Novelist John Gardner, like his creation Peter Mickelsson, in Mickelsson's Ghosts, often fled from the confinement of Binghamton, New York to the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania where, Gardner wrote, a "peculiar calm came over Mickelsson... as he moved into the hug of the mountains rising immediately to his left and, more distantly, across the narrow valley, to his right, comforting shapes as much felt as seen..."
Those mountains were an integral part of the pastoral world that John Gardner called home: the world of rural Vermont and Wisconsin, upstate New York, where Gardner grew up, and the Endless Mountains where, on September 14, 1982, he lost control of his motorcycle and was killed, at the age of 49.
To John Gardner this countrified, small town world of 20th-century America was both home and source of a lifestyle that he, more than any writer of recent times, celebrated in novel after novel. Batavia, New York, for example, was the scene of both The Resurrection (1966) and the work that will probably stand longer than any of his fiction: The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), in which he brought the turbulent political and social issues of the 1960s to earth - through a mad idealist who paints the word love in "large, white, official-looking letters across two lanes of Oak Street, just short of the New York State Thruway"
Which is why it may be startling to learn that Gardner, an American pastoralist, was working day and night just before his death to translate what is probably the most purely Middle Eastern work of fiction we possess: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
At first sight, Gilgamesh may seem an unlikely choice for Gardner's attention. Gardner, after all, focused on slow, loving descriptions of American landscapes and small-town country people like the eccentric old Vermonter James Page in October Light; Page first blasts his sister's television set with a shotgun, then deepens into a richly individualized human being. Nevertheless, at the time he died, Gardner, Professor Richard Henshaw and I were working hard to complete a new translation of an ancient epic that was inscribed on cuneiform tablets and then lost for millennia.
The Gilgamesh stories are ancient indeed. The earliest was written - in the Sumerian language of what is now southern Iraq - just after Gilgamesh was supposedly king of the city-state of Uruk - about 2600 B.C. But the epic itself is a late combination of different Gilgamesh stories written in Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in ancient Iraq.
The development of the Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to be a product of the Old Babylonian Period (ca 2000-1600 B.C.), but the cuneiform tablets that best present the version we now have come from a Middle Babylonian author Sin-leqi-unninni, who, in about 1400 B.C., made decisive changes in the epic. It was largely his version that George Smith discovered in Nineveh a century ago (See Aramco World, January-February 1971), and though Gardner was fascinated with the older version, only fragments of which have surfaced, the version that guided us in our final translation was that of Sin-leqi-unninni.
No outline of The Epic of Gilgamesh can capture the work's richness and evocative power, but we can perhaps give a sense of the story. Gilgamesh is a king of Uruk (modern Warka), famous for having built the massive walls of the city - shown by modern excavators to have been six miles around. But when he oppresses his people they cry out to the gods for relief, and the gods create a double for Gilgamesh: Enkidu. Though he matches the strength of Gilgamesh, Enkidu differs in one important respect: while Gilgamesh is "two-thirds divine, one-third human," Enkidu is brought up with the animals of the wild.
Gilgamesh, moreover, is preeminently the man of the city - when the city was considered the abode of the goddess, Ishtar - while Enkidu is a man of the wild, ignorant even of prepared food and drink. Enkidu does not become fully human until a woman of Ishtar's temple teaches him the ways of civilized people and opens his heart to that most powerful of human feelings: friendship. In fact, The Epic of Gilgamesh, an adventure story complete with battles with monsters and a detailed account of the Flood, is mainly the story of a friendship - of a friendship that begins with a fight and survives even death.
Together, Gilgamesh and his double undertake heroic challenges. Gilgamesh, for example, fights the monster Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, with the approval of the sun-god and the help of Enkidu. The two heroes survive the battle and briefly enjoy a moment of fulfillment, when Gilgamesh, because he fought so well against Humbaba, wins the love of Ishtar, goddess of the city of Uruk - and rejects it. Though Ishtar offers Gilgamesh gold and power and the riches of the earth to become her lover, Gilgamesh, in a biting speech, calls her:
a cooking fire that goes out in the cold,
a back door that keeps out neither wind nor storm,
a palace that crushes the brave ones defending it,
a well whose lid collapses, pitch that defiles the one carrying it,
a waterskin that soaks the one who lifts it, limestone that crumbles in the stone wall,
a battering ram that shatters in the land of the enemy,
a shoe that bites the owner's foot!
Ishtar, not one to take such insults lightly, arranges to have the Bull of Heaven sent against the heroes, but again the heroes triumph, and this time, Enkidu joins Gilgamesh in insulting Ishtar. This episode is a shocking example of arrogance of the type the Greeks would latercall hubris.
