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Foundations of Fantasy: The Epic of Gilgamesh

More than any other genre, fantasy tends to examine ancient epics. Whether it’s the study of archetypes and ectypes, or a historical understanding of narrative itself, or simply a desire to experience myths and legends that have lived for ages, these books remain alive to us. This series of posts will be about some of the more important mythic texts in history, and how they relate to modern fantasy.

The Story Behind the Story

Gilgamesh StatueThe Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest books we have on record. Original stories regarding the character date back as early as the eighteenth century BCE. The primary text was written between the 13th and tenth century BCE, in cuneiform on stone tablets. Then, it was lost for thousands of years, until it was rediscovered in 1850 in the excavation of Nineveh. Even then, it took decades to be translated into English.

Translations are tricky when dealing with situations like these. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was one of the first people to read it translated. John Gardner (who also wrote the fantastic novel Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, and The Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Authors) made a much more accurate, yet difficult to read translation, making certain to note each place the actual text was missing. Penguin Classics put out a two-volume translation by Andrew George which has received considerable acclaim. For a more poetic, if less rigorous version, Stephen Mitchell’s translation is quite readable, and uses inferences and the aforementioned earlier stories of Gilgamesh to fill in the missing gaps.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The tale begins with Gilgamesh, two-thirds divine to one-third man, oppressing the people of Uruk as a tyrant. The common people plea to the gods, who listen, but rather than destroying Gilgamesh for his hubris, they create for him a friend, Enkidu, out of clay. Enkidu is wild and untamed, but also gentle. Already the theme of civilization and wilderness is brought out through the lead characters, and the civilized man is worse morally than the wild one.

Gilgamesh hears about the wild man and sends Shamhat, a temple prostitute, to tame him. She brings Enkidu back to Uruk, where he and Gilgamesh end up in a fight. Though Gilgamesh wins, he is surprised at the strength of this wild man, and the two become fast friends.

humbaba by U-RA-CILTheir first quest takes them to slay Humbaba, a monstrous guardian in the Cedar Forest. They defeat it, and Gilgamesh wants to let it live, yet Enkidu, now taking on more cruel aspects, inspires Gilgamesh to kill it. They do so, and take several large trees back to Uruk to fashion into a temple door.

The goddess Ishtar makes advances on Gilgamesh, who refuses her. Out of spite, she sends The Bull of Heaven against both of them. It does damage to Uruk itself, but the heroes slay it. However, their killing of both Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven will have consequences—the gods decree that Enkidu must die, and he slowly weakens from disease until he passes.

Gilgamesh, being part divine, doesn’t understand death. He stares at his friend’s body without real comprehension of what happened. His grief at the funeral remains painful, even four thousand years later.

He sets off to meet Utnaburisht, a sage who knows immortality. Yet, when he reaches Utnaburisht he is given a fairly simple task—to stay awake for one week—and fails almost immediately. Gilgamesh, contrary to much discussion of the Hero’s Journey, fails his quest and does not return Master of Two Worlds. He instead must ruminate on what this means for his own mortality.

Gilgamesh The King (cover)Influence

Gilgamesh is still an influential text today. Most famously in speculative fiction, Robert Silverberg wrote a pair of books about Gilgamesh, titled Gilgamesh The King and To The Land of the Living.

Thematically, it continues to influence fantasy as well. The theme of barbarism versus civilization is a very common one in modern fantasy, finding its way into texts as diverse as A Song of Ice and Fire, Moorcock’s Elric series, and Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. The theme of such a binding friendship is found in Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series and Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.

Most importantly, it deals with mortality, grief, and understanding.

This article was originally posted on July 3, 2013.

Title image by U-RA-CIL.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar A.E. Marling says:

    Thank you for writing this post, and I look forward to culturing myself up on future Foundations of Fantasy.

  2. Avatar Corvus says:

    It is interesting to note that they only just recently discovered 20 new lines for the Epic, which apparently put a whole new context on the slaying of Humbaba.

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