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GILGAMESH by John R. Maier


translated by John R. Maier & edited by John Gardner

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1984
ISBN: 0394740890
Publisher: Knopf

Too fussy and detailed for the casual reader, too amateurish for the scholar, this curious collaboration between novelist Gardner (completed just before his fatal motorcycle crash in 1982) and English professor Maier (SUNY, Brockport), with help from Assyriologist Richard A. Henshaw (Colgate Rochester Div. School), is nonetheless a thoroughly engaging work. What to do with Gilgamesh? The late Akkadian version (written ca. 1600-1000 B.C.) is clearly the best, but it's riddled with lacunae, some of which can be filled or partially elucidated by the Sumerian, Old Babylonian, Hittite, or Assyrian versions. Gardner-Maier translate everything from the twelve tablets of the epic, even when that means printing long stretches of unintelligible fragments like, ". . . land of Shamash, exposed to the sun/ . . . world-wide (?)/ . . . alabaster/ official exposed. . . ." Gardner was responsible for the final form of the text. His language is bold, vigorous, unashamedly colloquial, with none of the usual biblical-Homeric echoes: "I will show you Gilgamesh the joy-woe man./ Gaze at him--observe his face--/ beautiful in manhood, well-hung,/ his whole body filled with sexual glow." Maier provides a lot of generally useful notes, including such indispensable items as Siduri's advice to Gilgamesh ("let your belly be full,/ Make merry day and night," etc.) from the Old Babylonian. The end result is at once richer and more distracting than the highly readable "homogenized" prose retelling by Nancy Sandars, more vivid and cumbersome than Herbert Mason's verse translation. Given the vast linguistic and historical gulf separating us from its sources, any hope for a "definitive" Gilgamesh is doomed from the outset. But any intelligent effort to popularize that enigmatic primeval masterpiece is more than welcome.