For a moment, the heroes revel in their victories. They ride in triumph through the streets of Uruk. They hold a great celebration. And for the only time in the story they enjoy a moment of joy and rest.
But only for a moment. As the sixth tablet (of 12) comes to an end, Enkidu's sleep is disturbed by a dream in which the gods, because Gilgamesh and Enkidu have killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, decree that Enkidu must die.
Up to this point, Gilgamesh doesn't seem to have any relationship whatsoever with John Gardner's fiction. But Gardner, a literary critic as well as a writer, believed in and defended publicly a concept he called "moral fiction," and thought Gilgamesh one of the few works in world literature which satisfied the demands of "moral fiction."
This commitment can be seen in virtually all of Gardner's work; even his most realistic fiction contained metaphors of knights and dragons, demons and heroes - reminders that Gardner was trained as a medievalist. In fact, Gardner wrote about Old English and Middle English literature in articles and book-length studies, translated the works of the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and wrote extensively about the finest of English medieval story-tellers: Geoffrey Chaucer.
In Gardner's work, these knights and demons show up in fiction like Freddy's Book, in his children's books and in many of the short stories collected in The King's Indian andThe Art of Living. And reflecting Gardner's lifelong fascination with figures from medieval romance is Grendel, a start Beowulf, into a strangely universal story of ethical decisions - another example of his commitment to "moral fiction."
Gardner also studied the classics, as The Wreckage of Agathon, a novel, and Jason and Medea, a verse translation of the Argonautica attest. He was so committed that at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he had been hired to develop the Creative Writing Program, he volunteered to develop and teach an extra undergraduate course on the Epic; he taught the course with two other Binghamton professors, Mario Di Cesare and Susan Strehle, and worked night and day in August and early September of 1982 to finish Gilgamesh so his students in the course could use our translation.
(As part of his presentation he planned to use slides from Michael Spencer's "The Marsh Arabs Revisited" (See Aramco World, March-April 1982) to illustrate his lectures on Sumerian and Akkadian literature. He thought that conditions in southern Iraq might still provide insights into life in Sumerian times, since fishing in the marshes, mushhuf-boats and reed houses could, Gardner believed, be documented in the literature and cylinder-seal depictions of life 4,000 years ago.)
Like C.G. Jung and theologian John S. Dunne, and numerous others, Gardner was fascinated with The Epic of Gilgamesh. In fact his massive novel, The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) - set entirely in Batavia and upstate New York - is pervaded by Mesopotamian thought; startling though it may seem, the monologues delivered by the main character, Taggert Hodge, the Sunlight Man, to Police Chief Fred Clumly contain Mesopotamian wisdom, which Gardner contrasts with the dominant Greco-Roman traditions.
In "The Dialogue of the Dead", for example, Gardner's character, the Sunlight Man, in a discussion of freedom and responsibility, abruptly turns to Gilgamesh:
Are you familiar with the epic of Gilgamesh? A splendid epic, but very obscure, difficult for people like us - undramatic, one thinks at first glance. A technique made up of careful segmentation, with elaborate echoing, repeating and counterpointing, with texture enriched still more by rare and artificial words. You understand me, take it? A kind of poetry naturally suited to elaborate description and oration and hymnic address, symbolic dreams, and armings. Needless to say, its poetry is not suited to dramatic actions which move the story forward. Lifeless, people call it.
By 1976, Gardner had decided to translate the epic, but was delayed by about with cancer until the tissue was removed, and Gardner was declared completely recovered. And by the time he completed his part of the project, the "undramatic" and "lifeless" qualities of the epic (i.e. the qualities unlike those of a Gardner novel) were more than balanced by what the Sunlight Man had also seen in it:
Yes of course! The Akkadian technique. They were concerned with larger elements of form. They played scene against scene, speech against speech. Lovely! It makes you want to march!
It is the second half of the story that most impressed John Gardner - the half in which Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh delivers one of the most moving elegies in ancient literature:
"Now what is this sleep that has taken hold of you?
You've become dark. You can't hear me."
And he - he does not lift his head.
I touched his heart, it does not beat."
He covered the friend's face like a bride's.
"Like an eagle I circled over him."
Like a lioness whose whelps are lost he paces back and forth.
He tears and messes up his rolls of hair.
He tears off and throws down his fine clothes like things unclean.
The second half of the epic also relates how Gilgamesh wildly searches the universe for an answer to the meaning of death. At each turn he is told that his search is futile, but he pursues his wearying journey through darkness, to the garden of the gods, and to the dwelling place of Siduri at the very edge of habitation - and even crosses the Waters of Death itself, seeking the answer from the final source of wisdom: Utnapishtim.
