A Prayer for Heroes

I sat down the other evening with my wife and son for my second viewing of The 13th Warrior. I hadn’t seen it for a long while, and I discovered I enjoyed it just as much or more than I had the first time.

I was surprised to learn that it had only a 33% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and that it hadn’t done at all well in the cinema. It’s a very fine story of heroic adventure with comrades-in-arms, with some honest-to-goodness chills, thrills, and mystery. At least that’s my opinion. It’s one of the better heroic movies filmed in the last quarter century. God knows I’d rather watch it a few more times than, say, Conan the Destroyer. Apparently I’m out of step with the consensus. I flipped through the various negative reviews and shook my head at the comments and lack of appreciation. As an adventure story it does so many things right that many movies do wrong… but that’s not what makes it great. For all the in-your-face violence, much of what happens is understated, including character development and the themes of heroism.

My wife likes the movie but even she thought that the final moments of Buliwyf’s life strain credulity. I responded that his final moments must strain credulity or they would not have come down to us even in distorted form, and that real men and women have done amazing things — I’ve written about Audie Murphy on this very blog. His own feats were so amazing that Hollywood actually had to tone some of them down for his biopic.

The Viking prayer from the movie (apparently invented for the movie, for the version fromĀ  the book — Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead — doesn’t sound nearly as good), encapsulates the Norse approach to life and heroism so nicely that I took the trouble to put it to memory the last time I saw the film. It speaks of the awareness of an individual’s place in society and the necessity for bravery in a land where death comes to all. In other words, a prayer that might suit all brave men and women. It is introduced near the start of the film, when the character through whom we experience the movie, Ahmed, still sees the Viking culture as foreign and barbaric. By the end of the movie he has becomeĀ  a brother to the other heroes, and as a result the moment when he joins in the prayer before the final battle against overwhelming odds is perhaps the most stirring in the movie.

Here it is:

Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers.
Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning.
They do call to me; they bid me take my place among them in Valhalla, where the brave may live forever.

That’s great stuff. I’m working on an oath some of my characters swear in one of my new book projects, and I keep this in mind as I hone it. I still don’t have anything half as good.

12 Comments on “A Prayer for Heroes

  1. I haven’t seen this film since it first became available for home viewing. I remember enjoying it very much at the time, and being particularly intrigued by how the language was handled. If I remember correctly, Ahmed and the others don’t share a language at the beginning of the film, and he slowly learns theirs as the narrative progresses.
    We watched the film in the first place because Antonio Banderas was in it – a fellow Spaniard — and because the trailers for it looked good. I was also surprised that it wasn’t better received. Maybe we can do something about that.
    The irony of a Spaniard playing a Moor/Arab wasn’t lost on me either. Thanks for reminding me about this movie.

  2. Yes, that’s the movie. Another friend of mine was commenting on the language learning bits just a year or so back. It’s perhaps the finest depiction of assimilating a foreign language that I’ve seen — although some people apparently didn’t get it, and seemed to think that he’d picked up Norse over the course of several days instead of the long span of time that I think is implied.

  3. This is a great movie. At least I remember it being great. Haven’t watched it in a while, but you have inspired me to watch it again. What I remember most about it is all the incredible faces. My pal Keith was convinced the director had actually gone back in time and kidnapped real vikings to be in it.

    I’m working on an oath for some of my characters too. Here’s what I’ve got so far. “Every man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost!”

  4. We seem to have similar tastes in movies. This is one of my absolute favorites, and I’ve gone so far as to say it may be the best sword & sorcery film yet made.

    • There surely aren’t very many good s&s movies. Most of the ones I would call good are kind of cheesy but have their heart in the right place… and this one is much better than that description…

  5. Great to read people know and love this movie. It seems to have slipped through every possible crack into oblivion. Lord, I don’t think the movie ever misses the right step or right beat.

    I agree with you about it being the best S&S film. Nothing else comes close.

    • I do wish that the sub-plot with the prince didn’t just vanish, and it would have been nice if we got a small scene of Ahmed saying farewell to the Viking woman… but apart from that I completely agree about the story beats. I think some stuff ended up on the cutting room floor.

  6. As near as I can remember, I think that the prayer is taken from the historical Ibn Fadlan’s accounts of the Norsemen. The scene where he watches the girl-servant getting on the funeral barge with her master is nearly verbatim from the writings.

    • I haven’t read the accounts, although I’ve been curious. The prayer from Eaters of the Dead is similar, but not as finely worded. If it’s based on Ahmed Ibn Fadlan’s writings it might be that the film version of the prayer is just a superior translation.

  7. I love this movie. I still remember when my son (4-years old at the time), took the dvd out of the case, looked at me, and snapped it in half.

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