Monday, October 17, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Eaters of the Dead

Eaters of the Dead is a short -- less than 300 pages -- novel by Michael Crichton, published in 1976. Subtitled "The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922," it's not technically a fantasy, at least not in the sense of including magic and (non-human) monsters. I suppose it could be rightfully called a historical fantasy, since the events it depicts not only didn't occur in the history of our world, they're also not likely to have been able to occur -- unless our understanding of the world is very mistaken. On the other hand, Crichton is very good at presenting unlikelihoods in a plausible way to make for entertaining stories and Eaters of the Dead is very entertaining.

As its subtitle suggests, the novel presents itself as if it were a translation of an actual medieval text that preserves details of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's journeys amongst "the Northmen," which is to say, the Vikings. These Vikings kidnap him while he is part of an embassy between the Caliph of Baghdad and the king of the Bulgars and it's this event that provides the frame for most of the novel. Crichton carefully maintains the pose that all he is doing is presenting a real historical text by providing footnotes and occasional editorial commentary to explain details missing from the original source material. In addition, Eaters of the Dead doesn't read like a contemporary novel; it's much more akin to a classical or medieval travelog, like The Histories of Herodotus or The Travels of Marco Polo. There is a narrative in the novel, but it's a meandering one that spends a lot of time discussing the customs of the alien peoples Ibn Fadlan meets on his journeys.

Of course, Crichton's ruse is helped by the fact that there really was an Ahmad ibn Fadlan and he did journey far north of his homeland, though not as far as he is depicted as having done in the novel. Likewise -- and this is where the novel takes a turn into pulp fantasy -- the heroic quest on which Ibn Fadlan finds himself is nowhere to be found in recorded history. While he is among the Vikings, their leader Buliwyf learns that an ancient foe has reappeared and threatens his father's kingdom. Furthermore, an oracle tells Buliwyf what must be done.
Then into the hall entered the old crone called the angel of death, and she sat beside Buliwyf. From a hide bag she withdrew some bones -- whether human or animal I do not know -- and these bones she cast upon the ground, speaking low utterances, and she passed her hand over them.

The bones were gathered up, and cast again, and the process repeated with more incantations. Now again was the casting done, and finally she spoke to Buliwyf.

I asked the interpreter the meaning of her speech, but he did not attend me.

Then Buliwyf stood and raised his cup of strong drink, and called to the assembled earls and warriors, making a speech of some good length. One by one, several warriors stood at their places to face him. Not all stood; I counted eleven, and Buliwyf pronounced himself satisfied with this.

Now also I saw that Thorkel appeared much pleased by the proceedings and assumed a more kingly bearing, while Buliwyf paid him no heed, or showed any hatred of him, or even any interest, although they were formerly enemies a few minutes past.

Then the angel of death, this same crone, pointed to me and made some utterance, and then she departed the hall. Now at last my interpreter spoke, and he said: "Buliwyf is called by the gods to leave this place and swiftly, putting behind him all his cares and concerns, to act as a hero to repel the menace of the North. This is fitting, and he must also take eleven warriors with him. And so, also, must he take you."

I said that I was on a mission to the Bulgars, and must follow the instructions of my Caliph, with no delay.

"The angel of death has spoken," my interpreter said. "The party of Buliwyf must be thirteen, and of these one must be no Northman, and so you shall be the thirteenth."

I protested I was not a warrior. Verily I made all the excuses and pleadings that I could imagine might have effect upon this rude company of beings. I demanded that the interpreter convey my words to Buliwyf, and yet he turned away and left the hall, saying this last speech: "Prepare yourself as you think best. You shall leave on the morning light."
What follows after this is the true story of Eaters of the Dead and, as I said, it's an enjoyable one, at least I found it so. Without spoiling the novel, I'll say only that what Crichton offers up is a retelling of a classic fantasy story of Western literature but disguised and rooted in history. Naturally, there are a lot of flaws in his effort, not least being that the story classic story on which Eaters of the Dead is based was likely written before the events of the novel take place, though there is enough scholarly disagreement about it that Crichton can make his case nonetheless. Regardless of its real world accuracy, it's a fun book and one that could easily inspire plenty of roleplaying adventures.


  1. Huh; I grabbed a copy of this at some point but never read it. I'll give put it in my short pile.

  2. This is my favorite book by Crichton. I like all the footnotes he throws in the create versimilitude.

  3. I loved this book and the movie - splendid entertainment.

  4. This is a quick fun enjoyable book you can read in one sitting. The book will not let you go and all the characters fee alive. It's a classic that has gotten much use from my library.

  5. Yes, this was a great novel, I still have it in my personal library. I might just have to pick it up again someday! I suggest that everyone forget that 13th Warrior movie, and instead read this book if you haven't already!

  6. Well, while my wife - as an Antonio Banderas fan - has made me see the movie in an almost non-stop fashion, for a time, I've grown to like the book better, since it looks more and more like a classic adventure narrative than the movie itself, full of Hollywood's "extreme" tropes and clichés.

  7. The movie was quite good too (especially for gamers, it has this kind of "this could be a game session" vibe) and the main Viking actor was great.

  8. I really enjoyed the book when I read it a few years ago.

    I have to say though (and do in my vlog), that "The 13th Warrior" is –IMO– possibly the best gamer flick of all time.

  9. One of my friends ran a 13th Warrior campaign in a Warhammer setting. It was pretty funny when one of the other players saw the movie after we started and was like, "Dude, you're game is this movie down to the last detail! What the hell!" Not happy there but the rest of us who'd already seen the movie knew what was going on and enjoying it for the ride.

  10. I gotta say I was not a fan of the book. It has been at least ten years since I read it, but I believe the meandering quality was my biggest complaint. I am, however, a big fan of the movie (why I read the book in the first place). While not perfect (some of the vikings lose their accent half way through the movie), I really liked the gritty portrayal of the vikings, especially Buliwyf.

