harald’s wrath to return home a rich man, ten years after he was first spirited away.

And that was his first voyage. There are three others.

The Long Ships is high adventure of the kind that earn novelists like Patrick O’Brian and Dorothy Dunnett such fanatical, devoted followings. Panoramic and almost ballad-like in its language, it gives no quarter to the eager reader but simply sets him down on the deck of a Viking ship to see for himself–just as Ibn Fadlán had done so many years before. It is with the almost innocent eyes of a company of Viking raiders that we see the powers that be at work in the world:

Of Christianity, which is making headway in the north, they have only the vaguest notions: “Orm said that he had heard that the dead man had been nailed to a tree, as the sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks had done in the old days with the chief priest of England. But how they could continue to regard him as a god after the Jews had killed him, none of them could understand; for obviously no true God could be killed by men.

Of struggles for territory among distant kings, they have a kind of fatalistic acceptance that this is how it has been and will always be: “Here ancient crosses were constantly to be seen on promontories and at river mouths, but even more frequent were pikes with bearded heads set on them, to signify that the rulers of that land had no desire to welcome seamen from their own northern climes upon their coasts.” Orm on seeing them commented that “he would bear in mind, when he got home, this idea of putting heads on poles, for they would make fine scarecrows to protect his sheep.” His fellow sailors find this funny.

In fact, one of the best things about The Long Ships is its forthright, irrepressible humor, which in turn often cloaks a kind of sad wisdom that shores up the story. One of Orm’s shipmates, for example, chose a life on the sea to escape a shrewish wife. He is called Berse the Wise, because he is the most patient man among the company.

Such brief quick moments of clarity often catch the reader by surprise–unexpected in a story that has maintained tone of a poet singing for his supper. (The author modeled the narrative on the some of the smaller Icelandic sagas called “pættir.”) We forget that this is no fairy-tale or legend until we are suddenly brought up short by a quick portrait of real human agony, such as one man’s last-ditch revenge on the man who has enslaved him, or the sudden scene of the birth of a deep friendship–such as the argument Orm has with a Christian priest who is treating him for an injury. The priest is abrasive, Orm is hypochondriac, and the two manage to earn each other’s respect in that contrary way that would have every woman from Denmark to Japan shaking their heads and thinking “men.” When Orm thanks the priest for not trying to convert him while he is treating him, the priest answers that Orm is not worth the bother: “the grown men of this country are veritable apostles of Satan…no redemption can suffice to wipe away such vileness as their souls are stained with. Of this I am sure, for I know them well; therefore I do not waste my time trying to convert such men as you.

Orm, who has served under an Islamic master and bowed towards Mecca five times a day at his insistence, once again finds this funny. He is of a pragmatic bent when it comes to religion, his big complaint with Islam being its ban on alcohol, and he is perfectly willing to turn Christian when he realizes it will allow him to marry his lady. Brother Willeford, who finds one of his few joys in life in abusing the men of this wild north land as the spawns of Satan, chooses to follow Orm and his newlywed wife deep into the borderlands, even taking up arms on their behalf. (Well, he throws a rock at a pursuer–but his aim is excellent).

So there is a strong element of parody in the book, but an equally strong sense of affection, and even patriotism. The Long Ships was first published in Sweden in 1941, under the title Roede Orm, sjoefararae i vaesterled (Red Orm on the Western Way).  It quickly became a national bestseller, Red Orm a kind of Danish and Swedish Davy Crockett–a portrait of the best of the character of the men of the north. The War prevented the book reaching a wider European audience–Bengtsson himself blocked the translation of the book into Norweigan while the country was under Nazi occupation, and it wasn’t until after his death that the book was finally translated into English, in 1955. But it has never lost its popularity in its own country, and is sometimes credited with sparking the resurging interest in Viking culture and lore. That it has not become better known in the English-speaking world–where we idolize authors like JRR Tolkien–is something of a mystery. Bengtsson is a far better storyteller. Plus, when his characters break into poetry and song, they keep it short. And he never subjects the reader to long passages in made up languages.

A strange and exotic story of a long lost time, full of battles and duels, treasure-ships and kingly feasts, strange pagan practices and absurd theological arguments, and vivid pictures of the real costs of war, The Long Ships is a mesmerizing tale, where the high drama comes not from some high quest or pursuit of a noble cause (no Holy Grails to be found in these northern lands, no crusades are wielded on its shores, no evil lords are challenged or defeated), but simply from the steadfast resolution of a man determined to win his way through what the fates throw at him, while retaining his honor, securing his fortune, and claiming his place for his family and his home.

When the story opens, Orm is watching his restless father sail off onto a summer sea, a man never truly content in any one place. But not so his son, who travels much further than his father ever will. Orm has seen the sands of Spain, the cliffs of Ireland, and the stones of Kiev. He has drawn his sword in many battles in many distant lands, and defended many different kings, and many different kinds of ladies. But in the end is what he most wants is to defend his own wife and own hearth.

Praise the day at evening; a wife, when she’s been burnt;
a sword, which it’s been tested; a maid, when she’s
been wed;
ice, when it’s crossed over; ale, when it’s drunk down.

Cut wood on a windy day, row to sea in fine weather,
murmur to friends in the darkness: many are the
eyes of day;
ask swiftness of a ship, protection from a shield,
sharpness from a sword, kisses from a girl.

Drink ale by the fireside, slide on ice,
buy a mount lean and a sword-blade bloody,
fatten a horse at home and a hound in the house.

-Hávámál, from The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

Books mentioned in this column:

The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, translated and edited by Andy Orchard (Penguin, 2011)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, translated with an introduction by Paul Lunde and Carolina Stone (Penguin, 2012)

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, translated by Michael Meyer (NYRB, 2010)