A Scientific Approach to Beowulf: Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead

Remixing a Literary Classic:

A Logic-Based Approach to the Epic Poem

I.  Introduction

The classic tale of Beowulf relates the epic struggle of a powerful, extra-human hero and his battles against a seemingly unstoppable adversary and insurmountable odds. This story emphasizes the importance of persistence and courage when facing nearly impossible challenges.  ­Because of its underlying values, Beowulf has survived the test of time, retold and reinterpreted within oral and written tradition.

In the novel Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton introduces similar ideas to those presented by the epic poem, Beowulf. His adaptation, while having many consistencies with the original work, incorporates new styles and techniques that make his interpretation stand alone as a successful work of literature.

There are multiple elements behind Eaters of the Dead that all serve to make it a legitimate and relevant reproduction of the classic Beowulf. The success of a remixed medium is determined by its ability to creatively introduce new ideas in a way that speaks to a broad new spectrum of audiences. Furthermore, these ideas must be introduced in such a way that it does not stray an unrecognizable distance from the original work. Eaters of the Dead generates a variety of new concepts, appealing to new audiences while simultaneously engaging fans of the original story.

Eaters of the Dead, as a remix, is driven by the motivation to communicate social lessons in a way that speaks to multiple audiences. The author approaches these messages through the use of the persuasive concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos. The relevance of Michael Crichton’s remix relies on his ability to effectively express these lessons through these persuasive strategies.

II. Drawing comparisons between the texts

Several components all work together to mold Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead into a successful remix. By studying the similarities found across the two literary works, we are able to establish the connection between the two texts and understand the deeper motivations of Crichton’s novel.

Within the plot of Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton introduces the hero, Buliwyf, an aggressive leader of a warrior-clan referred to as the Northmen, which closely resembles the early Vikings. The protagonist receives message of a deadly attack on an allied settlement far away. Buliwyf and his team of warriors embark on a quest to quell the deadly threat that it is slowly destroying this foreign land. Upon arrival of this settlement, they discover the ruler to be a vain, materialistic man with a lush castle and continuous festivity. Buliwyf and his warriors determine that the constant siege, carried out by fierce monsters known as the Wendol, occurs due to their constant celebration and vanity.

The background to Eaters of the Dead displays a solid connection to the story of Beowulf. The name of Crichton’s protagonist, Buliwyf, is strikingly similar to the name Beowulf, the hero in the original poem. We also find similar characteristics in the name given to the Wendol which represent the monster, Grendel, in the original story. The motivation for the siege carried out by the Wendol is similar to that of Grendel, who also leads violent attacks following festive events.

Further similarities between the two texts include the presence of a matriarchal figure that commands the monsters to lead the attacks and the physical traits of the monsters, described as having grotesque, yet human-like qualities. It is the similar attributes of the text that may classify it as an interpretation, but it is the creative additions of the author that will make it a culturally relevant remix.

III. Eaters of the Dead: Fact or Fiction?

The author of Eaters of the Dead, though, does introduce a variety of concepts that may be described as an atypical and unique approach to the original story. One such approach is the format which he uses to describe the details of the story. Instead of a poetic style, which is used in Beowulf, Crichton lays out the story as a manuscript which adds to the general historical feel of the text. It is differences such as this that must be examined in order to understand the purpose of the remix.

In this ‘manuscript’, Michael Crichton incorporates an unbiased, third-party observer who acts as the narrator of the events. Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveler who happens across the company of Buliwyf, is forced to join the warriors on their journey due to religious convictions that demands the presence of an outsider when engaging in such quests. Fadlan, a devout Muslim, displays much skepticism throughout the story as his cultural values are constantly in question by the Pagan group which he accompanies.

There are several reasons for the addition of this character and its implications in creating a successful remix. For one, Crichton’s goal in composing his novel is to create a realistic approach to the story of Beowulf by writing in way that displays historical value. The author does this by using factual evidence and correlating historical text to parallel the story he is telling. Ibn Fadlan, as a historical figure, did exist. Fadlan is the author of the Risala, a philosophical Arab text written several centuries ago. Eaters of the Dead employs the use of this text in its first two chapters, as it introduces the character early in the book.

