Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Beowulf Reimagined

Because I was travelling for the past five weeks, I had little time to do research on Vikings for my next novel. But I did have enough time to re-read another of my favorite stories about Vikings, Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead

The book is short (about 175 pages) and it has probably been twenty years since I first read it. But it struck me after this reading that Crichton was reimagining the classic story of Beowulf. Since I’ve been focusing on the re-imagining of legends and classic tales on this blog, I thought I’d write briefly about Crichton’s novel.

Crichton tells the story through the viewpoint of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a real-life historical figure who served as an ambassador from the Caliph of Baghdad to the King of the Bulgars in 922 A.D. Ibn Fadlan wrote one of the early accounts of the Rus, a group of Swedish Vikings who relocated to the Baltic region and ultimately gave their name to “Russia.” In Eaters of the Dead, Ibn Fadlan is chosen to be the thirteenth warrior on a Viking mission to save the land of Venden from a mysterious enemy that attacks from the mist. From that point on, the story mirrors the tale of Beowulf.

The leader of Crichton’s Vikings is a warrior aptly named Buliwyf. When they reach Venden, they are treated to feasts in the great mead hall of a Viking king named Rothgar. But at night, when the mist comes down from the mountains, Rothgar’s kingdom is attacked by mysterious and brutal creatures called the wendol. The beast-like wendol, though many in number, are a clear representation of Beowulf’s Grendel, and the story proceeds in the manner of the Old English poem, all the way down to a severed arm placed over the mead hall and a deadly encounter with the mother of the wendol. 

The story is tense and exciting, and the Vikings, observed through Ibn Fadlan’s eyes, start out as savages but end up being noble warriors. Crichton succeeds in this retelling of the legend of Beowulf, but what I liked the most about the novel is the explanation he provides for the wendol. Without spoiling the ending, Crichton suggests a scientific explanation for these creatures that led me to wonder if his wendol explain the stories of trolls, goblins and other monsters that have existed in myths for thousands of years. When a novel makes me think like that, I know it’s done its job well. 

If you’re interested in a quick read about Vikings or want to experience another legend reimagined, you won’t be disappointed in Eaters of the Dead.


BJB said...

Thanks!! I'm just about to finish a book and was wondering what I would turn to next. I'm a Crichton fan but hadn't read this one yet. Sounds great!

BJB said...

By the way, I tried to get this book in e-format for my iPad. Tried iBooks and Amazon/Kindle, but no luck. Guess I'll have to get the old-fashioned copy.

Joseph Finley said...

This is one of the criticisms of legacy publishing -- they are slow to take former print books into e-books. Unfortunately, also, Michael Crichton is no longer with us, so there is no author to push this forward into the 21st century. The good thing is that it's a very thin paperback.

BJB said...

I bought this book yesterday at a used bookstore for $3.99 and started reading it. Thanks again.