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The 13th Warrior by Michael Crichton

a book by Michael Crichton, previously published as 'Eaters Of The Dead'

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"Lo, there do I see my father." Lo there do I see a damn fine book

  • Jul 24, 2010
I first came to this story when I was very young. I remember seeing a trailer for a movie which was all about vikings, and begging my parents to let me go see it. When we did, it was what I had expected, and then some. The scenes were filled with strong, noble vikings with large swords wading knee-deep in the dead, and the ending waxed nostalgic abouyt glory and a warriors fate. But I found at the time that the plot was a bit hard to follow. So I got what I had wanted, and when this moive came out we got a copy.

In the years since my family switched to dvds, and suddenly almost all of our music and movie collection became obsolete. We've sold off some, and kept others, and re-bought yet others, or rented our old favorites from Netflix. The 13th Warrior was one of those which we've managed to procure a second copy of, and seeing it now I've developed an even greater love of it than the first time around. When I heard that it was based on a book, I rushed on-line to figure out was that was, and discovered to my joy that the local library had a copy.

Needless to say, my view of this novel has been tainted somewhat by a bit of nostalgia and my own quirky preferences. Not everyone may appreciate what I do from Eaters of the Dead, which is my warning to those who may declare after having read this "But Yorrick, this book was a BORE!"

The forward notes that the author describes this as historical fiction, with a dash of fantasy thrown in. Indeed, one of the main characters, one Ahmed ibn Fadlan, was a real figure in history, albeit a minor one unless you happen to be a dedicated historian. The beginning of the story apparently is lifted straight from Fadlan's writings, very little of which survive today. As an amateur historian myself I found this to be incredibly fascinating, in that the setting used is believable, and the fantasy uses modern knowledge of history and archeology to tie in the fiction. That said, many will find the first third of the novel rather boring, as it is merely a runner-up to the main action as Ahmed describes his life as a 10th century arabian courtier, and how he came to be in the far north.

The entire book is written in this dry and factual tone, much as a scholar would (indeed it reads much like Herodotus' Histories) and the writing itself is well-done and with good frames of reference from the medieval point of view. nit-pickers will find very little to critique. I found this frame of writing to be a bit of fresh air after the omniscient narrators of Harry Potter  and The Dragon and the George, as I find that style of writing to be a bit of a breaker in imagining the scene. In this historical vein Ahmed continues into the lands of dirty, rude, and smelly nomads, until he reaches the lands near the river Volga, in Russia, where he befriends a bard of the Norse people who have come to trade. he spends some weeks in their company, describing their ways before being sucked into their world; for while Ahmed may have intended this to be no more than a short stop, things quickly turn for a longer haul. For one, his arrival coincides with the death of the Norse chieftain, and a small power-struggle ensues, during which Ahmed is used as a scapegoat. He is powerless to protest, not knowing their language (he can only communicate in Latin to the bard) and though he befriends the future victor, he is quickly taken as a good luck charm for his new friend's journey back home. Ahmed, of course, protests, but the burly northmen pay him no heed, throwing him and his possessions into the boat before casting off.

