Grandpa Kewl

Book Review – Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell

Gilgamesh, A New English Version

Simply put, this is my favorite story. Period. I own every copy of every translation that I have ever been able to locate and buy.

It is difficult to explain why this is such a favorite….sorta like trying to explain why burnt-orange is my favorite color. The story touches on so many important themes in life: family, friendship, the Gods, women, love, sex, hope, fears, disappointment, joy, success, failure, life and death….and how a man copes with all of them.

This edition is different from the others in a couple important ways:

The author relates the store in a prose that is mostly current American English. The author takes liberties with the story to rearrange the lines of text, omit some and add a few from other sources. I had to read all of the footnotes, which I usually do not bother with, just to keep up with all this.

The rendition into current American English results in a story that is easy to read with a minimal effort to deal with arcane language, structure and format. I found that a mixed blessing. Somehow, dealing with the difficulties of a somewhat stilted old language added to the story at times but on balance, the story flowed very well and I found the story very enjoyable. I would conclude that this was a positive improvement and one that the author did well, and obviously worked hard at.

On the other hand, I found the rearrangements, deletions and additions rather annoying. I did not realize what was occurring at first…it was only when I was perhaps 25% thru the book that I realized that something was amiss. I forget where. but I suddenly realized that something was either missing or added…don’t remember which…just that it was different  in some ways. That was when I started checking the footnotes. As I went thru them, I came to feel that there was just tooooo much manipulation going on. It might seem fine to drop out parts that were repetitive, but this was done by design and something that even the Greeks continued and did for emphasis. This might make the story more pleasant and easy to read by a casual American lazy person, I really did not approve of it. I found that it removes an important part of the pace of the story. At the same time, the additions were likely OK. These were generally parts that were filled in from other stories related to Gilgamesh or Enkidu. They did not seem to be particularly harmful.

One other note – the author makes no effort to minimize any of the sexual elements of the story. If anything, his language is more explicit than most. This actually was a very good thing as I think it is a more accurate reflection of the intent of the story. It also got me thinking about the rituals and beliefs of the ancient ones. It is very hard for a westerner to find a reasonable way to relate to the attitudes toward sexuality as practiced by the Sumerians. The priestesses and their activities are difficult to relate to. I am not at all comfortable with the concept of prostitution as we might think of it and reject that attitude and the judgements that go with it. But it is obvious that the sexual content of the story was intended to be an important part of the story and in this version, it certainly is. For me, this was the “pearl” that is to be found in this version.

But you have to work very hard for me not to like the story so on balance, this version is a nice addition to the library.

Some notes that I made while reading:

Pascal said, and I love this:  “…the cause of all human misery: the inability to sit contentedly alone in a room.”……wonderful

“When there’s no way out, you just follow the way in front of you.”

“Enkidu listened gravely. He stood silent there for a long time. At last he nodded.”

“I must walk a road that no man has traveled, I must face a combat that no man has known.”

“O Lord Shamash, glorious Sun, delight of the Gods, illuminator of the world, who rise and the light is born, it fills the heavens, the whole Earth takes shape.”

“They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest, gazing, silent. There was nothing to say.”

A thought….it is not the place on men to bargain with the Gods…..

“Why are the Great Gods assembled?”

Some references to look into:

Shamash – I thank you for inspiring your people to compose and record this story. You are not forgotten.

Share this on