A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
Eaters of the Dead - Michael Crichton
The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating his experiences with the Northmen in A.D 922
‘The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily, these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honour’
- Ibn Fadlan
Ibn Fadlan is the protagonist through whom Michael Crichton tells the story. The original idea behind writing the book was to relate the story of Beowulf in such a way that it would be more acceptable to today’s readers. The manuscript of Ibn Fadlan was incorporated to suit this purpose.
Michael Crichton mentions that only the first three chapters are based on historical data and the rest is ‘speculation’ of what could be possible. Crichton assumes the survival of the Neanderthal man at least till the time of Ibn Fadlan (circa 922 CE), and he incorporates the legend of Beowulf (which is commonly dated much before the time of Ibn Fadlan) into the remaining chapters. The facts (the first three chapters) are seamlessly blended with Crichton’s views; which are accompanied by some very detailed footnotes.
In the afterword of the book Crichton writes -
‘Under the circumstances, I should perhaps say explicitly that the references in this afterword are genuine. The rest of the novel, including its introduction, text, footnotes, and bibliography, should properly be viewed as fiction.’
After reading the book this note seems to be an extra-cautious warning. Crichton seems to have taken pains to be as factual as possible, barring the ‘what-could-have-been speculation’ and the legend of Beowulf, both of which are clear to the reader. Though all his footnotes have not been verified by factbehindfiction.com, they do not seem fantastic or against commonly known facts about either Arabs or Vikings. Some of the research material used in writing the book seems to have prompted the note, coupled with the trend of blending fact with fiction which he finds rampant in modern society.
Introduction to the book
Eaters of the Dead is Michael Crichton’s 1976 version of a translation of Ibn Fadlan’s account of his experiences with the Vikings. Although the book is a work of fiction it is based on translations of Ibn Fadlan’s account. The first three chapters are completely based on these scholarly works, and the entire book is uniformly littered with anthropological explanations.
The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan
Ibn Fadlan’s view stands apart from other accounts of Vikings because it is written from a standpoint vis-à-vis his won Arab background. Critical comparison between his own culture and the ways of the Vikings portray the ‘Northmen’ as he calls them in poor light. On the other hand his understanding of their ‘warrior’ culture and their philosophy, mark his admiration and also expose the enduring influence of the Vikings, who are almost otherwise universally dismissed as barbaric by other commentators of the era.
Ibn Fadlan is a keen observer of all the traits of the Northmen, describing their social, religious and economic culture along with their superstitions and strategies of battle.
Eventually he is able to overlook their flaws and the differences in culture, and he comes to admire them. After having spent a great deal of time with them in peace and war times Ibn Fadlan forges a bond with the Vikings. This change of attitude from negative to positive is similar to John Blackthorne’s metamorphosis in James Clavell’s Shogun.
The Story of Ibn Fadlan’s Account
The original document disappeared a long time ago, and the source materials for this book are various fragments of the original and translations. These translations were made and discovered at different times over the last millennia, in different languages, by people from different backgrounds; some translations were written anonymously and some are clearly of dubious authenticity.
There is a mystery and adventure behind these source documents themselves, which Michael Crichton talks about in his introductory notes. He writes about Arabic, Swedish, English and French translations; manuscripts found in the private collections of British ambassadors in the middle-east; and a medieval Latin translation found in a Greek monastery.
Michael Crichton’s main sources was the work of Professor Fraus-Dolus, whose life’s work was collecting and bringing together all previous translation and manuscripts, written at any time, from all known sources and in all languages. This massive task occupied the professor till his death in 1951
Other than his vocation and his exploits, very little is known about Ibn Fadlan. Michael Crichton’s introduction of the man is nevertheless excellent and insightful.
Ahmed Ibn Fadlan is clearly not a warrior by profession, nor does he take up the task of being ‘The 13th Warrior’ by choice. He was a bureaucrat in the Caliph of Bagdad’s court, and before being recruited into the Viking mission he was in the service of an ambassador of Bagdad. He was an educated man and a keen observer of people. His writing on the Viking is put in perspective by his regular comparison of their culture with his own, and his open but plainly written amazement at the differences.
The account begins with how Ibn Fadlan got himself appointed into the service of Bagdad’s ambassador to the kingdom of Yiltawar, king of Saqilba. After Ibn Fadlan is seduced by the young and neglected wife of a influential merchant, Ibn Fadlan is brought before the Caliph. Now the Caliph (not the most outstanding leader of men) must preserve the right to rule he is compelled to take high moral ground. Ibn Fadlan is thus banished to the north in the service of an ambassador.
Thus begins the journey that gripped the sensibilities of many scholars and anthropologists of the last one thousand years, but failed to fascinate the casual reader. The book was made into a movie - The Thirteenth Warrior that bombed at the box office losing a hundred million dollars.
Michael Crichton’s portrayal of the Vikings
Crichton’s views on the Vikings are best understood by the ‘Sayings of the Northmen’ that he attributes to them through the course of the book. These sayings give the Vikings a mythical warlike persona.
‘Look to your back,’ and they believe that a man must always be prepared to defend himself, even a father against his own son.
‘Animals die, friends die, and I shall die, but one thing never dies, and that is the reputation we leave behind at our death.’
‘A man should never move a step from his weapons’
‘A man off his horse is half a man, and twice as killable’
‘A wolf that lies in its lair never gets meat, or a sleeping man victory’
‘(You are afraid) because you think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever.’
All Copyrights reserved by the Author/Publisher of the book.
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