Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eaters of the Dead

In the afterword of Eaters of the Dead, published in 1976, author Michael Crichton explains that the book was conceived on a dare. A friend proposed to teach a college course called "The Great Bores," based on the essential writings of western civilization. His friend asserted that these texts were so tedious that no one willingly read them anymore, and the first of the great bores he would address was the epic poem Beowulf. Crichton disagreed, arguing that Beowulf was an exciting, dramatic story and he could prove it.

Crichton began working from the assumption that Beowulf, like other epic poems and pieces of mythology, may have some basis in fact. By peeling away the poetic invention and embellishment of hundreds of years of oral retelling, Crichton suggests that we may return to a kernel of human experience. The result is a modern psuedo-historical fantasy about the original events that inspired the story of Beowulf.

But Crichton refuses to let on. He enhances his illusion by writing the novel from the point of view of a comtemporary eye witness of the events. Rather than inventing this person, the author goes further by "discovering " the eyewitness narrative in the manuscript of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab sent by the Caliph of Bagdad in the year 921 as part of an embassy to the Volga Bulgars. His account of the journey provides one of the earliest descriptions of Vikings.

Crichton begins his book with an introduction intended to familiarize the reader with all of the many translations of Ibn Faldlan's manuscript, along with their backgrounds and respective merits. So convincing is Crichton's invention that I found myself completely perplexed as to what was true and what was not. And lest his readers begin to suspect something, Crichton makes sure to fill his entire book with lengthy footnotes to further legitimize the narrative.

The story begins with Ibn Fadlan's aformentioned mission to northwest Russia. Upon encountering a band of Northmen, he is forced to join them in a quest to destroy a myserious scourge of mist monsters terrorizing the their homeland. These Wendol, as the Northmen call them, turn out to be a surviving relict of Neanderthals who feed on the flesh of their victims (which is far more interesting than the cave people of the film adaptation, The 13th Warrior) .

As an Arab during the 10th century, when the civilization of Islam was by far the most advanced culture on Earth, Ibn Fadlan's perspective serves as an ideal doorway for the modern reader to enter this strange world of Vikings. His descriptions of the lands, people and cultures are detailed and vivid. The reader immediately shares his horror and disgust with the vulgar and barbaric world of the Northmen.
Never did I see a people so gigantic: they are tall as Palm trees and florid and ruddy in complexion... They are the filthiest race that God ever created. They do not wipe themselves after going to stool, or wash themselves after a nocturnal pollution, any more than if they were wild asses... Now it happened that this Buliwyf, who was drunk as the rest, commanded that I should sing a song for them. He was most insistent. Not wishing to anger him, I recited from the Koran with the translator repeating my words in their Norse tongue. I was received no better than their own minstrel, and afterward I asked the forgiveness of Allah for the treatment of His holy words, and also for the translation, which I sensed to be thoughtless, for in truth the translator himself was drunk.
Despite his role as a simple chronicler, Ibn Fadlan emerges as a real character. In the course of the story, he grows from a pampered and fearful ambassador to a courageous warrior willing to fight to the death for his Norse companions. More subtle and interesting is the way he begins to embrace their way of life during his journey.
The plot moves at a brisk pace without feeling shallow. And in only 250 pages, Crichton manages produce equal amounts of action, suspense, horror as well as humor and genuine sorrow. All told, Eaters of the Dead is a clever and thoroughly enjoyable adventure story that I highly recommend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your review sounds so interesting that it will be my next book to check out at the library. Have you seen the movie Beowulf & Grendel? Not to be mistaken with the Angelina Joli Film, it is the one with Gerard Butler, Anglina's sexually attractive male opposite. Very good movie, highly enjoyable, good acting and visually appealing to watch(kidding on the last one-or am I?)