A third ambitious historical fantasy from the American-born author (now living in Ireland) who previously reworked the matter of Germanic legend in his highly praised Rhinegold (1994) and Attila’s Treasure (1996).
This time, Grundy’s source is the Babylonian tale of the Sumerian warrior king Gilgamesh, believed to date from approximately 2000 B.C. and written down (on stone tablets) some 12 centuries later. It celebrates the exploits of a hero of superhuman origin (“two-thirds god and one-third man”) who beds numerous women, defends his kingdom (Erech) against foreign invasion, then encounters “wild man” Enkidu, who becomes the young king’s comrade in arms, devoted friend, and the lover who turns him away from the world of women. Grundy takes only minimal liberties with the known details, in a story that builds impressively through the dazzling sequence in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the monstrous scorpion that guards a cedar forest, offending a powerful goddess, condemning Enkidu to death, and precipitating the impressive dénouement, dominated by Gilgamesh’s journey to “the Netherworld” in a vain quest for the secret of eternal life. This rich epic also contains interpolated verse passages reminiscent of the biblical Song of Solomon, and there are other Old Testament echoes in lamentations similar to Job’s and in the sequences featuring Gilgamesh’s immortal kinsman Utnapishti, survivor of a long-ago “Great Flood.” The only really jarring notes are introduced in the figure of Erech’s priestess the Shamhatu, whose sacred duties conflict with her womanly needs in a manner that feels a tad too contemporary—as does Grundy’s unwise mixture of sexual explicitness with dialogue so unintentionally comic (“Lions are rough playmates, . . . And so have we been sometimes”) that it rivals the most egregious empurpled passages of Norman Mailer’s equally risky Ancient Evenings.
For all that, an energetic and respectful retelling of one of the grandest—and, in its sexual and fatalistic emphases, most unconventional—of all the masterpieces of antiquity.