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Vikings are one of the most familiar elements of medieval history, and naturally they’ve proven popular with film-makers, as evidenced by the popularity of National Geographic’s recent drama series, Vikings. But when The 13th Warrior (1999, dir. John McTiernan) was released, it did quite poorly, earning only a little more than a third of its production costs. The movie was based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, which in turn was based (as he admits in the appendix) on Beowulf and on the Risala of Ahmed ibn Fadlan, an Arab who traveled up the Volga on a diplomatic mission to the newly-converted Muslim Bulgars of the region in the year 921. Ibn Fadlan’s Risala is an account of his journey, particularly notable for his descriptions of the Rus, a group normally understood to be Norse traders.

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What Crichton did was to take the Rus chapter of the Risala and attach it to the plot of Beowulf, with Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) as Beowulf and Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) acting as part of Buliwyf’s warband. Beowulf’s enemies are rationalized as a tribe of surviving Neanderthals, the Wendols. Buliwyf saves Hrothgar’s people, but is poisoned in the process and dies.

Most of the film is a pretty standard adventure fantasy, but the opening scenes draw heavily on the Risala and are therefore more based in actual history than the rest of the film. And it’s here that we get to interesting questions of historical accuracy. But to be clear, Ibn Fadlan did not travel into Scandinavia with a group of Norsemen; he simply met them during his travels on the Volga river.

Also, two small but important linguistic points: ‘ibn’ means ‘son of’ in Arabic. Ahmed is the son of Fadlan. His full name in Arabic formulation is Ahmed ibn Fadlan ibn Al-Abbas ibn Rashid ibn Hammad, which means we know his paternal ancestry going back four generations. Students sometimes mistakenly refer to him as ‘Ibn’ as if it were a proper name. It’s really cognate with ‘Mac’ in names like “MacArthur’. The Norse have the same problem as modern students, referring to him as Ibn, much to his frustration.

Also, in popular terminology, ‘Viking’ refers to anyone person from medieval Scandinavia; it’s used as if it were an ethnic grouping. But a Viking is specifically a traveler who has gone abroad seeking economic resources; sometimes a Viking violently plunders people, but at other times he trades with them peacefully, probably often selling things he took violently a few days before. So it’s really an occupation that some men temporarily adopted, rather than a permanent identity. ‘Pirate’ is perhaps the closest English word, although Vikings did not generally attack other ships the way the crew of the Black Pearl do; rather they pillage small vulnerable villages and the like. Strictly speaking, Scandinavians are Norse, and Viking mostly applies to Norse who left Scandinavia (although a Norseman could certainly go Viking in Scandinavia). Also, there’s no such thing as a ’female Viking’, since there’s no evidence that women engaged in this activity. Not that 13th Warrior shows us any ‘Viking women’; I just thought I’d mention it because it’s such a common misconception.

The Rus in the Risala vs the Vikings in the Film

At the beginning of the move, Ibn Fadlan and his friend Melchisidek (Omar Shariff) (a character not found in the Risala, who for some reason has an ancient Hebrew name) encounter a group of Rus. They met Buliwyf  (pronounced ‘boll-veye’, which I’m dubious about, but I’m not a linguist, so I’ll let it slide), and learn that the king of the Rus has died, and that Buliwyf is his heir. Buliwyf asks him to tell a story, and for some reason Ibn Fadlan starts to tell the Genesis creation account (the Muslim creation account is quite close to the Jewish account, but from the small bit that we get, it sounds a lot more like the Jewish version than any version a Muslim would likely tell). But before he can get into the story, Buliwyf gets into a fight. It’s not clear why the fight starts—perhaps the other man is trying to assassinate him. But the point of the scene seems to be to tell us that these Vikings sure are violent people.

Immediately thereafter, the film shows us the funeral of the dead king (described as “the old way”, presumably in contrast to the new way of Islam that Ahmed and Melchisidek follow). What the film shows is based fairly directly on the most famous section of Ibn Fadlan’s work, in which he spends 5 pages describing a funeral ritual he saw. The cinematic Ibn Fadlan sees a Norse ship with items piled on it, and watches as a woman in a white dress is raised up several times, declaring that she sees people calling her to them. Then she is led out of view and the boat is lit on fire. The film implies that she is killed. Throughout, the emphasis is on how strange the ritual is to Ahmed; he is told little about what the ritual means, although he is told that it ensures that the dead king will go to Paradise with gifts.

The scene is fairly faithful to the Risala as far as it goes, but it omits a great deal of detail. The full funeral ritual apparently took 10 days. The dead man was buried, and a boat was constructed (from the account, it’s not clear if it’s a functional boat or merely a symbolic one). Special clothes were made for the dead man, and mead was brewed. One of his slave-girls volunteered to die to go with the dead man. The body was dug up and dressed, and several animals were cut in half and placed in the boat with the body. The slave-girl was held up over a structure like a doorframe, during which she described what she saw. She drank mead, and then six men took her into a tent and had sex with her with others beat their shields loudly. Then two men strangled her while an old woman, called the Angel of Death, stabbed her in the chest with a dagger. Her body was placed next to the dead man. The man’s closest male relative stripped naked, and walked backward toward the boat, carrying a torch and covering his anus with his hand. He set fire to the boat and others joined in as well.  When the fire was over, they erected a mound on the spot and erected a pole, on which they wrote the dead man’s name.

From this description, it’s not too hard to figure out why the film-makers showed only the small portion they did. The sacrificing of animals, the sex, the violent sacrifice of the slave-girl, and the naked man lighting the fire are all more or less jarring to modern people and would probably serve to alienate viewers. But just as in the Risala, in the film, there is almost no explanation given about what the details of the ritual mean, and in fact scholars are still trying to puzzle out what the ritual tells us about Norse beliefs for the afterlife. Both the real-life and the cinematic Ibn Fadlan are left with a sense that the Norse are alien in their beliefs and practices, and since he is our stand-in as the hero, it emphasizes that the Norse are alien to us as well.

