A Tale from Long Ago

Harriet Wragg 15 November 2007

Stephen Mitchell



Gilgamesh is the earliest known work of literature, predating the Iliad by a thousand years. Yet it lies unread and forgotten, whilst Homer is hailed as the father of world literature and Greece the crucible of western civilisation. Written in ancient Mesopotamia its obscure language has rendered it inaccessible to all but a few scholars, andstilted literal translations have meant that the true power of this epic has not been recognised.

Stephen Mitchell’s retelling of the ancient story is vibrant and poetic, bringing to life a fascinating lost world of prostitute priestesses, where gods and goddesses sport with heroes and the king has a divine right to every bride’s virginity.

Gilgamesh, the god-king of Uruk, oppresses his people. They cry out to the gods for help and, accordingly, the mother of creation, makes him a brother, Enkidu, out of clay, to balance his power. They become inseparable and rule peacefully until they decide to fight the terrible monster, Humbaba, in the cedar forest and Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh, inconsolable from grief for his friend and fear of his own death, sets off on a quest to secure his immortality.

Mitchell calls his text a ‘version’ as he did not work from the original Akkadian, but synthesised previous translations into a text that is coherent, readable and beautiful. The original, inscribed on baked clay tablets found in the ruins of Ninevah, is incomplete, and where the text becomes particularly fragmentary, Mitchell supplements it with passages from Sumerian Gilgamesh poems. Mitchell discards Akkadian poetic devices, tiresome to the modern reader, cuts out whole sections of word for word repetition, changes images and adds bridge passages to clarify the story.

This raises the question as to whether what Mitchell has written stays close enough to the original. As readers, we never know what is Mitchell and what is Gilgamesh. But does this matter? Akkadian language and culture is too distant from our own to allow us to understand it easily, as the failure of the literal translations attests. Mitchell recreates the ancient epic as a contemporary poem, straying far from the original but staying faithful to the spirit of the Akkadian text. The narrative is fluid and engaging, the language convincingly modern, while still retaining some of the quirks of the original: highly condensed travel passages and an emphasis on the numbers of hours and days in which activity takes place.

These features allow the text to retain a sense of otherness; we are conscious of its distance from us in terms of time and moral attitude and there are elements in the story that are often quite dark and shocking,

‘Sweet Ishullanu, let me suck your rod,/ touch my vagina, caress my jewel,’/ and he frowned and answered, ‘Why should I eat/ this rotten meal of yours? What can you offer/ but the bread of dishonour, the beer of shame,/ and thin reeds as covers when the cold wind blows?’

The story is a compelling read.

Harriet Wragg