“The Oldest Story in the World” is the apt subtitle to the “Introduction” of Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell’s bold interpretation and commentary on The Epic of Gilgamesh. Archaeology has revealed that the eponymous Gilgamesh was an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE, who later became the stuff of heroic legend. The earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE. It is indeed civilization’s oldest literary work! Because a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, it is also the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.
Gilgamesh is an episodic story, first of friendship, then of tragic loss, and finally of a quest for immortality that while ultimately unsuccessful is nevertheless instructive. When the epic opens, Gilgamesh is the great king of Uruk, partially divine yet mortal, but a cruel overlord. The gods create a wild man called Enkidu who is essentially Gilgamesh’s alter ego. Gilgamesh and Enkidu clash at first, but then reconcile and become friends that are so close they share the kind of homoerotic male bond of the beloved similar to that of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, as well as David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. Eventually, the two set out on a heroic quest to defeat and kill the monster Humbaba, whom the gods put in place to guard the forest. They succeed, but in his death Humbaba curses them, which leads to the death of Enkidu. Much like Homer’s Achilles, Gilgamesh is inconsolable at the death of his friend, but rather than rage he sets out on a quest for immortality so that he will not have to one day himself face Enkidu’s fate. It is on this journey that he encounters Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah who has survived the great flood and was rewarded by the gods with an immortality that is unfortunately not available to Gilgamesh. The hero does manage to get ahold of a plant that will forestall aging, but on his way back to Uruk he loses it through carelessness to a snake, who spirits it away. As with Eve’s apple, serpents here too are vehicles for disaster.
Since there are several surviving versions of what was to become the combined epic—and because the author freely admits that he cannot read Akkadian cuneiform—Mitchell deliberately dubs this a “version” rather than a translation. His approach was to instead read multiple translations of all of the extant versions as a foundation for his own unique retelling with the intention of, as he puts it: “To re-create the ancient epic, as a contemporary poem, in the parallel universe of the English language.” [p7] Absent the expertise to judge it as a scholar might, nevertheless as a reader I felt that he has succeeded masterfully with a superb literary achievement that flows beautifully and speaks to the soul of the epic despite the distance of some four millennia to its antiquity.
But Mitchell accomplishes something else even more extraordinary with his commentary on the epic, which occupies the first third of the volume. Rather than annotations that might threaten to disrupt the rhythm of the epic itself, he first devotes some sixty pages to deconstruct the narrative and put it in proper context for the contemporary reader unfamiliar with arcane references to the ancient Mesopotamian milieu essential to a greater comprehension of Gilgamesh. Without this long introduction, I do not believe I could have appreciated my subsequent reading of the actual epic.
I am no stranger to Mitchell, famous for his often-unique translations of ancient texts. I recently read (and reviewed*) his quirky modern translation of The Iliad, which left me with mixed feelings. But then, I had read The Iliad twice before in different translations, and I have a strong familiarity with ancient Greek history and culture, something I am decidedly lacking when it comes to Gilgamesh and its roots in Sumerian and Babylonian literature. In his translation of The Iliad, Mitchell excised “Book Ten,” because there is some dispute as to whether it was really belonged to Homer. Similarly, in Gilgamesh, Mitchell omits “Tablet 12” because it too may not properly belong with the epic. I have some objection to the author’s decision with The Iliad; I lack credentials to rule one way or the other with Gilgamesh.
Like most people, I suppose, my prior experience with the Epic of Gilgamesh lays entirely with the snippets I read back in grade school that left little impression upon me. I do not know what other versions or translations of the epic might have to offer, but I not only thoroughly enjoyed Mitchell’s outstanding effort, but I feel buoyed by having gained an appreciation for a remarkable work of literature that is a creature of the very dawn of our culture. For the uninitiated, I highly recommend picking up Mitchell’s book and reading it through. I guarantee that you will not regret it.
* Review of: The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell https://regarp.com/2017/09/03/review-of-the-iliad-by-homer-translated-by-stephen-mitchell/