Literature / The 13th Warrior
aka: The13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior is an adventure story that inserts the Real Life Arabic traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan into a tale of Nordic saga. Ahmad ibn Fadlan is an educated Arab courtier who is sent to foreign lands as punishment for a courtly indiscretion. He is recruited to serve as the thirteenth member of a group of Norse warriors who answer a call for help from a far-away Nordic king. The kingdom is under attack from the Wendol. The bookish Ahmad ibn Fadlan narrates his adventure and his growing respect for the barbarians around him.

The story is a reworking of the classical tale of Beowulf. Buliwyf is an Expy for the hero Beowulf and the remaining warriors form his band. The classic battles are all reworked to replace the monsters with the cannibalistic Wendol. Rather than Grendel bursting into a mead hall, a group of cannibals attack. Rather than attacking Grendel's aquatic mother, the band sneaks into the Wendol's den through water. Rather than a dragon, the Wendol attack force looks like a "glow wyrm" when holding torches aloft.

Michael Crichton wrote the original novel, called Eaters of the Dead, and it was something of a departure from his usual science-fiction fare. He supposedly wrote the novel on a dare from a friend who demanded he "find a way to make Beowulf interesting." As Crichton was aware of the notoriously dry, bland Ahmad ibn Fadlan and his ability to make any miraculous new wonder sound prosaic and dull, he put the two together as if it were Ahmad giving an actual historical account. The Neanderthals serving as the film's villains are an expected flourish of science fiction.

The novel was later adapted into a feature film starring Antonio Banderas and directed by John McTiernan. Crichton himself performed some reshoots after test screenings, such as making the tribe's queen into a lithe Dark Action Girl. Depending on how the numbers are calculated the film is possibly the biggest box office failure of all time, with an upper figure of 180 million dollars lost on the production.

The 13th Warrior provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: After Ahmad shows off his skills with a sabre and eventually points his blade at still sceptical Weath, he, without blinking, asks if he can give the cut-down sword to his daughter after Ahmad gets himself killed. Everyone cracks up, including Ahmad himself.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The case of the Wendol queen mentioned above. She was originally a fat old woman, embodying the Wendol's "prehistoric Venus" stone figures. And it was done on Crichton's demant, as he wanted Buliwyf to be Distracted by the Sexy a bit.
  • Adaptational Badass: While the Ahmad in the book was banished for fooling around with another man's wife (in a random, loveless encounter), has no particular skills, and barely manages to keep himself alive in fights, the Ahmad in the movie was banished for his (implied to be unconsummated) love of a woman forced to marry another against her will, is a talented equestrian and swordsman and capable of learning language just by careful observation and listening (at least in an immersive environment. He starts the movie about as competent in a fight as his book equivalent, but it turns out it's because he doesn't know how to use that style of sword.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Of Beowulf, swiftly combined with writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan.
  • Advantage Ball: As long as the Wendol are considered supernatural, they seem almost invincible, slaughtering the 13 with ease. The moment their true nature is revealed, they start dying and fighting like standard Mooks. It is implied this is because the warriors lose their fear of them.
  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: And cannibals to boot. Beyond that, it's oddly subverted. They have their own language, enough engineering skill to build a solid bridge, and can wage hit-and-run cavalry warfare.
  • Anachronism Stew: Some armor worn in the movie wouldn't be made for centuries. Others were out-of-date centuries earlier.
  • Artistic License Blacksmithing: Ahmad, unable to wield a Viking spatha, uses a grindstone to turn it into a Arabian shamshir. This would result in a useless sword. Because of the different forging techniques used to make them, the sword would now be nearly unable to hold an edge and would be incredibly weak - likely either breaking or bending the first time it hits something. Not only this, but he manages to do it in what appears to be a fairly short period of time. A grind of this magnitude on a hand-worked wheel would take days. This all ignores the fact that the shamshir was not used by Persians until the Ottomans invaded almost 700 years later.
  • Automaton Horses: While some care and feeding of the horses belonging to the Viking band is depicted (Ahmad is shown carrying hay for his horse) and some sense of the difficulty of transporting horses by longship is shown, the movie would have the viewer believe that not only was a tribe of hundreds of Wendol able to live undetected in a cave within miles of the Viking settlement but that they also kept hundreds of horses there. (A single horse would need at least an acre of excellent pasture, year-round.)
  • Badass Beard: All the Vikings. Buliwyf is beardless, but he's still the most badass character in this movie.
  • Badass Bookworm: Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, but he's more of a ladies' man.
  • Badass Creed:
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Wendol, who in the book are said to be Neanderthals.
  • Bears Are Bad News: The Wendol intentionally invoke this as part of their disguise, weapons and style of fighting. It is later used against them when Ahmad asks the Norse how do they hunt for bears, thus leading to realisation they need to find a cave system large enough for entire tribe to live in it.
  • Bilingual Bonus: In an early scene, there's a fairly lengthy speech in Swedish.
  • Black Is Bigger in Bed: Deconstructed in the novel Eaters of the Dead, in which every culture apparently has this myth about one ethnic group or another. The Nordic women encountered by the Arabic narrator assume he'll be massively endowed; being well-traveled, he remarks that he's heard identical rumors in most countries, usually about a population that lives far away from whoever is spreading the rumor.
  • Blood Knight: All of the Norsemen, who seem to enjoy battle more than anything else in the world.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Many of the Norsemen, but mainly Herger the Joyous, Ahmad's caretaker.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Inverted. When Herger is purposefully bullying Angus, he's doing it exactly to get him angry, force a duel and kill him by surprise.
  • City Mouse: Ahmad, who is, after all, a travelling writer in the book and banished court poet in the movie. It's addressed numerous times by different characters how unmanly and whiny he is.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: The explaination behind Thunder Cliffs and the sound they make. It comes to play in the final act, when the remaining warriors are trapped deep in a cave system and suddenly start hearing thunders. What starts as a joke about incoming rain quickly turns as a way of figuring out escape route through a surf.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: In the first skirmish, the 13 take casualties against a small raid. In the first main battle, the remainder backed by the locals lose several more. In the caves, they lose yet more in tunnel fighting but take many enemies with them. In the last battle, four drive off an army and the only casualty was already dying from an earlier wound.
  • Cool Sword: Ahmad's scimitar, which is basically a Norse broadsword grinded down into a sabre. It still has a hilt of a broadsword, giving it an uncanny look and is absurdly sharp, making up for Ahmad's lacking strength.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Herger won the duel using this. From the point of view of his opponent he was older, shorter and weaker guy with a really big mouth and ego to match. What Angus didn't know was that the whole situation was a set-up to get him killed and send a message to his boss.
    Herger: Deception is the point! Any fool can calculate strength.
  • Crowning Moment of Heartwarming: A couple of exchanges.
    • This one:
      Herger the Joyous: We shall pray for your safe return!
      Ahmad Ibn Fahdlan: Pray to whom?
      Herger the Joyous: In your land one God may be enough, but here we have need of many. I will pray to all of them for you. Do not be offended!
      Ahmad Ibn Fahdlan: I'll be in your debt!
      Herger the Joyous: Goodbye, Arab!
      Ahmad Ibn Fahdlan: Goodbye, Northman.
    • And this one while Bulliwf lies dying after the climactic battle:
      Bulliwyf: I have only these hands I will die a pauper.
      King Hrothgar: [after a heavy pause] You will be buried as a king.
  • Dark Action Girl: The tribe's queen, at least in the film version.
  • Decapitated Army: First the tribe's queen, then their general. It's lampshaded by a local oracle when giving cryptic advices to remaining warriors.
  • Debut Queue: The seer casts the runes and names the warriors to be appointed on the quest one by one.
  • Demythtification: One of the more obvious examples of the trope, since Crichton wrote the book exactly as such, having been challenged to "historicize" Beowulf by one of his students.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Several of the vikings have their moments. But perhaps the most memorable moment is when the vikings are told that the oracle they must consult is a mad old woman, and Herger comments "the perfect advisor."
