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Michael Crichton has sold a zillion books, mostly by sticking to one simple formula--take a relatively stable social system and introduce some threatening variable, most often technology based, that proceeds to wreak havoc.  The vital subtext, particularly for an author who appeals mainly to the frequent flyer crowd, is that these threats play on the many fears of middle class, middle aged, white men--in Andromeda Strain it's biological warfare, in Rising Sun it's the Japanese (remember when they were going to rule the world?), in Jurassic Park it's DNA tampering, in Sphere it's aliens, in Disclosure it's women in the workplace and, in what surely must have been a disquieting touch for his target audience, in Airframe it's airline safety.  How fitting then that in Eaters of the Dead he returns to the legend of Beowulf, one of the primal tales of dread from the murky Anglo Saxon past.

In 1974 one of Crichton's friends, a college professor, joked about teaching a literature course on "The Great Bores", among which he counted Beowulf.  Crichton laudably came to the defense of this classic (see Orrin's review) and decided to try and retell the tale for a modern audience.  Eventually he decided to move the setting of the story forward in time to 922 AD so that he could have a historical figure, the Arab traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, narrate it.   Ibn Fadlan was an emissary of the Caliph of Bagdad who came into contact with Vikings during his journey into modern Russia and left behind a manuscript detailing his experiences.

For the purposes of the novel, Crichton has him meet up with a band of Northmen lead by the warrior Buliwyf just as they have been summoned to Hurot Hall to help King Rothgar repel the mysterious and terrifying Eaters of the Dead, a horde of seemingly demonic beasts who attack under cover of night and fog.  A soothsaying crone insists that he accompany them as the 13th member of their party.  As he finds out later, his inclusion is necessitated by cosmological and numerological superstition:

    I learned that these Northmen have some notion that the year does not fit with exactitude into
    thirteen passages of the moon, and thus the number thirteen is not stable and fixed in their minds.
    The thirteenth passage is called magical and foreign, and Herger says, "Thus for the thirteenth man
    you were chosen as foreign."

Initially repulsed by their violence and carnality and by their lack of hygiene, the more cultured--even effette--Ibn Fadlan gradually becomes an integral member of the band, developing a particularly good friendship with the affable Herger, and, unlike most of his comrades, survives the repeated savage encounters with the Eaters of the Dead (or wendol, as they are also known) to become the official chronicler of their adventure.

I thought that it took Crichton a little too long to set the stage here, particularly for such a short book, and the technique of casting the tale in Ibn Fadlan's voice and style makes for a somewhat archaic narrative.  But once the action gets going it is great fun.  I read the book after seeing the movie version, The 13th Warrior, which though it got decidedly mixed reviews I enjoyed greatly.  Basically what you've got here is a combination of Beowulf and The Magnificent Seven with a smidgen of anthropology thrown in for good measure; what's not to like?


Grade: (B)


See also:

