Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Eaters of the Dead: A review

Given my huge love of fantasy in general, and viking/dark age-influenced tales in particular, you would think that the 13th Warrior, the film upon which Michael Crichton's fine novel, Eaters of the Dead, is based, would be a personal favorite of mine. It is not. But of Crichton's work I am most definitely a huge fan.

Eaters of the Dead is a retelling of the supposedly authentic travels of an Arab, Ibn Fadlan, and his experiences among the Northmen circa 922 A.D. Several reviews state that much of Eaters is fiction; I myself thought as much after noting both the quality of the narrative and two much more obvious clues: The fact that the book is marked "fiction" on its cover, and the inclusion of The Necronomicon as one of the general reference works listed among its sources. But apparently Fadlan is a real figure from history who did spend time among the vikings as an ambassador.

Regardless of its authenticity, Eaters is a terrific read, made all the more compelling by Crichton's skillful "adaptation" of Fadlan's journal. The viking culture among which Fadlan finds himself is dirty, bloody, and graphic, but oddly appealing if you're a fan of orgies, death-duels, and animal (and occasionally human) sacrifices. These are laid out before the reader without judgment, with only Fadlan's disgust serving as a moral compass. Yet the incredible heroism of the Northmen shines through, as Crichton portrays them as unwaveringly honest and possessed of a steadfast and admirable belief in a warrior's code. Though he's at first appalled and disgusted by the rude, uncivilized behavior of the northmen, Fadlan learns to love their bravery and even comes to embrace their culture.

Fadlan is taken in by the Northmen and becomes an unwilling participant in their mission to save a viking tribe from the attacks of the mist-people, otherwise known as the eaters of the dead. In a scene with strong parallels to Beowulf, Fadlan experiences a terrifying night raid by the mist-people in the hall of Rothgar, the Northmen king. The mist-people, which appear as hairy, brutish monsters, are later revealed to be some form of surviving Neanderthal tribe, wielding stone axes and wearing animal pelts. Though it sounds silly, I found that this explanation added even more realism, and Crichton in the afterword makes a convincing case that perhaps Neanderthal man existed long past his presumed extinction date (commonly believed as 20,000-30,000 B.C).

Later, Fadlan and a small band of northmen led by Buliwyf (read--Beowulf), a mighty warrior, undertake a perilous journey to the home of the mist-people to slay their wendol-mother and stop the source of the attacks.

Equally or even more so than the fun story it tells, I found Eaters of the Dead a fantastic read due to its examination of viking culture, religion, and philosophy. And its eminently quoteable, too. Following are some of my favorites:

The deeds of dead men are sung, and also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men.

There is too much that man does not know. And what man does not know, that is the province of the Gods.

Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears drowning and another fears a close space; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. This fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear.

Praise not the day until evening has come; a woman until she is burnt; a sword until it is tried; a maiden until she is married; ice until it has been crossed; beer until it has been drunk.

A hero's great challenge is in the heart, and not in the adversary.

And finally, when Fadlan tells Buliwyf that that he is afraid, the latter replies, That is because you think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever.


Falze said...

I was still trying to figure out what was going on at the beginning of 13th warrior and who everyone was when it was suddenly over. What a horrible, horrible movie.

Brian Murphy said...

Yeah, while I don't consider the 13th Warrior a horrible movie, I found it a very forgettable one. The book was far, far better. Having read Eaters of the Dead first, I was disappointed to say the least after watching what they did with the movie.

It's funny, some people swear by The 13th Warrior, but I think it's quite overrated.

Falze said...

See, you already knew what was going on because you read the book. Without that you have no way of knowing what's happening from one moment to the next. I still don't even know what the guy was even doing there.

Badelaire said...

Ehhh, it wasn't that hard to figure out, really. This movie gets crapped on a lot, but I give it more credit than that. If you couldn't "figure it out", I've no idea why. He made a nuisance of himself to his lord by making eyes at a lady, got banished as an "ambassador" to the men of the northlands, and while there was picked by their crone to go on a journey with 12 other badasses to defeat an ancient evil. How was that not easy enough to pick up on?

Brooke said...

To really appreciate this movie and book, it is essential for you to enjoy adventure. My family is deeply rooted and thriving in the viking and scandanavian culture. To see such an accurate depiction of this civilization in text and in film, is genuinely moving. The accounts are remarkable and very well organized. The book as well as the movie of Eaters of the Dead will forever be a great movie without all the hype of the modern day hollywood glitz and glamour, like so many movies and fiction novels of our time. Reconsider the historical accurateness lying under the metaphors and imagery, and you will find that it is truely a fantastic combo.

Sir Timothy said...

Thank You, Brooke. People are TOO taken in by the (Jewish Lobby-controlled) Hollywood twist on too many war movies and movies supposedly based on true stories/series of events. As I take deep pride in my European blood & heritage, too, and have a been a big fan of Viking fantasy for 8 years, I found the movie--which I watched first a few times--then the book phenomenal! Of course, the book--like all--go into MUCH more detail than the movie, but the movie stays focused on the main parts and doesn't include unnecessary scenes such as the "orgy."

Indeed, minus the lack of contempt for death and senseless violence depicted which the Northmen DID possess contrary to popular belief. Honestly, the Vikings/Northmen were NOT anymore blood-thirsty than anyone else for the times, perhaps even less, and held strong values/virtues of love, respect, kindness, even hospitality! Strong Germanic values (e.g., strength, honour, honesty, loyalty, courage/valour, pride, integrity, dignity, kindness/compassion, knowledge & wisdom, etc.) existed, and thanks to science and archeology (-NOT the most accurate science in general...), it is being discovered that Southern Europe (area of Greece) was NOT the first civilization (then west, east, and finally the north); rather, the NORTH was, then the east/west, and finally the south. (Stonehenge is often referenced for this fact.)

Anyway, The 13th Warrioris my favourite movie of all time (though a friend of similar mentality/beliefs/values/etc. is HIGHLY recommending Valhalla Rising which could replace it...!), followed by The Last Samurai (another movie of amazingly ACCURATE depiction of Samurai culture in XVIIIth/XIXth centuries), and I will NEVER compensate. (If You want an INaccurate Viking movie, seek out Pathfinder which is entertaining but should stop there.) And, of course, the book is even better!!