Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 12



In reply, Herger said: "You are wrong, for he is a fool, and does not act with sense." And Herger said he would arrange for my departure with the King.

Here was the manner of it. Herger sought the audience of King Rothgar in private, and said to the King that he was a great and wise ruler whose people loved and respected him, by virtue of the way he looked after the affairs of the kingdom and the welfare of his people. This flattery softened the old man. Now Herger said to him that of the five sons of the King, only one survived, and he was Wulfgar, who had gone to Buliwyf as messenger, and now remained far off. Herger said that Wulfgar should be summoned home, and that a parry for this purpose be arranged, for there was no other heir save Wulfgar.

These things he told the King. Also, I believe he spoke some words in private to the Queen Weilew, who had much influence over her husband.

Then it happened at an evening banquet that Rothgar called for the fitting out of a ship and a crew, for a voyage to return Wulfgar to his kingdom. I requested to join the crew, and this the old King could not deny me. The preparation of the ship took the space of several days. I spent much time with Herger in this interval. Herger had chosen to remain behind.

One day we stood upon the cliffs, overlooking the ship on the beach, as it was prepared for the voyage and fitted with provisions. Herger said to me: "You are starting upon a long journey. We shall make prayers for your safe-keeping."

I inquired whom he would pray to, and he responded, "To Odin, and Frey, and Thor, and Wyrd, and to the several other gods who may influence your safe journey." These are the names of the Northmen gods.

I replied, "I believe in one God, who is Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate."

"I know this," Herger said. "Perhaps in your lands, one god is enough, but not here; here there are many gods and each has his importance, so we shall pray to all of them on your behalf." I thanked him then, for the prayers of a nonbeliever are as good as they are sincere, and I did not doubt the sincerity of Herger.

Now, Herger had long known that I believed differently from him, but as the time of my departure drew close, he inquired many times again of my beliefs, and at unusual moments, thinking to catch me off my guard and learn the truth. I took his many questions as a form of test, as Buliwyf once tested my knowledge of writing. Always I answered him in the same way, thus increasing his perplexity.

One day he said to me, with no show that he had ever inquired previously: "What is the nature of your god Allah?"

I said to him, "Allah is the one God, who rules all things, sees all things, knows all things, and disposes all things." These words I had spoken before.

After a time, Herger said to me, "Do you never anger this Allah?"

I said: "I do, but He is all-forgiving and merciful."

Herger said: "When it suits his purposes?"

I said that this was so, and Herger considered my answer. Finally he said this, with a shaking head: "The risk is too great. A man cannot place too much faith in any one thing, neither a woman, nor a horse, nor a weapon, nor any single thing."

"Yet I do," I said.

"As you see best," Herger replied, "but there is too much that man does not know. And what man does not know, that is the province of the gods."

In this way I saw that he would never be persuaded to my beliefs, nor I to his, and so we parted. In truth, it was a sad leave-taking, and I was heavy-hearted to depart from Herger and the remainder of the warriors. Herger felt this also. I gripped his shoulder, and he mine, and then I set out upon the black ship, which carried me to the land of the Dans. As this ship with her stout crew slipped away from the shores of Venden, I had view of the gleaming rooftops of the great hall of Hurot, and, turning away, of the gray and vast ocean before us. Now it happened

The manuscript ends abruptly at this point, the end of a transcribed page, with the final terse words "nunc fit," and although there is clearly more to the manuscript, further passages have not been discovered. This is, of course, the purest historical accident, but every translator has commented upon the odd appropriateness of this abrupt ending, which suggests the start of some new adventure, some new strange sight, that for the most arbitrary reasons of the past thousand years will be denied us.


AS WILLIAM HOWELLS HAS EMPHASIZED, IT IS A rather rare event that causes any living animal to die in such a way that he will be preserved as a fossil for centuries to come. This is especially true of a small, fragile, ground-living animal such as man, and the fossil record of early men is remarkably scanty.

Textbook diagrams of "the tree of man" imply a certainty of knowledge that is misleading; the tree is pruned and revised every few years. One of the most controversial and troublesome branches of that tree is the one usually labeled "Neanderthal Man."

