Skip to content

Gilgamesh (thoughts)

March 11, 2009

martel-harper-challenge-buttonFirst of all, Michelle at Reader’s Respite posted an awesome summary of the plot, fully illustrated. :) If you’re curious about the actual storyline, definitely go check it out! Or if you just like a good laugh and gratuitous pictures of Viggo Mortenson (as Aragon, of course).

So, this Canadian author Yann Martel (you probably know him as the writer of Life of Pi) sends a short book with an inscribed message to his prime minister (Stephen Harper, for you World Citizens out there! hehe) every fortnight. And thanks to the internet, I’ve been following along. Thus, when Rebecca decided to take over Dewey’s Martel-Harper challenge, and I found out I only needed to sign up for two books, I jumped aboard.

And I decided to toss Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Gilgamesh on the list, once I discovered it is not in fact a ridiculously long epic. I mean, I enjoyed both The Odyssey and The Iliad, I studied Latin in high school, and even considered a Classics major in college (for about two seconds), but you have to be in the *mood* for a four hundred page translated, epic, ancient poem. Know what I mean?

GilgameshWell, for those who sympathise, great news! The text of “Gilgamesh” itself is only one hundred thirty-three pages. Of big print, in poem form (i.e.-the pages aren’t full). So you too can read what’s considered the first appearance of literature, brush up on Sumerian mythology, and impress your friends in about an hour! Moreover, Mitchell’s translation really brings the poem to life…it didn’t feel contemporary (which would have bothered me), but it felt vibrant and relatable. The book itself is actually about three hundred pages long, because in addition to the notes, bibliography, and glossary (don’t you just love scholars?), Mitchell includes a sixty-four page long introduction. Here’s how I approached the book, and I’d recommend it for you too. First, I read the beginning seven pages of the intro, in which Mitchell gives some cultural and historical context, and briefly discusses his translation. Then, I realised the rest of the intro was a summary of the poem, so I turned to the actual text and read that. Afterwards, I went back and read the rest of the introduction to get Mitchell’s insights. I’m very glad I waited, because otherwise the plot’s suspense would have been non-existent! (Speaking of spoilers, you probably want to avoid my selections from the poem in the notable passages.) But Mitchell’s scholarship adds a lot of the poem’s richness, so reading the introduction after the text was great.

I’m also very glad that I read Gilgamesh, because it felt very human. The emotions were wide-ranging and true; I found myself sympathising with the various characters, and the writing really touched me. Also, who doesn’t love reading about gods and heroes? Highly recommended, and very different from Homer (just in case you were wondering). I’m delighted that Mitchell has translated the Bhagavad Gita and shall definitely be reading that one too!

Oh, and Martel’s mini-essay will convince you to read this one much better than my silly little review. So go read it.

One last thing-the cover for this one gorgeous! It’s got that Lapis Lazuli/almost Virgin Mary blue going on, along with an imposing Sumerian statue face. Definite eye candy.

Notable Passages
Like the precivilized Enkidu, Humbaba is a figure of balance and a defender of the ecosystem. (Having a monster or two aroudn to guard our national forests from corporate and other predators wouldn’t be such a bad thing.) -Introduction

But there is another side to the beloved goddess who brought culture and fertility to her people in Sumer. She is also the goddess of war, and she can be selfish, arbitrary, and brutal. -Introduction

She used her love-arts, she took his breath
with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
what a woman is. For seven days
he stayed erect and made love with her,
until he had had enough. At last
he stood up and walked toward the waterhole
to rejoin his animals. But the gazelles
saw him and scatted, the antelope and eer
bounded away. He tried to catch up,
but his body was exhausted, his life-force was spent,
his knees trembled, he could no longer urn
like an animal, as he had before.
He turned back to Shamhat, and as he walked
he knew that his mind had somehow grown larger,
he knew things now that an animal can’t know.

Shiduri said, “Why are your cheeks so hollow
and your features so ravaged? Why is your face
frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?
Why is there so much grief in your heart?
Why are you worn out and ready to collapse,
like someone who has been on a long, hard journey?”
Gilgamesh said, “Shouldn’t my cheeks
be hollow, shouldn’t my face be ravaged,
frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?
Shouldn’t my heart be filled with grief?
Shouldn’t I be worn out and ready to collapse?
My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me throgh every danger-
Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me throgh every danger-
the fate of mankind has overwhelmed him.
For six days I would not let him be buried,
thinking, ‘If my grief is violent enough,
perhaps he will come back to life again.’
For six days and seven nights I mourned him,
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death,
and I set out to roam the wilderness.
I cannot bear to what happened to my friend-
I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu-
so I roam the wilderness in my grief.
How can my mind have any rest?
My beloved friend has turned into clay-
my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.
And won’t I too lie down in the dirt
like him, and never rise again?”

