The Long Ships

The Long Ships

"The Long Ships" or "Red Orm" (original Swedish "Röde Orm") is a best-selling Swedish novel written by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson 1894-1954. The novel is divided into two parts, published in 1941 and 1945, with two books each.

It is one of the most widely read books in Sweden, topping the charts of most loaned books at Swedish libraries for many years. The first part was translated to English by Barrows Mussey as "Red Orm" in 1943, but later editions and newer translations by Michael Meyer use the title "The Long Ships".

The book has been translated into at least 20 languages: Afrikaans, Croatian, Czech, Danish, English, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, Vietnamese.

The language of the novel is modeled on the Norse sagas, making the best of its faculties for wisecracks and comic understatements, and historic names, people and events are woven into the fiction. Bengtsson might also have had some influence from Eric Linklater's "The Men of Ness", which book he had translated into Swedish in 1933. The 1963 Anglo-Yugoslavian movie "The Long Ships" is loosely based on the book.

The Swedish writer Sven Stolpe reports that somebody asked author Bengtsson "what intentions he had with The Long Ships." To which Bengtsson responded that he had no particular intentions. "I just wanted to write a story that people could enjoy to read, like the Three Musketeers or the Odyssey."


The book is set in the late 10th century and follows the adventures of Orm ("serpent"), called "Red" for his hair (and his temper), a native of Scania. The story portrays the political situation of Europe in the later Viking Age, Andalusia under Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, Denmark under Harold Bluetooth, followed by the struggle between Eric the Victorious and Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, Ireland under Brian Boru, England under Ethelred the Unready, the Battle of Maldon, all before the backdrop of the gradual Christianisation of Scandinavia, contrasting the pragmatic Norse pagan outlook with Islam and Christianity.

Plot summary

;Book 1The first book covers the years 982 to 990. Orm as a youth is taken captive by a Viking party stealing provisions at Skåne, returning from an unprofitable campaign among the Wends. The party consists of three ships, some 180 men, led by Krok. Orm is accepted as a crew member, and they sail south, along the coast of the Frankish Empire. At an encounter with a party of Danes from Jutland, they collect an escaped prisoner, Salaman, an Andalusian Jew. Salaman guides them to the castle of the Castilian Margrave who had betrayed him. The Vikings sack the castle and take the spoils to the ships, Salaman returning to his own land. As they sail off, they are attacked and defeated by an Andalusian fleet, and Orm together with Krok and seven others are captured and made slaves.

They serve as galley slaves for more than two years, during which time Orm becomes left-handed (due to his position on the rowing bench), and Krok dies killing their hated supervisor. Thanks to the intervention of Salaman, the surviving eight Norsemen are made members of the slave-bodyguard of Al-Mansur. They nominally convert to Islam and take part in Al-Mansur's campaigns in the Marca Hispanica for four years. Raiding Iria Flavia, the burial place of St. James, Al-Mansur charges the Norsemen with shipping the captured bell of the Christian church back to Cordova. On their way back, they encounter and slay the killers of Krok, and are forced to flee Andalusia, taking the bell with them. They cross to Ireland, and learning that Brian Boru had gained the upper hand over the Norse there, continue directly to the court of Harold Bluetooth.

Harald had recently converted to Christianity, and they present him with the bell of St. James, upon which Harold invites them to celebrate Yule with him. Both Orm and his friend Toke are wounded in duels during Yule. After reconvalescence, during which he meets Ylva, daughter of Harold, and presents her with a golden necklace given to him by Al-Mansur, Orm returns to Skåne. Toke abducts an Andalusian slave-concubine of Harald's and continues back home to Blekinge.

;Book 2After King Harald dies in exile, and Styrbjörn the Strong in the Battle of the Fýrisvellir (moved to 991 in the book, historically probably taking place a few years before), Orm joins a Viking party raiding England under Thorkell the High, participating in the Battle of Maldon. The Norsemen set siege to the church of Maldon, and after negotiation with two English bishops agree to accept payment of Danegeld. The chieftains agree to be baptized, and travel to London for the occasion. Orm, having learned that Harald's daughter Ylva is staying in London, agrees to baptism, and Poppo, former bishop of Harald, joins them in Christian matrimony. Orm, Ylva, one-eyed Rapp and the priest Willibald leave London for Denmark, and collect the necklace Ylva had hidden in Jellinge, now Sweyn's stronghold. Sweyn's men discover them, and fleeing, Willibald wounds Sweyn with a stone throw.

