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
"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
"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
"[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
"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
"Here is a flowing, unbroken version that reads as effortlessly as a novel, where despite the alien landscape of gods and monsters we can discover startlingly familiar hopes, fears and lusts." New York Times Book Review
"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
"Mitchell brings a lucid and poetic version of Gilgamesh to a literary rather than academic audience." The Observer (London)
"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)
"Beautifully retold and a page-turner in the bargain. Like Seamus Heaney's recent retelling of andlt;iandgt;Beowulf,andlt;/iandgt; this book proves that in the right hands, no great story ever grows stale." andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; -- andlt;iandgt;Newsweekandlt;/iandgt;
"A flowing, unbroken version that reads as effortlessly as a novel...with startlingly familiar hopes, fears, and lusts. Mitchell...cracks open the lessons in andlt;iandgt;Gilgameshandlt;/iandgt; by rebuilding its clay fragments into a poem easy on the eyes and the transcultural imagination....Vibrant, earnest, unfussily accessible.... The muscular eloquence and rousing simplicity of Mitchell's four-beat line effectively unleash the grand vehemence of the epic's battle scenes, and the characters' ominous visions emerge with uncanny clarity." andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; -- andlt;iandgt;The New York Times Book Review andlt;/iandgt;
"Utterly enthralling reading, thanks to Mr. Mitchell's skill and flair in recasting the ancient text." andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; -- andlt;iandgt;The New York Sunandlt;/iandgt;
"Seamus Heaney isn't the only one intent on making the classics relevant to our times. Mitchell...offers a limpid retelling of this story about absolute power.... Its message of love, loss, and endurance [is] rendered in fresh, forceful language." andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; -- andlt;iandgt;Los Angeles Timesandlt;/iandgt;
andlt;Iandgt;Gilgameshandlt;/Iandgt; is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, but until now there has not been a version that is a superlative literary text in its own right.andlt;BRandgt;andlt;BRandgt;Acclaimed by critics and scholars, Stephen Mitchell's version allows us to enter an ancient masterpiece as if for the first time, to see how startlingly beautiful, intelligent, and alive it is.
Finally available in paperback comes a brilliant new rendering of the oldest epic in the world by esteemed translator and bestselling author 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).
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
The narrator of the epic introduces Gilgamesh in a unique way; he doesn't mention his name until the last line of the prologue.
1) What effect does the narrator create as he introduces the hero?
2) What kind of "portrait" does the narrator give of Gilgamesh?
3) Many of the sentences in the Prologue are imperative. Why does the narrator command the reader to do this and that?
1) This book opens with a positive description of Gilgamesh ending with the word "perfect." Then, in the next paragraph the description changes, and the word "arrogant" is used. What is the "true" picture of Gilgamesh?
2) When the goddess Aruru forms the savage man, Enkidu, another problem is presented. He is a wild man roaming the forest with the animals, and the trapper cannot make a living since the fearsome Enkidu is tearing out his traps and freeing the animals. Why do you think the Gilgamesh author made this "double for Gilgamesh, his second self" so different from the city-dwelling Gilgamesh?
3) The goddess's solution to the trapper's problem is to introduce the wild man to sex with the woman Shamhat. A priestess of the goddess of love, who has dedicated herself to being a servant of the goddess, Shamhat might be called a "sacred prostitute," but she is not out for personal gain. Her union with Enkidu changes him in many ways. What are they?
4) Book I foreshadows the friendship theme for both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. What in the text supports this?
1) Now that Enkidu has gained some self-awareness, Shamhat continues to teach Enkidu. What lessons does he learn from her in this book?
2) The book begins with a violent fight but ends in the beginnings of friendship. What is your theory about why this happens? Is there any information in the text to support you?
1) Much of this book is a debate between the two friends. The argument is over whether the two should journey to the Cedar Forest and kill the monster Humbaba. What is Enkidu's objection to the adventure?
2) What is Gilgamesh's reason for insisting on the adventure?
3) What is the elders' objection to the adventure? What is his mother Ninsun's attitude?
1) This book is notable for its repetitive descriptions and the interpretation of dreams as in other epics like Beowulf and those by Homer. Each day the two men travel exactly the same amount of miles, set up camp the same way, and each night Gilgamesh has an ominous dream that Enkidu interprets as favorable. Repetition, interpretation of dreams -- what do you see as the importance of this book to the narrative?