“Yes: the gods took Enkidu’s life.
But man’s life
is short, at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman-
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death’s face or heard
death’s voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us all, old or young.
And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers
divide their inheritance, conflicts occur-
as though this human life lasted forever.
The river rises, flows over its banks
and carries us all away, like mayflies
floating downstream; they star at the sun,
then all at once there is nothing.”

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2009 5:34 pm

    A few things:

    1. “…but you have to be in the *mood* for a four hundred page translated, epic, ancient poem. Know what I mean?”…Well, I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think that mood has ever hit me.

    2. You, my dear, do not write “silly little review”s!!!

    3. You really made me want to read this. I wouldn’t have thunk it possible.

  2. March 11, 2009 6:00 pm

    Ditto the above. Every word. This was a review worth waiting for.

  3. March 11, 2009 6:34 pm

    I have been in the “mood” for epics lately. I loved the Iliad a few months ago and I’m in the middle of the Odyssey, which I’m finding surprising easy to read. I approached the introduction in a similar way for the Iliad — read the beginning until he began to give up the story, then I read the story.

    But Gilgamesh sounds great! It was interesting that Martel sent Harper two different translations of Gilgamesh.

    And just for a personal plug for anyone who sees this comment and may be interested — In addition to the quarterly Martel-Harper Challenge, I’ve been hosting the Really Old Classics Challenge. It’s half over now but it’s a completely open format. So anyone who wants to can join by challenging themselves to read any number of Really Old Classics (they choose, from 1 to 100) by the end of July. I had a prize for the first half and there will be a giveaway for the second half too, just to get us motivated. The idea is we all discover those really old classics that are approachable and fun and good and all that.

    Sounds like Gilgamesh met that description!

  4. March 11, 2009 7:14 pm

    I have been hearing alot about this one. Sounds good.

  5. March 11, 2009 7:34 pm

    You’ve given me book a book and a blog which I must read. If Gilgamesh is half as much fun as the recent Beowulf was, I’m there.

    Glad you’re feeling better, too.

  6. March 11, 2009 7:41 pm

    WOW. Now I have to read Gilgamesh too! And also now I have to add A Reader’s Respite and the Martel/Harper blogs to my reader–they’ll join yours there :-). I wonder if Harper ever read any of the recommended books, and if so, whether he responded to Martel. I’ll go back to that blog to see if I can find out.

  7. March 12, 2009 6:31 am

    What a great review! I love the passage you quoted here. I’m actually going to read this as part of a Teaching Company class I downloaded — The History of World Literature. I recently read Beowulf (another classic I somehow missed in school) and loved it.

  8. tuulenhaiven permalink
    March 12, 2009 7:21 am

    Hurray for epic poems! I’ll add this one to my list. Great review – you captured all your excitement and definitely passed it on. :)

  9. March 12, 2009 7:46 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful review! I completely agree you need to be in the right space for epic poetry (or in my case both epics and poetry!), but when the time is right, they are wonderfully satisfying. I would never have considered this title prior to your post, but now I think it’s something I’d like to check out.

    Also, I find it amusing that so many introductions to books need to be read after the fact! Otherwise they can completely spoil the whole story!

  10. March 12, 2009 12:36 pm

    Evaaaa! So good to have you back :D

    I completely agree with you. I loved Gilgamesh, mostly because it was so human. I haven’t read the Bhagavad Gita, but my boyfriend recommended it to me. He says that even though it revolves around a battle, it’s full of human/touching moments too.

    Anyway, I have a novel by Robert Silverberg that retells Gilgamesh, and I’ve been saving for OuAT…thank you for reminding me of why I love this epic so much. It’ll be fun to revisit it.

  11. March 12, 2009 3:30 pm

    Debi, you always make me smile!

    DS, thanks so much!!

    Rebecca, I loved The Iliad and The Odyssey when I read them, so I totally agree. :) Gilgamesh definitely would be a great choice for the Really Old Classics Challenge!

    Jessica, it is good!

    CB, hehe-hope you enjoy them both! I read Beowulf in high school and remember enjoying it…

    Valerie, thanks! Martel’s press officer replied to his first book, I think.

    Lisa, thank you-I enjoyed Beowulf when I read it too!

    Tuulenhaiven, thank you. :)

    Steph, I think introductions to classics are usually ridiculous; instead of intros, they should be epilogues!!

    Nymeth, awww-thanks so much! That novel sounds really neat-I can’t wait for OUaT!!!

  12. March 12, 2009 4:29 pm

    Quick question for Nymeth and Eva — what is OUAT?

  13. March 13, 2009 7:45 pm

    I love the story behind this challenge! What an interesting man Yann Martel must be. I’ll have to check out that link to see what else has appeared on the list of books he’s sent …


  1. Support Your Library Challenge Wrap Up « A Striped Armchair
  2. » The Martel-Harper Challenge
  3. Travel by Books: 2009 Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  4. Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: