Mitchell’s Gilgamesh the Best Rendition

I’ve read and compared the new rendition of The Epic of Gilgamesh prepared by Stephen Mitchell with the others available in English and in my opinion it’s the best. It’s not a scholarly edition, but then, those are pretty boring, what with so many stanzas like the following:

‘Taking hold……enclosed my arms.
…he extricated [me]…by force
My cheek…, my…,
[he gave] me water [to drink] from his waterskin.’
(From the translation by Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh [London: Penguin Books, 2003], p. 37)

Scholarly editions are certainly important to scholars, but they diminish the enjoyment of the poem. (I should point out that most of the poem is in much far shape than the fragment above, but it is fragmentary enough to make appreciating it as a poem rather a challenge.) Mitchell, like Herbert Mason and David Ferry, has filled in the gaps. Mitchell also compared different translations and — importantly — different versions of the poem in various ancient languages, and prepared his own version. The result is the most powerful version I’ve read. (It should be mentioned that Mitchell is, unlike Mason and Ferry, not a scholar of the ancient languages, but he has drawn on the resources of scholarly translations.)

The prologue sets the stage quite well and gives a taste of Mitchell’s use of the English language:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the seret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed
to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted
but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets,
had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massive
wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.
See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.
Find the cornertone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

Pretty glorious stuff.

I found the introductory essay to be rather helpful, and especially the “heads up” on such matters as the shift in voice from the beginning of the poem to the conclusion, from the third person to the first person. I should, however, register one very small source of annoyance, which was the insufferable attempt to smuggle in little political digs, such as “the poet makes it impossible to see Humbaba as a threat to the security of Uruk or as part of any ‘axis of evil.'” Or, “Like the precivilized Enkidu, Humbaba is a figure of balance and a defender of the ecosystem. (Having a monster or two around to guard our national forests from corporate and other predators wouldn’t be such a bad thing.)” The temptations to make such little digs, whether on target or not, should have been resisted. Such bits of self indulgence do not help to explicate the text, add nothing to our understanding of it or of the great issues presented, and merely occasion eye-rolling. Nonetheless, Mitchell has delivered us a very fine rendition of a great work of art.