Tuesday, August 10, 2010 10:29 AM
(Last updated on Friday, August 13, 2010 01:54 PM)
Book Report - The Epic of Gilgamesh
 by Fëanor

Somehow I made it through my entire college career as an English major without ever reading The Epic of Gilgamesh in its entirety. When I found poppy's copy of the 1989 edition of Maureen Gallery Kovacs' translation on the bookshelf the other day, I decided to correct this error. I was surprised to discover how fragmentary our knowledge is of the original source material. In fact, the tablets that the epic was written on are literally fragmentary, so that various sections of the story have to be recreated from other versions of the story, and other sections are just lost entirely. Even the portions that we do have can be a mystery at times; thanks to the obscurity of the ancient language and the alien cultural context of the story, the translation often devolves into guesswork, with certain phrases and terms remaining almost completely opaque (for instance, the mysterious "stone things" on the boat that Gilgamesh destroys near the end of the tale). But out of this mess a rather compelling and universal story ultimately arises, about a man named Gilgamesh who becomes best friends with his enemy, the wild man named Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on various adventures together, but finally Enkidu dies. (Oops, spoiler!) Gilgamesh grieves terribly at his friend's death, not the least because it has made him aware of his own mortality. He goes on a long journey seeking the secret to evading death, only to discover it doesn't exist.

Interestingly, the man Gilgamesh visits seeking the secret to immortality is essentially the prototype for Noah. He was warned by one of the Gods that a flood was coming to wipe the Earth clean of humanity, and that he should build a boat and put himself and his family aboard, along with any livestock he could find. The boat is taken up by the waters and eventually runs aground on the side of a mountain. He releases various birds to discover if there is any other land nearby. The sense I got from the introduction and notes is that a lot of the story of Gilgamesh is made up of earlier stories, and that the story of Gilgamesh was itself then retold and reused in various ways. That's storytelling for you.

I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more to the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. I'd read so much about it, and yet in the story itself, it basically just says, "then they became friends," and that's it. A lot of the story is surprisingly abrupt like that.

The opening of the poem is oddly schizophrenic. It starts by stressing how awesome and amazing Gilgamesh was, only to then move immediately into a story about how he was oppressing his own people in some vague way and that the Gods had to send Enkidu - essentially a wild, beast-like version of Gilgamesh himself - to straighten him out. It's never really clear what's so great about Gilgamesh, actually, as he spends the entire poem either failing to do things, whining about things he has to do, or succeeding in doing things that end up biting him in the ass later. But it's Gilgamesh's failures and his mortality that give the story its humanity and make it accessible (to the extent that it is).

I can't say The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fun beach read or anything, but it is interesting in the way it highlights the places where great gulfs separate us from ancient peoples, and the places where we are not even a footstep apart.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), History (Not), Language (Not), Poetry (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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