This is a retelling of the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, abuses his power and insults the gods. The punishment he receives for his hubris subsequently leads him on a quest for immortality.
I discovered this book by chance and bought it more or less on a whim, and wow, what a find. I only seldom read poetry, but this one captivated me from the start. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, but it is all imbued with so much imaginativeness and magic, from the gods, to fantastical beasts, giants, magical locations, and journeys into the unknown, that it becomes a rich tapestry of wonder and excitement. Of course, the individual parts are all taken from the original material, but what Lewis does with them deserves a lot of praise; her description of the Sky Bull, for instance, which is sent by the goddess Inanna to destroy Gilgamesh for rejecting her advances is absolutely something to marvel at. This rejection of the goddess, incidentally, is also one of the highlights, because the words he uses to refuse her are as beautifully composed as they are devastating, and Inanna’s reaction is not justified, but, for a goddess at least, rather understandable.
Every chaper is written in a different form which is meant to represent different voices telling their own version of the story. This intention was only explained in the afterword, as well as some other facts about this version of the epic, and I think that some of the information should have been in the preface, as it would have changed the reading experience a little. On the other hand, I was tempted to just start over from the beginning with these new considerations in mind, so maybe they were in the right place after all. Anyway, the different style in every chapter is a nice effect, and in most parts the respective form matches and enhances the content; for the battle with the giant Humbaba, for instance, a somewhat choppy and exciting style is employed that pulls the reader straight into the fight. Not every chapter is as utterly compelling as this one, but there are definitely more hits than misses.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that this may be a story about a man and his quest but that Lewis took care to include and depict the women in a meaningful way. Gilgamesh encounters them at every juncture of his journey, and without them helping him along he would not have made it. His adversary, in contrast, is the goddess Inanna, and he becomes the great ruler he is supposed to be only through the struggle with her. In both of these facts concerning the presence of women in this story, there is obviously some greater truth to be found.
It’s a glimpse into an old, long gone world that existed thousands of years ago, and into an otherworld, dreamt up by the people that lived during that time, but it’s also a fantastical adventure story with some clear messages about the human condition that is relevant and enjoyable at any time in history. The version of this famous poem Lewis delivers is not only some exceptionally beautiful poetry, but makes these ancient worlds a little more accessible for a modern reader.
CBR11 Bingo: Remix