It is here that things start to develop very quickly into a more conventional heroic tale, albeit with some ambiguity as to who the hero really is. Is it Buliwyf, the leader of this expedition, and slayer of the strange enemies they find back home? Ahmed certainly seems to think so, for it is he who writes of him as "...a tall man, and strong, with skin and hair and beard of pure white..." In addition to these physical qualities, Buliwyf exhibits many of the traditional heroic traits. He is given a "magical" weapon by ancient dwarven-like beings, and it is he who slays both the "mother" and the "father"  of the Wendol, the strange enemies who are threatening his homeland. Lastly his death is portrayed as of the utmost heroism, and for his sacrifice he receives a most proper viking funeral. Yet the story does not begin, or even end, with Buliwyf. Is the hero, then, not a Norse chieftain but an Arabian poet? For it is Ahmed who frames the story, and it is Ahmed who begins and ends it. He also undergoes what Joseph Campbell describes as the "monomyth", or Carl Jung's Heroic Archetype. He is a relatively small, frail dark-skinned (not the usual sort of hero we find on Hollywood or in most literature today) from a very civilized place who is, at least initially, very unwilling to get into harm's way. he is confused by the Norsemen's warrior ways and their acceptance of death, and he is ridiculed as soft and effeminate. Yet he undergoes a metamorphosis throughout the story, taking part in all of the major battles and living to write his tale. The scene who I think shows this end result of this transformation the most, I think, is Buliwyf's funeral, where Ahmed takes a slave girl in the Norse fashion, remembering Buliwyf as his lord as he does so. This is done as a show of loyalty towards ones lord, and by this Ahmed is shown to be in effect, an Arabian knight, a dark-skinned Norseman. And in his return to the more civilized south he reflects on his journey, and how it made him strong. There might be other heroes in the story, but there are only two characters whom I think could possibly vie for position as protagonist, I happen to think that both Ahmed and Buliwyf are protagonists, for while Ahmed may be the hero of Eaters of the Dead, Buiwyf is the center of Ahmed's story to the court, through which the novel is written.

All of these things, and more, make for a very traditional Heroic Tale with very strong historical and anthropological overtones. those overtones will turn some off, and others will like them. As for myself these overtones were the main part of the story, a good showing of putting history and anthropolgy into a riveting tale. Eaters of the Dead is a good heroic fantasy that is a lot less fantastic than many other stories of the genre, which some may no doubt find to be good enough to pick this up.

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December 15, 2010
Great review! I might have to check this one out!
July 28, 2010
I'd always heard that it was a spin on Beowulf.
July 28, 2010
I'm going to have to check the book out. I was willing to let it stay put if Beowulf was his only source.
July 28, 2010
Oh, no. Ibn Fadlan and Beowulf are I would say the two main precedents, but I see connections to many medieval and ancient "traveler's reports", The Histories and Anabasis included.
July 28, 2010
Either way it's a great movie, and now that I know that there is more to the book, I'll be checking it out.
More The 13th Warrior (book) reviews
Quick Tip by . July 30, 2010
Written like a "discovered manuscript," providing an exceptional ethnography of the time. Crichton re-tells "Beowulf" through the eyes of someone more like us westerners. Excellent storytelling.
review by . May 16, 2009
This book had a lot of interesting information and some vivid descriptions. Unfortunately, the way it was presented made a lot of it seem boring. If it had flowed in a more interesting way, I could have easily given the book 5 stars. It is difficult to determine what is fact and what is fantasy. Even with the extensive footnotes it is sometimes hard to understand. Someone familiar with Gary Jennings and especially Raptor can see what might have been with Crichton's novel. The book has its moments …
review by . November 09, 2008
The 13th Warrior by Michael Crichton
First released in 1976, 'Eaters Of The Dead' was one of my first Michael Crichton books. I have been an avid Crichton fan since that time. Later, in the 1990's, a film was made called 'The 13th Warrior', which remained true to the book and yet added some wonderful flavor and fantastic visuals to a novel I still remembered as terrific. Though based heavily on the rediscovered manuscripts and references of the real Ibn Fadlan, Crichton clearly tells us the book is considered as fiction and was/is …
About the reviewer

Ranked #1125
   An amateur anthropologist and historian, as well as a consumate bookwyrm, this reclusive mortal tends to reach for a classical work when bored. He currently resides in the american mid-west, … more
About this book


Formerly Published as 'Eaters Of The Dead'
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ISBN-10: 0345354613 (MM pbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780345354617 (MM pbk.)
Author: Michael Crichton
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st edition (September 12, 1988)
Date Published: (September 12, 1988) Eaters Of The Dead - 1976
Format: Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages, Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 4.2 x 0.8 inches
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