What Can a Viking and an Arab Learn from Each other? The 13th Warrior as Political Psychotherapy

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a psychoanalytic commentary on the art of cinema, there is a scene from The Possessed (1931), wherein the heroine walks toward a train station as the train is passing by and watches the passengers through the wagon windows: A woman ironing her underwear, another undressing, two chefs cooking, and a couple dancing. At last, when the wagons pass by, she encounters a man sitting on the end of the train, half-drunk, who tells her: “Looking in? Wrong way! Get in and look out”.

Slavoj Žižek sees this scene as “reality itself reproduce[ing] the magic cinematic experience […] as if what in reality is just a person standing near a slowly passing train turns into a viewer observing the magic of the screen”.
This is a “real ordinary scene, unto which the heroine’s real space, as it were, her fantasy space is projected”. Thus, although this is an ordinary scene both for the heroine and for us as the spectators, in it “part of reality is elevated to the magic level [and] becomes the screen of her dreams. This is cinematic art at its purest” (Part One).

From such a vantage point, the art of cinema is perceived as not merely something to look at from outside. It is, beyond that, a projection of our own desires, complexes, needs, and in one word the real unto the screen. Hence, the drunken man’s suggestion: “get in and look out”! In fact, the art of cinema tells us that if we “are looking for what is, in reality, more real than reality itself, [we need to] look into the cinematic fiction” (Part Three).

The 13th Warrior is a depiction of a fantasy which is more real than reality. The film is of
significance to the modern day audience for it offers an archetypal pattern very different from the usual course of Hollywood. It is a medieval account of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim ethnographer, who after falling in love with a married woman, is exiled from Baghdad into Northern Europe as an ambassador. The deviation from Hollywood stereotypes lies in lending the narrative power into the hands of a Muslim and portraying the subject of his memoir as a Viking tribe. Thus, the audience identifies themselves with a Muslim who speaks English—here representing Arabic, of course–, is literate and is working on a journal about his Viking companions who speak an unintelligible language, cannot read and write, and are depicted as vulgar and barbaric. In this way the positions the self and the other usually occupy in pop-culture are flipped.  This time Ahmed Ibn Fadlan occupies the position of power and writes history. But as the plot progresses we
realize that there is no bar between the two sides of the self/other binary opposition.9a2d2b5586395fd2e63e6de4f09b9568

  1. Deconstruction of the Self/Other Hierarchy
  2. Sartrean Departures

The sources of the self/other binary opposition lie is the Cartesian conception of consciousness as an arrow departing from the ego(self) and pointing towards nature. Conversely, Sartre argued that the self is not the source of consciousness. To him consciousness is “a wind blowing to the world from nowhere” and perceives the self and the other with equal distance (8-10).

Adopting Sartre’s view of the equal place of the self and the other against consciousness involves the immediate annulment of the hierarchical preference of the self over the other which is the psychological root of many historical instances of a group of people’s atrocity against another as soon as the former can manage to find a justification for this psychological preference in institutions such as religion.

What Jean Paul Sartre did not agree with in Descartes is the identification of consciousness with the self as the underlying presupposition of Descartes’ definition of the cogito. Sartre, instead, proposes that the ‘I’ in “I think” is not the same ‘I’ who says “therefore I am.” He argues that human consciousness exists as separate from both the self and the facticity which surrounds it (127).

  1. Lacanian Insights

Elaborating on the imaginative realm of human psyche, Lacan, even goes further and depicts the self as merely an “illusion”.

The Imaginary is the psychic place, or phase, where the child projects its ideas of ‘self’ onto the mirror image it sees. The mirror stage cements a self/other dichotomy, where previously the child had known ‘other’ but not ‘self.’ For Lacan, the identification of ‘self’ is always in terms of ‘other.’ This is not the same as the binary opposition where ‘self’ is defined as ‘what is not other’ and ‘other’ is defined as ‘what is not self.’ Rather, ‘self’ is ‘other,’ in Lacan’s view. (Klages 74)

  1. The Self as Equal to the Other

Thus, when Ahmed looks at his own psychic drama he is, actually, looking at the other which comprises his Viking companions, the distressed tribe, and, most importantly, Ahmed’s own self. The character of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan turns into a transparent medium allowing the audience to pass through it and identify themselves with the conflict. His Viking companions are as alien/familiar for him as he is for himself. Under such circumstances the Vikings and Ahmed can be mutually responsible and complementary.