  11. I never read the book but I did see the movie (The 13th Warrior). I immediately saw the parallels to the Beowulf Saga, one hero (Buliwyf?) and his dozen men. Fighting against the monster that cannot be hurt by normal weapons. The Wendel (Grendel) were probably supposed to represent the Wends, a tribe that lived in Northern mainland Europe.

    They even have Buliwyf (Beowulf) descending into a cave through water and fighting Wendel (Grendel's) "Mother" at the end of the story. I thought the plot was cleverly done but the fight scenes were lame.

  12. My first DM was a fan of this book, It would be interesting to read it and see if it stirs up any memories of adventures past.

  13. Loved the movie. Thought the book was just ok.

  14. The 13th warrior was an OK film. Beer and pretzels type film. Not read the book though

  15. My college roommate gave me a copy of this a few years before the movie. I enjoyed it much more than any other Crichton I ever read. The bibliography is cute; if memory serves, he includes the Al Azif, which makes it a threefold intertextual game (Beowulf, ibn Fadlan, Lovecraft). (Could this be how the Beowulf poet knew the story hundreds of years before the events? Was the Great Race involved?)

    The movie was fun, but I was annoyed by the armor, and the bit where ibn Fadlan grinds a broadsword into a scimitar.

  16. The movie is silly but also very fun. I also enjoyed the book quite bit, specially because of the "pseudo-historical" way in which it was told.

    The mention of the Necronomicon at the Bibliography was awesome by the way.

  17. I really wanted to like the movie but I kept asking myself, "Where did the cavemen get all those horses?" Once you go there the questions never stop - Who makes their saddles? Do they keep them in the caves? How do they feed all those horses? Still, it was the best Vikings vs cavemen movie of 1999. I'll have to track down the book.

  18. I love this book in all its pulpy glory and the equally pulpy movie as well. Great fun and done in a couple of hours.

  19. I read this book after seeing the movie. It was entertaining in a different way. I really enjoyed both. Enough verisimilitude to get by and not much "why did you think that was a good idea?" stuff, either. At least not more than any party of adventurers makes. Worth the read.

  20. Obviously they weren't cavemen. They were elves and trolls and dwarves and trows and drows. :)

  21. The movie at least could be very easily adapted to a gloranthan campaign... The wendol are clearly trolls with their kyger litor mother...


  22. I've only seen the movie - I will have to read the book as well.

  23. Never read the book, but did see the movie.

    I have high praise for the dialogue and story, but was P.O.'ed at the costuming. Spanish morions and Roman gladitorial helmets in 10th century Scandinavia? WTF? It would be like filming a movie about the American Revolutionary War and outfitting the combatants with M-16s...

    What made it even more galling is the fact that, originally, they *were* going to use accurate equipment. The lead Viking's helmet was basically going to be a repro of the Sutton Hoo helm. I even got to see and handle this prop myself. What happened was they got some art director who moronically decided to go for a more "fantasy" approach, not only putting in the inappropriate crap but also made other changes, like turning Grendels mother into a skinny little skank... originally they were going to have a rather larger woman reminiscent of those Stone Age "Venus" figurines play the mother, which would have been decidedly anti-hollywood and would have fit the theme better, IMO.


  24. It would be like filming a movie about the American Revolutionary War and outfitting the combatants with M-16s...

    And yet, far worse ideas than this have actually been made into movies... :D

  25. I think the point is not a historical movie, but a romance - and even more specifically, a fantastic one.

    My gaming group and I, watching the movie, were immediately reminded of our D&D games. To this day, anytime one of my friends sees it, they get the itch to play - not the scenario in the movie, necessarily, but something.
    The mish-mash of historical armor? Look at Basic's illustrations. This is always what we wound up with - 5-10 different guys with wildly different gear, motivations, and even alignments going forth for adventure. They even had different classes in evidence: the black-armored gent is a Rogue or Ranger, the Arab is a Bard (a 2e one, granted, but still), and Buliwyf is clearly channeling a Paladin if he isn't already one.

    Basically, what I'm trying to say is - 13th Warrior was the best D&D movie I've ever seen, brand name or no.

  26. I agree that it is a great D&D movie, though with the caveat that there are no spellcasters...

    I partially agree that it is not a historic movie, strictly speaking, but it is certainly not a fantasy/romance. Look at it this way: the story is an attempt to provide a historical rationalization of the Beowulf myth. While not perfectly historical by any means, there is certainly no justification for the morion crap.

    Note that I'm not really being a stickler for historical accuracy - were that so, the Sutton Hoo helmet would be right out as it is a few centuries removed from the events as defined in the movie. But the point is that at least the Sutton Hoo piece *belongs* to the Norse cultural milieu, whilst the morion, etc. emphatically DO NOT.

    And, really, be honest. The morion is easily the stupidest looking helmet of all time. Even within that period the burgonet is a much nicer design. Compare the morion with Sutton Hoo or any of the Vendel/Valsgarde type helmets - you can't tell me that the latter aren't hands down just *cooler* looking then the morion (at least, and expect me to not call you a liar to your face)

    Really, they could have even used, say, Continental style "spangenhelme" or Norman style conical helms, and I'd not have said "boo" about it. Because at least these have some basis for existing in that culture. What they chose to use did not, and has been a source of grave disappointment ever since.

    Because otherwise, from a dialogue standpoint, but movie was all kinds of AWESOME. Of many lines, one that stands out most is this, after Ibn Fadlen teaches himself Norse, and interrupts the man making snide comments about his mother, corrects him, and then ends by saying, "At least my mother knew my father, you pig eating son of a whore!"

    All kinds of AWESOME!