The 13th Warrior: Ten Years Later

Viking shipThe 13th Warrior was released in 1999. Rumored to be a loss of $100 million at the box office worldwide, it is not the best film by McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair) in any sense. However, it was rather entertaining to watch it again, taking a few notes in the process. From the very beginning, the plot struggles to combine two realities: Norse Vikings and their habits as described by Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century, and the 5th century epic Scandinavians as described in Beowulf, Old English heroic poem. The Wendol, whom the Vikings finally have to oppose, seem to be a prehistoric tribe (all this based on Eaters of the Dead by Michael Chrichton). At the start of the film we see a map, where Baghdad is to be found between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, thus located in the Caucasus instead of the Tigris River. The Caliph of Baghdad sends away Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), who was seduced by a merchant’s wife, to be an ambassador to the Volga Bulgars. Accompanied by Melchisedek (Omar Sharif), his mentor and manservant, Ibn Fadlan travels along the Volga river, where he is attacked by Tartars (in fact Tartars or Tatars would not appear in these lands until the 13th century), after which he encounters a group of Viking warriors. What happens next is based on the actual account of historical Ibn Fadlan.
There are a few things about Vikings in The 13th Warrior that deserve to be mentioned. One of them wears a Roman Gladiator helmet, which is very unlikely but still theoretically possible. However, the Spanish Morion helmet, worn by another Viking, was not invented until the 16th century (Ibn Fadlan met Vikings in 922). One of the warriors is a Celt and wears a Scottish kilt, which was not developed until the 16th or 17th century, either. The Vikings speak Bokmål, one of the two Norwegian written standard languages, and Danish in one instance. However, on the Volga river, one would expect to meet Vikings from Sweden. At all events, they would rather speak Old Norse, since Norwegian, Swedish and Danish languages developed later in history. Melchisedek tries to speak to Vikings in Greek: he repeats something like γεμόνα ὑμέτερον, βασιλέα ὑμέτερον (hegemona hymeteron, basilea hymeteron), which means “your chief, your king” in the accusative case, which makes little sense without a verb. Moreover, the first time Melchisedek says hymereton instead of hymeteron. One of the Vikings answers in a rather good Latin: Noster rex tabernaculo. Non loquetur, quia mortuus est (“Our king is in the tent. He will not speak, since he is dead”). The conversation continues in Latin, but the DVD subtitles continue to say: [speaking Greek]. Later on, Ibn Fadlan studies the language of Vikings simply by listening to them, over a very short period of time. To show how the Arab traveler was first able to understand only parts of phrases, Vikings’ speech is heard to be a strange mix of English and Norwegian, like “Do not fortelle my wife, for jeg will be coming.”
All in all, I’ve had a lot of fun watching The 13th Warrior again, ten years later. Without obvious goofs it would probably become rather boring.

Photo courtesy henribergius. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence.

48 comments… add one
  • Put'ukuilnguq Mute

    I was very surprised to hear my own language in there when I watched it as a young boy. The Yup’ik language was spoken when they went to see the natives in the cave. Kit’uusit means “who are you?” And Caugua atra or Atra Caugua (can be said either way) means “what’s your name?” :). And my people are on the other side of the world in AK, unless we have relatives on the other side that I don’t know of…

    • Viking Rune

      Very interesting, Put’ukuilnguq. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Sean

    Being a mix of Icelandic and Swede I really enjoyed the movie. I am really proud to be of Viking heritage and thought all the actors were just right in their rolls. What a beautiful story of friendship thru good bad and worse times. We could all learn a thing or two from it, I did. The battle scenes are great and full of horror and rage. VIKING POWER.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Sean. To be sure, battle scenes are great in this movie.

  • khal jenes

    The scene where they treat the arab guys wounds is incorrect he would know more about medicine than the Viking would

    • Viking Rune

      You are probably right, Khal.

  • Arthur

    I think we should not take this film as historical, this is largely heroic saga. Beautiful tale. Excellent casting, subtle sense of humor. Wonderful movie.

    (Please excuse my bad english)

    • Viking Rune

      However, they should avoid blatant mistakes, shouldn’t they?

  • Erik E.Sandström

    I have seen 13th Warrior dozen of times. I was born in Stockholm, so the Viking myth is part of me. I am an addict to it! I love especially the Viking humor, laughing in the face of danger and death, going for the impossible, and Fadhlan’s acumen in working out the problems. “Where is the cave?” “In the earth.” “Is there a cave?” I just collapse every time Herger says “Honey, its made from honey!” I have mead ever since! (You can get it from Renaissane Fair)

    • Viking Rune

      Yes, some scenes are hilarious indeed.

  • xman

    They have got to make another one with same cast kinda like a follow on ,even though this film lost money the more you watch it the better it gets ,historical fantasy movies are hard to come by 10 out of 10 from me ,the only problem is when sequels are made (like war of worlds 2) they fall short very short ,we need to keep this in same context as 1999 movie ,same cast ,location etc , and onto a winner

    • Viking Rune

      I don’t believe they would be able to make a good sequel.

  • tr00don

    The 13th Warrior is an excellent movie. I guess Hollywood hated it for having an arab as a positive (as in good) main character. They haven’t even released the movie in BluRay and the DVD is very hard to find. I actually bought a used one from Blockbuster right before the company went belly-up, otherwise the only option would have been to download the movie off the Web.

    • Viking Rune

      To be sure, the movie is worth of being released on DVD.

  • James M

    Awesome Article! I really like how you pulled it apart.
    My question to you however is, What is your best guess as to where the village is, it looks so nordic, It seems it was supposed to be set in Medieval Rus though according to other sources. To get there they cross some sort of stormy water body, (The scene where Helga or Edgtho yells Odin.. Odin… Land!)
    It would take far to long to get to scandanavian waters by foot though.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello James. The answer is probably in the book on which the movie is based.

  • Yamtar

    Nice linguistical and historical corrections you made out here. Yet, this is an Hollywood production, it’s obvious that the common American movie audience don’t care (or possibly don’t know) so much about the historical facts, so this much failure can be expected of them. I still like the movie though.

    • Viking Rune

      I like the movie, too.

  • Rick Q Allen

    I’d like to thank you for the insight into some of the goofs in The Thirteenth Warrior. I’m reading The Vikings- A History by Robert Ferguson and although it is packed with information it is a bit hard to follow. Any suggestions on a good Viking history?

    • Viking Rune

      Hi Rick. I would suggest A History of the Vikings by Gwyn Jones. Very informative, but perhaps not as hard to follow as Ferguson. Jacqueline Simpson’s Everyday Life in the Viking Age may be an option in case Jones seems too voluminous. Or you may want to try Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings.

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