The Eaters of the Dead - by Michael Crichton
"A fastidious Arab is drafted on a mission with stinky, smelly Vikings"
Ever read Beowulf? You know, the oldest piece of Western literature? No big deal if you haven’t—but you should read Eaters of the Dead (also sold as The Thirteenth Warrior after the movie with Antonio Banderas) by Michael Crichton. This is the tale of Beowulf, but told from the perspective of an overly perceptive and somewhat fastidious Arab, who has been taken against his will to become the thirteenth in a band of stinky, smelly Vikings on a mission.
Ibn Fadlan, the narrator of this surprisingly fast-paced tale, is based on an actual Arab traveler who recorded some of his observations about the Norse people around 900 A.D. In fact, the first three chapters of the book are taken directly from actual historical documents written by Fadlan. But then Michael Crichton, that beloved creator Jurassic Park, takes some liberty with the plot. Fadlan, who has been sent on a mission of diplomacy by his Caliph in Baghdad, is taken captive by the group of “Northmen” he is staying with. The leader of the group, Buliwyf, has been called to relieve the kingdom of his childhood of a terrible evil that has befallen it. Eleven of his warriors volunteer to accompany him to battle, and a soothsayer conveniently decrees that Ibn Fadlan must become the thirteenth of their merry band. Fadlan is none too pleased about this, as he is openly critical of the Northern view that death is to be celebrated. However, he really has no choice, and so he is dragged along, armed only with his keen skills of observation and a sense for the dramatic. The story of Beowulf unfolds, but instead of being sung by an ancient bard, it is told by an outsider looking in.
As the mystery of the scourge in Buliwyf’s homeland is slowly revealed to Ibn Fadlan and to the reader, we get a lot of Fadlan’s anthropological recordings about Norse culture and tradition. There’s a particularly appetizing passage about the hygiene habits of Vikings, and interspersed throughout the novel are brief descriptions of one warrior or another “enjoying” a slave girl at any given moment, be it in the middle of digging a ditch or attending a banquet. Fadlan’s Arab refinement is offended by such goings on, and he is clear about his disdain. But rather than making the novel merely odd and a little gross, the result is a believable work of fiction. Reading the book, you’re constantly wondering, “Is this for real?” You can delude yourself into thinking that the entire novel is an actual manuscript, which is no small feat, given the progression of weirdness that begins to emerge soon after the warriors begin their journey.
If you’ve already read Beowulf, Eaters of the Dead or The Thirteenth Warrior is entertaining and a bit more thrilling than the original, even though it is written in an odd 20th century imitation of a 10th century style (there are lots of “It was as follows” and “Here is what occurred”s). And if you’ve yet to read the classic epic, Eaters of the Dead won’t hurt if you want to understand what’s happening in the poem. All in all, it’s a good read, and you might actually be able to learn something in the process.