Beowulf is an Old English epic of almost thirty-two hundred
lines in alliterative verse. It is the earliest extant composition of
such length in English and indeed in all Teutonic literature. Its
content was based on Norse legends, merged with historical events of
the early sixth century in Denmark; this oral tradition was carried
to England by Danish invaders of the mid-6th century, fused with the
Christianity they absorbed there, and finally written down by a
single, but unknown poet circa 700. The 13th Warrior is a
ninety-minute gory movie about Vikings running about beheading and
dismembering each other and their foes. Or is it? This paper presents
Beowulf for the enjoyment of the viewer of The 13th
Warrior and discusses similarities and differences between the
For those interested in seeing this film, it is rated R for violence and gore (there is plenty of it). However, the film contains no rough language or scenes of any sexual nature.
Thaer maeg níchta géhwaem
níht wundor séon
fyr on flóde. No thaes fród léofath
gúmena beárna that thone grúnd wíte
There each night
awful wonder is seen
Fire on flood. There's no wise one I fear
Born by a woman That the bottom would know
Chroniclers in History
The chronicler as a literary phenomenon was an interesting deviation from the
mostly oral transmission of records prevalent in all cultures. Most legends,
like the war over Helen of Troy, were told or sung by poets and minstrels for
ages before being written down, by which time a great deal of embellishment
had been added as well as the choice and refinement of the heros of the
particular epic regardless of whether they existed or not. Instead, a
chronicler wrote down events much as a journalist would today (avoiding the
question of accuracy in journalism since that is not the subject of this
essay). They are in
fact the founding fathers of journalism. Probably the most famous chronicler
in ancient history was Xenophon who accompanied Cyrus' ill-fated expedition to
unseat the latter's brother, Artaxerxes the Second of Persia. Cyrus lost his
life and Xenophon himself ended up taking revenge upon the Persians and
leading the army, composed mostly of Greek mercenaries, back home. He then
composed the Anabasis (or March up [the] Country), an historical
account of the expedition and his life as a Greek soldier that has endured
through the ages.
Here then, is the comparison of Beowulf and the 13th Warrior.
The Story of Beowulf
The 13th Warrior
|The story of Beowulf's exploits begins in Scandinavia.||
The 13th Warrior first sets up the chronicler's journey,
starting out in Arabia.
A young, lettered nobleman of Baghdad, Ahmed ibn Fahdlan ibn Alabas ibn Rachid ibn Hamad, who serves the great Calif, is sent as ambassador to a country in the Caucuses as punishment for his interest in a beautiful woman belonging to the harem of the Calif's friend. During the voyage, a series of mishaps place him in the company of Norsemen.
A messenger from the Scandinavian kingdom, ruled by Hrothgar, comes bearing news that the land has been laid waste by an ineffable horror and bids the Viking chieftain, Buliwyf, son of Hygelac, come to save them. An oracle insists that the company of braves must number thirteen.
Ibn Fahdlan is unwillingly enrolled as the thirteenth warrior. The journey to the north countries amazes and bewilders the Arab by its savagery and hardship. During the voyage, he learns Norse.
Until he meets and goes north with the Vikings, the story of ibn Fahdlan purports to be that of a real Arab chronicler whose work Crichton claims to transcribe in translation. (I have not checked his sources, but he gives them.)
Hrothgar, king of the Danes on the island of
Zealand has built a great hall for feasting his
warriors, but they abandon it because of the
murderous ravages of the monster Grendel, a
giant in human shape and a descendant of Cain
who lives in a murky pond with his mother
among other strange and vicious sea beasts.
