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Movie Monday: 13th Warrior

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I’m working on a deeper theological piece, but it’s going to take me a bit of time to complete, especially since I have a conference paper to finish writing. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying my movie Monday posts, so here’s another one. 

Someone at school asked me the other day what my favorite medieval themed movie was and without missing a beat, I said, “13thWarrior.” This was the first-time Heathenry had been portrayed on screen, at least insofar as I had seen and I loved it, and despite its flaws, it remains one of my feel-good movies. I think I’ve watched it dozens of times. 

The movie is based on a book by Michael Crichton titled Eaters of the DeadThis book itself uses two medieval stories, firstly Beowulfand secondly a book by Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century Muslim traveler to the North, who spent significant time amongst the Rus and later wrote a travelogue of the wonders he witnessed there. Viking Answer Lady has an informative post here that gives links to Fadlan’s account and also analyzes some of the more interesting sections. It’s worth a read because – and this is one thing that comes through in the movie too – we get to see the Northmen through a foreigner’s eyes, someone for whom the practices and customs he’s experiencing are completely alien. He is able to bring them into vivid relief in his account, because everything is different and strange and new. In the movie, the main character (supposedly based on Ibn Fadlan… a very very fictionalized Fadlan) becomes our interlocutor, in the same way, for a story of great heroism. 

Things I really liked about this movie: 

  1. The divination scene where the prophetess calls 13 warriors to journey forth. I particularly liked the respect they gave to her and the reverence the entire process of divination had for the Northmen.
  2. The prayer the Muslim character makes before the final battle – it’s lovely and potent (despite referring to God as “Father,” which is not congruent with Islamic tradition), and the prayer all the Heathens make before the final battle (in which the Muslim character joins too), to the ancestors. I just adore that final prayer. 
  3. The way the main character learns the Norse language, through osmosis, i.e. listening. 
  4. The way this then demonstrates how intelligent Bulwif is – I won’t give anything away, but he represents the best type of leader as described in the HavamalHe’s also very, very Odinic, especially how he dies. This is much more emphasized in the book than in the movie but it still comes through (in the book, he’s not only seated in the throne with his dogs at his feet but ravens come to rest on each shoulder). 
  5. The fight scenes – I’m a sucker for a good fight scene. 

Things that annoyed me: 

  1. The different types of armor. While some of the older armor might have been passed down in a family, at least two warriors wore armor that wouldn’t be invented for another couple hundred years! 
  2. The wash basin scene – it’s just inaccurate, a misreading of Ibn Fadhlan. 
  3. The minor romance. Why must otherwise good action movies always have romance (if romance it can be called; it was really just a booty call on both sides)? Fortunately, it didn’t detract much from the movie and little time was spent on it. 
  4. All the older fighters die in the first attack. If they had lived long enough to be old, that means they were canny, intelligent, lucky, and badass fighters. They wouldn’t have crumpled in that first battle.

Is this a great movie? No, not by any means. It is, however fun, and it’s one of the few things I’ve seen that not only presents Heathens well, but taps into (however lightly) some of our lore. Despite its inaccuracies, it brings the viewer into a different world, a different time, a different way of being in the world. It shows certain virtues, like courage and honor, a willingness to confront terrifying things to do right by one’s allies. As always, I think it’s beneficial for us to see and read examples of heroism, of virtue. That’s a big part of why these stories, epics, folksongs and the like, were continuously recited. The media we consume changes us internally and that can be for the better or for the worse. That’s why it’s important to approach these things critically, to make good choices, to make choices that teach us how to cultivate a better way of being in the world, a message emphasized most assuredly, in the Havamal.