Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell
Stephen Mitchell's uneven and rather excitable introduction (edited extract) to his fluent if rather flat Gilgamesh (a new English version) gives a fairly thorough and very useful overview of this astonishing epic. If one can question Mitchell's overt commitment to making this 4000 year old poem 'relevant' - it can, I'm sure, teach us lessons about hubris and power, friendship and enmity, but I can't quite read it as a corrective to the excesses of American foreign policy as directly as he does nor do I find it as neatly congruent with Christian morality as he seems to do - the author must be congratulated on producing so readable, attractive and accessible a version of such an important and previously quite forbidding book.
Perhaps worth saying to start with is quite what a lovely book this Profile hardback is. Mitchell's extensive endnotes are also worthy of comment, although why publishers cannot commit to proper footnotes, notes at the foot of each page, to aid the reader to navigate the difficulties of a text, without having to navigate countless bookmarks, is quite beyond me (cost, one presumes). Mitchell gives alternative translations, notes his additions and subtractions and presumptions and one gets a good sense of his working methods. Criticised for not being an academic (for not understanding the cuneiform in which the tablets on which the epic was discovered were written), Mitchell seems to have immersed himself in all the currently extant translations (English, French and German) and this book, his summation of those other translations, commends itself as a readable and enjoyable version.
Mitchell keeps a decent rhythm - "the line that I use, a loose, non-iambic, non-alliterative tetrametre, is rare in English" (but some may recognise it from parts of Eliot's Four Quartet - and these blank, non-rhyming stanzas, bang out the story with economy and clarity. But the prose never shines. This is a Gilgamesh that one can easily get through in one sitting (forgetting the introduction and notes that is). And this is its real strength: one of the oldest known pieces of writing comes alive (pretty much) and is neither hard nor forbidding, but rather strangely familiar (the word archetype, surely, does not need invoking). I imagine, perhaps quite wrongly, that the original hardly sparkles either and that it is neither purple nor 'overwritten' and that this accounts for the emotionless, 'flat', childlike simplicity of the version. Whilst Mitchell overplays both the relevance, and what most readers are likely to think of as literary virtues (I found it neither "hilarious" nor "deeply poignant"), there is still much to enjoy here.
The story begins with a prologue and then moves through its eleven 'books'. Gilgamesh is proud and strong and he has become tyrannical. Anu, god of the sky, beseeched by the people, asks Aruru, his lover and humankind's mother goddess, if she will make a 'mirror man' to counter Gilgamesh - to bring him down a peg; Enkidu is almost the equal of Gilgamesh, but he is less than human. An animal man who eats grass with the gazelles and protects his family, the animals, from hunters, Enkidu does not know the ways of ordinary man. A hunter, frightened of Enkidu and fearful of losing his living now Enkidu has prevented him from successfully hunting, asks Gilgamesh for his advice. Shamhat, a sacred prostitute, entices Enkidu and via their lovemaking he is brought to human consciousness. (It is noteworthy the moral Otherness of this story - sex, here, and the erotic imagination, are civilising, humanising forces.) Enkidu and Gilgamesh become the closest of friends (the text suggests lovers, Mitchell shys away a little from this) and they go adventuring ...
There are a number of other versions and translations readily available and anyone more than intrigued by the Epic and its history will want to look at these in conjunction with Mitchell's version (and possibly also check out The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature). Andrew George's Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin) offers, beyond what seems a more than faithful rendering of the text, George's excellent introduction (which, in fairness, Mitchell himself cites, including it in his bibliography along with, amongst others, X and Y) and Stephanie Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia (OUP) (see James Fenton's useful, brief overview) ... The purveyors of the excellent Literary Saloon suggested that Mitchell's 'translation' method undercut the worth of his version almost completely, whilst we humbly disagree, they did bring our attention again (Mitchell says he is "particularly indebted") to the (for now) definitive scholarly account of the epic: AR George's The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic.