The Great Works we seem to need to follow at the moment – who knows when the paths will twist out of the obvious? – are the struggles of the great king Gilgamesh and of Gawain.
Here, since it is the earliest written text we need, is Gilgamesh:
Gilgamesh is the king at the centre of a very early epic poem which appears to have either had from a very early time or to have overlaid on it a poignant meditation on love and death. It exists on numerous clay tablets, in a variety of translations from the almost King James Bible like to the lively and modern. We have read the Sacred Texts version, an online translation found here, and we have read the Penguin translated by Andrew George. In the epic, the urban king is joined by the wild man Enkidu, and they fight at Gilgamesh’s wedding, are reconciled, and become – well, what? A team? A pair? And in this partership they defeat the Big Thing Khumbaba in the forest of the cedars. More sexual jealousy arrives as the Venus-like goddess Ishtar proposes marriage to Gilgamesh: his rejection of the nefas of killing the Bull of Heaven she sends takes Enkidu to his grave. The poem changes here: Gilgamesh is now incomplete, and seeks Enkidu among the dead, and looks for the meaning of life in some poetic scenes where he fails to gain eternal life. He returns to his city Uruk, and dies and is buried. In one text, the Great Wild Bull – Gilgamesh this time – is lying down, and at his death his fame, at least, ensures his theosis.
It feels as if I have fragmented it anew in presenting this marvel of a poem in so few lines.