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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Viking Variations (Eaters of the Dead & Grendel)

I've been on a serious Beowulf kick lately. So I decided to check out some books that offer a slightly different perspective on that great epic. One gives a different perspective by changing time, the other by changing focal character.

Eaters of the Dead
Michael Crichton
Publisher: Avon (August 29, 2006)
My father mentioned this book to me once, years ago. I think I may have even started it, but somehow, I just didn’t get hooked in. Which seems strange, but I think I may have just gotten impatient with the opening of the story and given up. Years later, this book would be made into one of my favorite movies of all time, the 13th Warrior. Despite that, it has taken me several more years to finally get around to reading this. But I’m glad I did.
For those who have seen the 13th Warrior, the premise is more or less the same; an Arab courtier, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, is sent on a diplomatic mission away from the Caliphate and into barbarian lands. He ends up in a Viking hall, where he is press-ganged into a Viking war party lead by a warrior named Buliwyf. Buliwyf, Ibn Fadlan, and the rest of their war band, travel back to the Vikings homeland to fight an invasion by the “monsters from the mists,” aka the Wendol, a primitive people that have been attacking the hall of one king Rothgar. Buliwyf and his men, along with Ibn Fadlan, get caught up in the war between Rothgar and the mist monsters, eventually resolving it when Buliwyf  leads a daring raid into their caves, where he slays the “mother” of the Wendol, and helps fend of their final attack before dying of poison. Basically, it’s a pseudo-historical retelling of Beowulf, with a tribe of Neanderthals substituting for Grendel and his mother.

The book does have some basis in fact; the first few chapters are more or less a translation of an actual manuscript, written by the historic Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who really did get exiled from Baghdad and go meet some barbarian peoples. Crichton simply continues the narrative with his own ideas, and does a credible job of maintaining a tone that is consistent with that of the initial writings. He even includes some faux footnotes and other little tidbits, to further help confuse the issue about what is fact and what is fiction. Crichton does say in his afterward, however, that the entire thing should be taken as fiction, thereby preventing anyone from having a Da Vinci Code sort of confusion.

Like many of Crichton’s stories, this one is engaging, interesting, and moves fairly quickly. While the first half of the book is mostly an almost anthropological look at Viking culture, once the Wendol attacks begin in earnest, events happen very quickly. 

Ibn Fadlan is an interesting narrator; his own voice comes through very clearly, as does the voice of Herger, his primary guide and companion. Buliwyf comes through fairly well also, though some of the other characters are less well-defined. The only other member of the war band who I can clearly remember is Ecgtheow, but the rest are mostly just vague shapes that flit in and out. Still, the characters that do receive attention are well-fleshed out enough to remain engaging throughout the novel.

I have no idea how historically feasible this story is, but the truth is, I don’t care. It’s a neat concept, and well executed. Definitely worth reading.

John Gardner
Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (May 14, 1989)
ISBN: 0679723110
This one I became aware of as a result of my work at the Berklee Writing Center, since it seems to get assigned to in beginning composition courses on a regular basis. It piqued my curiosity, and since I’ve been on a Beowulf/epic poem kick anyway, I figured I’d give it a shot.
Grendel is part of the recent genre of novels that take the villain’s side (or at least, present the villain’s point of view); it’s a rather interesting conceit, that the bad guy has a psyche and reason worth exploring, or that maybe the hero of the tale isn’t so heroic after all. In Grendel, Gardner attempts to do just that with one of the oldest villains of all; Grendel, one of the three villains of Beowulf (though probably the most well-remembered).

In Beowulf, Grendel is an important, but not terribly deep character. He kills some Danes for a while, until Beowulf shows up and rips his arm off. After which Grendel stumbles off to die. It’s good adventure, but not terribly insightful.

Gardner approaches things from the opposite direction; the entirety of Grendel is told from Grendel’s point of view, and it’s Beowulf who doesn’t show up until the last chapter. Prior to that, we’re witness to Grendel’s thoughts and struggles as he tries to make sense of the world, and his role in it. Grendel turns out to be quite the philosopher, and over the course of the book, muses on everything from the truth about G-d and religion, to governmental systems, to the various ways in which humans treat each other. At least one review I paged over suggested that there is a bit of existential philosophy in here, but I’m not really well-versed enough in philosophy to verify or deny that claim.

What I can verify is that this is a good book. I might not go so far as to say it’s a great book, despite many reviews to the contrary. Sometimes Grendel’s angst and philosophizing get to be a bit overmuch, and I wished he would hurry it up. Grendel (not surprisingly) doesn’t get a lot of social interaction, so the book is primarily made up of internal monologue. This occasionally gets a bit tedious, especially in the middle. There is one long conversation between Grendel and the Dragon, which helps break up the monologue for a bit, and makes the whole thing more bearable.

That conversation also establishes an interesting connection between two of the villains in Beowulf, with the Dragon imparting some of his own philosophy to Grendel, which does nothing good for Grendel’s psyche. The Dragon is also the one who grants Grendel his immunity to the weapons of man, providing a further connection between the two villains and the events of the original epic. We also get Grendel’s perceptions of some of the other characters from Beowulf, which provides a neat spin on the tale. Beowulf in this tale appears to be vaguely insane, in an almost psychotic way, despite having enough strength to back it up. Unferth, the cowardly son of the king, is given a bit more depth (he confronts Grendel early on, and Grendel mocks him and lets him live), as is the Queen Wealhtheow. A nephew of Hrothgar, Hrothulf is also introduced, though it’s not clear to me why. Apparently he does show up in Beowulf, but I have little recollection of him doing anything in that poem. He doesn’t do much here either, except scheme a bit, and give Gardner a chance to engage in some philosophy about government.

Overall, I found Grendel a mixed bag. Some parts of it were fascinating, while others just dragged on too long. Still, it’s worth a look, particularly if you’re a Beowulf fan.