He takes his name from the valley in Germany where the first remains of his type were discovered in 1856, three years before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. The Victorian world was displeased with the skeletal remains, and emphasized the crude and brutish aspects of Neanderthal man; until now the very word is, in the popular imagination, synonymous with all that is dumb and bestial in human nature.

It was with a kind of relief that early scholars decided that Neanderthal man had "disappeared" about 35,000 years ago, to be replaced by Cro-Magnon man, whose skeletal remains were presumed to show as much delicacy, sensitivity, and intelligence as the Neanderthal skull showed monstrous brutishness. The general presumption was that the superior, modern Cro-Magnon man killed off the Neanderthals.

Now the truth of the matter is that we have very few good examples of Neanderthal man in our skeletal material – of more than eighty known fragments, only about a dozen are complete enough, or dated carefully enough, to warrant serious study. We cannot really say with any certainty how widespread a form he was, or what happened to him. And recent examination of the skeletal evidence has disputed the Victorian belief in his monstrous, semihuman appearance.

In their 1957 review, Straus and Cave wrote: "If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway – provided he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing – it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens."

Another anthropologist has put it more plainly: "You might think he was tough-looking, but you wouldn't object to your sister marrying him."

From here, it is only a short step to what some anthropologists already believe: that Neanderthal man, as an anatomical variant of modern man, has never disappeared at all, but is still with us.

A reinterpretation of the cultural remains associated with Neanderthal man also supports a benign view of the fellow. Past anthropologists were highly impressed with the beauty and profusion of the cave drawings that first appear with the arrival of Cro-Magnon man; as much as any skeletal evidence, these drawings tended to reinforce the notion of a wonderful new sensibility replacing the quintessence of "brute benightedness."

But Neanderthal man was remarkable in his own right. His culture, called Mousterian – again, after a site, Le Moustier in France – is characterized by stoneworking of quite a high order, much superior to any earlier cultural level. And it is now recognized that Neanderthal man had bone tools as well.

Most impressive of all, Neanderthal man was the first of our ancestors to bury his dead ritually. At Le Moustier, a teenage boy was placed in a trench, in a sleeping position; he was provided with a supply of flint tools, a stone axe, and roasted meat. That these materials were for the use of the deceased in some afterlife is undisputed by most anthropologists.

There is other evidence of religious feeling: in Switzerland there is a shrine to the cave bear, a creature worshiped, respected, and also eaten. And at Shanidar Cave in Iraq, a Neanderthal was buried with flowers in the grave.

All this points to an attitude toward life and death, a self-conscious view of the world, which lies at the core of what we believe distinguishes thinking man from the rest of the animal world. On existing evidence, we must conclude this attitude was first displayed by Neanderthal man.

The general reassessment of Neanderthal man coincides with the rediscovery of Ibn Fadlan's contact with the "mist monsters"; his description of these creatures is suggestive of Neanderthal anatomy, and raises the question of whether the Neanderthal form did, in fact, disappear from the earth thousands of years ago, or whether these early men persisted into historic times.

Arguments based on analogies cut both ways. There are historical examples of a handful of people with technologically superior culture wiping out a more primitive society in a matter of years; that is largely the story of the European contact with the New World. But there are also examples of primitive societies existing in isolated areas, unknown to more advanced, civilized peoples nearby. Such a tribe was recently discovered in the Philippines.

The academic debate on Ibn Fadlan's creatures can be neatly summarized by the viewpoints of Geoffrey Wrightwood, of Oxford University, and E. D. Goodrich, of the University of Philadelphia. Wrightwood says [1971]: "The account of Ibn Fadlan provides us with a perfectly serviceable description of Neanderthal men, coinciding with the fossil record and our suppositions about the cultural level of these early men. We should accept it immediately, had we not already decided these men vanished without a trace some 30-40,000 years previously. We should remember that we only believe this disappearance because we have found no fossils of a later date, and the absence of such fossils does not mean that they do not, in fact, exist.

