The second book in the Well-Read Man Project is The Epic of Gilgamesh, written three or four thousand years ago by Anonymous. The story is really quite good, so I’m surprised that the author didn’t want his name associated with it.
This review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know how the story turns out, then I’m not sure what to tell you. I mean, you’ve had at least three thousand years to read it, right?
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the eponymous Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, an actual person from human history. It’s possible the story is not an accurate biography, though, since in the book he fights monsters, has a goddess propose to him, and crosses an ocean of death without getting a drop of water on himself.
At the start of the story, Gilgamesh is a powerful king, mostly because he is two-thirds divine. As a result of his power, he’s somewhat of a jerk, and his people despise him, especially when he exerts his right to have first crack at all newly married brides before the husband is allowed into the house.
The gods are not amused. To help balance the king, they create Enkidu, a man who is Gilgamesh’s equal in most respects, except he is nice. Enkidu goes to confront King G on this bride-snatching issue, but in the end they become best friends, bosom pals, kindred spirits, drinking buddies, inseparable demigods; you get the picture.
One day, while fighting the monster-of-the-week, Enkidu finds out he is going to die, which he does. This throws Gilgamesh into an existential crisis of sorts, and he grieves and cries for upwards of an entire chiseled stone tablet. To overcome his grief and possibly obtain eternal life for himself, he travels to the literal ends of the earth to visit Utnapishtim, better known to Westerners as Noah, the survivor of the Great Flood. Unfortunately, Noah says, “Tough luck,” and sends him back to Uruk, where he lives happily ever after, at least until he dies.
I enjoyed reading Gilgamesh. Part Harlequin romance, part J. J. Abrams action flick, the story contains all of the basic elements of human drama: life, death, love, hate, sex, religion, and Noah’s ark. Despite being one of the oldest known human stories, it contains themes and ideas that are just as fresh today. And it’s not written like today’s novels, where an author spends hundreds of pages of prose easing you into the book’s core idea. Gilgamesh is short, and doesn’t have time for that level of manipulation. Instead, it just puts all of life in your face. The two paragraphs that transform Enkidu from a creation of the gods to a man of base needs is amazingly R-rated and blunt. Yet it’s still just two paragraphs.
In the end, Gilgamesh is a friendship story. While it is a fictional account, it truthfully communicates the basic concept that friends can be life-changing, especially those hand-crafted by the gods.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.