Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis
Gilgamesh is a first in many ways: the first epic, the first action adventure, the first buddy story. The earliest copies of it date back to 2000 BC. They tell the story of Gilgamesh, ruler of Uruk, who begins as an infamous character. He possesses great power and intelligence but is only interested in bedding any and every woman he wants. The people cry out to the gods who provide an answer in Enkidu, a wild man forged in the hill country. He is a complete savage until he meets one of the temple harlots. She civilizes him after distracting him with her womanly wiles. Once he's shaved and given clothing, he looks very similar to Gilgamesh and comes to Uruk. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a great battle in the streets. They wind up friends and go on quests together. First, they vanquish Humbaba the Fierce who lives in the faraway Forest of Cedars. When they return, the goddess Ishtar wants to marry Gilgamesh. He rejects her offer since every other mortal who has wed her dies soon thereafter. In her angry jealousy, she asks the father of the gods for revenge. A divine bull is sent after Gilgamesh. Enkidu helps to defeat the beast, throwing a chunk of it back at Ishtar. She curses them both. Enkidu suddenly has a fatal disease, leaving Gilgamesh alone. He seeks out immortal life by journeying to the dwelling of Utanapishtim. He is a mortal who survived a great, worldwide flood and was granted immortal life by the gods (who saved him from the flood by warning him to build a boat). Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant that grants life everlasting. Gilgamesh finds the plant but loses it along the way back to Uruk.
The story moves along at a good pace for the most part. Occasional passages have a lot of line repetition which may have been better as poetry or as spoken aloud but is a little wearisome as prose text. The civilizing of Enkidu is interesting as he leaves behind the country life for city living. It's not really clear how his confrontation with Gilgamesh made the ruler a better person, other than starting other activities. Just getting Gilgamesh out of town may have been enough of an accomplishment! The quest for immortality at the end is also interesting, especially when Gilgamesh has to travel through a long, dark cave on the way to Utanapishtim (who is clearly a Noah-like figure). He almost goes through death and burial to come back to life on the other side. Just not the immortal life he'd hoped for.
This book includes a separate poem about the death of Gilgamesh along with a few commentaries by other authors. One commentary is from the 1920s and discusses many different aspects. Sometimes it talks about the story, sometimes it bogs down in etymologies and comparisons between a Babylonian version and a Syrian version, sometimes it makes unfavorable comparisons to similar stories in Genesis. I wound up skimming bits and did not find it particularly valuable.
Even though I enjoyed this text, I am curious to try other translations as a comparison. Did anyone write it more as poetry? Did they take more license with the text and not have so many repetitions?
Recommended, though it might get downgraded if I find a more interesting version.
The story is discussed on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast episode 254.