GILGAMESH: A New English Version

By Stephen Mitchell. Free Press. 292 pp. $24


By Derrek Hines. Anchor. 66 pp. Paperback, $9.95

It's the world's first epic poem but was the last to be found. Inscribed on stone tablets in the Akkadian language, the epic Gilgamesh was buried during the fall of Nineveh, its language forgotten, not to be recovered and deciphered until the 19th century. In the excellent introduction to his new version, Stephen Mitchell tells the story of one of the epic's first translators, who was so excited when he realized that part of Gilgamesh anticipated the story of Noah's flood that he began running around the room and stripping off his clothes, shocking his Victorian colleagues. Since then, it has been translated many times, but most of the translations are intended for scholars and students. Mitchell, an American translator, and Derrek Hines, a British poet, independently decided it was time for a new version of the poem for the general reader, and both remind us why this 4000-year-old poem deserves to stand with other classic epics.

I would love to claim this as the world's first novel, for it's nearly long enough and dramatizes the central concern of the novel: "The Gilgamesh Epic is a story about growing up," as a commentator once said, about moving from a state of innocence to one of experience and accepting the way things really are. It certainly has a novel's worth of action: Young King Gilgamesh of Uruk (modern-day Warka, in Iraq) is a royal hellraiser, mistreating his subjects so badly that they complain to the gods, who oblige by creating a wild man named Enkidu as a worthy rival and distraction. He and Gilgamesh become fast friends after a wrestling match -- this is a very macho work, despite the presence of several strong female characters -- and Enkidu's eventual death hits Gilgamesh hard. Wishing to avoid his own death, he goes in quest of the secret of immortality but fails in his attempt. Realizing that all his efforts have been in vain, Gilgamesh resigns himself to the inevitability of death and comes to see that the only true immortality is for work that endures: the walls of Uruk he has erected, or a work of art like Gilgamesh.

Various portions of the epic were composed in the late third millennium B.C.E., then consolidated in the mid-second millennium by the scribe and incantation-priest Sin-leqi-unninni, whose version is the basis for most translations. Even that version is incomplete, however, so most translators have borrowed segments from earlier versions to make the narrative as coherent as possible. Mitchell has read all the English translations -- he admits he doesn't know Akkadian -- and has produced a very readable version in stately verse, printed in a beautiful format. Given the incomplete condition of the original, he has not hesitated to fill in some gaps, clarify images, delete repetitions and isolated fragments, and sometimes move lines around (all dutifully noted in his 80 pages of informative notes).

Scholars and purists will object to these liberties; Mitchell is writing not for them but for the general reader who has always meant to read Gilgamesh but has been put off by the scholarly translations. As such, his version can be warmly recommended. He retains just enough of the strangeness of the original and its robust imagery to capture its essence, and by smoothing the fragments into a coherent narrative he highlights the work's essential themes: the necessary but painful progression from innocence to experience, the joys and sorrows of friendship, and the realization that personal fulfillment comes not in some mythical afterlife but here on Earth. As a wise woman tells our hero: "Humans are born, they live, then they die,/ this is the order that the gods have decreed./ But until the end comes, enjoy your life,/ spend it in happiness, not despair./ Savor your food, make each of your days/ a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,/ wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house,/ love the child who holds you by the hand,/ and give your wife pleasure in your embrace./ That is the best way for a man to live."

If Mitchell's Gilgamesh is intended for the beginner, Derrek Hines's version is for those who know the poem already and can delight in his postmodern makeover. Like Christopher Logue's startling adaptations of The Iliad, this version sounds like a rock band attacking a Bach concerto, with jarring but thrilling results. Here, for example, is how Hines describes the entrance of the Akkadian sex goddess:

The incoming, high-velocity blip on the radar screen

flips onto the sky, and cracks the sound barrier.

Before him a Manhattan-high wall of glass air

shatters, and reglazes behind

a woman.

For a moment blue's brakes fail:

everything stammers sapphire

until her eyes cool to human frequencies.

She is ISHTAR . . .

How cool is that? Hines obviously takes even more liberties with the original than Mitchell does, but his flamboyance and daring make this a delight to read. His version is as full of gods as Mitchell's (and Sin-leqi-unninni's), but secular affirmation triumphs: "For who needs the gods when you have poetry/ to exalt and redeem man in his fate -- / a liturgy without religion?" *

Steven Moore, a literary critic, is writing a book about the influence of ancient literature on modern fiction.