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "In the halls of Valhalla", Valhalla meaning "hall of the slain" (singular).
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Averted, and unlike typical case - with amazingly bad results for the story. Since most of characters are completely underdeveloped, there is no impact on their death, as they aren't even named in-story and some of them exist only in the Debut Queue scene.
    Vladimir Kulich: We shot for 10 months. We had plenty of time to establish characters.
  • Died Standing Up: Buliwyf dies sitting on a log, watching the enemy retreat.
  • Doing In the Wizard: Partly. Some mystical elements are taken out, but the seers are pretty accurate.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Buliwyf is poisoned and so fatally sick that he can hardly stand, but when the battle starts he's there with his sword and his dog because that's just how Vikings do it.
  • The Dreaded: At the beginning, the Vikings have real terror for the Wendol, and the legends that surround them. When Hrothgar asks them for help in fighting "an ancient evil — a terror that must not be named", the Vikings are so subdued that Ahmad ponders "What thing could affect them so?" In the novel, as the warriors approach Hrothgar's kingdom, Ahmad writes, "I looked at Ecthgow, the lieutenant of Buliwyf, and saw that he stood in the boat and made a brave face, and yet his knees trembled, and it was not the stiffness of the wind that made them tremble so. He was afraid; they were all afraid; and I did not know why."
  • Dual Wield: In the final battle one of the warriors wields a sword and a short axe.
  • The Drag-Along: Ahmad, for most of the book. His film counterpart took few levels in badass very fast.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Ahmad is initially referred to by the northmen as "Eben, a mispronounced "Ibn", which means "son of" in Arabic. Later on Herger starts affectionately referring to Ahmad as "little brother."
  • Expy: Buliwyf for Beowulf.
  • External Retcon: of Beowulf, via Literary Agent Hypothesis.
  • Fanfare: The score by Jerry Goldsmith.
  • The Fatalist: The movie presents Norse culture as such, leading to Not Afraid to Die. Before their first battle Herger tells Ahmad not to fear death because his fate is fixed and nothing he can do will change that. Real Life Islamic culture of course tends at least as much towards fatalism as Norse culture possibly didnote .
  • Flat Character: Vladimir Kulich, who played the lead would later lament that one of the reason why the movie didn't live up to its true potential was because the 13 characters weren't developed properly. Half of them don't even have spoken lines.
    Vladimir Kulich: You've got 13 characters that you don't develop fully. So when you start to lose them to the battles, you don't really care, because you are not connected to them. And I made a suggestion, which unfortunately didn't happen, 't was: we are on this boat. All you have to do is take a hand-held cam, walk around the boat as you travel and give each character 20 seconds. (...) But they never got that, so we lost a lot of characters in the first battle. You didn't knew who they were.
  • Frazetta Man: The Wendol.
  • Going Native: Ahmad begins to adopt Viking culture more and more, culminating in the novel with his sleeping with and helping strangle the girl chosen for a Viking Funeral. In the film version it's almost entirely omitted.
  • Good Bad Translation: What Omar Sharif comments on what the Vikings say is pure comedy gold for anyone who understands Scandinavian. Not in the book though.
  • A Good Way to Die: When wounded Helfdane decides to stay behind in the cave tunnels, he remarks to the sorrowful Ahmad, "today was a good day," even smiling. As said below, all of the vikings are invigorated by battle, and do not fear dying in combat.
  • Heroic Second Wind: Downplayed with Buliwyf, who still shows up for the final battle despite being fataly poisoned and barely walking, but it's obvious for everyone he won't last long regardless of circumstances.
  • Heroic Spirit: Buliwyf is dying of poison, and still fights in the climactic battle.
  • The Horde: The Wendol, who have number big enough to be taken for a "fire wyrm" when they move with torches in a myst. There are apparently hundreds of them, if not more.
  • Horny Vikings: Averted. The Vikings have their cultural quirks, to be sure, but the helmets worn seem oddly scavenged and the crew are generally motley.