The interaction with the other also occurs on another level. The Wendol army is depicted as the other which is far more distanced in Ahmed’s unconscious and since it is depicted mysterious and prelingual.

The deconstruction of the self/other hierarchy as a result of a shift in the narrative point of view, of course, to the benefit of the narrator, first leads to a reversal of the hierarchy but later to the balancing of the dichotomy in terms of the intrinsic value of self and other. The reversal happens via several incidents early in the plot which depict the Vikings as vulgar and bellicose and, on the other hand, Ibn Fadlan as refined and civilized:

…[T]he Arab protagonist and the purveyer-of-the-written-language, Ibn Fadlan, functions to exemplify the superiority of the written language[…]over illiteracy and the unspeakable (m)Other. He is literate and revered while the Vikings are limited by illiteracy and so diminished in status. Great pains are taken on the part of the novelist and the filmmaker to show the Vikings as semi-bestial and strikingly abject in terms of hygiene—as exemplified by the spit-in-the-communal-washbasin scene that takes place when Fadlan first meets the Vikings. (Bihlmeyer 154)

There is, however, an important twist: The narrative power is bestowed upon an Arab who is a minority among 12 other Viking warriors and this is a balance in itself which lays the ground for a mutual responsibility towards the other. This is where the self and the other are rendered equal. When the Vikings are notified of the unspeakable threat which is destroying another Norse territory, an oracular senile woman tells Buliwyf, their chief, that exactly 13 men should set out to help the city under attack and the 13th one must be a non-Viking.

  1. The External Conflict as a Camouflage for the Internal

The first layer of the plot (the external conflict) in The 13th Warrior is the battle between the Viking warriors who set out to help another village repel the threat of a mysterious army of bear-like creatures who attack villages out of the mist, in the dark. But, if we consider Ahmed’s banishment from Baghdad as an escape from reality into fantasy like what takes place in Solaris by Tarkovsky or Lost Highway by David Lynch, then the whole plot and the characters reveal themselves as constituents of the second layers, namely, Ahmed’s internal conflict.

  1. From the Real/Imaginary into the Symbolic

Ibn Fadlan’s banishment from Baghdad signifies the shift from the real into the symbolic. In Baghdad, he is in this fantastic place where the Oedipal Complex is formed. It is important to note that the plot starts off as a consequence of this formation. He falls in love with a married woman and, immediately afterwards, the beloved’s husband is depicted as the obstacle.

The Wendol Queen is the maternal, from whom Ibn Fadlan springs to enter the realm of the symbolic at the center of which, Buliwyf resides. Buliwyf is clearly a father figure, the seat of masculinity to the brim, and a perfect double, to whom Ahmed looks up.

The act of beheading the mother by Buliwyf thoroughly corresponds to Lacan’s observation that the subject, in order to declare him/herself as ‘I’, and develop an ego, needs to separate him/herself from the mother’s identity as the other in order to delineate the boundaries of his/her ego (Wright 77). The process of becoming a man for Ibn Fadlan is actually an orthodox exposition of the mirror stage. He is too much inexperienced to face his fear alone; therefore, he has Buliwyf, his masculine double, his “ideal ego” in Lacan’s terms, to do the job. Buliwyf is given the mission to replace of the maternal with the paternal (behead the Queen). Eventually the Wendol queen is decapitated by Buliwyf but before that, to appease any feminists among the spectators, she manages to poison Buliwyf, which eventually brings about his demise. In this way both the matriarch and the patriarch are sacrificed to contribute to the formation of Ibn Fadlan’s ego.

f41322037898a9f7f2c00200acd95f4e ‘Herger the Joyous’, one of the 13 warriors, is obviously the externalization of Fadlan’s libido. He is red haired, baby-faced, playful, hyper-active and irresponsible. He is the one who pushes Ibn Fadlan several times during the story when he is too much overwhelmed by precaution. Also, when Ahmed tries to teach his full name to the Vikings through his translator, Herger gives him his new name:

Ahmed: I am Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, Ibn al Abbas Ibn Rashid

Herger: Ibn.

