In which the hero, Red Orm, adventures and swashbuckles through assorted lands, returning home to cement his legacy. The Long Ships is the English collected version of Frans G Bengtsson’s Röde Orm sagas, the first volume of which was published in Sweden in 1941.
I first read this in 2013, but have been thinking about it recently because of the brouhaha over the supposed Viking “Allah” textile. Earlier this month, a mildly interesting news story broke of research claiming that Viking burial clothes unearthed in Birka, Sweden, which supposedly had the name of Allah woven into the fabric. (The altright and their far right chums went nuts: “how dare you say all Vikings were Muslims” etc.)
The research was debunked in an illuminating tweet thread by Stephennie Mulder, a Professor of Islamic Art. (Again, the altright/far right went nuts: “see, this proves there were no Muslim Vikings” etc.)
So, Red Orm. In the early part of the saga, as a youth in Skania, he’s captured by Vikings, who are in turn captured by Andalusian Muslims. After a few gruelling years as galley slaves the Vikings eventually become bodyguards to Almansur, the de facto ruler of the Cordovan Caliphate.
During this time, Orm assumes leadership of the Norsemen largely due to the fact that he’s the first to learn the Arabic spoken by their masters, and thus the conduit of all communication between the groups:
Orm always afterwards used to say that, after good luck, strength, and skill at arms, nothing was so useful to a man who found himself among foreigners as the ability to learn a language.
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58
When Almansur asks if Orm and his men will worship Allah, the Skanian responds with calm practicality. In the gloss given to his men, Orm adds that conversion will earn them better treatment, that going against their lord’s wishes wouldn’t be a smart move, and that that they can quit worshipping the foreign god when they return home. He puts a different slant on it for Almansur, but one that’s equally pragmatic and no less honest:
“We men of the north do not worship our gods except in time of necessity, for we think it foolish to weary them with babbling… Perchance it may be that our gods wield but little power in this land; therefore, lord, I for my part shall willingly obey your command and worship your God while I am your servant.”
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58
Later in the saga, Red Orm converts to Christianity, again for practical reasons. But it takes a while to win him over. The process starts in the first volume and isn’t concluded until the second:
“St. Finian’s bell helped you, too,” said the monk; “and now that you have seen what the saints can do, even for heathens, would it not be a wise thing for you to start believing in God and become Christians?”
Orm said that he had not given the matter much consideration and that he did not think there was any urgency about deciding.
– I. The Long Voyage, p99
So at different times, Red Orm is a Norse pagan, a Muslim, and a Christian. (Noah Harari notes in Sapiens how polytheists have no issue with incorporating monotheistic deities into their worship, believing every situation calls for its own god.) Certainly the reader always feels that Orm treats these religions with a non-nonsense cynicism, and in every case he approaches his worship in a fair dealing spirit. When he converts to Christianity, he gives “a large sum for the protection and luck that I expect to receive”.
Stephennie Mulder started her epic ‘Allah textile’ debunkening by noting that the Vikings had “rich contacts w/Arab world”. Later – it’s an x/60 thread, folks – she underlines the importance of getting such a story, however niche, correct in the current policitical climate. The Islamophobes hopping onto the thread, obviously, crowed about “lies” and “propaganda” from those famous bedfellows/co-conspirators, academia and the mainstream media.
Because the knowledge and painstaking research of specialist professors is nothing compared to the unshakeable certainty of one who has watched Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings” (and who will no doubt simply rewatch “Spartacus” if they ever need to dismiss Mary Beard’s in-depth knowledge of the Roman Empire).
The Long Ships has long been praised for its historical and indeed historiographical (um wait while I look that up) accuracy. And since it was published in 1941, I think we can safely discount the possibility of it being a propaganda ploy of the SJWs. The knowledge of Viking ties to the Arab world, and even the notion of Vikings converting to Islam (#notallvikings) is old news.
Old news or not, The Long Ships is a blast. Röde Orm (orm = serpent) himself is an enduring hero: canny, witty, and wise, his bravery never outstripping his common sense or ship-smarts. It’s a fun, wry read, with the worst of its scorn reserved for literary folk, Orm knowing enough about men not to argue with poets concerning their respective merits.
He would have hated Twitter.