This is pretty much the oldest book in the world, which makes the idea of a review seem somewhat superfluous; still. Somebody gave it to me; I sighed at the prospect of wading through it. But it is short – less than 60 pages – so I read it, on an aeroplane, 45 centuries removed in time and technology. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, “was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew all the countries of the world”, it begins; and so it carries on, rough-hewn blocks of prose locked together like the massive carved stones of ancient temple walls.
“When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body” and massive courage; larger than life, he builds on an epic scale, but runs out of control too, terrorizing the burghers of Uruk and raping their daughters. So the gods make him a companion, a wild man named Enkidu, who is seduced out of the hills by a temple prostitute set in his path by Gilgamesh. The heart of the story is the tale of the blood brother bond between the two: they journey to the Cedar Forest and dispatch in epic fight the ogre who guards it; they build a raft and sail back down the Euphrates with his head; they slay the mighty Bull of Heaven sent against Gilgamesh by the goddess Ishtar in revenge for his rejection of her advances. But then Enkidu, invincible in battle, takes ill, and after twelve days dies in his bed.
The remainder of the book recounts Gilgamesh’s inconsolable grief at the death of his friend, and his ravaging struggle against his own inevitable mortality. No more spoilers from me; but for all its age – in fact, in part because of its age – this is a book that has to be read. Nowhere, in all the millennia from Sumer to Silicon Valley, can there have been a starker or more abrupt statement of man’s chest-beating pride and the final, all-humbling recognition that there is one enemy he cannot defeat:
The king has laid himself down and will not rise again,
The Lord of Kullah will not rise again;
He overcame evil, he will not come again;
Though he was strong of arm he will not rise again.
He had wisdom and a comely face, he will not come again;
He is gone into the mountain, he will not come again;
On the bed of fate he lies, he will not rise again;
From the couch of many colours he will not come again.
But for all the book’s macho doings and glorification of the achievements of men, the final word should rest with a woman: Siduri, a wine-maker Gilgamesh runs into during his desperate wanderings after Enkidu’s death. “When the gods created man”, she says, “they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” So much has changed in forty-five centuries, but not that; and has anyone since put it better?