Friday, January 15, 2021

"Epic of Gilgamesh," by Unknown & Translated by Stephen Mitchell--Fiction Review

Today let’s go old school and dig up a classic from antiquity. We’re discussing the “Epic of Gilgamesh” by—hmmm, this is awkward—I don’t know, nobody does, well who originally wrote the story that is, the narrative suggests Gilgamesh himself wrote the epic as several books. Later a scribe named Sîn-lēqi-unninni compiled them together. The translator, though, for my copy is Stephen Mitchell.

Stephen Mitchell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

So in terms of origin stories, this is it for the western literary canon. What I mean by that is that all other works of literature in the west take place after the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” That’s pretty cool when you think about it for a moment. This Sumerian epic carved into stone in Mesopotamia is the starting point of literature in the west, and you can read it! Ok, maybe it’s just exciting to me because I’m a huge nerd. Also, it is fair to argue that the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is really literature of the near east/middle east, and making the claim that it represents the oldest work of western literature a little wibbly-wobbly. Still, it is one I'm sticking with because of how it references antediluvian times. That is before the great flood, suggesting a tie to the biblical story about the flood, and the bible, which undergirds the western tradition.  

Some of the scenes describing Gilgamesh’s armor and weapons, plus his adventures to places like the Garden of the Gods where the trees are described as being made of gems, sound a lot like something that could come right out of Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive.” Full disclosure, I happened to be reading this and that at the same time, so maybe I was just primed to make that connection, but still, I think it works.

One of the petty little details that I love about this epic is that Gilgamesh isn’t a half-god, unlike all the others that discuss demi-gods. No, it’s specifically mentioned that he’s two-thirds a god—with little explanation on how that happens, other than his mother was a goddess and his father became a god. It’s not like this was in response—that we know of—to other myths about demi-gods because the “Epic of Gilgamesh” is the first one written down, well, chiseled in rock, to be precise.

What I don’t love about this book:

Gilgamesh is heralded at the beginning of this story as a great king, you know, other than the times he randomly CRUSHES people’s sons to death. He also takes an—shall we say—overly amorous approach to women, especially other people’s wives, on their wedding night. So king rapist, the first, isn’t what you would call a likable character at the start of the story.

Shocker, as a character, Gilgamesh is often hard to love. Part of this is thousands of years of separation in time and human culture, though, so allowances need to be made. That being said, I don’t feel that he learns a whole lot on his adventures, despite the narration assuring me that he felt and experienced all things. Whatever that means. To me, Gilgamesh represents a proto-king, really still a holdover in form and function from the chieftain of a smaller hunter-gatherer society. Just because he represents the leader of a more settled community doesn’t imply he’s enlightened in any way, which he’s not.

There is also some confusion over how many books (chapters in old-timey) are in the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” There is one that seemingly resurrects a character, without much explanation, or rhyme, or reason. It doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the epic, so for the most part, I ignore its nonsensical plot that doesn’t jive with the rest of the story.


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***The Spoiler part of this review*** 
***Ye be warned to turn back now*** 

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We start the epic by being assured that Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk, is a great king like I said before, but things could be better. The people would really like him to stop murdering their sons and having sex with their wives on their wedding nights—reasonable requests. So they cry out to the gods for help in the matter.

The gods respond by fashioning an equal to Gilgamesh, Enkidu—the primitive man. So Gilgamesh is going about his business, heading off to another man’s wedding night, when he’s confronted by Enkidu, who blocks his path. They then commence with the wrestling. Gilgamesh wins, and Enkidu even admits that Gilgamesh is the stronger man, but the king of Uruk has never faced such a challenge as he did with Enkidu. So they become best friends on the spot, and thus the first bromance was born.

At this point in the story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a series of suitably epic adventures together for the glory of Gilgamesh and his city Uruk. Apparently, Gilgamesh was considered better at foreign policy than domestic by his citizens. Anyway, as a side benefit of his adventures to the cedar forest, the fight with its guardian, and then later the bull of heaven means that Gilgamesh isn’t acting as a natural disaster for his own citizens. Everybody wins.

