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The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.

‘cough’, ok time for Emmet to do some name-dropping.

This one time, Seamus Heaney nicked my glass of wine. That is the end of the anecdote. You may applaud.

In 1999 Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was published. I remember at the time I thought it an excellent reintroduction to the text, as well as a neat commentary on the epic poem’s privileged status in English literature, courtesy of the author’s stylistic choices. John Gardner’s Grendel is another excellent parody and commentary on the text, one which I would happily recommend to anyone.

I never realized Michael Crichton had had a go as well.

Eaters of the Dead concerns the adventures of a scholar from Baghdad, named Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe. Actually his full name is given as: “Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad.” Courtesy of a dalliance with a merchant’s wife (Crichton makes it clear that Fadlan is all man), the Caliph sends him on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars to instruct the people there in the Muslim religion, at the request of their king.

Crichton’s authorial voice appears throughout the book commenting on Fadlan’s ‘historical’, account of what happened next.

After passing through 10th century Turkey, Fadlan and his party encounter a group of vikings, led by the warrior Buliwyf. Through a combination of superstition and the sheer martial superiority of the Northern ‘barbarians’, Fadlan becomes an unwilling member of a mission to liberate a King Rothgar from so-called ‘mist-monsters’.

The majority of the narrative is concerned with the cultural differences between Fadlan and the twelve warriors who have press-ganged him. Unfortunately this tends to boil down to various vikings calling him a ‘stupid Arab’, or his admiration for their sexual prowess.

In fact there is not a single female character in this story. King Rothgar’s queen is mentioned and a proxy ‘Grendel’s mother’, is unveiled, but for the most part the women in this story are simply there to be sexually available to Buliwyf and his men. Fadlan is at first ashamed at public displays of sexuality and retreats making obeisance to Allah, but eventually he joins in.

Oh and the Grendel of old Saxon legend is revealed to be a tribe of ‘wendols’, or as Crichton makes clear in the afterward, neanderthals. I have a number of problems with this demystified take, not least of which the 10th century setting, as well as the descriptions of these neanderthals riding horseback. I was under the impression that not only would this bipedal species have long been extinct by the period of Crichton’s choosing, they would also be too large to be carried by horses.

Secondly the wendols are revealed to be a matriarchal society that worships a stone carving of a pregnant woman. The vikings react with disgust at sightings of her icons and when combined with the unusual emphasis on male virility throughout the book, a disturbing subtext begins to emerge.

This is a very peculiar book. As a fantasy it is a failure, a pale imitation of Beowulf. Vikings are a source of fascination for modern readers still and I wonder if it is because the simplistic take on their civilization – war-mongering sea-raiders, much given to slaughter and rapine – is not as morally conflicted as the European culture that followed. In that sense Crichton’s work is yet another indulgence in vicariously enjoying a life unfettered by contemporary mores.

Once again though my main objection to this author’s work is his insistence on pretending to pseudo-science. With Eaters of the Dead Crichton is attempting a revisionist work, challenging our perception of viking culture, while at the same time introducing contemporary prejudices into the narrative. This is a trend that would eventually led to his becoming held up as a authoritative global warming sceptic – following the publication of his book State of Fear, which was a work of fiction, but once again attempted to sit on two stools, occasioning much criticism.

Crichton writes at one point: “But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment […] his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist.” Stangely fitting that.

It was after this realization that I began trying to find the “point” of California, to locate some message in its history. I picked up a book of revisionist studies on the subject, but abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted, twice. You will have perhaps realized by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

I can remember starting Primary School in 1984 and the small building of thin walls and low ceilings in the village of Rathcool, with a large poster of the 1916 revolutionaries hanging on the wall facing the entrance. This was the first sight upon entering the school and I grew to recognize the face of Padraig Pearse as a modern day quasi-saint. I grew to understand that my identity as an Irish child was as much a product of nationalism, as the Catholic faith with which I was raised. The priests who visited us in school were the symbolic descendants of those martyrs who hosted secret masses under the yoke of British rule, spreading God’s love under the threat of persecution. When I walked under the threshold of my secondary school building, significantly to be taught each of my subjects through Irish instead of English, my eye was drawn to the Latin motto painted on tiles in the floor Pro Deo et Patria.

Cut to the present day, with reports of the abuse of children by Catholic priests the world over; my country well on track for a double-dip recession due to the ineptitude and greed of our national leaders; the conflict in Northern Ireland perpetuating itself out of a constant recycling of hatred divorced from any ideological concerns – disillusioned seems too small a word to fit my state of mind. Thankfully that is why we have things like the Hark A Vagrant strip by the enormously talented Kate Beaton. Oh tis good to laugh.

Joan Didion’s book is informed by an investigation into the myths and aggrandized history that surrounds the ‘manifest destiny’, march to California. This is as much to situate herself as a product of this ‘immigration’, as a discussion of what makes up contemporary America.

As such the opening chapters of this book detail the efforts made by Didion’s ancestors to cross the Americas. There are startling stories of whole families throwing themselves across the wilderness, with the risk of starvation, attack by the creatures of the wild and being snowed in before crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There were also encounters between the colonists and the native Indians who lived on the plains. A relation of Didion’s leaves a diary describing one such meeting, where her husband entertained a curious group of Indians by demonstrating the use of fire-arms. This also served to warn them of their capability as an offensive weapon of course.

The fiction of Jack London is also examined, as much a product of the mythologising of America as a late contribution. Particular attention is drawn to his novel The Valley of the Moon. The unironical naming of the heroine Saxon Roberts suggests just how London regarded his own status as an ‘Old American, a representative of the civilizing force emanating from Britain. A second novel, The Octopus by Frank Norris, concerned with the grand narrative of ‘Wheat’, is chosen for its ambivalence. Popularly considered a simplistic attack on corporate America (one quote features that phrase so recurrent in Lovecraft’s purple prose ‘cyclopean’), Didion reveals that its passages identify the would-be romantic farm-hands as fellow exploiters of the land, who arrived too late to establish themselves as the train barons and such had.

Further sections of the book trace the development of middle-class life in the author’s home town, considered so anathema to American ideals of being classless, with aristocracy itself a supposedly abandoned European decadence. In as much as this is a study of American history, Didion’s book celebrates the incredible efforts of families and individuals to tame the landscape of California, while refusing to romanticise the results.

A thought-provoking and incisive dialogue with the past. For a historical study, this book is uncommonly moving.

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