‘Gilgamesh’ is the oldest story in the world, but it doesn’t read like other musty tomes from the days of clay tablets. More introspective than the martialist ‘Iliad’ or Old Testament (and a thousand years older than either), this Mesopotamian poem follows Gilgamesh, a testosterone-addled demigod, on his search for immortality. And to keep you from getting bored, the ancient Mesopotamians threw in plenty of monster-slaying and boobs.
Unfortunately, I can’t read ancient cuneiform writing, so I had to settle for Stephen Mitchell’s translation. This is the only translation I read, so my opinion will be one-sided. (Real live critics rave about it, but who cares what they think?) Mitchell told the story of Gilgamesh smoothly, with a frank, no-frills style. He did, however, write an introduction and a section of notes that were each as long as the poem itself, which struck me as pretty self-important, so to spite him I refused to read them. They’re likely unnecessary anyway; ‘Gilgamesh’ is an action story with a few simple life lessons thrown in. It doesn’t require a whole lot of clarification.
Reading ‘Gilgamesh’ won’t change your life, but it’s fun to read and quick. Some of the highlights include Enkidu and his week-long boner, the slaying of Humbaba The Fierce, and a Flood myth with a few different plot points than the Judeo-Christian one you’re probably familiar with. In the end, though, there’s more to it than that; after Gilgamesh’s best friend/lover dies, he goes on a quest to find the secret to eternal life. Instead, he learns the unsurprisingly universal moral of the story: Everybody dies and that’s just the way it is, but life is more valuable, not less, because it’s transient.