Gilgamesh: carved in stone

gilgameshIt’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down. The tale spread throughout the Middle East, and the version we have today has been reconstructed from Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian translations.

The discovery of the poem is a story in itself. Gilgamesh lay lost for thousands of years, until in 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Laynard, unearthed the buried library of Nineveh. But it wasn’t until 1872, when George Smith announced that he had discovered among the tablets an account of the Old Testament flood, that the importance of the discovery was fully understood. Since then many more tablets have been found and reassembled, the pieces of which sometimes, due to various expeditions, ended up on different continents.

The cycle of poems centres on Gilgamesh, the (two-thirds god, one-third human) tyrannical ruler of the walled city of Uruk. At the poem’s opening, Gilgamesh has angered his subjects by insisting on his royal right to the first night with any Uruk bride. So to appease the people and distract the king, the gods create from clay a companion for Gilgamesh — a “strong man from the wastelands” who is named Enkidu. The two become friends, despite an initial squabble, and they set out on a series of adventures, encountering among other things heavenly seductions and cosmological battles.

But it is the death of Enkidu that arouses Gilgamesh’s latent humanity and leads to one of literature’s most despairing laments. Here’s a taste from Derrek Hines’s version: “This blorting thing I am; this broken hive swarmed with grief. Yet absurdly, dawn clatters up its ramshackle geometry to erect the city again; a butterfly limbers in its warmth”.

Which leads to the topic of translation. Today we are awash in an abundance of translated texts that would have been the envy of many earlier readers. The classics of every age and every culture — or at least those that have survived the hazards of time — are freely available in all kinds of versions. Successful translations of our time include Christopher Logues’s Iliad, Ted Hughes’s Ovid and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

For The Epic of Gilgamesh, translations range from productions of outstanding scholarship (such as Andrew George’s), to prose translations that privilege meaning over poetics (such as NK Sandar’s); all the way through to adaptations and reworkings of non-specialist enthusiasts, some of whom can also be very scholarly in their approach. Derrek Hines’s Gilgamesh falls into this last category.

Hines’s poetic adaptation uses all the conventions of contemporary free verse. At best his verse is studded with breathtaking pyrotechnics and resounds with genuine sentiment. Here’s an example from a section titled “The Humbaba Campaign” in which a soldier describes a battlefield:

… dying into grass; all those souls whistling
past our heads, homewards.

Beautiful. Or one of my favourite stanzas in which Enkidu is initiated by the “sacred harlot” Shamhat into the “civilised” ways of women:

After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.

Working on the premise that every generation must translate the classics for itself, Hines has set out to “recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt”. Hines’s text is strewn with contemporary idioms and references to modern technology: he talks about “tram rails”, “X-rays”, and “submarines”. Manhattan becomes a metaphor for Uruk, and accordingly Hines talks about a “Niagra of fear” and describes a fight in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu “topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings”.

In a 5000-year-old story, this sort of contemporising is no small matter. I can imagine an argument in which it makes perfect sense. No doubt it would rely on a postmodern view of time – something like Robert Bly’s idea that “after the industrial revolution all things happen at once” or similarly that the past is embedded in the present. But for more traditional readers like me, Hines’s anachronisms are distracting.

The Epic of Gilgamesh needs none of it. It speaks to the modern reader, not through high-tech metaphors but through its themes of friendship and love and the doomed search for immortality. From Uta-napishti (the Sumerian Noah), Gilgamesh learns the brutal lesson of time: that there is no permanence. It sounds simple but, as Hines’s narrator asks, “who can console us for dying?”

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines was first published in The Courier-Mail (9 Mar 2002): BAM 7.

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