She naturally pulled into the side of the road to try and see if she could help. Its cover was slightly bent and Judith did what any book-lover is duty-bound to do - brought it home so it could be treated for shock and duly nurtured. The gentle reader will be delighted to learn that the aforementioned book has since found happiness and fulfilment amongst others of its species upon our bookshelves.
The book was Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell.
“That’s the oldest story ever written down,” I exclaimed when she brought it home.
“I know,” she said, “I found it in the middle of the road.”
“Wow,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to read it.”
“Here’s your chance,” she said, passing me the book.
It’s pretty ridiculous to rate a book that is actually older than The Bible by a system of stars, one to five! The poetic text in English by Stephen Mitchell is far easier to regard objectively and review. For my money he has done an excellent job of bringing together literal translations of the surviving fragments of Sumerian,Babylonian and Akkadian texts and working them into an agreeable epic poem by adopting a certain amount of artifice, which he freely admits to in his introduction.
This is a morality tale about the tragedy of human existence. When we first meet Gilgamesh we are told of his tyranny and how he oppresses the people in his kingdom, the walled city of Uruk. The people petition the Gods to temper their king’s abuses, and the responsive Gods duly send Enkidu, a kind of wild man, who is very nearly Gilgamesh’s physical equal, to restore balance to the world. It is interesting that as the story proceeds, and after they’ve become friends, they develop the attributes of each other - a bit like people are said to do in a marriage, and the text most certainly has a homo-erotic quality.
Gilgamesh is later forced to suffer bereavement and loss when his friend Enkidu is chosen by the Gods to die as a punishment for Gilgamesh’s wanton destruction of Humbaba, a monster entrusted by the Gods with the task of guarding the Cedar Forest and for killing the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh is so heart-broken after the loss of Enkidu that he wanders the world in despair. Eventually, he perks up a little and goes on a highly perilous journey to find Utnapishtim to see if he can learn the secret of eternal life. Utnapishtim tells him about the great flood (Noah’s Ark but predating the biblical version) and assures him that eternal life is impossible and its secret belongs to the Gods alone. Finally, he returns home to the walled city of Uruk as its rightful king. He has acquired some wisdom and perhaps the knowledge, known to the mystics and sages througout the ages, that man’s life can only be lived in the present.
What this poem tells me is that almost five thousand years ago, when the earliest of these tales were first conceived and written, human beings were largely concerned with the same issues as they are now.
A very successful roadside rescue indeed, I think.