Michael Crichton (3 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Michael Crichton Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Michael Crichton
    -AUTHOR SITE: The Official Michael Crichton Website
    -CARICATURE: Michael Crichton (David Levine, NY Review of Books)
    -The New York Times > Movies > People > Michael Crichton
    -AUTHOR/BOOK SITE: - State of Fear
    -BOOK SITE: State of Fear (Harper Collins)
    -State of Fear (Wikipedia)
    -SPEECH: Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century (Michael Crichton, November 6, 2005, at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C.)
    -LECTURE: "Aliens Cause Global Warming" (A lecture by Michael Crichton, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, January 17, 2003)
    -SPEECH: Remarks to the Commonwealth Club (Michael Crichton, San Francisco, September 15, 2003)
    -REVIEW: of Slaughterhouse Five (Michael Crichton, New Republic)
    -PROFILE: Michael Crichton Takes on Global Warming in Latest Work: Author Says Environmentalists Are 'Fomenting False Fears' (JOHN STOSSEL, Dec. 10, 2004, 20/20)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Global warming? Now that really is fiction (Jasper Gerard, 1/02/05, Sunday Times of London)
    -PROFILE: Jurassic Park author pours cold water on global warming: Michael Crichton's new techno thriller fantasises a world free of the pall of greenhouse gases (Patrick Barkham, December 11, 2004, The Guardian)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Michael Crichton's 'State of Fear' (NPR Science Friday, January 7, 2005)
    -ESSAY: Fear of reason (Gregory Benford and Martin Hoffert, San Diego Union Tribune)
    -ESSAY: Global Warming? Hot Air (George F. Will, December 23, 2004, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Answers to Key Questions Raised by M. Crichton in State of Fear (Pew Center on Global Climate Change)
    -ESSAY: Fear Factoids: Michael Crichton debunks global warming in his latest thriller. Bill McKibben says the book's bunk. (Bill McKibben, March 2005, Outside Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Michael Crichton's 'State of Fear': Fact and Fiction on Global Warming (Alan Caruba Monday, January 17, 2005, Chron Watch)
    -ESSAY: Toro! Toro! Michael Crichton (Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD,
    -ESSAY: Some Like It Hot: Forty public policy groups have this in common: They seek to undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing the earth to overheat. And they all get money from ExxonMobil (Chris Mooney, May/June 2005, Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW: of Sphere by Michael Crichton (Robin McKinley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Travels by Michael Crichton (Patricia Bosworth, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Rising Sun by Michael Crichton (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Disclosure by Michael Crichton (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lost World by Michael Crichton (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Lost World by Michael Crichton (MIM UDOVITCH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Airframe by Michael Crichton (Tom Shone, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Airframe (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Timeline by Michael Crichton (DANIEL MENDELSOHN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Timeline (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Prey by Michael Crichton (Jim Holt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Prey (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Prey (Freeman J. Dyson, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Prey (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: State Of Fear by Michael Crichton (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: State of Fear (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (BRUCE BARCOTT, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (S.T. Karnick, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Blake Hurst, American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear(Read Mercer Schuchardt, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (RONALD BAILEY, Opinion Journal)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Ronald Bailey, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Richard Dyer, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Carol Memmott, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Sacha Zimmerman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (James Wilson, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Chris Mooney, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Charley Reese,
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Jennie Bristow, Spiked)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Allan Walton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Myron Ebell, Human Events)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Dr. Jeffrey M. Masters, Chief Meteorologist, The Weather Underground, Inc.)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (David Roberts, Grist)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (NRDC)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Kenneth Green, Tech Central Station)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Joseph L. Bast, The Heartland Institute)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Amy Ridenour, National Policy Analysis)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (S. Fred Singer,
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Peter Guttridge, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Iain Murray, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Robert Zirkelbach, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (Jeff Glorfeld, The Age)
    -REVIEW: of State of Fear (gavin, Real Climate)
    -ARTICLE: Experiment probes climate riddle (Richard Black, 1/19/06, BBC News)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Official Web Site of Michael Crichton
    -Michael Crichton Filmography
    -A Michael Crichton Website
    -Risala: Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus (Viking Answer Lady)
    -The Swedish Vikings (quotes from Ibn Fadlan)
    -Birka at the Silkroad:  A port of transit and an outpost in Sweden of the Silkroad to northern and western Europe! ( © 1997, Mats Philip )
    -THE VIKINGS IN RUSSIA (Steven Lowe)
    -Chapter XXXIV: Ways of Worship
    -REVIEW: of Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (Adam Lesh, Dusty Shelf)
    -REVIEW: ( Dylon Whyte , Books for those Busy Signal Blues)
    -REVIEW: of Timeline By Michael Crichton (Daniel Mendelsohn , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: Between Planes, NY Review of Books
        Airframe by Michael Crichton
    -REVIEW: of Airframe By Michael Crichton (Tom Shone, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TRAVELS By Michael Crichton (Patricia Bosworth, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: R.C. Lewontin: The Last of the Nasties?, NY Review of Books
        The Lost World by Michael Crichton
    -REVIEW: of THE LOST WORLD By Michael Crichton  (Mim Udovitch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   THE LOST WORLD By Michael Crichton (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  Disclosure By Michael Crichton (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT , NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of   DISCLOSURE By Michael Crichton (Maureen Dowd, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: A Man. A Woman. Just a Movie. Not a Polemic (BERNARD WEINRAUB, Special to The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: Ian Buruma: It Can't Happen Here, NY Review of Books
        Rising Sun by Michael Crichton
    -REVIEW: of   RISING SUN By Michael Crichton  (Robert Nathan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rising Sun By Michael Crichton  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT , NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  Is Japan Out to Get Us? (Robert B. Reich, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Stephen Jay Gould: Dinomania, NY Review of Books
        Jurassic Park directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Michael Crichton, and David Koepp
        The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay and Jody Duncan
        Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
    -REVIEW: of Jurassic Park By Michael Crichton  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of   Jurassic Park By Michael Crichton   (Gary Jennings, NY Times Book Review)
    -STUDY GUIDE: LESSON PLANS FOR THE NOVEL "JURASSIC PARK"  Instructor:   Jim Wasielewski  Location: Vacaville High School
    -REVIEW: of    SPHERE By Michael Crichton (Robin McKinley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Thomas R. Edwards: People in Trouble, NY Review of Books
        The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
        Open Heart by Frederick Buechner
        Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer

    -Buy the DVD (Amazon)
    -Touchstone Pictures: 13th Warrior
    -Internet Movie Database: The 13th Warrior (1999)
    -Film Site from Dark Horizons
    -REVIEW: The 13th Warrior: A Film Review by James Berardinelli
    -REVIEW: The 13th Warrior Screening Review (Cinescape Insider)
    -REVIEW: Medieval '13th Warrior' just another male-bonding epic  (Michael Wilmington, MetroMix)
    -REVIEW: (PopCultureShock)
    -REVIEW: (Uncle Slander)
    -REVIEW:   Film Desk   The 13th Warrior  A Film Review by James Kendrick

    -Beowulf Resources
    -Original Text
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE: Beowulf    by Anonymous.   (SparkNote by Amanda Davis)
    -EXCERPTS: A New 'Beowulf'  SEAMUS HEANEY  selections from Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf, with excerpts from Mr. Heaney's introduction, NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: F.W. Bateson: Grendel and Beowulf Were Two Pretty Boys, NY Review of Books
        Beowulf translated with an Introduction and Afterword by Burton Raffel
        Grendel by John Gardner and illustrated by Emil Antonucci
    -LETTER: Burton Raffel: BEOWULF IN AMERICA, NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: of THE MONSTROUS RACES IN MEDIEVAL ART AND THOUGHT By John Block Friedman (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW:  Ted Hughes: Tricksters And Tarbabies, NY Review of Books
        Literature Among the Primitives by John Greenway
        The Primitive Reader edited by John Greenway
    -ESSAY: ON CAMPUS: THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)