Terence's Reviews > Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell
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's review
Nov 08, 2008

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bookshelves: audio-books, mythologies, poetry
Read in November, 2008

I have an ugly secret to divulge - with few exceptions I have not read in their entirety the foundational epics of Western civilization. You name it, chances are good I haven't read it: Gilgamesh - no; Homer - no; Virgil - no; Beowulf - no; The Song of Roland - no; Cervantes - no. I could go on with the "roll call of shame" but I'm sure you get the idea.

Oh, I've taught parts of many of these works as a TA during my days at UCLA, and I know their gists but I've never been able to sit down and read them with any great degree of enjoyment. I vastly prefer modern retellings like Gardner's Grendel or Jason and Medea or S.P. Somtow's Shattered Horse.

One factor in my "shameful" literary history is that I find the "heroes" of these epics somewhat ludicrous and not people to emulate. The epic hero is no longer a "hero" in the modern sense. All too often, he's a spoiled child without conscience or morals (Achilles in the affair with Briseis being, perhaps, the iconic case study of this phenomenon). Another part of the explanation lies in a fundamental difference between how & what people enjoy today and what they enjoyed 1,000+ years ago. Until relatively recently, few people read. Illiteracy was the rule not the exception (TV may be far more retro than we realize). People heard and watched their entertainments, and most of the works cited above were meant to be recited or sung.

(Ah, hah - light bulb goes off): I can't change the first factor but I could try an experiment related to the second. I would check out a couple of epics and see if they were more palatable "said" than "read."

In the case of this audiobook version of Gilgamesh, I'd say the experiment has been a success. The entire reading is only 2 hours or so long, and managed to hold my attention much of the time (while I'm certainly not an ADD child, my thoughts have a tendency to latch on to something and go off on its own flights of fancy, missing the later narrative or the rest of the interview; it's why I'm not a fan of audiobooks in general). I hope the version of Beowulf I checked out as well proves equally engrossing.

Gilgamesh, for those of you whose literary landscapes are even more parched than mine, is the story of the king of Uruk and his boon companion, Enkidu. Their struggles against the gods and Gilgamesh's ultimately futile quest to conquer death. It has been restored to a place among the canon (having been lost for 2,000 years) because, in addition to being an exciting adventure, it's also a remarkably sophisticated reflection of humanity (remarkable at least to those who find it difficult to accept that our distant ancestors had mental lives as rich and complex as our own). There's a great deal of moral ambiguity that one doesn't find in the Homeric epics or the Norse sagas. Gilgamesh begins the poem an uncontrollable tyrant, enslaving men, raping virgins and generally doing as he pleases without regard to consequences. By the end he has become a model despot, a wise ruler and resigned (however reluctantly) to the futility of glory and the inevitability of death.

Some of the other themes that Gilgamesh addresses include:

1. The role of friendship/companions in person's life.

2. The tension between Man and God, and what each owes the other.

3. The tension between Ruler and Ruled similar to 2 above.

In both 2 & 3, the somber conclusion appears to be that the weaker of the two must rely upon the mercy of the stronger to ameliorate the harshness of life as there is no legitimate recourse to the "natural order" of things.

4. In the Flood Digression, we are also introduced to the nascent idea of justice in proportion to the offense when the gods reprove Enlil for destroying all of mankind rathan than just decimating them for their sins.

5. The absence of biblical prudery. In fact, sex is a civilizing event, and it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are carnal lovers as well as "lovers" in the Platonic sense.

6. Defeating death and achieving immortality (or not, as the case may be).

I learned a few fascinating things from the accompanying essay by Mitchell:

The earliest form of the Gilgamesh story comes from five separate tales in Sumerian from c. 2100 BC. Gilgamesh, himself, was a real king in Uruk c. 2750 BC; a man who obviously made an enormous impression on his society to be remembered 600 years later (how many figures are remembered from the 1400s in our culture?). Unfortunately, what the real man may have accomplished is lost in the depths of time.

Our version is primarily based on a Babylonian synthesis from c. 1750 BC, a version of which was preserved in Ashubanipal's library in Nineveh (c. 7th Century BC). I find it wonderful and humbling to think that Ashurbanipal stood as far from Gilgamesh in time as we do from Jesus and Mohammad. I'm not so sure what to make of the fact that we're still wrestling with the same problems that bedeviled humans 5,000 years ago.

