AT ONE OF the earliest points of our recorded history, the remarkable culture of Mesopotamia flourished, and one of its many versatile and precocious achievements was Gilgamesh, our first recognisable epic poem. It has gradually been pieced together, as the cuneiform tablets have been unearthed and deciphered. It has come out of the ground bit by bit, emerging from the ancient silence of its language only stealthily. What is exhilarating, the more we learn of it, is how directly it speaks to us.
The history of the recovery of the text might lie on the cusp between antiquarian interest and historical appreciation, but we are entitled to judge the recovered poem by the standards we would apply to any other epic work. After all, we don’t value Homer primarily because of what we might discover about Trojan ramparts, any more than we praise Beowulf simply because of the information it provides about Anglo-Saxon mead halls, or the ongoing folklore of the monstrous. Epics are accounts of the testing of the human spirit to destruction. They involve confrontations with the realm of the dead, and a consequent reassessment of what life in this sublunary realm offers, in the light of the loss of our companions and the death we ourselves are inexorably moving towards.
Gilgamesh is the story of a king, tyrannous though magnificent, lording it over the people of Uruk. It tells of how he came to love Enkidu, provided by the gods as a kind of opposing twin for him. The two have great adventures together. At one point, Gilgamesh turn down a proposal of marriage from the ferocious goddess of love and war, Ishtar; at another, Enkidu dies, and high and mighty Gilgamesh learns the bitter lesson of humanity: that everything we cherish is destined for oblivion. So off he sets, in search of immortality. But even though two thirds of him are divine, the other third is human, and that part makes him sleep when he should stay awake. He fails to bring home with him the key to immortality, and enters instead the realm of epic heroes, by starting to learn how to live with the terrible knowledge that he, like all of us, must die.
There are already a number of very good texts of Gilgamesh, particularly Nancy Sandar’s excellent prose version, published by Penguin. Andrew George’s new account is, however, in verse, and seeks to be as faithful as possible to the original texts, indicating all lacunae and ellipses, so that we are left in no doubt at all about what is being surmised and what is genuinely established. The organisation of the book also indicates the linguistic genealogy of Gilgamesh through its Babylonian, Akkadian and Sumerian expressions. The excellent Introduction puts all this in perspective with an exemplary combination of scholarship and lucidity.
It has to be admitted, though, that the net result of separating all the texts into their component sources (rather than employing the synthetic technique of Nancy Sandar), and scrupulously marking each text to indicate omissions and uncertainties, is not always an entirely fluent read. George’s translations also tend towards trochaic and anapaestic rhythms, which win the ear initially but risk causing narcosis when persisted in for too long. There is also a recurrent uncertainty regarding tone. What we are being offered is, after all, poetry, and it therefore has an obligation to shape itself into memorable language, divested of cliché, cant or that antiquarian kitsch which proceeds as though words could be dolled up in historical costume and prance about on stage reciting themselves. In more elevated passages, George can, at times, sound like a Victorian rendering of the Song of Solomon:
On the beauty of Gilgamesh Lady Ishtar looked with longing:
‘Come, Gilgamesh, be you my bridegroom!
Grant me your fruits, O grant me!
Be you my husband and I your wife!’
At other times, an uneasy demotic troubles the surface:
0 my Ishnallanu, let us taste your vigour:
Put out your hand and stroke my quim!
The problem here is an old one, and can be exemplified by looking at translations or imitations of Homer. The best-loved ones – Chapman, Pope, Lattimore, Logue – invariably privilege verve, rhythm and lexical inventiveness over literalism. And they’re all invariably by poets. What poets specialise in is achieving that indefinable quality which distinguishes language at its highest and most resonant pitch, and separates it unmistakably from language whose designs upon us are merely utilitarian or ideological.
This is a handsome book, though, and in its own way very impressive. It provides an enormous amount of information in an economical manner, and is invaluable as a convenient guide to all the different strands which came together to produce the work we now call Gilgamesh.