Michael Livingston and John William Sutton describe the author’s addition in their analysis of this text: “(Crichton) includes historical background to Fadlan’s journeys, a detailed account of the manuscript’s provenance, and even a large number of footnotes – items that all seem to guarantee credibility.” (Livingston and Sutton, 5). It is the author’s use of historical evidence to create a realistic feel to his adaptation of Beowulf. This also demonstrates Crichton’s ultimate goal of the text itself; establishing an overtone of nonfiction to a clearly fictional work. Displaying a sense of credibility to an epic poem such as Beowulf, though, is no easy task.

By integrating text from the philosophical manuscript, the Risala, in multiple instances throughout his novel, Eaters of the Dead is able to describe the adventures of Buliwyf in actual historical context. The use of footnotes, all containing accepted, scholarly fact, further makes the impression that the reader is studying a historical document rather than a work of fiction. Through his clever use of supporting evidence and historical relevance, the author creates an authenticity that has never been seen in a variation of Beowulf. Crichton’s novel has been described as a pseudo-documentary, representing, “The earliest known eyewitness account of Viking life and society” (Grace 491).

Through his use of footnotes and historical evidence, we can see Michael Crichton using the persuasive strategy, ethos, to draw on a sense of credibility in his novel. He uses this credibility to convince readers that they are reading a historical document rather than a work of fiction.

In the afterword of his novel, Michael Crichton explains the dangers of believing all that is read. He underlines the importance of holding an objective attitude when viewing information in the media or broader social contexts. It is this explanation that gives us the ability to understand the motive behind Crichton’s remix: be wary of what you read.

IV. Examining Religious Undertones within the Texts

Eaters of the Dead draws further differences to the original poem of Beowulf by taking a new approach to religion. Michael Crichton introduces a greater emphasis on the concept of religion in his novel as he joins the opposing theological cultures Paganism and Islam. It is the culture-clash revolving around these ideologies that culminate an alternative sense of drama in the novel, as well as providing a new twist to the remix.

The inclusion of Ibn Fadlan in the traditional plot of Beowulf serves multiple purposes, one of which is acting as an opposing religious opinion to Nordic ideology. Throughout the novel, the reader is enlightened to various perspectives within Islamic culture. The thirteenth warrior, Ibn Fadlan, finds himself in constant conflict with the Northmen as their religious convictions always appear to be at odds.

The Northmen, having Pagan views of the world, view violence and conflict as the true means of pleasing their gods. Their culture is defined by bloodshed, ritualistic sacrifice and the worship of multiple theological figures. In the Nordic culture, emphasis is placed on celebration, unrestricted sexual freedom and a number of other liberal perspectives that would be considered crude and immoral to a practicing Muslim. Ibn Fadlan, on the other hand, is bound to the Islamic tradition of self-sacrifice and the worship of one almighty deity. His conservative attitudes are always under attack by the opposing values of the Northmen. Whereas Fadlan has passive characteristics, the Northmen are aggressive. This conflict defines the relationship between the Muslim traveler and the warriors of Buliwyf.

The emphasis on religion provides an interesting new approach to the classic story of Beowulf. It is in this connotation that the original poem develops into a relevant remix. Understanding the intrinsic conflicts, as well as the external clashes between Pagan and Islamic culture sets the stage for the much larger question: what circumstances are appropriate to foster an open-mind and consideration to other opinions?

Michael Crichton is able to address this issue in a clever way as the Muslim and the Northmen embark on their long and perilous journey. Throughout their travels, the company of Buliwyf experience many dangers and hardships which require them to join together for the common purpose of survival. It is on their quest that the reader is able to witness the transformation of Ibn Fadlan from a passive outsider, appalled by the practices of the Northmen, to a fierce warrior that has integrated himself into traditional Pagan culture. Crichton seems to convey the message that our strongest convictions are finite under the right conditions. In Eaters of the Dead, these conditions appear to be the will to survive.

In this instance, we can see Crichton using the persuasive strategy, pathos, to draw on the emotions of the reader. Throughout the novel, we travel deeper into the psyche of Ibn Fadlan and come to empathize with his emotional state as the events transpire. The author draws on this empathy in his attempt to influence his audience.

The original Beowulf was not devoid of various religious undertones. Whereas Eaters of the Dead approaches the subject of religion by focusing on the Pagan and Islamic ideologies, Beowulf has been argued to hold Christian elements within its text. Edward B. Irving, Jr., in his review of the classic poem, points out that the story of Beowulf adapts a literary form that is characteristic of the era in which it was written. Irving describes the poet of Beowulf to have been a Christian viewing a Pagan world, in that there is a single hero defending against chaos, death and violence (Irving).

