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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Northmen, Neanderthals & Mist Monsters

Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating the Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922
by Michael Crichton
(Knopf, 1976, 193 pages)

My girlfriend Amy asked me to check if the library had this book by the author of Jurassic Park and, indeed, we did. Intrigued by her description of it as the earliest written account of her beloved Vikings (who are my golden-tressed, blue-eyed ancestors), I decided to read it myself.

Crichton's novel (which was later made into John McTiernan's 1999 film The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas) is based on two primary the sources: 1) the first three chapters draw from the journals of the real-life 10th century Arab missionary, Ibn Fadlan, who is considered one of the great Medieval travelers in world history, and 2) the epic story of Beowulf, which every English major is forced to read in its original "old English" in high school. The time period and geography of both stories roughly intersect with one another in the early 10th century in Scandinavia.

Sent by the Caliph in Baghdad to visit the king of the Bulghars, Ibn Fadlan described the tribes and cultures he encountered along the way, including the earliest account of the Vikings (whom he called the Rusiya, or Rus, after a tribe he met), whose tribes stretched westward from the Volga river in Russia to the Scandinavian lands of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Western scholars have been fascinated by the explorer's exploits ever since Richard Frye first translated his journals into English under the title Ibn Fadlan's Journey To Russia. Crichton refers to these Vikings simply as Northmen, a variation on Norsemen.

As for incorporating the Beowulf legend into his novel, Crichton has said he was inspired by a good friend's lecture on "Great Bores of Literature." While his friend considered Beowulf a dull and uninteresting work, Crichton begged to differ and insisted that the story could be interesting if presented in the correct way. The result was Eaters of the Dead, where Beowulf is represented by the valiant Norse warrior Buliwyf and his fire-breathing dragon adversary Grendel is tranformed into the savage "mist monsters" of the corpse-eating Wendol tribe.

As with major league baseball pitchers, I guess it's all in the delivery. Or, as they say in the restaurant business, presentation is everything. Because somehow Beowulf has become fodder for Hollywood-style action movies, starting with 1999's Beowulf (starring Christopher Lambert) and The 13th Warrior (starring Antonio Bandaras), and followed by 2005's Beowulf and Grendel (starring Gerard Butler) and the 2007 TV movie Grendel (starring Chris Bruno as Beowulf and CGI FX as Grendel).

But Crichton was one of the first to view the Beowulf story as something exciting. In the appendix to his novel, Crichton also tries to correct what he perceives as another misconception: that Neanderthals (whose physical characteristics are similar to that of the brutish, hirsute "mist monsters" described by Ibn Fadlan) 1) disappeared from the earth thousands of year ago, and 2) were somehow synonymous with "all that is dumb and bestial in human nature."

All we are asking is give Neanderthals a chance!

Crichton believes it's possible that a group of Neanderthals might have survived very late in an isolated region of Scandinavia and that far from being brutish, they merely may have lacked the "level of cultural attainment manifested by Scandinavians." Going by the description of the hard-drinking, hard-battling, hard-rutting Northmen/Vikings in Ibn Fadlan's narrative, the fruit hardly fell far from the tree, "cultural attainment"-wise.

After all, didn't he describe how they flavored their soup with freshly-blown snot?

Viking cuisine: It's snot what you think!

The debate and the misconceptions may never be settled by historical scholars - Crichton cites physicist Gerhard Robbins's famous observation that "strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven. It can only be disproven. When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong - not that we are able to show, beyond a doubt, that the theory is right" - so it's refreshing that the author has let our imaginations be the judge in his thought-provoking fictional work.

Related Links:
The 13th Warrior (YouTube)

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