A Week in Books: the reckless ventures of a fierce leader

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The Independent Culture

Set in the cities and plains between the Tigris and Euphrates, a newly published book recounts the reckless ventures of a fierce, coarse leader who seeks an escape from unpopularity at home.

Set in the cities and plains between the Tigris and Euphrates, a newly published book recounts the reckless ventures of a fierce, coarse leader who seeks an escape from unpopularity at home. He goes into combat with a sensitive sidekick, who swallows his doubts to match his buddy in gung-ho boasts. Together, this hubristic pair mount a preventive assault on a much-feared local aggressor who has, nonetheless, made no threat against them. Their mission? Simply "To drive out evil from the world". They crush the ogre easily enough, before the dream of cost-free fame and immortality starts to unravel horribly.

This headline-grabbing tale ranks as the oldest recorded story in the world. If anything, it's rather too easy to trumpet the contemporary parallels suggested by a new translation of the 3,200-year-old epic poem about Gilgamesh of Uruk, most of which is preserved on the 11 clay tablets found in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, near modern Mosul. The defeat of the monster Humbaba, and the awful curse he lays upon his vanquishers, resonates with any number of uncanny overtones. Yet, so far as we know, today's presidents and prime ministers seldom consort with sacred temple prostitutes, slay magic bulls or enrage the citizenry by insisting on droit de seigneur with every nubile maiden.

The adventures of the warrior king Gilgamesh and Enkidu, his charismatic bosom pal, have thrilled Western readers and writers ever since their discovery. In 1872, George Smith - a young British Museum curator - deciphered the poem's account of the Great Flood (with its ark, animals and dove) and got so excited that "he began to undress himself". First inscribed in Akkadian script in about 1700BC, the original tale of questing heroes, gods and monsters was revised five centuries later by a scholar-priest, Sin-leqi-unninni. By a stretch, he counts as the oldest named writer still in print. The latest author to create an English narrative poem from his work is Stephen Mitchell, known for renditions of the Tao Te Ching, the Book of Job and Bhagavad Gita.

Mitchell's Gilgamesh (Profile, £14.99) comes from a professional writer, not a scholar of ancient Babylon. So his literary efforts have to depend on existing expert translations (Andrew George's Penguin Classics edition remains state-of-the art). As narrative verse, this Gilgamesh gently entrances and enthralls. Its liquid, intimate four-stressed lines (a metre deployed by Eliot in Four Quartets) negotiate the rapid shifts between everyday pleasures, heroic feats and blazing visions in this mythic world where the sensual and spiritual always intersect. Mitchell manages to slip the mesmerising incantations of the verse ("At four hundred miles they stopped to eat,/ at a thousand miles they pitched their camp...") into his reader's bloodstream as if they flowed through some poetic intravenous drip.

Versions of Gilgamesh's quest already crowd the shelves, almost as thick as the cedars in the forest that Humbaba guards. Mitchell does pay tribute to a few of his many predecessors but - in a strange oversight - not to Herbert Mason, the great scholar whose fine verse rendering reached the short list for the US National Book Award.

In the past few months, the story has also inspired a moving novel by Joan London (simply entitled Gilgamesh), in part about the perilous journeys that exiles from Iraq must make today. The poem's own journey begins, and ends, in the shining city of Uruk, where "the ramparts gleam like copper in the sun". Here, Gilgamesh grasps that a peaceful, shared civility can endure longer than dreams of unilateral glory. More than three millennia later, it's a lesson we still need to learn.