–no no. Listen. Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Al Abbas. Ibn means “son of”

–(looking at others) Ibn.

Thus the protagonist’s long name, which includes the line of his ancestors, is altered into a “son”, a dubbing, which insinuates his desire to become as strong and charismatic as Buliwyf. Again, moments before the first battle with the Wendol army, the terrorized Ahmed whispers to Herger: “I am not a warrior.” And the answer is: “Soon you will be!” Later in the film when they infiltrate the Wendol cave, Ahmed divulges his fear of height to Herger before jumping between two rocks under a waterfall and Herger playfully pushes him toward the other rock where Buliwyf takes his hand and helps him climb. Following this line of logic, the discreet raid into the Wendol cave can be interpreted as a delving into Fadlan’s unconscious where fear resides. But why does he have to delve?

Žižek, argues that when real life becomes “unbearable”, the mind (un)consciously tends to recreate the course of events as it would prefer them to have happened. But sometimes our desires are “artificial”. Cinema teaches us how to desire. “[T]he very whiteness of the cinematic screen” is a place “off-limits” as compared to the limitations of reality, where we can “project” our “beliefs […,] fears, [and] things from […our…] inner space” (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Part Three). The 13th Warrior is a good example of this escape into fantasy. Hence, Baghdad is where reality takes place and the Norse is where fantasy takes over.

As mentioned above, the first layer of the plot is the external action between Ahmed, the Vikings, and the Wendol. On a second layer, however, a projection of desire starts from the very beginning of the film, when Ahmed is banished from Baghdad into the Norse where he can unleash his innermost desires without worrying about being heckled by the guilt sentiment he is exposed to back home. From a strictly psychoanalytic viewpoint, it can be suggested that what takes place in Baghdad is literal and the rest is Ibn fadlan’s internal action as an escape into fantasy from reality in order to overcome suffering.

  1. Mutual complementariness

As explained earlier, the Vikings view Ahmed as a man-child who is “riding a dog”. However, there are instances where Ahmed assists them. First, at the beginning of their journey when they come across the deserted village and find the inhabitants ruthlessly butchered, one of them finds a token of the Wendol; a black sculpture of a naked woman with a protruding belly, large breasts and no head. Herger holds it on the tip of his board sword, keeping it at a safe distance while another Viking, irritated by the sight of it, rashly throws it away with the blow of his sword and spits away. Ahmed, on the other hand, sits down, examines the token and even keeps it with him until later when they go before the second oracle. When the second oracle asks for “something of them” (i.e. the Wendol) Ahmed presents the token and she tells Buliwyf that they should kill the Wendol mother who “lives in the earth”. When they decide to set out toward where the black army attacks from, they lose the horse tracks but Ahmed connects the dots and decodes the second oracle’s message:

Ahmed: The claws. The headdresses. Bears. They thing they are bears. They want us to thing they are bears. Hey, how do you hunt a bear?

Herger: Chase it down with dogs. What—

Ahmed: How do you hunt a bear in winter?

Herger: Go in his cave with spears.

Ahmed: Where is his cave?

Another Viking: It’s in the earth.

Another example of Ahmed’s assistance to the Vikings is the two scenes where he teaches Buliwyf how to “draw the sounds”. Lynn Shutters describes these scenes as “a cultural exchange” between the Arab and the Viking “that is mutually beneficial”. In his view Ahmed is depicted as

a different sort of hero, one who contrasts with but nonetheless complements the fearless fighting ethos of the Vikings[…] First, Ahmed’s ethnographic abilities ultimately serve not as a means of evaluating or critiquing the Vikings but rather as a set of skills that makes him serviceable to the Viking quest[…] Ahmed […on the other hand…] must undergo a significant transformation before he can emerge as a properly developed man. (83)

At large, Ahmed’s contribution to the group is intellectual while his double, Buliwyf, provides him with a model of manhood.  But when he manages to come out from under the shadow of his double, the father figure is sacrificed (Žižek, Part Two).



