Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Michael Crichton’s “Beowulf”

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that Michael Crichton died last week after a protracted struggle with cancer (read his obituary at The Guardian). His death was private and unexpected (he had completed a new novel, scheduled for release next month, now postponed). Most readers have come to associate Crichton with techno-thrillers and scientific mysteries built around the latest “bleeding-edge” technology of the day in which they were written — e.g., the mind/computer connection (The Terminal Man), cloning (Jurassic Park), virtual reality (Disclosure), time travel (Timeline), nanotechnology (Prey), global warming (State of Fear), and so on. Despite an obvious sympathy for technology, Crichton’s novels are usually cautionary tales, warning readers about the dangers as well as (perhaps even more than) the benefits of new technologies.

But though he’s better known for these techno-thrillers, they aren’t the only kinds of books he wrote. He wrote a good deal of nonfiction, for example, including books on the medical industry, the artist Jasper Johns, and an excellent memoir, Travels. If you like exotic and adventure travel, give this book a try. He also wrote a couple of terrific historical novels. (And I’m not thinking of Timeline, which is half-historical, half-techno-thriller.)

From The Guardian obit:

He returned to books with two historical novels, The Great Train Robbery (1975), based on the 1855 theft of gold from a London to Folkestone train, and, the following year, Eaters of the Dead, one of his best and most overlooked books. Presented as a lost manuscript written by an Islamic envoy kidnapped by Vikings in 932 [sic *], it was a retelling of the Beowulf story, which he originally wrote on a bet that he could make that myth relevant to a modern audience.

Now I’ve read almost everything Crichton wrote, but when it came to picking a book to read in memoriam, I chose Eaters of the Dead, which I hadn’t read since some time in college. (You may know it as The 13th Warrior; the novel was reissued with that name, regrettably, after a rather poor film adaptation about ten years ago). Like most of Crichton’s other early novels (e.g., The Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, and The Great Train Robbery), it’s quite good — better than you might guess if you’ve only ever read the most recent Crichton. Tight, well-written, and engrossing. But Eaters of the Dead is perhaps the “Crichton novel” least like any of the others. As The Guardian pointed out, it’s a kind of retelling of Beowulf, but much more as well.

The novel is presented as a lost manuscript, a meta-narrative frame many writers before and after have used, including Tolkien [1]. The novel, then, is held out to be a part of the historical account made by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a genuine historical figure who visited the Rus (Vikings in the region of the Volga, in modern-day Russia, whence the name). Ibn Fadlan is a primary source of our knowledge of several Viking social practices, including the famous cremation by funereal pyre [2]. But Crichton, very cleverly, incorporates a retelling of the Beowulf legend as part of this manuscript, planting, as it were, the “historical” seed for the genuine Beowulf poem. This, of course, is bound to appeal to fans of mythology — and of Tolkien, who wrote from a similar angle (and who likewise admired Beowulf).

As Ruth Johnston Staver explains in A Companion to Beowulf

Eaters of the Dead [...] attempts to retell Beowulf’s story through the foreign voice of the Arab Ibn Fadlan. The new story, while recognizable, is changed to a point of confusion, at least for unwary readers. The confusion begins with the novel’s format. It is apparently a manuscript translated from the Arabic and Latin and written around AD 922 by an Arab emissary from Baghdad, who was sent to meet with the King of the Bulgars and was caught up on a side adventure. The novel opens with an introduction that appears to be a scholarly history of the manuscript, and it sounds like real histories of manuscript fragments. There are places, names, and dates, but they are all fictional. All through the novel this pretense is maintained, with fictional scholarly footnotes on the translation and a fictional appendix. [3]

The names are similar, yet not the same. Why? Crichton probably means to reflect the vagaries of history. His names are different enough to suggest that either his Ibn Fadlan or the genuine Beowulf poet has gotten them wrong, or at least, not quite right. Instead of Beowulf, we have Buliwyf; for Grendel, wendol; for Hrunting, Runding; for Heorot, Hurot; for Hroðgar, Rothgar; and so on. The pairs of names feel like they could easily be authentic erosions, one from the other. Likewise, the story is similar, and yet not the same. Instead of one Grendel as in the poem, the novel gives us an entire tribe of creatures, the wendol, whom Crichton implies in the faux-pendix, may be an isolated group of Neanderthals who survived into the historical period. There are conflicts between wendol (Grendel), their mother, and a dragon, but they occur in a different order in the novel. One of Crichton’s most inventive manipulations relates to the dragon. In the novel, the glowworm dragon of Korgon, it turns out, isn’t quite what it appears:

At first,

Here is what I saw: high in the air, a glowing fiery point of light, like a blazing star [...]. Soon appeared a second point of light, and yet another, and then another. I counted past a dozen and then ceased to count further. These glowing fire-points appeared in a line, which undulated like a snake, or verily like the undulating body of a dragon.

