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Beowulf and the Arab Viking
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Michael Crichton
Eaters of the Dead (Prince Frederick, Maryland:  Random House/Recorded Books, 1999.  Audiobook.)

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Crichton's work was based on an original in CE 922, when Arab courtier Ibn Fadlan accompanies a troupe of Vikings to find and destroy mythical beasts ravaging some land.  These are the eaters of the dead from which Crichton gets his title.  Ibn Fadlan was appointed by the Caliph of Baghdad as the ambassador to the pagan Northmen of Northern Europe.

Ibn Fadlan's account has been preserved in translated segments in other writers and one fairly complete Medieval Latin version.  Crichton has used a compilation by a Swedish scholar in 1951, drawing together in one volume a translation of all the references and manuscripts of Ibn Fadlan's report to his Caliph after a three-year adventure with the Vikings.

Ibn Fadlan's report seemed to Crichton to be a real-life basis for the Danish story of Beowulf.  Crichton takes this view in developing his story, written in modern narrative style based on Ibn Fadlan's story.

The Bulgars
In the early stages of the story, we are treated to a detailed description of the people and events along the long trek from Baghdad to the far north.  This is Fadlan's actual text, describing his arduous trip to the far north, where he and his large entourage are heading to the land of the Volga River Bulgars, actually a northeastern Viking tribe.

Crichton presents a segment of Fadlan's manuscript, commenting as though he is an academic editor interpreting the text for modern readers.  In this guise, Crichton provides historical and cultural background information, some of which is also part of his imaginative creation.

Crichton fills in as needed with historical or textual critical commentary, and this fictionalizing fills in the story interpretation as we go.  The core of the story here is Fadlan's narrative report.

The 13th Warrior
Star vocal performer George Guidall has been chosen to present this historical action thriller from Crichton.  This Crichton story was also made into a movie called the 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas.  This Banderas portrayal brings even greater realism to the Crichton creation.  Ibn Fadlan is coopted to join a Bulgar warrior band to destroy the "Wendel" monsters, Crichton's version of the "Grendel" of Beowulf.

After what Crichton describes in his afterword as the first two parts of Fadlan's manuscript, Crichton takes over the story.  The author develops the fictional portion of his story along the same lines of Ibn Fadlan's original travelogue, providing detailed observations of people and places, customs and practices, and maintains a realistic dialogue much like that of the earlier two sections he actually takes from Fadlan's manuscript.

This fiction has us appreciating Fadlan's often incidental observations that sweeten the story and add realism, without realizing we are now all the time fully inside Crichton's fantasy world.  We have stepped seamlessly through a portal into another dimension where the story grows to full flower!

The Grendel Army
Crichton as Fadlan now pulls us along with the Viking troupe and includes us in the adventure and excitement and fear experienced by Fadlan and the Vikings as they encounter not just one but a clan of these man-like monsters that are terrorizing the people.

The story of Beowulf takes on new life, true to the Danish version of the story but set here within its wider cultural and historical setting.  This will be an entertaining tale, and the vocal performance of the story enabled me to "see" all the action as George Guidall's voice brought this Crichton adventure to life.

The Back Story
Crichton's extensive afterword is a welcome bonus, providing insights into his initial challenge to develop this story, out of an academic exchange with a professor of Western literature.  It is intriguing to learn the steps Crichton went through to develop his strategy in implementing his story.

He follows an academic commentary and footnoting format, taken to convincingly draw upon Fadlan's original real-life story.  His strategy toward this historical legend is so convincing that, years later, as he himself experienced, he was caught running down references for sources that he finally realized he had made up!  You will like this adventure thriller and might like Crichton's afterword just as much!

This creative new approach brings us Beowulf with a new cultural perspective of the Arab adventurer.

For more on Ibn Fadlan:
[review] Ibn Fadlan Excerpts
[review] Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyya by Montgomery, Cornell University
[review] Wikipedia

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Reading notes written 3 December 2010
Finalized and posted on Amazon 8 December 2010
This version posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 December 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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