Book Review: Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

In a note at the end of this book Crichton explains that the origins of this novel come from an argument and a dare made with a friend, a lecturer, who believed that several of the old classic texts he taught were utterly tedious and only continued to be read by academics because they were viewed as “crucial to Western civilization”. One of the stories mentioned was the epic poem Beowulf, which Crichton defended and decided to turn into a novel, which would still sell and be enjoyed.

Quick recap for those who don’t know the Beowulf story- Beowulf was a great Scandinavian warrior, who comes to the aid of a king who has built a great hall which is routinely attacked and threatened by Grendel, a troll-like creature which slays and eats many of the king’s men. Beowulf arrives and battles Grendel, in hand-to-hand combat, he tears off Grendel’s arm and Grendel dies shortly after. Beowulf then hangs the arm from the rafters as a grisly trophy and, as they say in Monty Python- There was much rejoicing.

However, Grendel’s mother is understandably angry about her boy’s untimely demise and attacks in revenge. Beowulf, armed with a mythical sword apparently wielded by the giants, tracks Grendel’s mother to her lair where he engages in furious combat, finally slaying the beast.

There’s a third part set when Beowulf is an old king and a dragon menaces his land, Beowulf throws down with it, but outmatched and past his prime suffers a mortal wound while defeating it.

Crichton’s novel works backwards, following the theory that often legends are based on real events which through retelling, time and inaccurate translations have become exaggerated myths. From this he sets up an interesting novel which follows the pattern and general outline of the story, but also demystifies the story slightly.

The story is narrated by Ibn Fadlan, a true historical figure, an Arab from Baghdad who traveled north and encountered vikings. The first few chapters of the book follow Ibn Fadlan’s real life of traveling but then deviates into the novel’s plot. Having met the men from the North, he witnesses a messenger arrive to plead with the warrior Buliwyf to come help them against a mysterious foe. Buliwyf accepts the quest and he and 11 warriors will leave, however, the viking’s sort of priestess decrees that 13 must go, due to the number being regarded as lucky in their culture, and that the last man must be different from the rest. So it is that Ibn Fadlan is enlisted as the final member of the expedition and they set off.

They find the great hall menaced by the “wendol” a mysterious race of savages who strike from the mists and devour the flesh of their victims. In the initial confrontation with them some of Buliwyf’s warriors fall but they repel the attack, during which Buliwyf cuts off one of the enemy’s arms. Can Buliwyf and his men truly defeat the wendol, even if it means descending in to face their leader, “the mother” a priestess who commands them.

Its a really interesting way of approaching the story, and it actually kind of works. Crichton goes to great pains to make Ibn Fadlan’s account seem realistic, including adding pedantic and fictitious footnotes, its a great way of telling the story as well, using an actual historical figure to ground the entire narrative and using an outsider’s manuscript gives us more of an insight into the viking world as the narrator is noticing and explaining the things he sees in a way that a native wouldn’t.

It also helps that our narrator is not a brave man, or at least, not a warrior like his hosts, allowing a genuine dread to creep in as the wendol emerge. Ibn Fadlan is a wonderful character, a rather uptight, fastidious man who finds himself in a culture devoted to the physical aspects of life- brawling, shagging and drinking. On both sides there is confusion and curiosity about the other culture’s habits and traditions, and this clash of cultures adds another human aspect to the story.

The book probably works better if you’re aware of the legend, but I think even for the uninitiated it should work as a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn. Some of the characters could do with being fleshed out a bit, but it kind of fits with Ibn Fadlan’s narration as he’s more concerned in recounting the events and his own experiences, and also due to the cultural differences between him and the vikings its understandable that he wouldn’t have that much of an insight into them.

Its been adapted into a film, The 13th Warrior, which is quite fun, but rather embarrassingly it was only on my second or third viewing of the movie that I finally got that it was the Beowulf story.

But that’s the difference between the page and the screen. In the book its more of an exercise as Crichton tries to win his argument with his friend and demystifies the story, whereas the film makes the Ibn Fadlan a more proactive hero figure and dwells less on the connections to the myths, in a way having more in common with The Magnificent Seven.

That makes it sound a bit academic, but its really a rather fun, gripping page turner and at under 200 pages it makes a very enjoyable quick read.

The explanation for what the wendol may be is also a rather neat touch, and introduced in a clever, well thought out way.

Verdict: A short, but enjoyable retelling of the classic legend which is written with great intelligence. Crichton manages to turn the legend into a more realistic story while still retaining the heroism and engaging battles. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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2 Comments on “Book Review: Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton”

  1. Reblogged this on A Heathen's Path and commented:
    Nice review of one of my favorite book/movie combos.


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