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  • Marc Cooper
    Jasper Griffin s review of Gilgamesh: A New English Version (by Stephen Mitchell, Free Press, 290 pp., $24.00) appeared in the New York Times on Sunday. At the
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2006
      Jasper Griffin's review of Gilgamesh: A New English Version (by Stephen
      Mitchell, Free Press, 290 pp., $24.00) appeared in the New York Times on
      Sunday. At the end of the review, Griffin (quoted below) suggests that
      Gilgamesh is true to the reviewer's dark vision of the epic: "The end of
      heroism is death." Is this true of Gilgamesh? Does it fit other ancient
      Near Eastern literature?

      Marc Cooper

      Missouri State University


      From the New York Times at

      Fresh from his triumph, the hero confronts the fact of death. He
      must mourn for his friend, and he must face his own mortality. A
      superhuman exploit brings him at last the secret of eternal life;
      he has it in his grasp; but (of course) he must lose it. The end of
      triumph is mourning. The end of heroism is death. Gilgamesh laments,

      Was it for this that my hands have labored,
      was it for this that I gave my heart's blood?
      I have gained no benefit for myself
      but have lost the marvelous plant to a reptile.

      There is no happy ending, even for mighty heroes who are close to
      the gods. We may be reminded of another great epic, the Iliad of
      Homer. That, too, is a tragic tale, which ends with Hector, brave
      and attractive, lying dead, his body abused, his city and his
      family doomed; and with his slayer, the victorious hero Achilles,
      blaming himself for the death of his best friend and knowing that
      he, too, is about to die.

      In other heroic traditions, the Nibelungenlied ends with a general
      slaughter of the great warriors who have engaged our attention and
      sympathy; the lay of Tristan ends with the lovers Tristan and
      Ysolde dying pathetic deaths; in the Song of Roland the great
      paladin is betrayed and killed at Roncevaux; King Arthur's knights
      are at last betrayed by Ganelon, defeated, and slain, and their
      kingdom passes away.

      This is the true epic vision. The Odyssey flinches from its
      austerity and tries to evade it, bringing the hero and his wife
      together happily at the end, and saying only that sometime, in the
      future, the hero will have to journey again, before at last he is
      released by a gentle death. A modern epic like The Lord of the
      Rings can deny the dark epic vision altogether and finish with
      victory and triumph for the good, and poetic justice dished out all
      around. An older wisdom, and a truer poetry, sees that the highest
      nobility and the deepest truth are inseparable, in the end, from
      failure-however heroic-from defeat, and from death.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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