Saturday, August 4, 2007

Book Review: Gilgamesh the King

Muscle-men with swords--is this not the essence of good fantasy?

Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg. Bantam (Toronto): 1985. 306 pages. $3.95. ISBN-10: 0-553-25250-X, ISBN-13: 978-0553252507.

I recommend this novel, but I don't recommend reading it before reading the ancient epic on which it is based. In particular, I direct the reader to Stephanie Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia, which provides two versions of Gilgamesh as well as other important ancient works. The breaks in the tablets make pleasure reading difficult, so a non-scholarly rendering is also good to have. For that, I recommend David Ferry's Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. For further sources on the epic (now somewhat dated), see the short essay by Silverberg in the back of the novel. Also, Christian readers may find it valuable to acquire a copy of Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament if they can afford it.

Silverberg's novel is a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh incorporating some material from tablets about Gilgamesh that are not part of the epic. Gilgamesh, which is the world's oldest surviving example of epic poetry, tells the story of the king of Uruk, a city of ancient Sumer. It strings together a number of originally independent tales, linking them with recurring themes and transforming them into a tale of Gilgamesh's personal quest to defeat death. I recommend reading the epic before the novel so the reader can appreciate how Silverberg is using--and altering--his material.

Gilgamesh is so energetic he "would not leave young girls alone" and "would not leave any son alone for his father," according to Dalley's translation. The people cry to the gods, and the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu, the Wild Man, who can match Gilgamesh's energies. Enkidu is civilized by a harlot from the temple of the goddess Inanna. When he learns of Gilgamesh's injustices, he goes to fight him. The tablets are broken here, but when the smoke clears and the fight is over, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are fast friends, inseperable, for Enkidu is Gilgamesh's second self. Together, they can accomplish anything: they journey even to the distant pine forest and slay the demon Huwawa. But when Gilgamesh rebuffs the goddess Inanna, who is so enticed by his triumphs that she asks him to be her lover, she unleashes the Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu together slay the bull, but this upsets the gods, who decide either Enkidu or Gilgamesh must die; Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh goes wild, wandering out into the desert, mournful of his friend and fearful of his own death. He seeks out Utnapishtim (a Mesopotamian Noah) beyond the Waters of Death surrounding the world to discover how to become immortal. He acquires a flower that can grant renewal of life to the one who eats it, but a snake steals it from him and Gilgamesh goes back to Uruk with greater wisdom, knowing that only the gods are immortal.

In his novel, Silverberg has stripped the epic of its fantastic elements and has tried to give it instead a purely historical setting. In this, the novel is remotely similar to Michael Crighton's Eaters of the Dead, which presents a conjectural historical basis for Beowulf. Silverberg's novel is a good deal more serious than Crighton's, however. Silverberg attempts to find real-life alternatives to Gilgamesh's fantastic elements, whereas Crighton replaces Beowulf's Grendel with a remnant race of cannibal neanderthals.

It is possible (though not certain) that Gilgamesh was an actual king, who in his essay at the end of the novel Silverberg places around 2500 B.C., which agrees with Dalley. Silverberg replaces the mythology with politics: most importantly, it is not the goddess Inanna herself who asks Gilgamesh to be her lover, but the high priestess of Inanna, with whom Gilgamesh throughout the novel is having a lifelong love-hate relationship and power struggle. In the course of this, Silverberg makes good use of an actual custom of ancient Uruk, in which at an annual festival the king and high priestess would embody the gods Dumuzid and Inanna and have sex to produce an annual renewal.

Some of Silverberg's alterations, though clever, cause parts of the story to be anticlimactic. In particular, Silverberg builds up anticipation for the appearance of the demon Huwawa, yet when Huwawa appears, he is not a demon at all but a volcanic vent. The Bull of Heaven, being a combination of a volcanic eruption, a drought, and an actual bull, is more satisfying. Rather oddly, even though Silverberg has removed the supernatural from the story, the weather patterns always appear to respond to the religious rituals: after the king and priestess undergo their annual rite, the rains always come, and a drought appears as soon as the priestess threatens to inflict the Bull of Heaven on the city. But all this is necessary to the narrative and is probably not meant to be taken too seriously.

