I listened to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New English Version on audio CD as read by George Guidall during my commute on three recent (cold) days. This was my first exposure to the Gilgamesh story. I was impressed - it definitely got the blood flowing. Once again, as with Abelard and Heloise, I found that my preconception of what the story was about to be almost completely wrong. This isn't a simple 'boy meets monster, boy defeats monster'. Instead it's the story of a friendship between two godlike men, and a lament at the inevitability of death.
Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third human. Superhumanly strong, he oppresses his people, who cry out to heaven for help. As answer the gods create a man who will equal Gilgamesh in strength. Enkidu is discovered, a wild man running with the antelope outside the city. He is enticed to civilization by the wiles of a woman. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight, then become friends. They travel to the Great Cedar Forest and together defeat the monster Humbaba. Gilgamesh offends Ishtar, and with Enkidu defeats the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu is cursed by the gods and falls ill, and dies.
Gilgamesh falls into despair at the death of his friend. He despairs at the realization that Enkidu is dead and he will die too one day - in stark contrast to his earlier admonitions to Enkidu not to fear death, as it must come to all men. He goes on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the oldest man alive, and the only one whom the gods have granted eternal life. Utnapushtim tells the story of the flood that destroyed all men except him and his wife; he then gives Gilgamesh two chances to earn immortality, and he fails at both. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk empty-handed, and the epic ends with a repetition of the praises of the strong, beautiful city walls (a constant refrain).
Is this a lament at the unfairness of the world? Does Gilgamesh (or do we) take solace in the fact that although death is inevitable, fame and lavish architecture may survive? Fame is given as the motivation for killing the monster Humbaba. The walls of Uruk are Gilgamesh's legacy, spoken of over and over against throughout the epic.
We keep trying to defeat death, and failing. Fame is one way - but no matter how famous you are, eventually people are going to forget about you. I can't help but think of the words from another poem: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair".
But hey, here I am listening to the epic of Gilgamesh in 2004, so who's the sucker now?
Notes about this translation and recording: Guidall was awful. He seemed -well - lewd, for lack of a better word, and too quavering to be convincing for Gilgamesh and Enkidu's voices. I found myself thinking about his performance instead of the work much too often.
The translation was pretty good (although I lack comparison), mellifluous in places, but in others grating - (might have been the way the reader pronounced 'vagina' though).