Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason

Why I Read It: Flashback to 5th grade; I'll explain.

Summary: The epic story of the hero Gilgamesh, as told in this one man's translation.

My Thoughts: Yes, 5th grade. Mr. McSweeney read the narrative (a narrative; for some reason I assume that it was this one) to us as a group, as part of our social studies exploration of the cradle of civilization, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You know, the Fertile Crescent. It's amazing how much has stuck with me since that time.

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the reading, because one of my classmates, a true goofball if there ever was one, stood at the front of the class and acted out the narration. Every time Mr. McSweeney read the word "Humbaba," the name of the early enemy of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, my classmate would furrow his brow, suck in all the air he could, move his shoulders up and out in the "I'm HUGE!" pose and stomp clumsily around the room. And so, recently, while cataloging my book collection, I came across a paperback copy of the Mason narrative, which I probably purchased more than a decade ago with the intent of reading through the entire story, refreshing my 9-year-old experiences. It took until 2015 (I was in 5th grade in 1980-81) but here we are.

There is so much about this story that is simply amazing, and I mean that in the sincerest way. Consider the age of it. Sorry, trick question - we don't know how old it is. What we do know is that the story is timeless, a theme that carries through the ages and relates from the ancient Mesopotamians to today. That, in itself, is worthy of an "amazing" in my eyes.

But take the second piece, that the text wasn't even found until the mid-1800s, on tablets, and the story appeared only in fragments at that time. Parts had to be chased around the world from other sources to make it all come together, and in the end, it came to this one man - a Massachusetts man, I might add (proudly) - to create the beautifully flowing epic narrative that I have just read.

This story was saved. What has been lost?

The transformation of Gilgamesh is invigorating, and then heartrending, from hated ruler to beloved friend, to sorrowful and vulnerable man. He, as a part-god, faces death for the first time in his life when Enkidu is taken from him. It haunts him, causing him to go to the ends of the earth for answers, first, for how to get Enkidu back, and then for why he can't. This is pre-U.S. sitcoms. There is no happy ending. We are left with his despair, and it stings.

One odd note that struck me during the reading was the mention of Uruk, an important city of Sumer and Babylonia, ruled at one time by Gilgamesh. Tolkien's nastiest orcs are called Uruk-hai; a tribute to the Gilgamesh? It would be interesting to go back and peek into his mind. He could have intended it for their fierceness as warriors, but I am totally conjecturing.

Finally, I think I'm learning that I love epics. Beowulf is still my all-time favorite, but Gilgamesh pulled at my heart. I think I need to read a few more.


  1. My son and I read this last year, but the prose version by N.K. Sandars. I think I purposely stayed away from verse translations because I didn't want to translate what the translator was saying. Do you know what I mean? I guess I took the easy way out, but I wanted a story that my son could get into. I had looked at verse translations by both Ferry and George and decided we'd stick with prose. I think if I had not given up on verse and seen the Mason version, we might have gone with that one. We enjoyed the story, but I think I will agree that Beowulf remains the favorite.

    As far as epics, we really enjoyed the Fagles translation of The Odyssey. We got it on disc (it is a story in the oral tradition, after all) and we combined it with lectures from the Great Courses given by Professor Vandiver. The lectures were excellent at really delving into the story.

    We also read a book called Grendel by John Gardner. It is Beowulf from the monster's perspective, but I have to say, we just didn't really like it.

    If you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


  2. I loved Grendel! And I think the next step is Grendel's Mother, but I doubt it will ever be written. I have the Odyssey around here somewhere, and will have to put it in the queue. Great idea about learning along the way; I typically do that with Shakespeare.

    I can definitely understand what you mean about not wanting to lose original meaning. I think I was in it for the experience I had as a kid, trying to relive that.