Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh

I have just finished a Penguin Books 1987 reprint of the 1972 revision of the N. K. Sandars original translation published in 1960 of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Sandars writes an Introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh that takes up roughly half the book, 59 pages. This prose version of the epic, only 60 pages long, is surprisingly brief. I heard about Gilgamesh years ago, pehaps in middle school history, and just had the impression that the story was longer. After all, the poem as a whole is an "epic" and holds an important place in the development of language and literature of the human race. Sandars claims that Gilgamesh pre-dates Homeric epic literature "by at least one and a half thousand years." He also states, "[i]f Gilgamesh is not the first human hero, he is the first tragic hero of whom anything is known."

In the Introduction, Sanders also discusses the historical background including the discovery of the tablets. He covers the literary background, and the hero, principal gods, structure and events in the story itself. Sanders offers several scholarly studies that strongly support that Gilgamesh actually was a ruler in Uruk during the period between Noah and Abraham.

Sanders also explains in detail why he chose to present the poems of Gilgamesh in prose and how he carefully constucted various ancient versions of the poems into an easily understandable, flowing work. His ultimate goal was to make The Epic of Gilgamesh accessible and readable for an interested reader.

I would like to refrain from giving an opinion as to whether this epic is written well, has fully developed characters, contains a clever plot, or succeeds to accomplish any traditional literary goals. It seems more appropriate to say that everyone should read The Epic of Gilgamesh in order to connect with our early historical, literary, and communicative origins, and to understand more fully what it means to be human.

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