;Book 3Fearing Sweyn's revenge, Orm moves to a neglected farm, his mother's inheritance in Göinge, northern Skåne, near the border with Småland. During the following years (992 to 995), Orm prospers , and Ylva gives birth to twin girls (Oddny and Ludmilla), a son, Harald, and later to another son, Svarthövde (Blackhair in the Michael Meyer translation). Orm beats off a treacherous attack sponsored by Sweyn, and Willibald advises against killing the surviving attackers, forcing them to be baptised instead. At the thing between the men of Göinge, Värend and Finnveden, Orm renews his friendship with Toke who has gained wealth as a fur trader in Värend. Rainald, a Christian priest who had come to the thing with Orm to be exchanged for a priest enslaved by the Värenders, disrupts a fertility ceremony, causing the death of a priest of Frey. He is given to the women of Värend as recompense.

;Book 4The year 1000 passes without Christ returning. In 1007, with Orm now forty-two, Orm's brother Are returns from the east, blind, mute and mutilated. He succeeds in telling of his fate with the help of runes: He had left Skåne in 978 and served in the Varangian guard of Basil II. Are participated in raid on a Bulgar castle at the mouths of the Danube with the aim of capturing the gold treasure of the Bulgar king. The emperor's treasurer made away with the gold, heading for Kiev, and Are pursued him. He succeeded to recapture the gold and hide it in the Dniepr, at the cataracts south of Kiev, but was later caught and mutilated, and with much luck made his way home to Denmark. Orm decides to travel to the Kievan Rus for the gold, and together with Toke and Värend chieftain Olof (after the latter is promised Orm's daughter Ludmilla upon their return) mans a ship. They travel via Visby, reaching the Dniepr via the Daugava and Beresina. They find the treasure, but are attacked by Pechenegs, and Orm's son Svarthövde is captured. Orm pays a high ransom, but enough of the treasure remains to liberally reward his entire crew. They return to Skåne safely, just four days after Orm's farm had been attacked by outlaws led by the former priest Rainald, abducting Ludmilla and other women. Orm heads a punitive expedition, the women are freed and Olof slays Rainald. Following this, Orm and Toke live in peace in good neighborhood, and Svarthövde Ormsson becomes a famous Viking, fighting for Canute the Great. The story ends with the statement that Orm and Toke in their old age "did never tire of telling of the years when they had rowed the Caliph's ship and served my lord Al-Mansur."


Orm and his family

Orm ("Orm" is the swedish word for "Snake") is the protagonist of the book, the youngest son of a rich and noble bond. He is also a descendant of King Ivar Vidfamne, a fact that he is very proud of. Orm is called "red" for his hair color. In the beginning of book one, he is still almost a child, but as his adventures continue, his strength grows, and even at the age of 41 we see him killing two berserks single-handedly. However, it is not his strength that leads him to victory most of the time but his intelligence, resourcefulness, courage and willpower. We see that in his fight against Sittiurg, his negotiations in London and many other occasions. Orm has a very sharp mind and is willing to learn even in difficult situations. For example, when he was a slave on a galley, he did not waste his time, and started learning Arabic, which proved to be very useful in the future and ultimately rescued him and his friends from slavery. Orm is rather patient for a Viking, but is very dangerous when angry. He has a great sense of humor and is gifted in poetry.

Odd is Orm's older brother. Odd is tall, tough and thoughtful in speech. He loves sailing and pillaging and can hardly wait to get out to sea during winter, which leaves him in bad mood in that time of year, and leads to many conflicts between him and his mother. When Orm comes back home from Spain, he learns that Odd died in his journeys.

Are is Orm's other brother. In his youth, he made a woman pregnant while her husband was away, which caused a lot of noise in the neighbourhood and made his father pay out sizeable reparations. Many people laughed at him because of that, so he grew moody, and finally killed one man, who was laughing louder than others, and left home to go to some place where nobody knows about him. He and Orm meet in Book 4, when Are comes back fron Constantinople, blind, tongueless and missing his right hand. Despite that Orm finds a rather elaborate way for them to communicate and Are tells him the secret of Bulgarian Gold.

