Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anonymous

The Epic of GilgameshThis was my first stop in a course on the history of world literature. It’s a lot more entertaining than my second stop, which is the Bible.

So far all of the ancient world epics I’ve read have been concerned with the relationship between humanity and the gods, so it’s really interesting to me that perhaps the oldest surviving piece of great literature we have is so humanist. The gods are there, but it’s not about them. It’s concerned with what must be humanity’s oldest fear, the fear of death, the thing that separates us from the animals which have no conception of their own mortality. And it presents the answer to that fear not as bowing before any gods or begging them for a good afterlife, but as living your mortal life to the full, enjoying all the experiences for which humanity was intended, and creating a legacy to leave behind.

The titular hero, who is only a hero in the original larger-than-life sense and not in the later what-a-good-person sense, is pretty thoroughly unsympathetic until the loss of his boon companion cements that fear. That’s the common thread of humanity that then links him to us in our air conditioned towers, across an almost inconceivable stretch of human development.

Poetry always loses a little more in translation than prose, but even in translation you can feel the structure and get lost in the rhythm of ancient epics like The Iliad and Beowulf, at least if it’s a good translation. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s kind of been lost with The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its fragmentary nature, independent of any merits of the translator. The battle against Humbaba is almost entirely lost, and such a vast lacuna no doubt contributes to the lacklustre feel of the first half of the epic compared to the more humanistic and powerful second half. Getting the most out of this poem is going to require patience for being repeatedly thrown out of the narrative by gaps, some of them partially filled by alternative versions of the text recovered from different places, some not.

I read this in the Penguin edition translated by Andrew George, which is very comprehensive, enough so that I might recommend a little skim-reading to those less completist than I. While the Sumerian poems in the fifth chapter are a really interesting and informative addition to the standard text, the few chapters worth of Babylonian fragments that don’t really add very much that wasn’t already incorporated into the gaps in the main text as part of this translation make for a tedious read.

The fact that the Bible borrows substantially from many cultures that predated those of its chroniclers was not news to me, but I was fascinated by just how precise the borrowing of Noah’s story from Ut-napishti’s is. It’s not just the flood and the circumstances that motivate the gods to bring it about, but the ark constructed to divine specifications, the animals aboard to reseed the earth with their species after the flood waters recede, the birds released to find land when the flood waters begin to recede… There’s an ancient scribe with an excellent case for a plagiarism suit here, when Disney inevitably expand our copyright laws to 4,000 years plus life of author.

4 stars

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