Friday, July 29, 2011

Eaters of the Dead: A Mythological Analysis

Eaters of the Dead,” by noted storyteller, Michael Crichton, is an epic story told through the prose of a 10th century Arabic writer by the name of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Ibn Fadlan was a familiar to the Commander of the Faithful of Baghdad, Caliph al-Muqtadir, who was sent to deliver a message to a wealthy and prominent merchant. This merchant had in his possession a young bride with unsurpassed beauty. While waiting for the master of the home to return, Ibn Fadlan is seduced by the young temptress and gets caught with his pants down - so to speak. When a request from a far off king is delivered to the Caliph to send an ambassador to him from Baghdad, the wealthy and influential merchant insists that the Caliph send Ibn Fadlan. To save face, the Caliph is forced to comply and sends Ibn Fadlan on this perilous expedition.

Along this journey, Ibn Fadlan records the events of his travels, and his encounters with the Baskirs, the Hazars, the Saqaliba, the Turks, and finally the Northmen (Vikings). It takes more than three years for Ibn Fadlan to return to his home in Baghdad, the vast majority of it spent in the company of the Northmen, whom at first he loathes with the utmost contempt.

Led by their fearless leader Buliwyf, the Northmen and Ibn Fadlan are “called by the gods” to a hero’s duty, far to the north, to rescue King Rothgar, a distant relative of Buliwyf, from a “nameless terror.” Buliwyf is a fierce and mighty warrior, who has in his possession the power of the giants in the form of Runding, a sword of the ancients.

It isn’t until Ibn Fadlan is forced, at first, to unite with the Northmen to battle the notorious “eaters of the dead,” that Ibn Fadlan begins to understand, tolerate, and respect the differences between people of his culture and those of the Northmen.

It is, in Ibn Fadlan’s words, “[by] the grace of Allah,” that one amongst them, a quick-witted young warrior by the name of Herger, is gifted in the Latin tongue. It is through Herger that Ibn Fadlan is able to communicate with, and ultimately understand their extraordinary ways.

"Beowulf" - by pujaantarbangsa 

Eaters of the Dead” is a retelling of the classical Scandinavian myth “Beowulf.” Author Michael Crichton weaves a masterful tale, melding fiction with historical facts, making it difficult to discern between the two, despite many fanciful elements within the story.

There is little argument that the Muslim Arabic writer Ahmad Ibn Fadlan did exist, and he was sent as an ambassador to the Bolgars, now modern Kazan. What is in question is what transpired once he encountered the Northmen. In my opinion, this represents the “crossing over” point in the story.  In “Eaters of the Dead” Ibn Fadlan is on the ship with the Northmen warriors as they come upon the city of Bulgar, the very city he was sent to be emissary of. Ibn Fadlan pleads with the Northmen to stop and let him complete his task, but they do little more than laugh and ignore him. It is at this point I believe Michael Crichton deviates from fact to fiction, from the realm of the real into the realm of myth.

Sua the dragon Beowulf battles.

There are many similarities between the tale of “Beowulf” and “Eaters of the Dead.” In both stories the hero is summoned by an imprudent king far off to the north to assist him with a monster that is terrorizing his village. In the epic poem of “Beowulf,” Grendel is the monster. In Crichton’s rendition, Buliwyf is the hero, but the monster is the great fire wyrm, which turns out to be the fabled half-man half-beast people called the wendol (Neanderthals). Both heroes have to deal with a contriving underling who wishes to undermine their heroism; in Beowulf it is the King’s advisor, and with Buliwyf it is the King’s son. Both heroes do battle with a great dragon; Beowulf slays the dragon Sua, and Buliwyf battles the wendol who ride in the mist and take the form of a “glow-worm” given the name Korgon. Both heroes face off against the “mother” of the monster; Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother by lopping off her head and Buliwyf defeats the “mother of the thunder caves” by stabbing her with a dagger.

In the end, both heroes die heroically by mortal wounds suffered in battle; Beowulf suffers irreparable damage from his clash with the dragon, and Buliwyf is poisoned during his confrontation with the mother of the wendol. This is the honorable death that all Norsemen strive to achieve, dying in battle, which assures their place amongst the gods and heroes whom have fallen before them.

