The Definition of an Epic
In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams lists five essential characteristics of epic literature: (1) "The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance;" (2) "The setting of the poem is ample in scale, and may be worldwide, or even larger;" (3) "The action involves superhuman deeds in battle;" (4) ''In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or even an active part;" and (5) ''An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject and epic architecture'' (p. 52). The Epic of Gilgamesh fulfills each of these characteristics in its own distinct way.
Orality and Performance
One of the key attributes of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the sense of breathless immediacy of the story. The Epic achieves this effect by placing the story in a setting that simulates the oral performance in which the story was originally performed. The opening lines provide a sense that this is not an ancient story, but one just now occurring. The narrative "I" of the Prologue places the reader at Uruk's city walls and erases the distance between that ancient time and the present time of telling the story, inviting the hearer (and reader) to touch the walls, feel their strength, and sense their glory. These walls, the narrative voice proclaims, are those of the great Gilgamesh and now I will tell you his story. This sense of immediacy continues throughout the Epic.
In medias res
Traditionally, epics begin "in medias res" or "in the middle of things." Although this characteristic was originally applied to Greek and Roman epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad, it is equally true of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story begins not at the beginning of Gilgamesh's life, but somewhere in the middle. He is initially portrayed as a young, hot-headed king, heedless of the effect of actions and desires on the well-being of his people. One of the effects of this technique is to allow the reader to gauge the extent of Gilgamesh's development as a character.
Another key technique of the epic style is the use of "epithets," usually adjectives or persistent adjective phrases that reveal the attributes or personality of people, places, and things in the story: "strong-walled Uruk" (1. 68), "Humbaba whose name is 'Hugeness'" (1.71), "Shamash the Protector" (1.78), and Utnapishtim "the Faraway" (1.97). Epic epithets provide a good way of keeping track of a character and that character's development.
Literary Formulae and Set-Pieces in the High Style
A third literary characteristic of the epic style is found in the elevated, formal language and repeated formulaic phrases. In fact, the dialogue sounds stilted and rehearsed, as if read for a formal occasion. During chapter 2, "The Forest Journey," Gilgamesh calls out for assistance: "By the life of my mother Ninsun who gave me birth, and by the life of my father, divine Lugulbanda, let me live to be the wonder of my mother, as when she nursed me on her lap" (1. 80). These formal invocations of deity give the task an elevated stature and a sense of being a holy mission which Gilgamesh undertakes for his city and his divine heritage. In another example, a bit later as he faces Humbaba in battle, Gilgamesh beseeches his patron god: ''O glorious Shamash, I have followed the road you commanded but now if you send no succor how shall I escape?'' (1. 81). The use of "apostrophe," a figure of speech indicated by "O," indicates a formal invocation of a person or personification who is not otherwise present.
Another important element of the elevated style of the Epic is its inclusion of ''laments,'' the formal poems of praise and songs of grief that the living give on behalf of the dead. The finest example in the poem is Gilgamesh's lament for Enkidu, which begins (on line 94):
Hear me, great ones of Uruk, I weep for Enkidu, my friend, Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning I weep for my brother. You were the axe at my side, My hand's strength, the sword in my belt, the shield before me, A glorious...
(The entire section is 1770 words.)