As to the translation: I found it a bit flat and passionless. The English is serviceable and supposedly closely follows the connotative meaning of the original but there's no "poetry" in the language and little emotion except for a few passages.

I'm glad I decided to try this and get the whole story directly from the source.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Amanda (last edited Nov 17, 2008 04:02PM) (new)

Amanda I've hardly ever been able to finish those Greek or Roman classics that civilized people are supposed to know. One or two pages in and I'd be bored and frustrated and feeling very stupid.

I also finally decided that they were never meant to be read, they are stories meant to be told around the fire while quaffing (like drinking but with more spillage) wine.

My recommendation to add to your list of listenings is the Robert Fagles translation of The Ilead, read by Sir Derek Jacobi. I LOVED IT. Of course, Sir D could read the want ads and make them sound important, but listening to his wonderful voice deliver the story of the oft petulant, sneaky and stupidly proud gods, goddesses and heros is a pleasure.

message 2: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Loved your review Terence! I feel like I just took a micro-mini class on Gilgamesh. Will definitely bookmark this for more thought when I get to it.
I really like your idea of the audio versions, because I find the written versions to be incredibly dry and awkward language-wise. We just don't speak that way any more. I'm hoping listening to it will be better than [trying to:] read it.

message 3: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte Sofia Hm, do you really think it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were carnal lovers? Unfortunately, I can only rely on translations, but while some of the wording appears like this could be the case, I'd also argue that that's a bit of cultural projection. It's entirely impossible that their relationship had no sexual aspect, and the references that sound sexual (embracing him like a woman, I think?) are, in cultural context, not at all. Of course it's a possibility, and definitely what I originally thought, but after reading a long essay about cultural effects on homosexuality, have realized that that it's merely an assumption and possibly a shaky one. The text is not clear enough to know for sure.

Terence Charlotte wrote: "Hm, do you really think it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were carnal lovers? Unfortunately, I can only rely on translations, but while some of the wording appears like this could be the case, I..."

I would argue that it's a cultural projection when a reader can't accept a sexual relationship between Gil and En. It's not a question of homosexuality or heterosexuality or even bi-sexuality but of sexuality. Gil and En are more than brothers. Their souls and fates are as intertwined as any male/female match up in literature and it's only a relatively late desire to draw a line between male/male and male/female relationships that blinds us to the reality of the friendship.

IMO, anyway. You (or any reader) can imagine Gilgamesh in any way you desire. Actually, I'd be interested in reading that essay you mention in your comment. Is it available online or do you remember where you read it?

message 5: by Charlotte (last edited Dec 08, 2010 12:03PM) (new)

Charlotte Sofia Terence wrote: "Charlotte wrote: "Hm, do you really think it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were carnal lovers? Unfortunately, I can only rely on translations, but while some of the wording appears like this co..."

Whoops, my mistake, it's not an essay, but a book. The book is called When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David by Susan Ackerman. Also, I have to admit, I didn't read the whole book. I don't own it, so I've only read the majority of the setting-up which discussed sexual identity and sexuality in regards to culture.

I'm not arguing that Gilgamesh and Enkidu had no erotic relationship, and as I return to the book I just mentioned and scan through some pages directly on Gilgamesh, there's a lot of stuff I actually didn't know (specific passages being allusions to sex that I apparently didn't pick up). I also agree that it seems like a homophobic society is going to be more apt to attempt and explain away the sexual overtones. Again, I'm not personally trying to argue for one way or the other. I'm not a Gilgamesh scholar ... quite yet.

I only wanted to point out that the cultural projection of "they must have had a sexual relationship" comes from our inability to understand men who are emotionally, and even physically close, without being distinctly sexual -- whereas the same judgments are not placed upon women. Two women may hold hands, may even snuggle up in bed and sleep together, may be very physically close, without ever being sexual with each other or even thought to be sexual. I see it all the time: a physical closeness between women that many men would never undertake. Therefore, I think it's a cultural projection to assume that two men who have a similar relationship must be sexually involved.

However, there are people who know a lot more about all of this than I do. I haven't taken a stance. I simply changed from being totally sure that their relationship was sexual to realizing that I don't actually have enough knowledge to know this, and am merely supplementing my lack of knowledge with cultural understandings of sexuality, intimacy and homosocial friendships.

message 6: by David (new)

David Sarkies I agree, the ancient hero and the modern hero are certainly two completely different beasts.

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