Toste is Orm's father. He is a rather wealthy man and a fine sailor, who would rather die fighting, than "die on straw like a dog". He makes regular summer raids to Ireland. Just like Odd, he dies before Orm comes back home from Spain.

Åsa is Orm's mother. She is a strong woman and manages their family house well. She can be difficult sometimes, but she is a very caring and understanding mother.

Ylva, King Harald Bluetooth's daughter, is a beautiful young woman, ardent and passionate. Like Åsa, she can be difficult sometimes, but falls in love with Orm and after many trials of fate, they get married.

Ludmilla is one of Orm's twin daughters. Like her father she has red hair, and, like her mother, is playful and adventurous.

Odni, the other of Orm's twin daughters. Although she has red hair too, she is a very calm and polite person, unlike her sister.

Harald, Orm's son, is named after Ylva's father, Harald Bluetooth.

Svarthövde (Blackhair) is Orm's other son. He goes with Orm to find the Bulgarian Gold. In Book 3 it is implied that Ylva had an affair with the renegade Christian priest Rainald, who also had black hair, further implying (though not clearly) that Rainald fathered Svarthövde. He later joined his cousin King Canute in the battle of Holy River.

Orm's friends

Toke is Orm's best friend. Although he lacks Orm's intelligence, he makes up for it with his great strength and superior fighting skills, due to which he defeats many fearsome enemies. He is also a good poet, composing poems at will. He is very cheerful and never loses his good spirits, even when enslaved on a galley he sings humorous songs daily. He loves to have a drink, which gets him into many troubles throughout the novel, since even he admits that "beer makes him a different man, and wine does that too". Toke is courageous and daring, and sometimes he acts without thinking about consequences, when for example he steals one of King Harald Bluetooth's women, an Andalusian girl named Mirah.

One-eyed Rapp is also a good friend of Orm, who lives with him in Göinge after their adventures in Spain. Rapp is a skilled craftsman and a good fighter. In battle he wields an axe like nobody else.

Krok is the leader of vikings that sailed out in the very beginning of Book One, and he is the one who raids Skåne for sheep, knocks Orm out and takes him captive, thus enlisting him in his (Krok's) crew. Krok is a huge man, who's strength is matched only by few. He is very good at speeches and always finds a way to cheer his crew up or calm them down, as circumstances dictate.

Uloff Summer Bird is a young man, who joins Orm on his quest for Bulgarian Gold. Although young, he is very rich, very intelligent and strong. In the end, he marries Ludmilla, Orm's daughter.

Salaman is a Jewish silversmith from Andalusia. Vikings rescue him during their voyage, and later he helps them by getting them out of galley enslavement.

Kings, Princes and Rulers

Harald Bluetooth, King of Danes.

Sweyn Forkbeard, the son of Bluetooth, who starts a rebellion in which he ultimately defeats his father.

Eric the Victorious, King of the Swedes.

Styrbjörn the Strong is Eric's nephew, who tried to battle his uncle, but was defeated and killed.

Al-Mansur, the Victorious, de facto ruler of Moorish Iberia, featured in Book 1.

Ethelred the Unready, King of England, featured in Book 2.


For a book written in Sweden during the Second World War — when Sweden's neighbors Denmark and Norway were occupied and quite a few Swedes tended to accommodate themselves to Nazi Germany in various ways — there was an obvious political significance to depicting a Jew as the ally and comrade in arms of Vikings, who moreover gets the Vikings to help him get revenge on gentiles who had wronged him.

In Swedish society of the 1940s, there was something a bit sensitive in acknowledging — as the book does — that Skåneland, Orm's home from which he sets out for his travels and to which he returns, was part of Denmark in the Middle Ages and until 1658. While this is an undisputed historical fact, there had been considerable attempts to obscure it following the area's incorporation in Sweden. Verify source|date=February 2008

The book is written in a strong spirit of tolerance to all religions - pagan, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. While becoming a Christian, Orm never shows any fanaticism, and is on the best of terms with Toke - a stubborn Pagan married to a Muslim wife.

ee also

* Trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks (taken by Orm in book 4)


* Norstedts (1983), ISBN 91-1-791702-6.

;English translations
*"Red Orm", Barrows Mussey (trans.), C. Scribner's sons (1943).
*"The Long Ships : A Saga of the Viking Age", Random House (1954).
*"The Long Ships", Michael Meyer (trans.), HarperCollins (1984), ISBN 0-00-612609-X.

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