"Objectively, there is no a priori reason to deny that a group of Neanderthals might have survived very late in an isolated region of Scandinavia. In any case this assumption best fits the description of the Arabic text."

Goodrich, a paleontologist well known for his skepticism, takes the contrasting view [1972]: "The general accuracy of Ibn Fadlan's reporting may tempt us to overlook certain excesses in his manuscript. These are several, and they arise either from cultural preconditioning, or from a storyteller's desire to impress. He calls the Vikings giants when they most certainly were not; he emphasizes the dirty, drunken aspects of his hosts, which less fastidious observers did not find striking. In his report of the so-called 'wendol,' he places great importance on their hairiness and brutish appearance when, in fact, they may not have been so hairy, or so brutish. They may simply have been a tribe of Homo sapiens, living in isolation and without the level of cultural attainment manifested by the Scandinavians.

"There is internal evidence, within the body of the Ibn Fadlan manuscript, to support the notion that the 'wendol' are actually Homo sapiens. The pregnant female figurines described by the Arab are highly suggestive of the prehistoric carvings and figurines to be found at the Aurignacian industry sites in France and of the Gravettian finds in Willendorf, Austria, Level 9. Both Aurignacian and Gravettian cultural levels are associated with essentially modern man, and not Neanderthal Man.

"We must never forget that to untrained observers, cultural differences are often interpreted as physical differences, and one need not be particularly naive to make this mistake. Thus, as late as the 1880s it was possible for educated Europeans to wonder aloud whether Negroes in primitive African societies could be considered human beings after all, or whether they represented some bizarre mating of men and apes. Nor should we overlook the degree to which societies with vastly differing degrees of cultural attainment may exist side by side: such contrasts appear today, for example, in Australia, where the stone age and the jet age can be found in close proximity. Thus in interpreting the descriptions of Ibn Fadlan we need not postulate a Neanderthal remnant, unless we are fancifully inclined to do so."

In the end, the arguments stumble over a well-known limitation to the scientific method itself. The physicist Gerhard Robbins observes that "strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven. It can only be disproven. When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong – not that we are able to show, beyond doubt, that the theory is right.

"A scientific theory may stand for years, even centuries, and it may accumulate hundreds of bits of corroborating evidence to support it. Yet a theory is always vulnerable, and a single conflicting finding is all that is required to throw the hypothesis into disarray, and call for a new theory. One can never know when such conflicting evidence will arise. Perhaps it will happen tomorrow, perhaps never. But the history of science is strewn with the ruins of mighty edifices toppled by an accident, or a triviality."

This is what Geoffrey Wrightwood meant when he said at the Seventh International Symposium on Human Paleontology in Geneva in 1972: "All I need is one skull, or a fragment of a skull, or a bit of jaw. In fact, all I need is one good tooth, and the debate is concluded."

Until that skeletal evidence is found, speculation will continue, and one may adopt whatever stance satisfies an inner sense of the fitness of things.



Yakut ibn-Abdallah MS, a geographical lexicon, ?A.D. 1400. Nos. 1403A-1589A, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.


Blake, Robert, and Frye, Richard; in Byzantina – Metabyzantina: A Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, New York, 1947.

Cook, Albert S.; New York, 1947.

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Jorgensen, Olaf, 1971, unpublished

Nasir, Seyed Hossein; 1971, unpublished.

St. Petersburg MS, a local history, published by the Academy of St. Petersburg, 1823. Nos. 233M-278M, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.


Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Stenuit, Roger; 1971, unpublished.

Soletsky, V. K.; 1971, unpublished.

Ahmad Tusi MS, a geography, A.D. 1047, papers of J. H. Emerson. Nos. LV 01-114, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.


Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Nasir, Seyed Hossein; 1971, unpublished.

Hitti, A. M.; 1971, unpublished.

Amin Razi MS, a history of warfare, A.D. 1585-1595, papers of J. H. Emerson. Nos. LV 207-244, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.


Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Bendixon, Robert; 1971, unpublished.

Porteus, Eleanor; 1971, unpublished.

