There are the remains of a very fine poem about this work, but I was surprised by just how few remains there are. Of course, it is incredible that any bits of clay tablet at all survived the three millennia since their creation; but, perhaps because it is most often referred to as the “epic” of Gilgamesh, I expected a poem of Homeric proportions and sentiment, not ellipses and single-word fragments. Thankfully, the Johns supplement with generous portions of an Old Babylonian version [“Old Babylonian” is actually a technical term, not a humorous, tautological understatement], inserted along with editorial notes after each column of translated material. These editorial notes are often as long or longer than each section of the poem text itself, which makes them equally informative and annoying. This duality typifies the book, whose scholarly focus and layout in many ways sacrifices the poem’s impact and appeal as a work of literature. It is a very good resource and supplement, but I look forward to finding a less academic version of the tale that allows the story to take precedence.
For me, the most striking sensation while reading Gilgamesh was a surprising sense of familiarity. I felt that primal connection to the story that typifies much mythology to me–a recognition, on perhaps the most basic level I can identify, of the human condition and spirit. There was also a decidedly less primal sense of familiarity due to the work’s similarity, in part, to other works of literature, such as the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
[Why I read it: I have come across references to Gilgamesh for years, but always feared it would be too obscure for me to understand. However, a friend’s positive mention of it in her own book was the final motivation I needed.]
Update: So, my attempt to read a couple less-academic versions did not work out well; both Derrek Hines’ and Stephen Mitchell’s adaptations are horrifying. Yes, I wanted to read something less technical that focused on the story, but both authors lack the skills to make a legitimate translation, so they have settled for a sort of do-your-own-thing approach that produces works of very questionable value, to my mind. I almost gagged at Hines’ use of the pun “mummy’s boy” in the second line of the poem. But at least he doesn’t have the balls to claim, as Mitchell does, that “I like to think that they [SÎn-lēqi-unninni and his Old Babylonian predecessors] would have approved” (66). For the record, Mitchell’s main qualification to add, adapt and change other people’s translations is, according to the book’s cover, his “widely known…ability to make ancient masterpieces thrillingly new.” No thank you.