by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the October 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
When I first started writing these reviews it was to explore the actual history behind the stories portrayed. With the 13th Warrior I will have gone far astray from this intention. For the 13th Warrior has almost no connection with actual history. So instead I will explore the mythological constructs which make up this movie.
The foundation the Michael Crichton based his story is the Anglo-Saxon tale ‘Beowulf’. In ‘Beowulf’, the opponents have an aura of supernaturalness about them. To produce the same effect, the movie keeps the enemy in the dark and shadows creating terror out of mystery. What is more interesting is that the movie tells the tale backwards. In the original epic, Beowulf first fights Grendal at the hall, then kills Grendal’s mother in her lair after first swimming through a water passage to reach it. The epic ends with Beowulf dying from his wounds suffered fighting a dragon. The movie has Buliwyf defending against a “fiery serpent”, killing the female shaman and escaping via a water passage, and then defeating the un-named war leader.
The second epic the film borrows from is “The Seven Samurai”. What is borrowed here is not so much story elements but the pacing and the ebb and flow of the action. The preliminary skirmish, the building of the defenses, the fending off of a major attack, the raid on the enemy camp to the final climatic battle follow the pattern of “The Seven Samurai.” Both movies even have a funeral sequence as part of the gathering of the heroes.
The actual connection to history is the Arab Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. He existed, and made a diplomatic trip the peoples of the Russian steppes and wrote about it around 922 AD. The trip to and the events in Scandinavia is pure fiction. I have not seen a copy of this travelogue, but have encountered pieces, including the description of the Viking funeral which parallels the action in the movie. While Crichton, in his forward, has a bibliography for this document, it is suspect. It should be noted that the implied dating the poem has the Grendal battle occurring around 515 AD, with the poem itself composed in the eighth century, though the oldest copy is much later. As a side note, for those to stay to watch the credits will discover that the lady whom Ahmad fell in love with was the legendary Scheherazade.
Another mythological aspect that can not be ignored is the number in the band: thirteen. The idea that thirteen is unlucky is Christian in origin, having to do with the number of dinners at the Last Supper. And while Christian missionaries were active in the area in the tenth century, conversion was yet spotty at best. Thus while the Vikings had their own set of superstitions, number thirteen was not among them. Why Crichton settled on that number would be speculation on my part. Beowulf’s band numbered fourteen. And that the last selected had to be an outsider is simply a plot devise to get the narrator into the action.
One aspect that anyone associated with fighting will sit-up and notice is the variety of armor the heroes wear. What strikes the knowledgeable is not the mishmash per se, but that that a number of pieces did not appear until much later then the presumed time of the film. Also incongruous is the Roman gladiator helm that one wears in several of the scenes.
A nice touch was the sequence in which Ahmad is forced to learn Old Norse. Most stories tend to overlook such differences, or paper it over with some deus ex machina device. Nevertheless he had to be quite the linguist to so quickly and easily pickup the language with the implied fluency of the rest of the movie. One last language note: the language the Viking and Omar Shief were communicating in was most likely Greek, though my own linguistic skills are inadequate to verify this.
So who were the ‘eaters of the dead”? The afterward in the book tries to make the case that they were Neanderthals. While not impossible, there is no compelling plot reason for this to be so. While the ‘eaters of the dead’ were certainly portrayed as a Stone Age people, that does necessarily need them to be Neanderthals. Little is known of the inhabitants of the Scandinavian region prior to the migration of the German tribes around 200 AD. However the Viking raids that started around 800 AD were due to population pressures, making such primitive survivals existing in the tenth century unlikely. As for the cannibalism, while it did occurr, whether this was normal or ritual activity or acts of desperation is unknowable.
Overall the movie was engrossing enough that these many points did not occur till sitting afterwards musing about the movie. While I found it interesting, it is not one that left me as enthusiastic as did others. I wouldn’t discourage others from seeing it, I wouldn’t put it on the must see list. It just a case, that for me, the magic wasn’t there.
Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 1976.
Raffel, Burton, ed. Beowulf. New York: New American Library, 1963.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.