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A Critical Appraisal of: Beowulf and Gilgamesh

A Critical Appraisal of: Beowulf and Gilgamesh

There are many differences and critical comparisons that can be drawn
between the epics of Beowulf and Gilgamesh.  Both are historical poems which
shape their respected culture and both have major social, cultural, and
political impacts on the development of western civilization literature and
writing.  Before any analysis is made, it is vital that some kind of a
foundation be established so that a further, in-depth  exploration of the
complex nature of both narratives can be accomplished.

The epic of Gilgamesh is an important Middle Eastern literary work,
written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets about 2000 BC. This heroic poem is named
for its hero, Gilgamesh, a tyrannical Babylonian king who ruled the city of Uruk,
known in the Bible as Erech (now Warka, Iraq). According to the myth, the gods
respond to the prayers of the oppressed citizenry of Uruk and send a wild,
brutish man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. When the
contest ends with neither as a clear victor, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close
friends. They journey together and share many adventures. Accounts of their
heroism and bravery in slaying dangerous beasts spread to many lands.
When the two travelers return to Uruk, Ishtar (guardian deity of the
city) proclaims her love for the heroic Gilgamesh. When he rejects her, she
sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy the city. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull,
and, as punishment for his participation, the gods doom Enkidu to die. After
Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh seeks out the wise man Utnapishtim to learn the secret
of immortality. The sage recounts to Gilgamesh a story of a great flood (the
details of which are so remarkably similar to later biblical accounts of the
flood that scholars have taken great interest in this story). After much
hesitation, Utnapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh that a plant bestowing eternal
youth is in the sea. Gilgamesh dives into the water and finds the plant but
later loses it to a serpent and, disconsolate, returns to Uruk to end his days.

This saga was widely studied and translated in ancient times. Biblical
writers appear to have modeled their account of the friendship of David and
Jonathan on the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Numerous Greek
writers also incorporated elements found in the Gilgamesh epic into their
dragon-slaying epics and into stories concerning the close bond between Achilles
and Patroclus.

Gilgamesh is definitely the best known of all ancient Mesopotamian
heroes. Numerous tales in the Akkadian language have been told about Gilgamesh,
and the whole collection has been described as an odysseythe odyssey of a king
who did not want to die.  This is one of the major differences between the
heroic characters.  Beowulf, in order to achieve immortality through the tales
of his bards, must perish in battle to accomplish this task.   A similarity
between both characters is their desire to obtain immortality.  They both have
different techniques in trying to reach their ultimate destination, although
both share the unique qualities of being flawless, strong, and heroic to the end.
The fullest extant text of the Gilgamesh epic is on twelve incomplete Akkadian-
language tablets found at Nineveh in the library of the Assyrian king
Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC). The gaps that occur in the tablets have been
partly filled by various fragments found elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
In addi tion, five short poems in the Sumerian language are known from tablets
that were written during the first half of the 2nd millennium BC; the poems have
been entitled “Gilgamesh and Huwawa,” “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,”
“Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish,” “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World,” and
“The Death of Gilgamesh.”

The Gilgamesh of the poems and of the epic tablets was probably the
Gilgamesh who ruled at Uruk in southern Mesopotamia sometime during the first
half of the 3rd millennium BC and who was thus a contemporary of Agga, ruler of
Kish; Gilgamesh of Uruk was also mentioned in the Sumerian list of kings as
reigning after the flood.  Much like Beowulf, there is, however, no historical
evidence for the exploits narrated in poems and the epic.

The Ninevite version of the epic begins with a prologue in praise of
Gilgamesh, part divine and part human, the great builder and warrior, knower of
all things on land and sea. In order to curb Gilgamesh’s seemingly harsh rule,
the god Anu caused the creation of a Enkidu, a wild man who at first lived among
animals. Soon, however, Enkidu was initiated into the ways of city life and
traveled to Uruk, where Gilgamesh awaited him. Tablet II describes a trial of
strength between the two men in which Gilgamesh was the victor; thereafter,
Enkidu was the friend and companion (in Sumerian texts, the servant) of
Gilgamesh. In Tablets III-V the two men set out together against Huwawa
(Humbaba), the divinely appointed guardian of a remote cedar forest, but the
rest of the engagement is not recorded in the surviving fragments.

