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Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen…

Gilgamesh: A New English Version (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Stephen Mitchell

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1,373398,498 (4.07)5
Title:Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Authors:Stephen Mitchell
Info:Free Press (2004), Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Tags:cuneiform, translation, Mesopotamian literature, Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell (2004)



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The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded myth in human history. Going into the story I knew a bit about it. I knew about Gilgamesh being the King of Uruk, I knew about a character that becomes his friend named Enkidu, and that is about it. Thankfully, this book contains all of the backstories you need. It discusses the entire story before it gets into it, so I am unsure if I should read it first or the actual poem first.

Now, this poem is written by an Anonymous author. Stephen Mitchell is a translator who adds his own flavor to the work. Even though Gilgamesh is an ancient myth, it contains a believable cast of characters with great motivations and an excellent look into how the Sumerians lived. Take the fight between Gilgamesh and Humbaba for instance. Humbaba doesn’t really do anything to gain Gilgamesh’s animosity. Instead, Gilgamesh just wants to make a name for himself.

Basically, this is how it goes down. Gilgamesh is awesome, but the people of Uruk are dissatisfied with his selfish and shortsighted nature. The gods answer the prayers of the people of Uruk to create a man to act as a counterpoint to Gilgamesh. This man is named Enkidu and is born wild and innocent. Gilgamesh hears about him from a trapper and orders a Priestess from Ishtar’s sect to go and make sweet love to Enkidu for seven days and nights. This civilizes Enkidu and he becomes a complete human being. Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu become fantastic friends. They go around having fun and beating up monsters. Then the Humbaba incident happens and Enkidu is killed. Gilgamesh is inconsolable. Gilgamesh hears a tale of a wise man named Utnapishtim and goes to meet him far to the East of the World. Gilgamesh succeeds in going to meet Utnapishtim and wants to know his secrets of immortality. Utnapishtim tells him that if he can forego sleep for seven days he can be immortal too. Gilgamesh fails because he falls asleep immediately. This trip to the far East of the World has also aged Gilgamesh greatly. Utnapishtim goes and tells him a way to regain his youth, but Gilgamesh foolishly loses it. Thus does he return to the City of Uruk a wiser king and man.

The poem is fragmentary and much of it is lost. Mitchell’s edition is a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh rather than a straight translation. Mitchell explains this by saying that he doesn’t read Cuneiform and can’t understand Akkadian, which is the language that the poem is originally in. So he gives out his method along with it. He compiled a translation he felt worked out and converted it into acceptable English Prose. It works really well in my opinion. I guess when I was younger I was exposed to more tame versions of this story; I did not realize how much eroticism was in it. I guess it is easy to ignore the homosexual parts and make it more Platonic but is it ever really a good idea to Bowdlerize something? No, it is not. So in conclusion, this book was excellent. The scholarship was top-notch and the prose was very enjoyable. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
"In Iraq...where Gilgamesh was written -- the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible."

A multi-layered examination of the duality in the human experience: good/ evil, hero/ villain, etc. There's certainly relevance with current events -- maybe that's why it's stood the test of time -- because we continue to face equally epic quests in our journey to become better humans...

I put off reading this classic, considered by many an essential read, because, well, tales told in verse intimidate me. Sometimes they leave me scratching my head, clearly not smart enough to "get" their meaning. Glad I finally went for it with Gilgamesh! Thankfully, Mitchell's translation/ adaptation is easily accessible. And I found the introduction particularly helpful.

In the end, I just felt really sad for Enkidu *and* Humbaba. Perhaps I'll have a different takeaway on subsequent reads.
  flying_monkeys | Mar 18, 2019 |
Finally read this, intro was good but didn't read all the notes. ( )
  ritaer | Mar 13, 2019 |
Separate with commas, like "history, military history, Napoleon" (what are tags?)
current tags:
fiction - literature
show all
  Jwsmith20 | Nov 2, 2018 |
Still has the power to resonate after 4,000+ years
...the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Bible. Its hero was a historical king who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750 BCE. In the epic, he has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death. - from the Introduction by Stephen Mitchell.
I had a fortuitous introduction to Gilgamesh as it was offered as an Audible Daily Deal for $1.95 in early June 2018 and I had never read it before. Stephen Mitchell's take is described as "a new English version" as he explains in the Introduction as he is not retranslating the original Cuneiform Akkadian text but instead producing a new version by examining all previous English translations and creating a new one on that basis. It is not as free-styled as Christopher Logue's "War Music: An Account of Homer's Iliad" (which similarly was not a direct translation from Ancient Greek) but sticks more to the original script as best as I understand.

The Gilgamesh epic as it has come down to us is based on 11 clay tablets (a 12th tablet is considered a late addition and is often not included in editions) that were only discovered in 1853 by Rassam Hormuzd (1826-1910) and first translated in 1870 by [author:George Smith. The acknowledged definitive modern scholarly edition is a two-volume set from 2003 by Andrew George which Mitchell acknowledges as his main source. Mitchell's 2004 version was timely but also controversial as he draws parallels between Gilgamesh's & Enkidu's battles with mysterious monsters to the Iraq War of 2003.

Gilgamesh is always going to be a difficult work to fully translate as only about 2,000 lines of an estimated 3,000 lines of full text have survived on the sometimes decaying tablets. So all versions require an interpretation and extrapolation of the original in order to produce a readable text. It is difficult to do a full assessment of Mitchell without comparing to some more conventional editions but most of the surprising elements are likely contained in other editions as well e.g. the frankness of the sexual material, the parallels of the great flood story to Noah's Ark, etc. I hope to follow up with further reading and investigation.

The cover image of the Mitchell edition is a detail from "Bronze Head of a King" thought to be Sargon of Akkad, Ninevah (Iraq), Akkadian period, c. 2300 BCE; in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad. See a black & white photo at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargon_of_Akkad

I checked Gilgamesh against the comprehensive listing of "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die", and rather surprisingly it is not included. And neither is The Iliad or The Odyssey. That seems like an odd oversight. There are only a very few anonymous ancient works that are included such as "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter" and "The Thousand and One Nights". ( )
  alanteder | Jun 20, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stephen Mitchellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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An English-language rendering of the world's oldest epic follows the journey of conquest and self-discovery by the king of Uruk, in an edition that includes an introduction that places the story in its historical and cultural context.

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