In Mesopotamian thought, the sage Utnapishtim was the one human who had been saved from the condition of mortality; it was a reward for saving mankind during the great Flood. If anyone should have the answer, it is Utnapishtim - and he does:
Do we build a house forever? Do we seal a contract for all time?
Do brothers divide shares forever?
Does hostility last forever between enemies?
Does the river forever rise higher, bringing on floods?
Gilgamesh is at first crushed by the secret of the gods revealed by Utnapishtim, but by the end of the 11th tablet is prepared to return to Uruk - and to the goddess Ishtar - to rule the living. He has learned that there is no "answer" to the fact of death, only a concern for the living.
On the same tablet there are other remarkable passages. One, that stunned England when George Smith translated it in 1872, was the story of the Flood. Another touches on a description of Uruk; after inspecting the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh describes it as the "house of Ishtar," saying, "one part is city, one part is orchards, and one part clay pits. Three parts including the clay pits make up Uruk."
Gardner was much taken by this simple sequence, with its emphasis on "clay pits." The inhabited part - the city proper with its temple complex at its center - is one; the orchard, which sustains the population, humans and gods, is a second. But the clay pits? The source of the clay for building the walls? Yes. The source of clay for the writing of tablets? Yes. But is it not also a reminder that man himself is common clay? At one stroke, Gardner thought, the poet found the perfect image to bring home the complex themes of the work.
Gilgamesh does not end with the 11th tablet, and the one remaining section caused one translator so much trouble that he simply replaced the 12th tablet with another Gilgamesh story entirely. We decided, however, to try to restore the puzzling tablet to its proper place; indeed, it was our primary goal, and thus was the first section we completed. (It was also the first to appear - this April - in MSS, (Vol. 2, Spring, 1983), a journal edited by Gardner and poet Liz Rosenberg.)
One reason we focused on the 12th tablet is that it is the most solemn of the tales and is the displaced center of the epic. Since it narrates a very different story of Enkidu's death, it has offended the modern sense of consistency. In its texture, though, this tablet, like a coda in a musical composition, includes motifs that have woven themselves through the first 11 tablets. It is a direct translation of a Sumerian original, and it contains brief speeches that are not only expressive but magical as well. In it Gilgamesh offers advice on harrowing hell, complete with the magical "song of the dead," so that Enkidu will be able to return to him.
Do not put on a clean garment:
It will mark you as a foreigner.
Do not smooth your skin with sweet smelling oil from the bowl:
They will swarm and settle all around you.
Do not throw the throwing-stick in the underworld:
Those the throwing-stick hits will return, unharmed, and menace you.
Do not carry a staff of power in your hands:
The shades will besmut you with a dark curse.
Make no bellow in the place of the cry-out-of-the-earth.
Kiss not your beloved wife, nor strike the wife you hated;
Kiss not your beloved child, nor strike the child you hated.
The song of the dead will snap around you:
She who sleeps, she who sleeps, theMotherof
Birth and Death, who sleeps,
Her clean shoulders no garment covers, Herbreast like a stone bowl does not give suck.
Mesopotamian literature, however, is nothing if not ironic, so Enkidu does exactly the opposite of what he is supposed to do - and remains trapped in the land of the dead. The best Gilgamesh can do is to plead with the gods for some contact with his friend, and the god Ea creates a hole in the earth through which the ghost of Enkidu issues "like a dream."
The story ends with Enkidu giving a doleful account of life among the dead. He says that the worst fate is reserved for the one "whose spirit has no one left alive to love him," and makes it clear that those who remain alive must keep up the memory of the beloved - and can in some ways alleviate the pain of those in the nether world.
Though The Epic of Gilgamesh is steeped in the ancient culture and thought of the Middle East, John Gardner found it remarkably modern; he even found the final tablet uplifting. This was part of his belief that his contemporaries had betrayed the very basis of authentic art - its moral purpose - and his opposition to writers in the West who were getting by, he thought, with flashy technique and hollow dehumanizing pessimism.
Gardner believed strongly in the traditional view that true art should seek to improve life, not debase it. As he put it, "I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling, but trivial art has no value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. Art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists and cynics, is not proper art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy"
Thus The Epic of Gilgamesh, which would seem far removed from the upstate New York landscapes and the peculiarly American characters that crowd John Gardner's writings, is, in fact, concerned with the same great themes of literature, the ultimate concerns of art, and the deeply moral purpose that "beats back the monsters." For John Gardner, it became his supreme fiction.
John R. Maier, an English instructor at Brockport College, the State University of New York, has studied ancient Sumerian and Akkadian literature and, in 1979-1980, was a Fulbright Lecturer at the universities of Aleppo and Jordan. He is now working on contemporary Arabic fiction.