(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Based upon the life of the Sumerian king who ruled the city of Uruk during the third millennium b.c.e., the epic of Gilgamesh, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” has had a powerful effect on the Western mind ever since the discovery of several fragmentary versions of the story during the nineteenth century. The new translation by John Gardner and John Maier and the recent imaginative retelling, “Gilgamesh” the King (1984) by Robert Silverberg attest the continued interest in a story known to most readers in N. K. Sandars’ highly readable conflation, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1960), which figures prominently in The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), arguably Gardner’s best novel. “Are you familiar with the epic of Gilgamesh?” the Sunlight Man asks bewildered Police Chief Fred Clumly.A splendid epic, but very obscure, difficult for people like us—undramatic, one thinks at first glance. A technique made up of careful segmentation, with elaborate echoing, repeating and counterpointing, with texture enriched still more by rare and artificial words. A kind of poetry naturally suited to elaborate description and oration and hymnic address, symbolic dreams, and armings. Needless to say, its poetry not suited to dramatic actions which move the story forward. Lifeless, people call it.

Like Sandars’ translation, the Gardner-Maier Gilgamesh draws from previously published scholarly translations and studies, especially (for Gardner and Maier) R. Campbell Thompson’s The Epic of Gilgamesh: Text, Transliteration, and Notes (1930) but is intended “for people like us,” general readers rather than specialists. Where Sandars, however, sought and achieved narrative continuity and closure by combining several versions into a single and virtually seamless prose “epic,” Gardner and Maier have chosen to remain faithful to the longest and most literary of the extant texts, that of the twelve stone tablets attributed to the poet Sîn-leqi-unninn and written in the Akkadian language sometime during the middle Babylonian period (1600-1000 b.c.e.). Their effort to produce a translation that is both true to the original poetry and yet accessible to the general reader is a noble though not entirely successful one.

Like so many of Gardner’s works from October Light (1976) on, Gilgamesh is the result of a collaboration. Gardner did not begin his part of the work, “to decide upon the reading of the lines,” until 1976, four years after Maier had begun his research. Before he died in a motorcycle accident on September 15, 1982, the ever-busy Gardner managed to complete only an uncorrected first draft of the translation, a draft he rushed to have ready for a course on the epic he was to teach during the fall semester. That Gardner managed to translate as well—as knowledgeably and as sensitively—as he did attests his formidable literary abilities as well as his dismaying propensity for squandering them on interesting but unnecessary projects. Despite the clarity and power of much of the translation, the reader cannot overlook Gardner’s numerous slips in taste and intelligence, many of which, one assumes, either Gardner or the students in his epic course would surely have noticed and revised. In the two lines, “Drink, beer, oil, and wine/ I gave the workmen to swill,” for example, the verb “swill” is clearly wrong, for nowhere does the poet suggest that the workmen are either drunk or bestial; given time, Gardner would undoubtedly have seen his mistake and deleted the unnecessary and slightly confusing noun “drink” in the first line, thus allowing the use of the verb “drink” in the second. The problem with the noun “drink” appears to derive not only from haste but from Gardner’s desire to remain as faithful as possible to the integrity of the individual line, a desire which in turn caused him to translate many phrases too literally: “twelve double-hours,” for example, instead of twelve leagues; “they broke off a morsel” for “they broke their fast” (Sandars); “At fifty leagues they walked all day” for “Fifty leagues they walked in one day” (Sandars).

The translation works best when Gardner transparently re-creates the style and...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The Atlantic. CCLIV, November, 1984, p. 148.

Book World. XIV, December 30, 1984, p. 8.

Commonweal. CXI, November 30, 1984, p. 664.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, July 15, 1984, p. 672.

Library Journal. CIX, December, 1984, p. 2280.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, November 11, 1984, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 10, 1984, p. 68.