Though the novel is on the whole an enjoyable read, I do question its basic intent. Even if Gilgamesh was a real king, the real king almost certainly has little or nothing to do with the figure of the epic. Trying to invent a historical basis for a work that is clearly unhistorical strikes me as odd; I do not see the purpose of it. Though I admit to being entertained, I think I would have been more entertained by actual gods and demons than I am by mistaken identifications and volcanoes.

Gilgamesh the King is a musky, masculine book of the sort readers will likely find either offensive or refreshing. I'm honestly unsure how to take it myself. The battle of wills between Gilgamesh and Inanna that pervades the novel ends (spoiler alert for the rest of the review) when the priestess makes an attempt on Gilgamesh's life. He forgives her--and then shivs her: the archetypal masculine hero slays the archetypal feminine villain. Gilgamesh does not reconcile with the feminine in any direct way, but rather through most of the novel right up to the end tends to use women for his own purposes. He does, however, reconcile with death.

The key to interpreting the novel probably lies in Inanna's affliction: when Gilgamesh confronts the priestess for the last time, she is wearing a mask. After killing her, Gilgamesh removes the mask and finds she has developed some sort of skin disease, which has covered her face with sores. Gilgamesh calls her "a nightmare hag, a demon-faced thing" (p. 300). The divine goddess, the most beautiful woman Gilgamesh had ever seen, has become a hideous monster.

Now for a change in topic, which at the end I will attempt to relate to the novel. A famous artifact from the Isin-Larsa period (ca. 2004-1763 B.C.) known as the Burney Relief is misinterpreted by celebrated antiquarian Henri Frankfort in his The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient as an image of Lilith (about whom you can read a pretty good article here).

Lilith appears once in the Bible in Isaiah 34.14, named as a demon inhabiting the ruins of Edom. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, which is out of date but possibly correct on this point, identifies Lilith as "a female night demon haunting desolate Edom." The Anchor Bible Dictionary suggests lilith is a Hebrew version of the Akkadian word lilītu, a feminine demon. Lilith has enjoyed quite a development in Hebrew folklore and has also appeared in modern fantasy from George MacDonald's Lilith to Neon Genesis Evangelion. I can prove all this is not a random tangent, because Henri Frankfort's misinterpration of the Burney Relief is related to Samuel Noah Kramer's translation of a tablet containing a story of Gilgamesh, which describes Gilgamesh defeating a demon called ki-sikil-lil-la-ke, who has taken up residence in a tree sacred to Inanna. Kramer translates the demoness as "Lilith." Frankfort (1958:56) describes it this way: "We know of a goddess Lilith...who is mentioned in an early fragment of the Gilgamesh Epic as having built her house in the middle of a hollow tree as owls do. In later times she was known as a succubus who destroyed her lovers." This is largely incorrect; Lilith was never a goddess (at least until the Jungians and Wiccans got to her), and shouldn't be confused with demons from Mesopotamian literature with similar names, even if they are etymologically related. The Burney Relief, still interpreted as an image of Lilith in many modern books, is identified by Thorkild Jacobsen in his article "Pictures and Pictorial Language (The Burney Relief)," which appears in Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East, as an image of the goddess Inanna. Jacobsen's arguments are convincing.

