Original review, posted April 2012
So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning.
Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something.
Whatever, moving on.
So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens.
Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story.
So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally.
Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!
And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude.
An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird.
Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.
*Update, Jan 2015:
Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves. For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)
In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!
After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.
I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.
I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.
But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.