But then,

[...] the glowworm dragon of Korgon bore down upon us in thunder and flame. Each blazing point grew larger, and baleful red, flickering and licking; the body of the dragon was long and shimmering, a vision most fierce of aspect, and yet I was not afraid, for I determined now that these were horsemen with torches, and this proved true. [4]

So, what appeared to be a dragon, and was “recorded” in the poem, Beowulf, as the genuine saurian article, is here in Ibn Fadlan’s manuscript account revealed to have been nothing more than a clever, and doubtlessly effective, military stratagem. This has the feeling of genuine historicity, don’t you think? How else to explain a dragon? Unless, of course, they really existed. (Did they? :)

It all boils down to a gripping medieval tale in its own right, presented through a frame of feigned historical authenticity, with many points of contact (but not total congruency) with Beowulf. It’s not your run of the mill Michael Crichton, certainly, but every bit as good as his best techno-thrillers, and perhaps deeper and better written than most of them. [5] If you’re looking for a way to remember Crichton, and especially if you haven’t read Eaters of the Dead, why not give it a try? I daresay even Tolkien would have thought it a cracking good tale.

* Kidnapped is overstating it a bit; compelled would be more accurate. And the action takes place in AD 922, not 932. Tsk, tsk, tsk, basic fact-checking. ;)

[1] For more on Tolkien’s use, as well as discussion of the tradition, see Mark Hooker’s essay, “The Feigned-Manuscript Topos,” in A Tolkienian Mathomium. Llyfrawr, 2006, pp. 153-177.

[2] See further, Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad. Ibn Fadlan’s Journey To Russia. Ed. Richard N. Frye. Princeton (NJ): Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005. This is the first complete English translation of Ibn Fadlan’s writings.

[3] Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to Beowulf. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press, 2005, p. 189. See the entire discussion of the novel on pp. 189–91.

[4] Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, p. 126.

[5] For a more developed critical comparison, read Hugh Magennis’s essay, “Michael Crichton, Ibn Fadlan, Fantasy Cinema: Beowulf at the Movies,” in Old English Newsletter 35.1 (Fall 2001), in HTML or PDF format.


  1. Gary Schmidt11/11/2008 3:56 PM

    Nice review, Jase. Now I want to go and read that book!

  2. You should, Gary. You’d like it (even if most of Crichton’s books would not normally be to your taste). It and John Gardner’s Grendel are a couple of nice, modern bookends to Beowulf. You’ve read Grendel, I think ...? I may have to write up a post on that novel, too. :)

  3. I'd forgotten that Michael Crichton also directed Westworld before The Great Train Robbery - what a spectacular brain! Even if I wasn't very pleased with his Doomsday Book-flavored Timeline (as the person who spent thousands of dollars trying --and failing-- to get Connie Willis' spectacular Doomsday Book produced as a film, it made me grumpy), I am very sad to know he's left the planet. God bless 'im.

  4. Eaters is a masterpiece, addio Michael!

  5. Right, Lynn. Crichton wrote a number of screenplays and directed several films. Did you know there’s a remake of Westworld in the works, scheduled for release next year?

    Of course, not all of his screenplays and books were great (Airframe was boring, and anticlimactic, for example), and many of the movie versions of his novels were just dreadful (Congo has to be the worst, followed by Sphere, both despite major talent). But he did a lot for the techno-thriller genre.

    And don’t forget that he also created the extremely successful television series, ER.

  6. Si, addio a lui. Grazie per i commenti, Giova. Ho leggo il tuo post di blog sulla morte di Michael Crichton ieri.

  7. When thinking over MC's books I had forgotten all about this one -- thanks for reminding me how good it was.

    However, if I do reread one in memoriam I think it'll have to be Jurassic Park... hard to top that one.

  8. Hi, Sam. You’re right about Jurassic Park: certainly one of Crichton’s top five, and one of the best in the entire history of the genre. And a rare case where the film adaptation was also spectacular (sequels notwithstanding ;).

    And if you liked JP, you might also want to try George Gaylord Simpson’s The Dechronization of Sam Magruder. It’s like a cross between JP and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

  9. You've convinced me to read Eaters of the Dead—I ordered it as part of a 3-pack in hardcover, so to speak, from Amazon. Expect a post on it sometime in the next... well, I'm tempted to write "month," but "month to six months" would probably be more accurate.

    And thanks for the comment in Books, taste, and distaste. I'm always ready and even eager to be blown away by a novel, regardless of its source, and Eaters is no exception.

