Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative

Herbert Mason

Mariner Books 2003 [1970]

Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse

David Ferry

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1992

Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Stephen Mitchell

Profile Books 2005

Myths from Mesopotamia:
Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others

Stephanie Dalley (editor)

Oxford University Press 2000 [1989]

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Andrew George

Penguin 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
Gilgamesh has a good claim to be the oldest extended work of literature in the world: these translations are based on a standardised twelve-tablet Akkadian version from around 1000 BC, supplemented by much older Babylonian versions and Sumerian poems; the original Gilgamesh was perhaps a king of Uruk around 2700 BC. It is a story about friendship, adventure, confronting death, seeking immortality, and achieving fame, strange in many ways to modern sensibilities but at the same time accessible.

Gilgamesh has been translated and reworked many times, and these five books are just the ones I have stumbled over, not a coherent sampling let alone a comprehensive survey. Two of them are clearly "versions" rather than translations: Herbert Mason's from 1970 is "a subjective evocation" and David Ferry's from 1992 is "not a translation but a transformation". And Stephen Mitchell's from 2004 takes fewer liberties, but fills in the gaps and removes repetitions and stylistic awkwardnesses. All three of these are "based on literal scholarly translations", since the authors can't read cuneiform themselves: Mason is a professor of religious history, Ferry is a noted poet, and Mitchell translates sacred works from all over the world. Stephanie Dalley and Andrew George, in contrast, are specialist Assyriologists and their books, though popular presentations rather than scholarly monographs, are based on direct knowledge of the source materials.

To give a feel for the different approaches and styles, here is the beginning of Tablet V.


They stood at the edge of the forest,
Gazed and gazed at the height of the pines,
Gazed and gazed at the entrance to the pines,
Where Humbaba made tracks as he went to and fro.


They stood there marvelling at the forest,
gazing at the lofty cedars,
gazing at forest's entrance —
where Humbaba came and went there was a track.


They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marvelling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well-marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.

Mason mixes this up with later verses:

They stood in awe at the foot
Of the green mountain. Pleasure
Seemed to grow from fear for Gilgamesh,
As when one comes upon a path in woods
Unvisited by men, one is drawn near
The lost and undiscovered in himself;
He was revitalized by danger.
They knew it was the path Humbaba made.

And so does Ferry:

They came to the Cedar Forest that grew upon
the sides of the Cedar Mountain, throne of Irnini,

forbidden dwelling place of immortal gods.
This was the place the guardian demon guarded

to frighten away the daring mortal who
would venture there. But who would venture there?

This was the place Huwawa was; Huwawa's
breath is death. Beautiful is the Forest;

green upon green the cedars; fragrant the air
with the fragrance of cedar trees; the box that grew
along the silent walks of guardian demon,
shadowed and still, utterly still, was fragrant.

Ferry's version is presented much as if it were a work of English poetry, with a three page introduction to Gilgamesh and seven pages of notes on translation choices. Mason's comes with three brief pieces appended: some background "About the Gilgamesh", an autobiographical postscript, and an afterward by an Old Testament expert. Mitchell has a sixty page introduction, introducing the work and giving a short summary of it — including comparisons to the 2003 invasion of Iraq! — and ninety pages of glossary and notes, mostly discussing his translation choices.

Alongside the standard version of Gilgamesh, Dalley includes an Old Babylonian Version and a range of related works, notably Atrahasis (a late flood story), The Descent of Ishtar and an Epic of Creation. As well as a brief general introduction she devotes eleven pages to Gilgamesh. George doesn't provide a unified Old Babylonian Version, but includes translations of the most important sources for that, such as the Pennsylvania and Yale tablets; he also fits in five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh ("Bilgames"). Accompanying that is a detailed explanation of the textual tradition for Gilgamesh, in a forty page introduction accompanied by a double-page map and a time chart, and a fascinating twelve page appendix which looks in detail at the physical and textual reconstruction problems posed by three short passages. George is also the only one to include illustrations, in this case some thirty or so line drawings of ancient representations of scenes from the story and of cuneiform tablets, the latter giving a good feel for the kind of physical damage that underlies the lacunae in the texts.

Additional fragments are still being found and identified, but so far "considerably less than the four-fifths of the epic that is extant yields a consecutive text". And the major drawback to the Dalley and George translations comes when there are missing lines or other difficulties in the texts. Here is an example, from the beginning of the Great Flood. Dalley has more lacunae, and leaves some words with unknown meanings untranslated:

The calm before the Storm-god came over the sky,
Everything light turned to darkness.
[ ]
On the first day the tempest [rose up],
Blew swiftly and [brought (?) the flood-weapon],
Like a battle force [the destructive kašūšu-weapon] passed over [the people]

Perhaps driven by the needs of his own versification, George makes more of an effort to maintain continuity, using brackets and italics to mark uncertainties and reconstructions:

The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky,
and all that was bright then turned into darkness.
[He] charged the land like a bull [on the rampage,]
he smashed [it] in pieces [like a vessel of clay.]
For a day the gale [winds flattened the country,]
quickly they blew, and [then came] the [Deluge.]
Like a battle [the cataclysm] passed over the people.

For comparison, Mitchell has:

A deadly silence spread through the sky
and what had been bright now turned to darkness.
The land was shattered like a clay pot.
All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew,
the rain fell, then the Flood burst forth,
overwhelming the people like war.

and in the Mason and Ferry versions these specific lines can't really be identified.

If I had to pick just one of these books, it would be George's The Epic of Gilgamesh, since he manages to render effective English verse while (as far as I can tell by comparison with Dalley) staying close to the original. He also provides the most useful and extensive background material, though not the range of other works included in Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia. Indeed he provides more detail than many will want; I skipped over some of the fragments.

There are still some awkward lacunae in George's version, however, and for those who want a complete work, a simple, straightforward and "well-marked trail" to the story of Gilgamesh, capturing something of its structure as well as its emotional power, I recommend Mitchell's A New English Translation. I also enjoyed both the freer versions: the choice between Mason's free Verse Narrative with "paragraph" white-spacing and the iambic pentameter couplets in Ferry's A New Rendering in English Verse is likely to be a matter of taste.

I have also looked at two versions for children, Ludmila Zeman's picturebook trilogy starting with Gilgamesh the King and Geraldine McCaughrean's short novel Gilgamesh the Hero. The first simplifies greatly and the second elaborates extensively, and I haven't read either yet with my five year old, who has instead been quite entranced by large chunks of the four verse versions discussed here. (There is one "sex scene" in the opening tablet which might need some reworking, otherwise it is just the central "death of a friend" theme which might be a problem.)

February 2018

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%T Gilgamesh
%S A Verse Narrative
%A Mason, Herbert
%I Mariner Books
%D 2003 [1970]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780618275649
%P 130pp

%T Gilgamesh
%S A New Rendering in English Verse
%A Ferry, David
%I Farrar, Straus & Giroux
%D 1992
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0374523835
%P 99pp

%T Gilgamesh
%S A New English Version
%A Mitchell, Stephen
%I Profile Books
%D 2005 [2004]
%O paperback, introduction, notes, bibliography, glossary
%G ISBN-13 9781861977984
%P 290pp

%T Myths from Mesopotamia
%S Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others
%E Dalley, Stephanie
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2000 [1989]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780199538362
%P 342pp

%T The Epic of Gilgamesh
%A George, Andrew
%I Penguin
%D 2003
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN 9780140449198
%P 304pp