2) The monster Humbaba is portrayed as pathetic, comic, and scary -- yet we, as readers, sympathize with him. Why? What support do you find in the text for this sympathy?
1) The two friends exhibit real fear in this book. In this way, they are unlike other heroes in later epics -- Beowulf and Odysseus, for example. For Gilgamesh and Enkidu, fear is not a shameful trait. In fact, it works well in this book. Why? What does sharing their fear accomplish?
2) With the help of the god Shamash, the two defeat the monster in an epic battle. When Humbaba begs for his life, why does Enkidu persuade Gilgamesh to refuse?
3) Interpret, if you can, the repetitive lines that come right after the terrible mutilation of Humbaba:
"A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.
A gentle rain fell onto the mountains."
1) After Gilgamesh's victory over the monster, the goddess Ishtar propositions him. Why does Gilgamesh refuse the goddess?
2) Of the six insulting examples Gilgamesh throws at Ishtar, which one is most convincing to you? Why?
3) Deeply insulted, Ishtar prevails on her father, the sky-god, to let her have the Bull of Heaven to wreak vengeance on Gilgamesh and his city. The images of the gigantic bull are fierce, but again, the two friends work together to kill the monster. What does Enkidu do at the finish of the battle, and what does that tell us about him?
1) At the end of Book VI, Enkidu has a frightening dream, and in Book VII he recalls it for Gilgamesh along with another bad dream. Gilgamesh tries to interpret the dreams as favorable, but Enkidu realizes that his fate has been sealed. How has Enkidu angered the gods?
2) When Enkidu realizes his fate, he curses both the trapper and Shamhat, who brought him to the city of Uruk, but Shamash offers a more balanced view. What is his view, and how does Enkidu react to it?
1) The loss of Enkidu is devastating to Gilgamesh. How does he express his grief?
2) How does Gilgamesh describe his friendship with Enkidu? How does he honor his friend's memory? What would he do today?
1) Gilgamesh now realizes that he, too, will die. He allows his life to fall apart; he does not bathe, shave, or take care of himself (somewhat reminiscent of the original Enkidu). This is not so much out of grief for Enkidu, but because he is terrified about death. He decides to find the one man onto whom the gods granted immortality, Utnapishtim. The first stage of his journey -- the trip through the tunnel -- is successful. What are the dangers in this first part of the quest?
1) The tavern keeper, Shiduri, seems to offer Gilgamesh good advice for living after Enkidu's death. Why doesn't Gilgamesh pay attention?
2) Gilgamesh goes through more stages along the way to the immortal man, Utnapishtim, and when Gilgamesh finally reaches him, he receives more advice -- this time about death -- which he also rejects. Is the advice good in your opinion? Why?
3) Gilgamesh is offered two chances: one, immortality; two, a return to his youth. What does he have to do, and how does he handle these choices?
1) When Gilgamesh asks Utnapishtim to reveal the reason the gods made him immortal, the man recounts the ancient story of the Flood. This is the "vision" of the "primeval days before the Flood" promised in the Prologue. But this vision doesn't seem to help Gilgamesh find the answer to his question, "Must I die, too?" Scholars differ on the reasons for including this account of the Flood; why do you think the narrator included it?
2) In the Prologue, the unknown narrator takes the reader proudly through the city of Uruk. These same lines are spoken by Gilgamesh at the end of the tale. What is significance of this? What has Gilgamesh learned by the end of his epic journey?
BEFORE READING THE EPIC:
1) Cuneiform writing is picture writing invented by Sumerians who wrote with long reeds on clay tablets while the clay was wet. (Latin: "cuneus" = wedge, "forma"= shape) Writing allowed these ancient people to write laws and to incorporate more of local cultures and their history. Students can "write" cuneiform by using a piece of clay and logging on to www.upenn.edu/museum. The title of the Web site section is "How to Write Like a Babylonian." Browsers can see their monograms in cuneiform, and there is further information on the writing form.
2) Students can research the gods, goddesses, mortals, and locations in the epic. Make clear that any research furthers their understanding of the epic.
3) In this epic, many symbols and motifs appear whose meanings are not always the same as contemporary meanings. Some of these symbols and motifs include: the interpretation of dreams, the role of a priestess of Ishtar as opposed to a prostitute, the sympathy we have for monsters, the significance of bathing or not bathing, the similarities between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and the many journeys that Gilgamesh makes -- each physical journey mirrors his emotional quest. Compare and contrast two of the above with examples from the text and what their modern meaning would be.