Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh

As listened to as an audiobook, a big winner. Strongly recommended.

The two six-hour drives I just made to and from the Bay Area were substantially less boring than such trips usually are due to audio-books, which (for me) turn out to substantially outperform either music or NPR in making the miles pass painlessly.

On the way up, I “read” Stephen Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh, as read by George Guidall. I’m not entitled to a scholarly opinion on it, but it’s great literature. The last time I encountered the text was more than thirty years ago, and the version I read was so fragmentary it was hard to figure out what was going on. Mitchell gives us what seems like a completely coherent and complete epic; how much of this results from scholarly progress, and how much from Mitchell’s willingness to conjecture, I couldn’t say. I can say that having heard it, I now intend to get the print version and read it.

In addition to the text, the audio-book version has a long essay by Mitchell, which (heard after the epic itself) added greatly to my understanding. Mitchell argues that although Gilgamesh is the first hero in world literature and his quest the first quest, neither the hero nor the quest follows what was to become the conventional “quest” narrative, in which the hero leaves home to fight off some threat or to bring back some boon, and does so.

Instead, Mitchell argues, Gilgamesh is actually the first anti-hero. The only evil from which Uruk needs to be delivered is Gilgamesh’s own tyranny, and the only boons he needs to bring back are self-command and the will to rule for the benefit of his people. Mitchell also argues that the Gilgamesh poet escapes the “good v. evil” frame that characterizes the Germanic epic from Beowulf to Tolkien and gives us instead a much more morally subtle account of the way the world operates.

If any reader more knowledgeable than I has more thoughts, I’d be happy to get them and share them. But my tentative verdict is that Mitchell has done the world a great service, and produced a text that deserves to sit on the same shelf as Fitzgerald’s Homer.

Footnote Duhhhhhh, I never thought of it before, but doesn’t it seem likely that “Uruk” and “Iraq” are the same word? (Update Maybe.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: