Eaters of the Dead

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Eaters of the Dead
First edition cover
AuthorMichael Crichton
Cover artistPaul Bacon
CountryUnited States
GenrePlausible historical novel
Publication date
March 1976
LC ClassPZ4.C9178 Eat3 PS3553.R48
Preceded byThe Great Train Robbery 
Followed byCongo 

Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922 (later republished as The 13th Warrior to correspond with the film adaptation of the novel) is a 1976 novel by Michael Crichton, the fourth novel under his own name and his 14th overall. The story is about a 10th-century Muslim Arab who travels with a group of Vikings to their settlement.

Crichton explains in an appendix that the book was based on two sources. The first three chapters are a retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's personal account of his actual journey north and his experiences with and observations of Varangians. The remainder is a retelling of Beowulf.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is set in the 10th century. The Caliph of Baghdad, Al-Muqtadir, sends his ambassador, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, on a mission to assist the king of the Volga Bulgars. Ahmad ibn Fadlan never arrives, as he is conscripted by a group of Vikings, led by their chieftain Buliwyf, to take part in a hero's quest to the north; he is taken along as the 13th member of their group to comply with a soothsayer's requirement for success. They travel to Hurot Hall, the home of King Hrothgar, to defend it from the 'mist-monsters', or 'wendol', a tribe of vicious savages (suggested by the narrator to have been possibly relict Neanderthals) who go to battle wearing bearskins. After two devastating battles, Ibn Fadlan and the remaining Northmen decide to attack the Wendol village, which is located in a network of sea caves. They infiltrate the sea caves, assassinate the head of the Wendol tribe, and return to Hurot Hall. Buliwyf, however, is mortally wounded in the attempt. At Hurot, they encounter the Wendol in battle for a final time, defeating them. Ibn Fadlan is then allowed to continue on his journey.

Eaters of the Dead is narrated as a scientific commentary on an old manuscript. The narrator describes the story as a composite of extant commentaries and translations of the original storyteller's manuscript. The narration makes several references to a possible change or mistranslation of the original story by later copiers. The story is told by several different voices: the editor/narrator, the translators of the script, and the original author, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who also relates stories told by others. A sense of authenticity is supported by occasional explanatory footnotes with references to a mixture of factual and fictitious sources.

Sources and inspiration[edit]

In the afterword, Crichton gives a few comments on the book's origin. A good friend of Crichton's was giving a lecture on the "Bores of Literature". Included in his lecture was an argument on Beowulf and why it was simply uninteresting. Crichton opined that the story was not a bore but was, in fact, a very interesting work. The argument escalated until Crichton stated that he would prove to him that the story could be interesting if presented in the correct way.[1][2]

Abdul Alḥaẓred's Necronomicon (of H. P. Lovecraft fame) is mentioned in passing as a reference.[3]

Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead" (1976) is a novel that combines historical fiction, fantasy, and adventure. While the book has its unique elements, it also has several literary precedents that influenced its creation. Some of the main influences include:

Beowulf: One of the most important literary antecedents for "Eaters of the Dead" is the Old English epic poem "Beowulf." This long narrative poem, composed around the 8th or 9th century, recounts the heroic deeds of the warrior Beowulf as he battles the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a dragon. Crichton's novel is in part a retelling of the Beowulf legend, with the protagonist, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, experiencing a similar journey and facing similar supernatural threats.

Ibn Fadlan's Account: Ahmad ibn Fadlan was a real-life 10th-century Arab traveler and writer who documented his journey as part of a diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulgars. His account, "Risala," is one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the Viking peoples, their customs, and their way of life. In "Eaters of the Dead," Crichton reimagines Ibn Fadlan as the protagonist and incorporates elements from his actual writings into the story.

The Hero's Journey: Crichton's novel follows the structure of the classic "hero's journey," a narrative template that has been used in countless stories throughout history, including works like Homer's "The Odyssey" and Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." The hero's journey typically involves a protagonist venturing into an unknown world, facing challenges and trials, and returning home transformed. In "Eaters of the Dead," Ahmad ibn Fadlan embarks on a journey with Viking warriors, confronts supernatural creatures, and undergoes a personal transformation throughout his experiences.

The Historical Fiction Genre: Crichton's novel is part of the historical fiction genre, which has its roots in works like Sir Walter Scott's "Waverley" (1814) and Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (1831). Historical fiction combines historical events, settings, and real-life characters with fictional elements to create engaging and immersive stories. "Eaters of the Dead" is an example of how Crichton masterfully blends historical facts with imaginative storytelling.

Anthropological Studies: Crichton's work often incorporates scientific and anthropological research to provide readers with a sense of authenticity and realism. In "Eaters of the Dead," Crichton draws upon anthropological studies of Viking and early Islamic cultures to create a richly detailed world. This approach is reminiscent of other authors who have used anthropological research in their fiction, such as H. Rider Haggard in "King Solomon's Mines" (1885) and Ursula K. Le Guin in her "Earthsea" series.


The critic from the New York Times called it "diverting but disappointing".[4] The Chicago Tribune said it was "funny, fascinating and informative".[5]

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1979, it was announced the movie version of the novel would be made by the newly formed Orion Pictures with Crichton as director.[6] This did not occur.

The novel was adapted into film as The 13th Warrior (1999), directed by John McTiernan and released by Walt Disney Pictures through its Touchstone Pictures banner. Crichton did some uncredited directing for a reshoot after Disney fired McTiernan for various reasons, one of which was going far over budget. Antonio Banderas played Ibn Fadlan. Crichton writes that he was "quite pleased" with the film, although it received mixed reviews and performed poorly at the box office, earning about $62 million worldwide; the film's budget was more than $100 million.[7]


  1. ^ Browne, Ray B. (Editor) (2005). Popular Culture Studies Across the Curriculum: Essays for Educators. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help) "When he [Crichton] discovered that a friend was using Beowulf as a springboard for a new college course entitled, 'The Great Bores'… Crichton pointed out that Beowulf contains all of the aspects of today's best action-adventure stories. Subsequently, he set out on a mission to prove his point. In 1976, Crichton's answer, Eaters of the Dead, hit bookstore shelves."
  2. ^ Crichton, Michael (1976). "A Factual Note on Eaters of the Dead". The 13th Warrior: previously published as Eaters of the Dead. New York: Ballantine. p. 270.
  3. ^ Sullivan, Jack (25 April 1976). "With real and bogus footnotes". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
  4. ^ JACK SULLIVAN (Apr 25, 1976). "With real and bogus footnotes: Eaters Of the Dead". New York Times. p. 253.
  5. ^ Oberbeck, S K. (Apr 25, 1976). "Crichton's creative play: Eaters of the Dead". Chicago Tribune. p. f6.
  6. ^ Kilday, Gregg. (Jan 5, 1979). "Orion: A Humanistic Production". Los Angeles Times. p. f13.
  7. ^ Dirks, T. 2010. Greatest Box-Office Bombs, Disasters and Flops of All-Time. [Online] (Updated 2010) p.11.


  • Crichton, Michael. "A Factual Note on Eaters of the Dead" in Eaters of the Dead. New York: Harper, 2006. 245–52. ISBN 9780061782633.