Book Review: Eaters of the Dead

I’ll put the bottom line up front for this review: Eaters of The Dead, by Michael Crichton, blends history, fantasy and science in a way that makes the read both enjoyable and educational. The novel tells the story of the real life adventure of a 10th-century Muslim who travels with a group of Vikings. The first portion of the novel is a factual retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's personal account of his journey north and his experiences with, and observations of, the Northmen. The second portion of the novel is a slightly reworked version of what is probably the most important epic poem outside of Homer- Beowulf.

Like most people familiar with Crichton’s work I have read the greatest hits list of titles: Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Andromeda Strain. In fact I have even read some of his lesser works: Timeline and Sphere. Yet, while I had a copy of Eaters of the Dead sitting on a shelf for the past ten years I have just never gotten around to picking it up. If I had known (or remembered) that it was inspired by Beowulf, I would have read it a long time ago, and it was only by accident that I picked it up last week.

I had been doing a little last minute preparation for a brief lecture on The Hobbit to be given at the start of the school year. One of the aspects of Tolkien that has always aroused my interest is how he incorporates established mythologies into his newly created worlds. Shadows of Beowulf, an epic that as a scholar Tolkien spent quite a bit of time with, can be seen throughout Middle Earth. In The Hobbit, the dragon Smaug is loosely based on the dragon scene towards the end of the poem.

As I spent a little time coming up with some cursory comments on Beowulf I stumbled across an anecdote about Crichton. I mentioned this in my previous post, but to recap; Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead as part of an argument about the merits of the Beowulf story line for modern readers. This reader thinks he made his point. This novel is able to combine history and a reinvented Norse mythology in a way that is eminently readable.

Interspersed throughout the book are detailed footnotes, which both give the illusion of an actual historical text, and also provide a good deal of background on Viking and Muslim culture in the tenth century. While I knew that once the first three chapters were completed the rest of the book was pure fiction, Crichton does such a good job at keeping the narrative in synch that I could allow myself a willing suspension of disbelief.

One of the best attributes of this novel, in this reviewer’s opinion, is it’s brevity. Seventy-five percent of the text deals with a plotline that most high school seniors are pretty familiar with; so keeping the reader engaged in a retelling of a well-worn tale is quite an achievement indeed. Aside from keeping his story relatively short (by his standards) Crichton keeps the reader's interest in large part by investing his main character and narrator of much of the tale, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, with a real voice. Seeing Viking behaviors and traditions through his eyes is an interesting twist. Much of the Viking lore has that familiar feel that comes from a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, comic books and action movies that plagues even the most studious reader. When Fadlan is shocked by one of the various actions of a real and historical people we as readers find ourselves a little shocked right along with him.

While Michael Crichton may never be able to shake the reputation as the father of Jurassic Park, the short novel, Eaters of the Dead, shows that this writer of blockbuster sci-fi also had a more academic side. I for one am glad to finally find this out.

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