Alex's Reviews > Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Gilgamesh by Anonymous
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's review
Dec 04, 2007

it was amazing
Read in January, 2006

The story of Gilgamesh is the Hero's Journey for all time. It is haunting in its sheer age — a ghostly voice speaking to us from Iraq, five thousand years ago. Yet it remains startlingly relevant to 21st century Americans, as its hero struggles to find a first-world sense of purpose. King Gilgamesh wants for nothing, and then loses the only person he ever loved. He covets eternity. He accomplishes the greatest things a human can... and then what?

Gilgamesh hits bottom and begins to rise from his own ashes during the climactic, contemplative confrontation with a pre-Biblical Noah, the only man who already has what Gilgamesh desperately wants, and the only man who can show Gilgamesh the truth of what he unknowingly needs.

What we know of Gilgamesh (the mythical story, not the real-life king) comes to us in pieces, blanketed in multiple layers of cultural idiosyncrasy. Reading Gilgamesh uninitiated (as I first attempted with a different translation) is like reading Shakespeare translated into Chinese and back into English. Even when the words themselves seem to make sense, only a haze of subtext and significance is apparent: why that odd linguistic rhythm? Why invoke that bizarre metaphor? Why dwell on that seemingly insignificant detail? There's a great deal of meaning — extremely relevant to the story — that either gets lost in translation of language or cultural context.

Which is where this book comes in. Stephen Mitchell's version of Gilgamesh is somewhat analogous to Eugene Peterson's "Message" version of the Bible: there is paraphrasing, some cut and paste, some additions and subtractions, all with the goal in mind of making the material easier to read and digest fully without having a PhD in Assyriology. Mitchell also includes explication and added context in the appendix.

Mitchell's work is, to my layman's mind, resoundingly successful. Mitchell blows layers of dust off this "Oldest Story", and breathes new life into it. Adding to the greatness of this work is George Guidall's wonderful performance in the audiobook version. Guidall brings to the reading aggression and tenderness in equal parts. His voice is pleasantly elderly; I felt like a child sitting at his grandfather's knee around a campfire, hearing for the first of many times the stories that tell us who we are.

The story of Gilgamesh is one of human civilization's great treasures, and certainly one of the oldest. Mitchell's work is a celebration of its glory and enduring truth; Guidall's performance passionately connects timeless meaning with real people, here and now.
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09/06 marked as: read

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