The village and surrounding areas ruled by Hrothgar have been laid
mostly waste by a force which none dare name out loud, the
Wendol, a collective plural referring to a numerous host of
savage warriors whom the people think are like bears. That they are
not named means the people hold the belief that they are unspeakably
powerful and evil.
|For twelve years, mother and son come to land occasionally and devour human victims.||Hrothgar hasn't heard from any outlying villages in months. Few warriors or village people remain after the ravages.|
|Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow and nephew to King Hygelac of the Geats, a tribe on the southern shore of Sweden, arrives with fourteen warriors to challenge the monster and is received by Hrothgar at a feast.||The warriors, led by Buliwyf and accompanied by ibn Fahdlan, arrive in the kingdom and are feasted in a great hall.|
|A prince of the Royal Danish family, Unferth, son of Ecglaf picks a quarrel with Beowulf. He is jealous that a Geat prince has come to save the Danes. Beowulf tells him that if he had any valor, he would not have had to come and deliver the Danes from the monster.||Wigliff, the son of Hrothgar, fears the company of warriors will take the kingdom for their own if they defeat the Wendol. To put Wigliff on his guard, a thane of Buliwyf picks a fight with one of Wigliff's loyals. Diminutive in stature, he allows himself to be sorely abused and appears half dead until the bigger man lunges for the death blow but loses his head to the smaller yet older and wiser warrior.|
|The Geats spend the night in the mead hall; Grendel arrives in the dark. Beowulf has heard that the monster is impervious to weapons and plans to go at Grendel with his bare hands. In a mighty fight, Beowulf wrenches the monster's arm from its shoulder dealing the monster a mortal wound.||The company of warriors sleeps in the hall that night after the feast at which they take no beverage. (This point is noted by ibn Fahdlan who is Muslim.) The Wendol come in the night and break into the hall where a mighty battle ensues in which each man is certain to have slain at least two of the enemy. Many are wounded and one of the defending company is killed. Ibn Fahdlan fights cumbersomely in the first night battle in the hall, but succeeds in slaying one monster. The next day, he fashions a more maneuverable and graceful scimitar from a Norseman's long sword.|
|Grendel flees the hall. The next day, Grendel's arm is mounted as a trophy. Hrothgar gives a triumphant feast in the hall, but as they sleep off the drink, Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son, slaying a Dane and stealing the severed arm.||In the morning, other than a manufactured claw made from the paw of a bear, they discover little sign of the Wendol, who apparently never leave their dead on the field of battle. The company goes to work to build up the center-hold's defenses including the great hall. The Wendol come later when the land begins to mist up and a new battle begins. Ibn Fahdlan discovers the awful truth: that the Wendol are human-like. But again, little proof of what they are remains behind.|
|Beowulf plunges into the demon-infested pond where the monsters live and wrestles with Grendel's mother. The sword named Hrunting, which he carries proves to be of no use, but he finds a sword crafted by the giants and beheads her. Then he severs the head of Grendel, who has died there of his wound, to bring back as a trophy.||Accompanied by his surviving companions, the chief warrior strikes out to find the marauders. He encounters an oracle or witch who reveals to him where he will find their home. They company will discover that the Wendol live in a cave near an underground river. The chief leads them into the caves revealed by the witch where he kills the mother of the Wendol by beheading her. He doesn't find the Wendol leader whom the witch warned him to kill. They must escape the alerted Wendol by swimming in an underground channel that lets out into the sea through a cliff.|
|Hygelac, Beowulf's uncle, and his son both die in subsequent wars (the epic suffers from a severe anticlimax after the defeat of Grendel as it lapses into a record of Beowulf's reign) and Beowulf becomes king of the Geats. He later dies fighting and overcoming an attacking fire-breathing dragon, angered by the theft of a golden goblet from his hoarded treasure, his warriors all having abandoned him but one. The surviving warrior berates his comrades for their cowardice and Beowulf is given a state funeral.||
Crichton's Buliwyf dies after the ultimate battle brought on by the
beheading of the mother in the caves at which time he receives a
mortal wound himnself. It is the life of the Wendol mother that was stolen
and, as he didn't kill the Wendol's leader (the counterpart of
Grendel in Beowulf), the Wendol attack again. Though mortally
wounded, the hero finally defeats the Wendol leader and dies
sitting stately among the pickets as if enthroned.
Note that the second battle, in which the Wendol came with fire in a line as if a great dragon, has not been described. It corresponds to Beowulf's ultimate defeat later after becoming king of the Geats.