Issue #259 – Eaters of the Dead

If I review an author twice, it’s probably with good reason, and not just because I’m a fan. Either I’m looking at their early work vs. their late work, how they built upon early success with a follow-up novel, or, in this case, how they attempted something I’d never seen before.

This is a review of what might be my favorite “What if?” novel.

Most of Michael Crichton’s books are of the “What if?” variety. What if we could bring dinosaurs back from extinction? What if we could time travel? What if an alien virus infected the Earth? In the case of Eaters of the Dead (sometimes published as The 13th Warrior because of the movie) the question is: What if the epic poem of Beowulf was based on something that actually happened?

That alone is an intriguing concept. There are a number of stories that, while fictional, have some kind of tie to an actual event, but ends up being exaggerated over time. Nobody would suggest The Iliad is a true story—but there was a city of Troy and it was sacked by the Greeks, and Heinrich Schliemann did find it thanks in part to the details given in the story. Wouldn’t it be interesting if an impartial witness had been there to see what actually happened, and perhaps note the events that, over time, would become the myth we now know?

That’s the approach Eaters of the Dead takes, though it’s hardly new. There have been plenty of re-imaginings of myth and legend asking that same “What if?” question, and weaving a tale in a realistic (or quasi-realistic) manner.

What makes this book stand out, however, is that it starts out as a true story.

We first have to start by talking about the protagonist. If we are to have an impartial witness to the events that will someday become Beowulf, we need to have a character who is trustworthy, whose account is written with an eye on accuracy rather than embellishment. Enter Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, who in 921 AD traveled north of Baghdad into what is now Russia and came into contact with a group of Vikings. This is one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Viking life and culture.

Ibn Fadlan was a real person. He was an educated man. A bureaucrat in the Caliph of Bagdad’s court who later became an ambassador. It’s the kind of background that’s perfect to take as a credible witness.

The first three chapters of the novel are (“with only slight modifications” in Crichton’s words) taken directly from this man’s account of his journey into the North, his encounter with the Vikings and witnessing a Viking ship burial. That, to me, is an inspired approach—start off with an essentially true story to lure the reader’s suspension of disbelief into to a cunning trap.

From that point on, he takes over the tone and style of Ibn Fadlan and weaves a fictional account of how he joins these Vikings on their journey, and ends up facing a terrible and ancient terror—something suitably fantastical that it could give rise to the myth of Beowulf.

And yet… not so fantastical that it’s impossible. We’re sometimes surprised to find how things we thought were long dead persisted into surprisingly recent times. The coelacanth was thought to be long extinct only to be rediscovered, and the woolly mammoth still roamed the earth when the pyramids were being built in Egypt.

To me, this is one of Crichton’s better novels. I’ve always felt that he was a great weaver of plot with factual details—given how his books tend to have bibliographies in them this is hardly surprising—but his characters tend to be weak and sometimes two-dimensional. He also has a problem with endings in my opinion. Eaters of the Dead, however, plays into his strengths, and he does manage to capture Ibn Fadlan’s voice and carry it throughout the rest of the book, giving it a different tone compared to most of his work.

This isn’t the kind of “What if?” story that is trying to suggest to the reader that it might actually be true. For one thing, Ibn Fadlan’s journey to the North is probably over a hundred years too late given when most historians believe the Beowulf story originated (though, to be fair, nobody really knows for sure when it was first told, because it began its life in the oral tradition long before it was ever written down).

It is within this world of ambiguity and possibility that Eaters of the Dead becomes such an exciting read. The verisimilitude is spot on thanks to Crichton’s research into the era, and you truly can believe that something like this could have happened, even though you know it’s fiction. That’s an amazing feeling for a reader.

As a gamer, it’s just as inspiring. Reading the notes at the back about how the author came to write the story is bound to give Game Masters ideas about how they can create a campaign using a similar approach. Taking a well know mystery or myth, and creating a plausible scenario around it.

BONUS

One of the best parts of the movie: how he learns the language.

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