I have recently read two different versions of Gilgamesh. One is The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Penguin classics version edited by Andrew George, and the other is the more flowing version by Stephen Mitchell. As much as I love the story, I have come to realize that I do not yet understand it.
It’s not that I don’t follow the flow of the action. We are introduced to Gilgamesh as being a bad king, one who viewed the people in Uruk as his possessions. He abused them and took advantage of them, until they begged for relief and their lamentations were heard by the gods, who then created Enkidu, who brought some stability.
Gilgamesh then decided that he and Enkidu would travel to the Cedar Forest to kill its guardian, Humbaba, and it is here that my understanding begins to fail, as though I were talking a path that went from a paved track to a dirt track to a thin track that dwindled and disappeared into the forest.
We aren’t given a reason for why Gilgamesh decided that Humbaba must die, and at his hand. Perhaps he felt the need to do something grand and heroic, but this we don’t see. He eventually persuaded Enkidu, and they then spent the journey to the Cedar Forest alternating back and forth in the roles of persuader and persuaded.
The question that underlies my lack of understanding is one that I am not able to answer, and might never be able to answer. Why does Gilgamesh do what Gilgamesh does, and more deeply, why did the author (or authors) of Gilgamesh (through the ages) not include any discussion about the why behind some of Gilgamesh’s larger and smaller actions?
I will admit that I haven’t undertaken a scholarly investigation of the development of our definition of hero. I do believe that Gilgamesh qualifies as a hero, perhaps our first hero as far as the written record goes, committing great deeds and undertaking epic journeys, but it is also clear that our understanding of the hero’s journey has changed over time. And so, I need to do some reading.
But looking back of what writing I’ve done, and what (more contemporary) reading I’ve done, I can see that this question of why behind the hero’s actions (or the villain’s actions) is important to my understanding of the story, and my enjoyment of it.
I suspect that as I keep reading the Old Things, humanity’s first written stories, it may be that this notion of why heroes act becomes something that emerges over time, and it’s something I’ll need to keep an eye out for.
Jim Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.
Jim is on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com