When I picked up Gilgamesh, I was not expecting this ancient text to be such a pleasurable and meaningful read. I assumed the book would be a fascinating lens into a pre-Greek, pre-Biblical world, but I couldn't imagine that this ancient pieced-together epic would actually hang together as a narrative, much less have a deep sense of poetry in both its imagery and its themes. What a wonderful surprise!
I am sure one reason I love this book--which I will talk about in more detail in the next few posts--is Stephen Mitchell's masterful introduction and translation. If you are a mature reader unconcerned about some relatively graphic sexual scenes, this is absolutely the version to read, if only for its amazing introduction. (One warning, though: when I say it has some relatively graphic scenes, I'm serious. Here's one fairly minor line: "Let me suck your rod, touch my vagina, caress my jewel.")
If you are bothered by this language, or if you are recommending the story to a relatively young person (or your mother), you might look at David Ferry's translation instead. His version of the above passage reads, "Touch me where you dare not, touch me here, touch me where you want to, touch me here." Certainly this version is just as sensual and just as lusty, but it is a bit more subtle in its language.
Ferry's translation overall is quite beautiful. Sometimes I even prefer his poetry. And some scholars prefer his translation because he sticks a little more closely to the actual text we have handed down, rather than imaginatively filling in holes as Mitchell does. (If you are looking for a literal translation, neither Ferry nor Mitchell will be the translator for you.) But accuracy and poetry aside, the extensive foundation that Mitchell sets in his long introduction makes the Mitchell translation my clear favorite. I think Eva at A Striped Armchair is exactly right to suggest reading the first seven pages of the intro, then reading the poem itself, and then going back to the introduction after you've finished the original text.
If you are planning to share this story with a very young person, I highly recommend the stunningly beautiful trilogy put together by Ludmila Zeman: Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar, and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. They were my first introduction to the Gilgamesh epic. If you can get copies of these gorgeous books, you'll fall in love with them even if you have no children with whom to share the books.
Zeman's retelling does of course change the explicit sexual scenes. It also mediates the violence and deep grief which appear in the narrative. But the author does not throw out the baby with the bath water--that is, she does not erase these important themes along with the adult content. Instead, she finds subtle translations that convey similar deep meanings.
Perhaps the best parts of the Zeman retellings are their gorgeous illustrations. Both colorful and delicately subtle, they echo the traditions of Sumerian or Babylonian art. The illustrations are lit with a golden hue that highlights the mythic storyline.
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Finally, don't miss Michele's visual casting of Gilgamesh over at A Reader's Respite. You'll never see the story the same way!
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In the next few posts I'll explore both the history of the Gilgamesh text and my reactions to reading it. I would love for you to find a copy of this short read and join me. Please feel free to comment, to disagree, to raise questions--that is, to participate in this Great Conversation.