Xymos MS, a fragmentary geography, ? date, bequest estate A. G. Gavras. Nos. 2308T-2348T, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.


Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Bendixon, Robert; 1971, unpublished.

Porteus, Eleanor; 1971, unpublished.


Berndt, E., and Berndt, R. H. "An Annotated Bibliography of References to the Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan from 1794 to 1970," Acta Archaeologica, VI: 334-389, 1971.

This remarkable compilation will refer the interested reader to all secondary sources concerning the manuscript, which have appeared in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, French, Spanish, and Arabic for the dates cited. The total number of sources listed is 1,042.


The following are suitable for the general reader with no particular archaeological or historical background. Only works in English are cited.

Wilson, D. M. The Vikings, London, 1970.

Brondsted, J. The Vikings, London, 1960, 1965.

Arbman, H. The Vikings, London, 1961.

Jones, G. A History of the Vikings, Oxford, 1968.

Sawyer, P. The Age of the Vikings, London, 1962.

Foote, P. G., and Wilson, D. M. The Viking Achievement, London, 1970.

Kendrick, T. D. A History of the Vikings, London, 1930.

Azhared, Abdul. Necronomicon [ed. H. P. Lovecraft], Providence, Rhode Island, 1934.


EATERS OF THE DEAD WAS CONCEIVED ON A DARE. IN 1974, my friend Kurt Villadsen proposed to teach a college course he called "The Great Bores." The course would include all the texts that were supposed to be crucial to Western civilization but which were, in truth, no longer read willingly by anyone, because they were so tedious. Kurt said that the first of the great bores he would address was the epic poem Beowulf.

I disagreed. I argued that Beowulf was a dramatic, exciting story – and that I could prove it. I went home and immediately began making notes for this novel.

I started from the scholarly tradition that examined epic poetry and mythology as if it might have some underlying basis in fact. Heinrich Schliemann assumed the Iliad was true, and found what he claimed was Troy and Mycenae; Arthur Evans believed there was something to the myth of the Minotaur, and uncovered the Palace of Knossos on Crete;  M. I. Finley and others had traced the route of Ulysses in the Odyssey;  Lionel Casson had written about the real journeys that might underlie the myth of Jason and the Argonauts.  Thus it seemed reasonable, within this tradition, to imagine that Beowulf, too, had originally been based on an actual event.

That event had been embellished over centuries of oral retelling, producing the fantastic narrative we read today. But I thought it might be possible to reverse the process, peeling away the poetic invention, and returning to a kernel of genuine human experience – something that had actually happened.

This idea of uncovering the factual core of the narrative was appealing but impractical. Modern scholarship offered no objective procedure to separate poetic invention from underlying fact. Even to try would mean making innumerable subjective decisions, large and small, on every page – in the end, so many decisions that the result must inevitably be still another invention: a modern pseudo-historical fantasy about what the original events might have been.

The insoluble problem prevented me from proceeding. Of course, in writing a novel, I intended to create a fantasy of my own. But fantasies demand strict logic, and I was troubled by the logic behind what I wanted to write. Since a real scholar could not do what I intended to do, I found I could not pretend, in writing, that I had done so. This was not a failure of imagination or nerve. It was a purely practical problem. Like the scholar, I had no basis for deciding which elements of the Beowulf narrative to keep, and which to discard.

Although the idea of working backward seemed untenable, I remained intrigued. I asked a different question: suppose, for a moment, that the practical problems that troubled me did not exist, and the process could indeed be carried out. What would the resulting narrative look like? I imagined it would probably be a rather mundane recounting of some battles that occurred more than a thousand years ago. In fact, I suspected it would probably resemble most eyewitness accounts of famous events, as written by people who are unaware of the significance of the events they are seeing.

This line of thinking eventually led to the solution to my problem. Clearly, I wanted an eyewitness account. I could not extract it from the existing Beowulf narrative, and I did not want to invent it. That was my impasse. But at some point, I realized I did not have to invent it – I could discover it instead.

Suppose, I thought, a contemporary observer had been present at these battles, and had written an account of the events that were later transformed into a poem. Suppose, too, that this account already existed, but had never been recognized for what it was. if this were so, then no invention on my part would be necessary. I could merely reproduce the eyewitness narrative, and annotate it for the reader.

The concept of a preexisting manuscript bypassed the logical problems which had earlier impeded me, because a found manuscript would not be my creation – even though I would create it. Of course such thinking is absurd, but it happens all the time. Often actors cannot act without a prop, or a false moustache, or some other artifice to separate themselves from the character they are portraying. I was engaged in a similar process.

What sort of narrative would be most desirable? I concluded the most useful account would be written by an outsider – someone not part of the culture, who could report objectively on the events as they occurred. But who would this outside observer have been? Where would he have come from?

On reflection, I realized I already knew of such a person. In the tenth century, an Arab named Ibn Fadlan had traveled north from Baghdad into what is now Russia, where he came in contact with the Vikings. His manuscript, well-known to scholars, provides one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Viking life and culture.  As a college undergraduate, I had read portions of the manuscript. Ibn Fadlan had a distinct voice and style. He was imitable. He was believable. He was unexpected. And after a thousand years, I felt that Ibn Fadlan would not mind being revived in a new role, as a witness to the events that led to the epic poem of Beowulf.

Although the full manuscript of Ibn Fadlan has been translated into Russian, German, French and many other languages, only portions had been translated into English. I obtained the existing manuscript fragments and combined them, with only slight modifications, into the first three chapters of Eaters of the Dead.  I then wrote the rest of the novel in the style of the manuscript to carry Ibn Fadlan on the rest of his now-fictional journey. I also added commentary and some extremely pedantic footnotes.

I was aware that Ibn Fadlan's actual journey in A.D. 921 had probably occurred too late in history to serve as the basis for Beowulf, which many authorities believe was composed a hundred and fifty years earlier. But the dating of the poem is uncertain, and at some point a novelist will insist on his right to take liberties with the facts. And Eaters contains many overt anachronisms, particularly when Ibn Fadlan meets up with a group of remnant Neanderthals. (One of the oddities of this book is that the intervening decades has seen a scholarly reevaluation of Neanderthal man; and the notion that there might have been a few still around a thousand years ago in a remote location does not seem quite so preposterous now as it did then.)

But certainly, the game that the book plays with its factual bases becomes increasingly complex as it goes along, until the text finally seems quite difficult to evaluate. I have a long-standing interest in verisimilitude, and in the cues which make us take something as real or understand it as fiction. But I finally concluded that in Eaters of the Dead, I had played the game too hard. While I was writing, I felt that I was drawing the line between fact and fiction clearly; for example, one cited translator, Per Fraus-Dolus, means in literal Latin "by trickery-deceit." But within a few years, I could no longer be certain which passages were real, and which were made up; at one point I found myself in a research library trying to locate certain references in my bibliography, and finally concluding, after hours of frustrating effort, that however convincing they appeared, they must be fictitious. I was furious to have wasted my time, but I had only myself to blame.

I mention this because the tendency to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction has become widespread in modern society. Fiction is now seamlessly inserted in everything from scholarly histories to television news. Of course, television is understood to be venal, its transgressions shrugged off by most of us. But the attitude of "post-modern" scholars represents a more fundamental challenge. Some in academic life now argue seriously there is no difference between fact and fiction, that all ways of reading text are arbitrary and personal, and that therefore pure invention is as valid as hard research. At best, this attitude evades traditional scholarly discipline; at worst, it is nasty and dangerous.  But such academic views were not prevalent twenty years ago, when I sat down to write this novel in the guise of a scholarly monograph, and academic fashions may change again – particularly if scholars find themselves chasing down imaginary footnotes, as I have done.

Under the circumstances, I should perhaps say explicitly that the references in this afterword are genuine. The rest of the novel, including its introduction, text, footnotes, and bibliography, should properly be viewed as fiction.

When Eaters of the Dead was first published, this playful version of Beowulf received a rather irritable reception from reviewers, as if I had desecrated a monument. But Beowulf scholars all seem to enjoy it, and many have written to say so.




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