Of course, this is until Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s best bud, is marked for death, and then ultimately dies a withering death. His last regret was his end wasn’t more glorious, like in battle, and he curses the goddess who brought him out of the wilderness. He eventually accepts his death, though, and recants his curses. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god/manchild he is, doesn’t take it well. There’s an incredibly sorrowful scene—if a bit morbidly gross—where Gilgamesh refuses to acknowledge that his friend is dead and won’t stop clutching his body. That is until a maggot falls out of the corpse’s nose, which by that point, even grief-stricken Gilgamesh had to concede the awful truth. Mitchell actually spares us from that detail in his translation, but I thought you'd like to know it anyway. You're welcome. 

The remainder of the epic is dedicated to Gilgamesh’s growing obsession with his own mortality and avoiding his own death. He literally travels to the ends of the earth to find the secret of immortality. At one point, he even races the sun and wins. His quest, however, is in vain. Even when he comes across a mysterious plant that grows at the bottom of the sea that supposedly grants youth, it’s stolen by a serpent when Gilgamesh is bathing. Serpents get a real bad rap in literature.


As I said with my review of “The Odyssey,” this story is so old, and so outside of my normal realms of knowledge, I’d be remiss not to point out that my opinions are more about my experience as a modern reader. I’m unqualified to elucidate what the original author or authors—the author’s identity is lost to time—intentions were in writing “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

For me, this story is about that transition in human history from primitive hunter-gatherer human society to human society that creates and lives in settlements. Enkidu is meant to be a fond reminder to and check on the settled man’s worst impulses. Ultimately, the settled man, Gilgamesh, is superior, though. That’s why Enkidu is slightly less powerful than Gilgamesh, and also why he has to die in this story. His time has passed.

The other central theme in the narrative is: despite Gilgamesh’s wondrous powers and all he’s accomplished, in the end, he too is mortal. Learning to accept that death is inevitable, for him and his loved ones, is his final test, though he comes by it begrudgingly and a bit gracelessly.

Parting thoughts:

I am deeply interested in the point of dimly remembered history where humans—barring a few spare exceptions—went from hunter-gatherers to city builders. The “Epic of Gilgamesh” offers a literary window into a time near that transition, and that alone makes it worth reading.

I’m hard on Gilgamesh as a character because as a modern reader, and from modern sensibilities, he’s, for the most part, an odious man. It isn’t fair, but it is how I think about him.

To play devil’s advocate against myself, again like I discussed in my review of “The Odyssey,” much like Odysseus, Gilgamesh lived in an age where it was the strength of arm that meant more to his people than the strength of mind or moral character. It’s the whole heroic age dynamic again when the world is a perilous place, and external threats to a community are numerous and constant—and real, not imagined. You don’t really care about how great a guy your king is. As a citizen of your little community, your sole concern is far more focused on his ability to keep you safe through the liberal application of violence. Gilgamesh proves that he’s good at physical violence; hence he’s considered a good king.

These moments in history and literature are interesting because they demonstrate what the world was like without strong societal ties and common law. In Gilgamesh’s case, society was still in its infancy, so the rules of a heroic age applied to him just as much as heroes emerging right after a collapsed empire.

It also works as a grim warning of what the world would be like if society collapsed, like many doomsday preppers and cults wish for none too subtly. In today’s world, the strength of the fist and arms doesn’t automatically put you in charge. This is something that rankles some amongst us who yearn for chaos. During anarchy, all that matters is what can be pressed onto others through force or guile. The people who want this are intellectually lazy and don’t want to put in the mental effort to deal with others as equals in an equitable society. Never do they assume that they won’t necessarily end up on top, something that happens mostly because of chance. No, they dream of being petty kings and warlords, and if the world has to go to waste for their dream to come to pass, then so be it because nothing matters to them other than themselves. What’s really messed up about all this, in my opinion, is they usually cloak their true intentions in claims that they’re for freedom, when really what they want more than anything is to tell you who to love, how to act, where to live, what you can have. And if you disagree with them, they’d like to reserve the right to crush you. That’s why I don’t like Gilgamesh because he never went away.

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