The idea of religion as a driving motivation of the original poem may be overstated, though. Scholarly debate has led others to believe that Beowulf was a tale written through Pagan perspectives, while others believe that it took a secular approach and focused mainly on values of hierarchies and lineage. Andrea Dolinsky speaks of the conflicting religious analyses of Beowulf and the shift toward individualism as a driving motivation. She explains, “[scholars have] twisted the sincerity of Beowulf’s unbending loyalty by wrestling with debates about the poem’s Christian, Pagan, and Secular qualities. The result of these trends has led to an individualistic version of Beowulf” (4).

The fact that there is only speculative presence of religious context within the poem of Beowulf further validates Eaters of the Dead as a successful remix. This is because Crichton has taken a controversial subject within the study of Beowulf and has added a greater value to the concept. The emphasis on the subject of religion both solidifies Crichton’s work and opens the door for new audiences to review and speculate this unique approach to the classic poem.

V. A Scientific Approach

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Crichton’s adaptation of the classic poem is the shift from an epic genre to that of scientific context. The author travels far beyond the motivation to make the manuscript appear historically accurate, but his use of footnotes further work to analyze and interpret the characteristics of the epic poem. Crichton approaches this transition of literary genres in multiple ways.

First, the author makes bold suggestions, supported by fact, that work to validate the original description of characters and events that transpired in the classic poem. As the paper suggested earlier, the Muslim traveler represents an actual historical figure whose observations served to validate the story being told. Michael Crichton takes a step further by interpreting the observations made regarding the Wendol and offering scientific evidence to explain their existence.                 

Following the initial observations made by Ibn Fadlan regarding the monsters referred to as the Wendol, the author of this text provides a footnote that compares their grotesque, yet human-like qualities to that of the Neanderthal. Crichton argues in the text that certain groups of these primitive humans may have survived the progression of evolution and the biological transition to the modern Homo-Sapiens. Robin Norris, in her article analyzing the poem of Beowulf and its different interpretations, explains Crichton’s motivation for including the existence of the Neanderthal in his interpretation of the text, “Crichton’s own factual note added in 1992 that more recent scholarship makes the proposition less ‘preposterous’ now than when he first wrote the novel (289). So it is not only Crichton’s monsters who survive the fight with Buliwyf, but he implies that their historical inspiration may have experienced a remarkable survival too” (Norris, 436).

As Norris states, Michael Crichton included an afterword to his novel in 1992, explaining the various aspects of his remix and the sources from which he drew during its creation. Within this afterword, Crichton explains that, while his story was a work of fiction, scientific evidence supports the idea that the Neanderthal may actually have been present in the era that Beowulf was written, not only validating his material but establishing a sense of credibility to the original poem, as well.

In the first image we see an artistic interpretation of Beowulf’s Grendel, where clear human-like qualities may be seen through the clear deformities (see figure 1). In the second image we can see a theatrical interpretation of Michael Crichton’s Wendol, where fewer deformities are present and the monsters appear more human than beast (see figure 2). These artistic constructions of the monster from the two stories both correspond with Crichton’s analysis that the creature may represent a primitive human.

By offering scientific comparisons of the Wendol to that of the Neanderthal, we are able to see Crichton using logos to influence the reader. The author is able to use logic to explain the existence of the monsters and further convince the reader of the historical authenticity of the text.

Crichton’s scientific approach is seen further, yet to a lesser degree, through the observations made by Ibn Fadlan as a logical, third-party witness. Fadlan, throughout the manuscript, represents the only voice of reason as he is surrounded by company whose decisions are solely driven by mythological superstition. Whereas the epic poem Beowulf merely explains the events that transpire, Eaters of the Dead analyzes these events and their meanings are interpreted by the outside observer. Where Beowulf expects its audience to accept the information given to them, Crichton expects his audience to have a skeptical attitude and remedies this idea by incorporating a voice of reason into his version. The use of logic rather than superstition represents social attitudes of the era in which the texts were written. Where the audience of Beowulf, at the time it was written, would have accepted these views, Crichton understood that his audience would need evidence in order to accept his version.