  • Human Pincushion: the largest viking, Halga (played by Asbjorn "The Bear" Riis), gets stuck with a half-dozen spears, the red-headed Skeld gets stuck with four. Both during the second battle.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Wendol, hence the book's original name.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After (barely) surviving the Wendol's assault on the village, Ahmad is looking out at the devastation when Herger walks up to him with a flask of mead in hand. He offers Ahmad a cup, which he refuses on the grounds that alcohol made from grain or grapes is forbidden by his religion. Herger laughs and presses the cup into Ahmad's hand, telling him it's made from honey. Ahmad stares at the cup for a long moment, then chugs it down.
  • Informed Ability: The end credit lists the warriors with their attributes like, for instance, Helfddane (Fat). Apparently, the seer called for men with this attributes in the Debut Queue. But most of this is not displayed on screen, Edgtho the Silent gets more lines than Halga the Wise, Weath the Musician never plays music, Skeld doesn't seem any more superstitious than the others (or than any 10th century norseman would be). The only ones who seem to match their attributes are Heger the Joyous and Rethel the Archer.
  • Instant Awesome: Just Add Dragons!: Subverted and lampshaded. It turned out the "fire wyrm" is just a cavalry column with torches, and Herger said he would have preferred an actual dragon. Of course, given that the size of the fire wyrm in question meant it was comprised of literally hundreds of warriors, all mounted on horseback and moving independently, his preference for a straight-up lizard is understandable.
  • Jumped at the Call: The other 12 warriors, who eagerly embark for the quest.
  • Loophole Abuse: Herger offers Ahmad a post-battle drink, which Ahmad refuses saying he cannot partake of alcohol made from grape or grain. Herger cheerfully points out the mead is made from honey, so Ahmad shrugs and joins in.
  • The Low Middle Ages: The action takes places somewhere during The Viking Age.
  • Madness Mantra: Ahmad manages to kill one of the Wendol in the second battle, and gets a chance to inspect the body to discover that the Wendol are not supernatural creatures but rather ordinary humans. The revelation breaks him for a moment, and he can only repeat "It's a man" before flying into a rage and attacking the rest.
  • Mad Oracle: As one of the Vikings sardonically notes, "The perfect adviser."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In addition to the strange oracles, Buliwyf's reappearance at the end of the novel for the final battle is rife with pagan symbolism of the god Odin, implying a supernatural source for his Heroic Second Wind.
  • Mighty Whitey: Subverted. Ibn Fadlan impresses the vikings with his skills, not least his literacy and horsemanship, but he never surpasses the vikings in the skills they teach him, and he is most definitely not a fighter. If anything, the vikings consider him the Tagalong Kid, even going so far as to call him "little brother". And of course, Ahmad ibn Fadlan is an Arab. He is actually a fairly competent fighter, particularly in the film, but he can never hope to match the Vikings in battle because... well... they're Vikings.
  • Million Mook March: The "fire wyrm" is in fact hundreds of mounted warriors, each carrying a torch.
  • No Ending: The manuscript, and thus the book, ends just before Ahmad ibn Fadlan is about to embark on a new adventure, practically in the middle of
  • Overly Long Name: When asked his name Ahmad starts giving his full lineage. The vikings get annoyed and decide to call him Ibn (Arabic for "son of") from then on, likely because they heard him repeating the word as he gave his name and assumed that it was an important part of it.
  • Pelts of the Barbarian: These are vikings, so when they wear their huge fur capes, it's half for warmth, and half to make them look even more imposing.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The only thing the 13 share in common is being embarked on the same quest. The vikings get along pretty fast, most of them already knowing each other, but for Ahmad it takes most of the story to finally start getting along.
  • Rated M for Manly
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: In the novel Ahmad is timid and wimpy until he learns how to fight and be a real man from the Norse warriors. In the movie, it is heavily implied that he already has some skill with a scimitar, and the Norse gain a great deal of respect for him once it becomes apparent he can hold his own.
