Thursday, 13 December 2018

Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh

The version I got was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew George.

This story is one of the oldest still extant, with the earliest versions pre-dating the great pyramids of Egypt. How well has it aged? Is it interesting?

The story of the epic revolves, unsurprisingly, around Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk who also happens to be a demi-god. He’s a bit of a pain in the arse until the arrival of his new best friend Enkidu, sent by the gods (essentially to stop Gilgamesh being a dick). They’re inseparable and have adventures together. But the heart of the story is about Gilgamesh’s fear of death. He travels the world seeking the only immortal man, trying to find the secret to eternal life.

That fear of death, and the sorrow of grief, is what makes the Epic of Gilgamesh resonate so well through the millennia since the story was first conceived and marked down on tablets. It’s rather fitting that perhaps our oldest story is about something that still vexes us today.

Naturally, the writing style is, ahem, old-fashioned but there’s a handy little preamble to each tablet translation outlining what happens, so you shouldn’t get lost.

In addition to the twelve tablets covering the Epic there are a number of others. Some of these are variants (occasionally inserted to fill gaps in the Epic, which is mostly taken from a single set of tablets), and some are additional stories about Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgames). Almost all have some consideration of death.

There are frequent gaps. Often these are small and can be filled easily with educated guesswork, but sometimes, especially in the additional stories, they’re pretty substantial.

On the whole, I enjoyed the Epic quite a lot, and the different stories were entertaining too. The variant tablets were less to my taste, though it is interesting to see the differing versions.


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