In Tablet VI Gilgamesh, who had returned to Uruk, rejected the marriage
proposal of Ishtar, the goddess of love, and then, with Enkidu’s aid, killed the
divine bull that she had sent to destroy him. Tablet VII begins with Enkidu’s
account of a dream in which the gods Anu, Ea, and Shamash decided that he must
die for slaying the bull. Enkidu then fell ill and dreamed of the “house of
dust” that awaited him. Gilgamesh’s lament for his friend and the state funeral
of Enkidu are narrated in Tablet VIII.

Afterward, Gilgamesh made a dangerous
journey (Tablets IX and X) in search of Utnapishtim, the survivor of the
Babylonian flood, in order to learn from him how to escape death. He finally
reached Utnapishtim, who told him the story of the flood and showed him where to
find a plant that would renew youth (Tablet XI). But after Gilgamesh obtained
the plant, it was seized by a serpent, and Gilgamesh unhappily returned to Uruk.
An appendage to the epic, Tablet XII, related the loss of objects called (perhap
s “drum” and “drumstick”) given to Gilgamesh by Ishtar. The epic ends with the
return of the spirit of Enkidu, who promised to recover the objects and then
gave a grim report on the underworld.

Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the most important work of Old
English literature. The earliest surviving manuscript is in the British Library;
it is written in the West Saxon dialect and is believed to date from the late
10th century. On the basis of this text, Beowulf is generally considered to be
the work of an anonymous 8th-century Anglian poet who fused Scandinavian history
and pagan mythology with Christian elements. The poem consists of 3182 lines,
each line with four accents marked by alliteration and divided into two parts by
a caesura.  The structure of the typical Beowulf line comes through in modern
translation, for example:

Then came from the moor  under misted cliffs
Grendel marching  God’s anger he bore

Much like Gilgamesh, the story is told in vigorous, picturesque language, with
heavy use of metaphor; a famous example is the term “whale-road” for sea. The
poem tells of a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of
the monster Grendel, half man and half fiend, and Grendel’s mother, who comes
that evening to avenge Grendel’s death.  Fifty years later Beowulf, now king of
his native land, fights a dragon who has devastated his people. Both Beowulf and
the dragon are mortally wounded in the fight. The poem ends with Beowulf’s
funeral as his mourners chant his epitaph.

Both Beowulf and Gilgamesh are loved and are shown loyalty from their
people.  Although both Beowulf and Gilgamesh represent two different types of
heroes, both achieve ultimate good through their actions.  The need for love and
loyalty is also manifested throughout both poems. Death merely becomes an
incident in the lives of Beowulf and Gilgamesh.  They both teach its audience
and invaluable lesson:  What matters is not how long, but rather how well we


Fry, Donald K. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.   A collection of essays on the poem current
up to the mid 1960s.

Fulk, R.D., ed. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology. Indiana
University Press.Indianapolis: 1991. Fulk’s anthology is a diverse collection of
critical approaches to Beowulf. Essays range from the poem’s structure and
design to Christian and intellectual perspectives to theory on the narrative.
The collection includes J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous “The Monsters and the Critics,”
in which he critiques the history of Beowulf criticism to his own day.

Greenfield, Stanley B. and Daniel G. Calder. A new critical history of old
English literature. New York : New York University Press, 1986. Excellent
overview of the history of Old English literature with a good chapter on Beowulf
and heroic poetry. A good place to start for an orientation to Beowulf in
literary historical context.

Nicholson, Lewis E., ed. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. South Bend, Ind.:
University of  Notre Dame Press, 1963. A standard collection of scholarly
essays on Beowulf up to the early 1960s.

Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1981. This book is a compilation of studies done from 1979 to 1981 to determine
the date when Beowulf was composed. The studies used many different methods to
determine its origins, from grammar and sentence construction to comparing the
text to historical knowledge. The collected essays present many opinions, but
they do not make any conclusions.

The Norton Anthology of World Literature, ed.  Gilgamesh: Norton and Company,
1985.  Contains world literature from the various authors and ages.

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