  • The Reveal: The nature of the Wendol.
  • Rule of Cool: Ahmad cannot swing his standard-issue Viking sword (based on the false idea that Western swords were more heavy and unwieldy than Eastern swords; such a Western sword would actually weigh 2-2.5lbs at most) so he grinds it into a pseudo-scimitar. The process would have destroyed the blade's cutting edge in reality, because of its blade geometry (such as the cross section would not take to grinding, nor be as strong when changed from straight to curved). But it does make him look more badass when he gets it to the shape he wants.
  • Rule of Funny: The Vikings mock Ahmad's little Arabian horse. While Arabian horses were relatively small at the time to better survive in the desert, Scandinavians rode ponies, which were also small to survive in the cold. The Vikings' attitude toward Arab horses is Truth in Television for a lot of people who don't know what these Pint-Sized Powerhouses are capable of. In reality they are Hidden Badasses which have been bred for battle for centuries.
  • Sadly Mythtaken: In the film, Herger tells Ahmad that the All-Father (Odin) "wove the skein (thread) of your life a long time ago." In Norse mythology it was the Norns who wove the threads of fate (comparable to the Fates in Greek mythology), not Odin.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • As per the course, Crichton displays his erudition. His worldbuilding was and is so convincing that years later, he later couldn't tell which parts he made up. He said one of the annoying parts was that he'd fabricated his references so well that he'd spend hours trying to look up a book, and sometimes still wasn't sure whether he just couldn't find it or he'd made it up himself.
    • While the movie is historically speaking a step down from the scrupulously researched book since it introduced many anachronisms and errors, it did have a more or less direct quote from Beowulf:
      "Luck, often enough, will save a man if his courage holds."
      Wyrd oft nereð unfægne eorl þonne his ellen deah (Wyrd often spares an undoomed man when his courage endures.note )
    • The "Mead is OK" justification under Loophole Abuse is not considered valid by many modern Muslims, but was in fact largely accepted in the period the story is set in.
    • After killing Angus in a duel, Herger throws a weregild at the prince's feet.
  • Sword Drag: Right before the final battle starts, Buliwyf shows up as the last act of defiance. Since he's fatally poisoned, he can barely walk and drags his sword behind him.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: In the film, Ahmad suddenly reveals that he's a total whiz with an Arabian-style saber, after having spent half the film showing that he's a Non-Action Guy.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Ahmad is the viewpoint character of Buliwyf's story.
  • Token Minority: Ahmad is the only Arab in a group of Scandinavians (although he's played by Antonio Banderas, who is actually of Spanish descent).
  • Translation Convention: In the beginning of the film, Ahmad ibn Fadlan speaks Arabic, which the movie-goers hear as English. He travels with Norsemen, who speak only Norse. Over a montage, he makes a dedicated effort to learn their language. The dialogue changes slowly but surely from Norse to English, showing that Ahmad has learned the language. In the book, his character spends most of the story slowly learning the language and having most things translated into Latin by bilingual Norsemen (usually Herger).
  • Twice Told Tale: Beowulf and Ahmad ibn Fadlan's travelogue.
  • Tyke Bomb: The Wendol take the children of slain families and raise them as their own to boost their army.
  • Wendigo: The fictional legend of the Wendol which the troll-like Neanderthals are mistaken for, on which Grendel is supposedly based in this version.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The prince and his remaining henchmen are never seen nor mentioned after the sham duel. Most likely they were lost somewhere in the cutting room with other lacking pieces of the film. In the novel, Herger kills the Prince in a duel following the final battle because the Prince made disparaging remarks about the recently-departed Buliwyf. Although it's unknown if a similar scene was ever filmed for the movie.
  • Worthy Opponent: Buliwyf gives the leader of the Wendol a respectful salute at the end of the first siege.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: When the Northmen's oracle decrees Ahmad is to be the 13th warrior, his protests are completely ignored.

Alternative Title(s): Eaters Of The Dead, The Thirteenth Warrior, The13th Warrior