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Gilgamesh: A New English Versionby Stephen Mitchell
Synopses & Reviews
A literary event — a brilliant new rendering of the oldest epic in the world by esteemed translator and bestselling author Stephen Mitchell.
Although Gilgamesh is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, and although there have been competent scholarly translations of it, until now there has not been a version that is a superlative literary text in its own right. Stephen Mitchell's lithe, muscular rendering allows us to enter an ancient masterpiece as if for the first time, to see how startlingly beautiful, intelligent, and alive it is. His insightful introduction provides a historical, spiritual, and cultural context for this ancient epic, showing that Gilgamesh is more potent and fascinating than ever.
Gilgamesh dates from as early as 1700 BCE — a thousand years before the Iliad. Lost for almost two millennia, the eleven clay tablets on which the epic was inscribed were discovered in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, and the text was not deciphered and fully translated until the end of the century. When the great poet Rilke first read Gilgamesh in 1916, he was awestruck. "Gilgamesh is stupendous," he wrote. "I consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person."
The epic is the story of literature's first hero — the king of Uruk in what is present-day Iraq — and his journey of self-discovery. Along the way, Gilgamesh discovers that friendship can bring peace to a whole city, that a preemptive attack on a monster may have dire consequences, and that wisdom can be found only when the quest for it is abandoned. In giving voice to grief and the fear of death, perhaps more powerfully than any book written after it, in portraying love and vulnerability and the ego's hopeless striving for immortality, the epic has become a personal testimony for millions of readers in dozens of languages.
"The acclaimed translator of the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita now takes on the oldest book in the world. Inscribed on stone tablets a thousand years before the Iliad and the Bible and found in fragments, Gilgamesh describes the journey of the king of the city of Uruk in what is now Iraq.At the start, Gilgamesh is a young giant with gigantic wealth, power and beauty — and a boundless arrogance that leads him to oppress his people. As an answer to their pleas, the gods create Enkidu to be a double for Gilgamesh, a second self. Learning of this huge, wild man who runs with the animals, Gilgamesh dispatches a priestess to find him and tame him by seducing him. Making love with the priestess awakens Enkidu's consciousness of his true identity as a human being rather than as an animal. Enkidu is taken to the city and to Gilgamesh, who falls in love with him as a soul mate. Soon, however, Gilgamesh takes his beloved friend with him to the Cedar Forest to kill the guardian, the monster Humbaba, in defiance of the gods. Enkidu dies as a result. The overwhelming grief and fear of death that Gilgamesh suffers propels him on a quest for immortality that is as fast-paced and thrilling as a contemporary action film. In the end, Gilgamesh returns to his city. He does not become immortal in the way he thinks he wants to be, but he is able to embrace what is.Relying on existing translations (and in places where there are gaps, on his own imagination), Mitchell seeks language that is as swift and strong as the story itself. He conveys the evenhanded generosity of the original poet, who is as sympathetic toward women and monsters — and the whole range of human emotions and desires — as he is toward his heroes. This wonderful new version of the story of Gilgamesh shows how the story came to achieve literary immortality — not because it is a rare ancient artifact, but because reading it can make people in the here and now feel more completely alive. Author tour. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh is a wonderful version. It is as eloquent and nuanced as his translations of Rilke. This is certainly the best that I have seen in English." Harold Bloom
"Here is a flowing, unbroken version that reads as effortlessly as a novel....[A] quintessentially American version...whose moments of red-blooded splendor stand in contrast to stretches of bland sentimentality." The New York Times Book Review
"Reading Stephen Mitchell's marvelously clear and vivid rendering makes me feel that I am encountering Gilgamesh for the first time." Elaine Pagels
"Freshly rendered by translator Mitchell, this ancient tale of a cocky ruler?s collision with his own mortality is beautifully retold and a page turner in the bargain. Like Seamus Heaney?s recent retelling of Beowulf, this book proves that in the right hands, no great story ever grows stale." Newsweek
"Here is the wisdom and lyrical beauty of yore rendered, offered us anew, by a distinguished, ever-so-knowing translator and poet who has given so many of us a wondrous education these past years. Mitchell connects us to treasures of the past brought alive by his broad and deep sensibility." Robert Coles, author of Lives of Moral Leadership, The Call of Service, and The Spiritual Life of Children
"With this imminently readable adaptation, respectful as it is of the original material and also the intelligence of his readers, Mitchell makes one of humanity?s oldest and greatest stories accessible to a general audience. Henceforth, no person can consider himself or herself to be fully educated without having read, in addition to the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare, this oddly humane and curiously modern story." South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"A timely reminder that many of our Western cultural traditions intersect in modern-day Iraq." San Antonio Express-News
"The mysterious, sinewy surge of his verse [is] thoroughly modern, yet, in its formulaic repetitions and unfamiliar meter, an uncanny evocation of the primeval." Boston Globe
"A powerful translation of an eerie and unsettling ancient epic... This is the most pellucid version of the epic yet to have been written in English, but what is most startling and admirable about it is the fact that Mitchell has not sacrificed a sense of the weird on the altar of readability." The Daily Telegraph (London)
"Mitchell brings a lucid and poetic version of Gilgamesh to a literary rather than academic audience." The Observer (London)
"Remarkable: a rendition that, while taking no great liberties with the text, somehow makes it available as a work of literature, rather than as a set of fragments from a vanished cosmology." Newsday
"Stephen Mitchell's fresh new rendition of mankind's oldest recorded myth is quite wonderful in its limpidity and the immediacy of its live emotions." Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord
"Mitchell's version of Gilgamesh should be the standard for general and classroom readers for the foreseeable future....The 66-page introduction interprets the entire poem as a philosophical fable as well as an engaging, episodic story..." Booklist
"[Mitchell] retains just enough of the strangeness of the original and its robust imagery to capture its essence, and by smoothing the fragments into a coherent narrative he highlights the work's essential themes..." Washington Post Book World
Book News Annotation:
The hero is 16 feet tall. He is the king of Uruk, in the Iraq of about 2750 BCE, and he is a despot, running afoul of even the gods. The man who is his soul mate, lover and spouse is Enkidu, who was once wild and naked but was tamed by the erotic ministrations of a temple priestess. When their preemptive strike on a monster of evil results in the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh's desperate mourning and search for a way to avoid a similar fate leads him to understand, at the end of the world, that the best way to find wisdom is not to look for it. Written 1000 years before the Iliad, this powerful epic was lost for nearly 2000 years until it was found on clay tablets in the ruins of Nineva. Mitchell's robust translation includes his notes on the text and its context, as well as a comprehensive glossary.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A brilliant new rendering of the oldest epic in the world by esteemed translator and bestselling author Stephen Mitchell.
About the Author
Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make literary masterpieces thrillingly new, to step in where many have tried before and to create versions that are definitive for our time. Acclaimed by critics and scholars, his many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, Meetings with the Archangel, The Frog Prince, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and Loving What Is (written with his wife, Byron Katie).
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