The next morning, Ahmed witnesses the Norse morning hygiene routine. A bowl of water is passed around by a woman. The men take turns washing their hands and faces; they rinse their mouths and spit into the bowl, and one man blows his nose into it. Then it is offered to Ibn Fadlan, who pushes it away with concealed disgust. The point of the scene is again to emphasize that the Norse are not like Ibn Fadlan or us; they are crude and filthy.

This detail is also taken directly from the Risala. He tells us that the Rus had no shame about emptying their bowels and bladders, and they do not wash after sex or before eating. He tells us that in addition to washing their faces in the communal water, they also wash and comb out their hair. They are, he tells us, “the dirtiest creatures of God.”

The film reinforces the not-like-us trope in a third way. A teenage boy arrives in a boat. He stands still for a very long time, and Ibn Fadlan inquires about this; he is told that the Norse don’t know if the boy is real or not, and so he is politely giving them time to see he is real. So the film situates the Norse as people who believe in spirits and don’t trust their senses. Unlike the funeral and the washing routine, this last detail is made up nonsense.

So the film is giving us a mixture of fact (the funeral and the washing routine) and modern invention (thinking the boy could be a spirit), all of which is designed to emphasize how different the Norse are. But the first two elements are grounded in a historical source, and therefore might be considered “real” in a way that the third element is not.

However, there is a problem with the film’s reliance on the Risala; it assumes that because the Risala says it, it must actually be true. But this is to read the Risala in a very naïve way. Ibn Fadlan wrote as an outsider to Norse society; he was including things that he found remarkable about these people, and he included many details, such as the funeral rituals, that he did not understand. His lack of understanding shaped the way he saw things, and he probably omitted details when he thought them normal or when he assumed they were unimportant. So we cannot assume that his account of the funeral is complete. He may have exaggerated things he thought particularly odd. He may also be making up details: it’s not clear, for example, how he knows that the men had sex with the slave-girl, since it happened in a tent surrounded by a crowd that was making a lot of noise.

Furthermore, Ibn Fadlan’s deeper purpose is to depict these people as barbarians because they are not Muslims. Much of his account of the Rus emphasizes details about how non-Islamic they are. They tattoo themselves (forbidden in many interpretations of Islam), and they do not veil their woman but use them to advertize their wealth. They do not wash with running water as a proper Muslim would but with water in a bucket. They do not practice Islamic funeral rituals. They have sex in public with slave girls. The details he includes are cognate with modern American depictions of ‘savage Africans’ as barely-clothed, wearing bones through their noses, and engaging in cannibalism. So while the film accurately repeats some of what Ibn Fadlan tells us, we cannot assume that what Ibn Fadlan tells us is the unvarnished truth.

The foreign-ness of the Norse is gradually dissolved over the course of the film, as Ibn Fadlan and Buliwyf’s band gradually come to understand one another and learn to respect each other. This is not a lesson the historical Ibn Fadlan learned, because unlike Antonio Banderas, he did not travel with them into Scandinavia, but rather continued on his mission into what we would call Kazahkstan.

The Problem of Language

So a central theme of The 13th Warrior is the process by which people of different cultures get to know each other. The film underscores this in a very clever way through language. At the start of the film, Ibn Fadlan and Melchisidek are speaking English, in place of Arabic. When they encounter the Norse, they struggle to communicate. The Norse do not know Arabic, and Melchisidek tries Greek before discovering that one of the men speaks Latin (where he learned classical Latin is left unexplained—maybe they have a good public school system in 10th century Norway). So when Buliwyf speaks, he does so in modern Norwegian (standing in for Old Norse), his man translates into Latin, and Melchisidek translates into English for Ahmed and the audience. This serves to reinforce the cultural differences between us and the Norse; if no one translates, we literally do not understand them. (However, when the boy speaks to Buliwyf, the film partly forgets the translation issue, because suddenly Melchisidek can understand the boy and translates for him.)

When Ibn Fadlan gets roped into traveling with Buliwyf, though, he cannot initially communicate because he does not speak Norse and the others do not speak Arabic. But Ibn Fadlan is clever and observant, and he watches and listens closely, and while the Norse continuing speaking Norse, English words start slipping in, until eventually the Norse are speaking English to signify that Ibn Fadlan has learned Old Norse. In the key scene, he realizes that the Norse are making insulting jokes about his mother, and he begins to win their respect by confronting them. Later, Buliwyf demonstrates that he too has been paying attention, when he tries to write out the Muslim confession of faith after having seen Ibn Fadlan do it. While the speed with which Ibn Fadlan learns Norse is probably unrealistic, the fact that the movie confronts the language barrier and works it into the theme of the film instead of just ignoring it is impressive. It goes to show that when Hollywood wants to it can actually explore historical issues in an interesting way.

Want to Know More?

The 13th Warrior is available in multiple formats from Amazon.

Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Deadis also available, in paperback and Kindle edition.

There’s a Penguin edition of Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North (Penguin Classics)which was an important source for Crichton’s book.

And of course, Beowulf is a must read. I’m partial to Beowulf (Signet Classics), which uses the Burton Raffel translation, which, in my opinion, is vastly superior to the popular but lingusitically inaccurate Seamus Heaney translation.I’ve taught Beowulf more times than I can count, and it’s meant to be read out loud, but Heaney’s version is incredibly clumsy when read out loud. He also introduces all sorts of Gaelicisms to the text that aren’t there by his word choice.

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