At some point in the educational process, you likely caught a whiff of Gilgamesh. For me, I believe I was exposed to a short excerpt and summary way back in high school. But tantalizing as the "whiffs" of something so great and huge and lasting may be, they can also have a dampening effect. Yeah, I learned about Gilgamesh once. Weird. And, well...kind of long, wasn’t it?
There is something awesome about legends that survive for 5000 years give or take a few. And The Epic of Gilgamesh, which comes from all the way back in Mesopotamia, is about as enduring and filled with mythological deeds as you can get. Nevertheless, my initial reaction was fairly typical. "Huh?"
I always regretted not "getting" Gilgamesh. I should have read the whole thing. I should have put more effort in. But the thought of going back to it is daunting. And then, last year, I saw Gilgamesh by Herbert Mason in my daughter’s pile of school books. There it was. Staring me in the face. Commanding me to read it. Instead, I waited for her to tell me about it. Maybe it had gotten better since I was a kid.
She had the usual adolescent’s reaction to a 5000-year-old Mesopotamian legend. And I thought, maybe this is a hurdle I don’t need to jump.
But then I met Shauna Roberts at the Historical Novel Society conference, one of the many delightful authors I was able to spend time with in San Diego. She wrote a novelization of the epic. A historical novel? That’s what I needed. I bought the book on my new Nook.
A nomad named Zaidu, living outside of Uruk, is the first to discover the wild man. Something is breaking his traps and ruining his hunting. When he discovers it is a not a monster but a man, he cannot kill him, so he goes to the king for help. The king sends Shamat to tame the wild man, whom she names Enkidu.
For those who know the story, I don't need to outline it, and for those who don't, I don’t want to give any more of it away.
Like Mayflies in a Stream follows the outline of the Gilgamesh epic closely enough to keep the flavor of the legend but by focusing on the courageous and self-sacrificing Shamat more so than on the king and Enkidu, Roberts is able to tell a much more sympathetic tale. The ancient Mesopotamian world comes alive with a beautiful mixture of complex ritual and simple every day tasks, all richly described. If that isn’t enough, a touching love story gives depth to Shamat’s character. These are not just mythological figures, but people.
So am I now inspired to dig into my daughter’s book for more Gilgamesh? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just savor Roberts’s interpretation for awhile.