That brings us all the way back around to Silverberg and Gilgamesh the King. Silverberg uses this story of Gilgamesh driving the demoness out of the tree: in the novel, the high priestess summons Gilgamesh to exorcise three demons from a sacred tree. One of the demons Silverberg calls "Lilitu" and describes, as in Kramer's translation of the Gilgamesh story, as a "dark maid" (p. 104). In gathering his sources of inspiration for the novel, then, Silverberg has made use of both the goddess Inanna and the lilītu demoness, which likely gave rise, one way or another, to the Lilith mentioned in Isaiah and the subsequent folkloric traditions. Silverberg's depiction of Inanna has two elements: a life-giving goddess and also a dark and dangerous entity, all embodied in the high priestess, a very human woman who, like the goddess herself, has two sides to her personality. As the Epic of Gilgamesh itself makes clear, Inanna is beautiful and lovely and also dangerous. All of this is similar to Siegmund Hurwitz's Jungian interpretation of the Lilith mythos in Lilith-The First Eve. Hurwitz, with no basis of which I'm aware, identifies Ishtar (Inanna) as one of two goddesses out of which the folkloric figure of Lilith arose. Says Hurwitz,
There are definite historico-religious and psychological reasons why the aspect of the divine whore and seductive anima only appeared much later, historically speaking. The feminine always appears first within the development of consciousness in the form of the Great Mother, who is a bipolar, archetypical figure, in that she contains the aspect both of the nurturing, caring mother and of the terrible, devouring mother. The figure of the anima was only detached from the mother figure in a later phase of consciousness.

Whatever. Anyway, to boil it all down, Silverberg despicts Inanna with two aspects, both of which are representative of Gilgamesh's relationship to the feminine, to women, and specifically to the high priestess, who appears both as divine and demonic.

The transformation of the high priestess at the end into a hag (and incidentally, the RSV translates Lilith in Isaiah 34.14 as "night hag") suggests that Inanna has at the end become a feminine representation of chaos and death threatening to devour the hero. As do many heroes, Gilgamesh slays the monster, much as Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. Taken that way, Gilgamesh's murder of Inanna is symbolic of his final reconciliation with death; he accepts that he will die, that only his works and his fame will live after him. In this, he has defeated his fear of death: death is no longer a hag to him, and so the hag is slain; Gilgamesh drives her out much as he drives Lilitu out of the sacred tree.

Christian readers may be concerned with the book's heavy sexual content, most of which is in the first third (the parts related to the epic don't begin until page 131). Silverberg's Gilgamesh, true to the epic hero, is tireless and lusty, sometimes sleeping with ten or more women in a single night. Excessive (and laughable) as this is, it makes for a reasonable depiction of the lack of self-control that leads the people of Uruk to complain about Gilgamesh. It is true that the novel never really shows Gilgamesh accomplishing complete self-mastery, except mastery over his fear of death, but in that it is no more deficient than the original on which it is based.

Some interpreters have suggested that Gilgamesh's relationship with Enkidu is a homosexual one. There's no good evidence of this in the epic and Silverberg writes a passage apparently aimed directly at this reading:

But it has been whispered that we were lovers as men and women are. I would not have you believe that. That was not the case at all. I know that there are certain men in whom the gods have mixed manhood and womanhood so that they have no need or liking of women, but I am not one of them, nor was Enkidu. For me the union of man and woman is the great holy thing, which it is not possible for a man to experience with another man: they say that they do experience it, those men, but I think they deceive themselves. It is not the true union. I have had that union, in the Sacred Marriage with the priestess Inanna, in whom the goddess resides. Inanna too is my other half, though a dark and troubled half. But a man may have several halves, or so it seems to me, and he may love a man in a way that is altogether different from the way in which he finds union with a woman. [p. 144]

Silverberg is doing a good job here of representing a worldview altogether alien to our society's. The novel's unabashed representation of a burly masculinity and of male bonding without sexuality are contrary to modern sensibilities. It all makes for a novel that could leave a reader thinking about it for a long time, and makes up for the book's occasional defects.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Gilgamesh the King:

Myth Level: Medium-High (Gilgamesh with the mythic elements intentionally reduced)

Quality: High (well-written, though the relationship central to the Epic is too cursory)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (elements potentially problematic to some readers)
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