It is a question I am often asked when someone finds out I am passionate about and make my living writing about the Vikings: is the movie The 13th Warrior historically accurate? In social circles that know anything about the Viking Age and have seen the movie, the answer is a resounding no, and the movie has picked up quite a few detractors over the years. Yet, the movie is not entirely without merit. In this article, I will deconstruct The 13th Warrior with a historical eye and point out both accuracies and inaccuracies for educational purposes.
The 13th Warrior as Good Historical Fiction
Let’s start with the most obvious fact about The 13th Warrior: it is historical fiction, not historical fact. The film is based on a bestselling novel by Michael Crichton — the guy who did Jurassic Park — called Eaters of the Dead. Eaters of the Dead was intended as an adventure-filled retelling of the Beowulf legend told through the narrative of an outside observer from the Middle East. As far as the storyline is concerned, it is your typical Michael Crichton romp with just enough history or science to set up the story before taking readers (and viewers) through the meat of the plot. Broadly, it is considered historical fiction, and in my opinion, it is a good historical fiction insofar as the narrative is concerned. Michael Crichton spins a good yarn. The book is a fun read, and the movie makes for great entertainment.
What The 13th Warrior Gets Right
In typical Micheal Crichton fashion, the movie introduces a fair amount of historicity to set up the story at the beginning. Both the novel and the film begin with the narrator of the story, a character named Ibn Fadlan. Ibn Fadlan was a real historical figure, and in regards to the Viking Age, he wrote one of the more interesting and insightful primary sources on the Vikings who navigated along the Dnieper and Volga rivers and were called the Rus. The Rus traded as far Constantinople and perhaps even Baghdad.
Ibn Fadlan’s account about his encounter with the Vikings on the shores of the Volga River covers a myriad of subjects, from grooming habits he observed to their unusual trade customs. Unlike the film, the real Ibn Fadlan was not an exile, but instead the chronicler of the voyage of his superior, Susan al-Rassi, who traveled to the land of the Bulgars to preach the word of Islam. They were missionaries of sorts, and so it is no surprise that when they encountered the Rus, they attempted to establish peaceful relations.
The most famous passage of the Ibn Fadlan account is his description of the funeral of a chieftain. It is from this passage, and indeed most of the text of Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Rus, that Michael Crichton composed the first three chapters of his novel. Below is a passage from the account, which coincides well with one of the opening sequences of The 13th Warrior film:
“Then the closest relative of the dead man, after they had placed the girl whom they have killed beside her master, came, took a piece of wood which he lighted at a fire, and walked backwards with the back of his head toward the boat and his face turned toward the people, with one hand holding the kindled stick and the other covering his anus, being completely naked, for the purpose of setting fire to the wood that had been made ready beneath the ship. Then the people came up with tinder and other firewood, each holding a piece of wood of which he had set fire to an end and which he put into the pile of wood beneath the ship. Thereupon the flames engulfed the wood, then the ship, the pavilion, the man, the girl, and everything in the ship. A powerful, fearful wind began to blow so that the flames became fiercer and more intense.”
From a historical standpoint, the 13th Warrior film holds some merit, or at least just enough to earn credibility among a wider audience. For a lack of a better analogy, it is akin to how Michael Crichton established a minimum of scientific precedent — based on lofty science, to say the least — to establish the premise of his book, and later film, Jurassic Park.
Where The 13th Warrior Gets It All Wrong
A keen observer will note that many of the more contestable features of Ibn Fadlan’s account made it onto the big screen, including the way the Rus bathed in the morning after a hard night of drinking. Michael Crichton stayed true to Ibn Fadlan’s narrative but neglected to research how historians regard these descriptions. When dealing with primary sources, it is important not only to consider the writer’s testimony but also their credibility and cultural lens. Hence, both the novel and the film depict a highly debatable testimony of Viking culture that clashes with many of the other primary sources on the same subject.
Whoever decided to adapt the novel to the big screen appears to have tried extremely hard to appear historically accurate, but also appears to have had no knowledge of the time period. Every detail the film attempts to pass off as a small history lesson is woefully wrong. Casting Antonio Banderas as a clean-shaven Ibn Fadlan aside (a man of his status would undoubtedly have had a beard following at least one pilgrimage to Mecca), we are first led to believe that the Rus rode mighty horses that put the Arab horses to shame. Historically, Scandinavian horses were small, while the world of Islam had a rich culture of husbandry whereby they bred large, gallant steeds. The 13th Warrior got that fact backward.
The historical inaccuracies abound from there. Many of the twelve Scandinavian warriors wear armor that would not have been available to anyone at the time, let alone them. The costume designers appear to have lazily borrowed equipment from other sword-and-sandal films such as Gladiator and Braveheart to compose the equipment of some of the characters. What audiences should understand is that when the main characters arrive in Hrothgar’s kingdom, the film (and book) essentially become complete fantasy. From the fatalistic belief system that is espoused by the main characters to the botched attempt at a holmgang, nearly every attempt at world-building deviates from the academic understanding of the Viking Age.
Interestingly, the antagonists, called the Vendol, appear to be an amalgam of sorts. The name is obviously borrowed from the Vendel, which were the people who lived in Sweden in the period preceding the Viking Age. In character, they display the characteristics of cavemen and, curiously, the idea of the noble savage (an American concept applied to native tribes). And where did they get all the horses?! Michael Crichton is exceptionally imaginative.
Is The 13th Warrior Film Historically Accurate?
Is The 13th Warrior Film Historically Accurate? Absolutely not. But it’s a whole lot of fun. As I discussed at length through several posts, historical fiction does not necessarily need to be all that accurate. In my interview with Bernard Cornwell, for example, he explained that as a historical fiction writer his first objective is to tell a compelling story and to be historically accurate second. In that spirit, Michael Crichton’s story about an Arabic man who travels to Sweden to fight flesh-eating cavemen is a successful attempt at entertaining the masses. Personally, I enjoyed the film for what it was: a fun adventure story.