The dénouement of the plot corresponds with resolution of both the internal and external conflicts.  The latter is obviously resolved with Buliwyf’s beheading of the Wendol Queen and the group’s escape through the water hole under the cave, which is a hackneyed cinematic symbol of rebirth. What is significant in that scene is the mutual destruction of both the matriarch and patriarch, after which Ibn Fadlan comes out from under the shadow of his father figure, Buliwyf, and freed from his innermost fears (the Wendol Queen), asserts himself as an individual. The farewell scene with Herger where they are both happy and satisfied signifies the emergence of a stable and balanced personality.

It can be suggested that Ahmed’s banishment from Baghdad is the point from which his unconscious is cracked wide open to the audience and even Ahmed himself is reduced to a by-stander who can only report the events in his biography after he returns home. In other words, as the audience, we sympathize and identify with Ahmed. His story becomes the audience’s story, and  his consciousness is overlapped with theirs. This process is referred to as transference in Freudian psychoanalysis. Obviously, the whole film is a flash back reminisced by the Ibn Fadlan who is now writing the story as we are watching it and in this way, as pointed out earlier, he turns into a transparent medium. As a result, the balancing of Ibn Fadlan’s psychic turmoil also happens to the audience and, thus, the Aristotelian Catharsis works on an unconscious level.

From a political viewpoint, if we accept the analogy between the external and the internal conflict, then the mutual complementariness of Ahmed and the Vikings can be interpreted as a deconstruction of the Occident/Orient binary opposition.  From the very beginning, two deviations from the ordinary course of Hollywood are established: First, the narrative power is invested in Ahmed, a Middle Eastern, who is educated and well-bred. This is a 180-degree turn from the normal path of Hollywood films in which the Middle East is depicted as a mute and prelingual entity, lending itself to the interpretation of the Western viewpoint.

Such an alternate scenario relies on the recognition of the other and to accost such an account, a novel, more humane definition of history needs to be assumed. A history which is revealing at two levels: First, as a “discovery of otherness […] rather than a [mere] representation of world history”; Secondly, as an opportunity for “self-knowledge” as “a sense of identity”. It is true that history is in general a genre in which the narrator “catalogues the world and its inhabitants as matters of fact”, but it also “involves a recognition of difference that sometimes effaces and displaces that difference” (Hart 54). The “sense of identity” that Hart points to, can be acquired on two levels: First, on a psychological level, as a journey from inexperience to wisdom and, secondly, on a political level as a sense of coming to terms with cultural otherness.  But as Hart implicates, such a sense of identity has to be accompanied with a displacement of difference so that it can lead to acknowledgement of otherness.


Works Cited

Bihlmeyer, Jamie. “Novel, Script, Image: A Case study of the Phallic (M)Other in Mainstream Culture.” Studies on Themes and Motives in Literature. Gen. Ed. Horst S. Daemmrich. Vol. 74 Images and Imagery. Ed. Leslie Boldt-irons, Corrado Federici, and Ernesto Virgulti. (2005): 153-65.

 Hart, Jonathan Locke. Interpreting Cultures: Literature, Religion and the Human Sciences. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2006.

Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Cromwell: Manchester, 2006.

Peperzak, Adriaan. To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1992.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. From the French original of 1943.

Shutters, Lynn. “Vikings through the Eyes of an Arab Ethnographer: Constructions of the Other in the 13th Warrior.Race, Class, and Gender in Medieval Cinema. Ed. Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh. New York: Macmillan, 2007. 75-89.

The 13th Warrior. Dir. John McTiernan. Touchstone Pictures., 1999.

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Presented by Slavoj Žižek. Amoeba Film/Lone Star/Mischief Films., 2006.

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