Monday, April 19, 2010

Eaters of the Dead

I'm a fan of Michael Crichton but he's such a productive writer, I have to admit I haven't read all his books. This week I finally got around to reading Eaters of the Dead. It was originally published in 1976, before I even knew who Michael Crichton was, but a reprint was issued last year for all of us who are still discovering the vast range of his writings. The niftiest thing about this book is that it's a retelling of the story of Beowulf from the point of view of an outsider: an Arab diplomat who is kidnapped by a band of Vikings while on a mission to the king of the Bulgars.

I read Beowulf for the first time in 9th grade. I remember thinking, "This would be a great story if it were told well." Translation is a hard thing in any case, and the poetry of the original Anglo-Saxon (yes, it really is poetic) is generally lost in the rock-em-sock-em versions in modern English. I read two more translations before diving into the original Anglo-Saxon version in grad school. Yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment, but it was really marvelous to read it out loud, as it would originally have been performed, and hear the sounds the language made, how they colored the story itself. Modern English never quite cut it after that. At least, not until I read Michael Crichton's version.

I love reading stories of cultures encountered by outsiders - a different point of view does wonders for the texture and depth of a tale. One of my favorites is Creation by Gore Vidal, and Crichton's work definitely measures up. Imagine being an urbane, educated, cultured Arab at the height of Arab civilization. You're a diplomat, used to courtly manners and world-class cuisine. Then you're kidnapped by a gang of Vikings and dragged along with them on a quest to save a Scandinavian settlement from a horrendous enemy.

Sure, there's blood and gore, but the narrator spends rather a lot of time commenting on the Viking warriors' personal cleanliness, table manners (or lack thereof) and sexual practices as well. I'm sure such a person in real life would have been continually appalled at his circumstances, but in the book his reactions act effectively as comic relief to an otherwise incredibly heavy story.

Besides the outsider-narrator, Crichton's other twist on the traditional tale is to identify the Viking settlement's attackers (the monster Grendel, his mother and a dragon in the original tale) as members of a proto-human group of cannibals living in the area at the same time. There were, indeed, many stories of 'not quite human' hominids living in proximity to human settlements throughout Europe and Asia for centuries, many of them antagonistic to the humans. There is some reason to believe that we Homo sapiens were not the sole survivors of the hominid line, at least for a while, so I don't find this plot device at all far-fetched. I am, however, uncomfortable with his association of the aggressive, filthy, primitive, cannibalistic proto-humans with the well-known headless female figurines like the Willendorf Goddess.

Maybe it's just my romantic notion of the kind of culture that would create such works of art, but I have to wonder whether a hominid group could do such a thing. Neanderthals, sure, I wouldn't be surprised if they made sculptures like that - they're really not the brutish creatures so long caricatured by modern society. But hominids? Hmmmm.

I do like that he brings up the issue of cannibalism. It's one of the more 'squirmy' bits of our very human past, something we don't like to look at. Did you ever wonder why every group's name for itself means 'The People'? You see, very early in human prehistory, each little collective considered itself to be People and everyone else to be Not People, or Animals. Fair prey. Most cultures moved away from cannibalism early on in an effort to increase cooperation with other groups of people. A few maintained at least token cannibalism into the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's not something we like to think about. Heck, even the pagan Romans thought the early Christians were disgusting with their 'symbolic cannibalism' communion ritual.

So I guess I'll go back and read the original Beowulf again. I have to, now, to compare it to Crichton's version. I'm itching to do it. That's one thing I love about his writing. It weaves so many threads into a single story, I often find myself closing his books only to open others, to follow a few of those threads further. Then I'll go back to the list and see what else he's written that I haven't had the chance to enjoy yet.