Ibn Fadlan comes from Baghdad, which is often described in the book as the “City of Peace,” due to its tolerance to the religious beliefs of its neighbors at a time when Baghdad was near the top of the list of civilized cities in the world. Yet even with this tolerance, Ibn Fadlan comes across as someone who is ripe with ethnocentrism. This is abundantly apparent upon his first encounter with the Northmen. To the extent of which, in his manuscript he states, “They are the filthiest race that God ever created.”

It’s a classic example of the clashing of mores. Throughout the story, Ibn Fadlan prays to Allah whenever danger nears, or to be forgiven for not following a ritual outlined by his doctrinal faith. The Northmen chastise him for this, claiming while he only prays to one god, they have the need to pray to many.

However, as Ibn Fadlan spends time with them, and learns why they do the things they do, he begins to hold them with high regard. He even starts to adapt some of their ways, to the point that he takes on a Northern maiden as a mate for some time. The learning and sharing was not limited to Ibn Fadlan, however. The Northmen also learn from him. Buliwyf learns to read and write, and Herger, his translator and friend, learns patience and tolerance, and shows an interest in learning more about Allah.

Eaters of the Dead” touches upon many things that are sacred to the Northmen. The Northmen are a very superstitious people, most of which is deeply rooted in their beliefs in the Norse gods. The hearth and home is a very sacred place for the Northmen, and they take much pride in welcoming both stranger and friend into their homes, showering them with food and hospitality, even if it means they will have to go without themselves.

Towards the end of the story, as Buliwyf is dying, he expresses his sadness to Ibn Fadlan. He is not sad because he is dying, but because he “will die a pauper,” a man without wealth or home, despite all the heroic deeds he had accomplished. This is his hamartia. Ibn Fadlan reassures Buliwyf that he will die a rich man, as Ibn Fadlan will spread the word of Buliwyf’s heroic deeds far and wide across the lands. This seems to appease Buliwyf as, to the Northmen, there is hardly a greater honor than to have your name uttered in heroic tales throughout the ages.

The number twelve is also sacred to the Northmen, as it is the number of cycles of the moon. When Buliwyf assembled his original band of warriors to tackle the demon that “cannot be named,” there were twelve of them. The old crone, the angel of death, spoke up and said that a man not of their land must also attend and pointed out Ibn Fadlan. Ibn Fadlan is the thirteenth warrior, whose dark skin and number represents the dark phases of the moon when it cannot be seen. This completes the cycle of the moon as well as represents the cycle of death and renewal.

 Buliwyf  played by Vladimir Kulich in "The 13th Warrior
There are many mythical archetypes that stand out in the reading of “Eaters of the Dead.” First and foremost you have Buliwyf, who is the quintessential strong and fierce warrior hero type, but he is also compassionate, cunning, and wise - not to mention the son of a family scorned. He could easily encompass the male archetypes of King, Son, Savior, and Lord of Destruction. As great of a Norse hero as Buliwyf (Beowulf) was, he could just as easily pass for a great hero amongst the Greeks as well, for his aretê was strong.

Then there is Herger. He is the merry charlatan of the bunch. Not only is he a very capable warrior in his own right, but he also comes across as being very intelligent and worldly. Herger definitely encompasses those traits of a Trickster, Lord of Destruction, and to some extent, a Sage.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan played by Antonio Banderas in "The 13th Warrior"

Finally we have Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the narrator of the tale. At the beginning of the story it is clear that Ibn Fadlan could only fall into one category of the male archetypes: Sage. However, as the story develops, with Ibn Fadlan becoming more and more exposed to the ways of the Northmen, he begins to take on the traits and characteristics of a Lord of Destruction archetype. He begins to understand that while peace is a worthy goal among his countrymen, sometimes it cannot be obtained without bloodshed, and the Northmen are very skilled in that arena. For without conflict, without an enemy to fight, without a monster to slay, one does not have opportunity to die in battle, and thus cannot ascend into the hallowed halls of Valhalla - a fate worse than death itself for the Norse, and Ibn Fadlan included. For, by the end of the tale, Ibn Fadlan had earned the respect of the Northmen as a capable warrior and certainly would have been welcomed as a hero at the gates of Valhalla. 

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

Have you ever read the book, "Eaters of the Dead?" How about "Beowulf," or seen the movie, "The 13th Warrior?" What did you think?

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