Michael Crichton takes other steps in creating a realistic feel to his version, such as the underlining the concept of mortality. The hero, Beowulf, held extra-human emotional and physiological traits, surviving episodes of intense danger to such a degree that the character lost his connection to the average man. In Michael Crichton’s adaptation of the epic poem, the hero, Buliwyf, much more accurately represented modern man. While Buliwyf was a courageous and strong hero in every respect, he still held a sense of mortality, displaying psychological traits such as uneasiness and fear, as well as physiological traits, such as pain and fatigue. By humanizing his hero, Crichton is able to provide a convincing account of the classic story of Beowulf.

VI. The Implications of the Remix

I have examined the various characteristics that connect Eaters of the Dead to the epic poem of Beowulf, and have outlined the differences between these texts that allow the two stories to stand alone as separate and successful literary works. So what exactly qualifies the novel of Michael Crichton to be considered a successful remix of the original? Relevance: the incorporation of new material that appeals to a growing spectrum of audiences.

Eaters of the Dead has a variety of social implications and a clear message that the author introduces with the intent to educate his readers. The lessons that we can gather from this text are easily determined, and all serve a different purpose.

The first lesson we can gather from Crichton’s novel is the importance of being wary of information that is presented to us. As we travel deeper into the digital era, where information is much more easily passed between individuals than it ever has been, we must be able to interpret what information is credible and what should be dismissed. Crichton’s novel argues the dangers of believing all that is read and that educated citizens lead to an improved social environment.

Crichton also argues for the value of keeping an open mind. While reading of the immersion of Ibn Fadlan into Nordic culture, and his cultural transition from Islam to Pagan tradition, we can see the underlying tone that urges readers to consider opposing ideas rather than dismissing them outright.

In addressing these lessons, Crichton successfully employs the use of persuasive strategy that engages the reader in various ways. The author introduces the use of ethos by drawing on various academic sources and establishing a clear sense of credibility throughout the text. Furthermore, he employs the use of logos as he attempts to explain various details of the story, such as the comparison between the Wendol and the Neanderthal. Crichton approaches pathos as he dives into the emotional background of Ibn Fadlan and emphasizes the mortality of Buliwyf. Eaters of the Dead is able to accomplish its goal of social education through the use of these persuasive styles.

Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, serves great importance to the world of literature. His scientific techniques and historical approach to a literary work of fantasy not only provides an interesting take on a classic text, but introduces the story to an entirely new field of study. Through the incorporation of scientific and historical data, Crichton opens the door for academic interpretations within the field of science, as well as the arts. Through the use of new footnotes and corroborating evidence, the author takes a traditionally academic work of literature and creates an interesting plot for modern audiences. His dismissal of general superstitious observation in the original work, and his logical approach to this remixed medium, appeal to an audience of a much more scientific era, who desire facts more than fantasy. In his review of Crichton’s novel, Neal Wyatt observes that “Crichton echoes the tone of Fadlan’s historical account perfectly and even includes footnotes, adding to the illusion that the reader is immersed in nonfiction” (Wyatt 101).

The ability of the author to simultaneously combine the content of a centuries-old poem while producing scientific relevance, generating social lessons and opening the door for new audiences and academic discussion, are all considerable reasons that classify Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, as a successful modern remix.

 Works Cited

Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the dead: the manuscript of Ibn Fadlan relating his experiences  with the Northmen in A.D. 922. New York: Knopf, 1976. Print.

Dolinsky, Andrea . “Cardinal Scholar: “I am Beowulf!”: the figure of the hero in Beowulf.” Cardinal Scholar. Ball State University, 21 July 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.             <http://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/handle/123456789/196190&gt;.

Grace, Dominick. “”The Handmaid’s Tale”: “Historical Notes” and Documentary Subversion.”   Science Fiction Studies 25.3 (1998): 491. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Irving, Edward B . “The Medieval Review.” The Medieval Review. Version 96.12.08. N.p., n.d.      Web. 30 Sept. 2012.             <https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/4329/96.12.08.html?sequence=1&gt;.

Livingston, Michael , and John W. Sutton. “Reinventing the Hero: Gardner’s Grendel and the       Shifting Face of Beowulf in Popular Culture.” PCAS ACAS 29.1 (2006): 5. pcasacas.org. Web. 30 Sept. 2012..

Norris, Robin. “Resistance to Genocide in the Postmodern Beowulf.” Literature Compass 8.7 (2011): 436. Wiley Online Library. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Wyatt, Neal. “Long Ships and Broadswords: Viking Fiction.” Library Journal 133.19 (2008): 101. EBSCOhost. Web. 29 Sept. 2012.

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