  10. Hi Jake. I am floored I could convince you to deign to read Michael Crichton, hahae. Well, I do hope you enjoy* it, and keeping my “least like the others” comment in mind, I daresay you will. I look forward to hearing.

    * Notice I didn’t go so far as to suggest it would “blow you away”, but I guess there’s some hope. :)

  11. Yes. Yes, Dragons existed. Yes, yes they did.

  12. I’d like to think so, Alex.

  13. Did all dragons of the medieval imagination breathe fire, or were there "cold drakes" before Tolkien? The latter might be partly explained by stories of crocodiles, which can exceed 20 feet in length. As squire once wrote, that would seem plentifully fearsome:

    "YOU go up to a beast weighing 300-400 pounds and 8-10 feet long, with wicked sharp claws, teeth and tail, with the agility of a snake and the ferocity of a tiger and try to kill it with a blade."

    And the fire -- confusion with myths of salamanders, perhaps? I have no idea about the wings, though.

  14. Did all dragons of the medieval imagination breathe fire, or were there “cold drakes” before Tolkien?

    Yeah, I think there were (though I don’t have any references ready to hand). Setting aside medieval China, which had more varieties of dragons than one would be prepared to believe, I think the European tradition of the cold drake preceded Tolkien, possibly all the way back to the Middle Ages. Too, the dragon as an imaginative expansion of the humble worm or snake should support the idea of such cold drakes. There’s also Squire’s crocodile theory.

    I once read a fairly interesting book on this subject, An Instinct for Dragons by David E. Jones. He suggested that the dragon was an amalgam of the eagle, leopard, and snake, the three most commonly encountered animals dangerous to primitive man. I found the premise intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing.

  15. Sorry, I was unclear: in that 2004 discussion to which I linked, squire was arguing that in the modern imagination, dragons are unnecessarily large (he used John Howe's image of Tolkien's Glaurung as an example), and that a beast as small as ten feet in length was more formidable than most people realized. In response, I had noted then that medieval Europeans might have heard of a genuinely larger saurian creature: the Nile crocodile.

  16. My mistake, and thanks for the clarification. For my part, I certainly think a 10- or 20-foot beastie would be more than enough to cope with. :)

    Your theory about stories of the Nile crocodile sounds very reasonable, and I could even see the true story being repeatedly enlarged (no doubt in direct proportion to the distance the tale had traveled). Medieval mappae mundi, such as the one at Hereford, often described (and sometimes even depicted) all sorts of outlandish monsters and hybrids supposedly native to Africa.

    Another idea occurs to me. If a warrior faced some kind of creature — say, a Nile crocodile — and prevailed and lived to tell the tale, would he not prefer to inflate the creature as much as possible, in the interests of a legendary reputation? Warriors tough as nails might kill a Nile crocodile, but heroes kill dragons. :)

  17. I agree. This is one of my favorite Crichton novels, and as you said, one that is often overlooked. Crichton takes a unique and creative approach to the re-telling of Beowulf, and he does a great job of masking the poem by setting it up as a historical account of these events told through Ibn Fadlan's eyes. In fact, I was not even aware it was a re-telling of Beowulf until I read the Afterword at the end of the novel.

    He sets up the historic account well in the beginning of the novel by discussing the "monsters of the mist," and the story truly comes across as believable and realistic. The footnotes help add to the realism.

    I'm trying to remember -- because I don't have the book in front of me now -- but doesn't Crichton mention in the Afterword how he wrote the first three chapters based on the actual historical account of Ibn Fadlan, and then after that, he makes the transition into fiction through the re-telling of the Beowulf poem.

    The story, for me, was even more suspenseful and eerie because I thought -- until I read the Afterword -- that the entire story was based on actual and true events.

  18. Hi, Steven. :)

    He sets up the historic account well in the beginning of the novel by discussing the “monsters of the mist,” and the story truly comes across as believable and realistic. The footnotes help add to the realism.

    Yeah, as much as anything, I think that was one of Crichton’s goals — to show how a story like Beowulf might have evolved from actual history. He’s not arguing that it was, just showing one possible way a fantastical/mythical story could have been explained by real events.

    I’m trying to remember -- because I don’t have the book in front of me now -- but doesn’t Crichton mention in the Afterword how he wrote the first three chapters based on the actual historical account of Ibn Fadlan, and then after that, he makes the transition into fiction through the re-telling of the Beowulf poem.

    Yes, that’s right. And of course, it was crucial that this little bombshell be hidden in an afterword and not a foreword; otherwise, it would have spoiled the fun. I bet there are plenty of people who’ve never never read the afterword and still believe this was a “true history” of events in the 10th century.