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Volume 47, Number 3May/June 1996

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Zeman's Gilgamesh

Written by Jane Waldron Grutz
Photographed by Ludmila Zeman

On the wall of Ludmila Zeman's studio in Montreal hangs the cover illustration for her book Gilgamesh the King. Worked in soft greens and golds, it shows Gilgamesh standing resplendent in his chariot, his faithful dog beside him and two ladies of the court riding behind them. Each lady carries a parasol; one shades Gilgamesh, the other, with a smaller parasol, shades his dog.

"Children see everything. Children always see the parasol over the dog," says Zeman, her smile bright, her blue eyes twinkling.

A frequent guest at schools throughout Canada, Zeman is delighted with the reception children have given her Gilgamesh trilogy—three beautifully illustrated volumes retelling one of humankind's oldest stories.

Since the books were published—Gilgamesh the King in 1991, The Revenge of Ishtar in 1993 and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh in 1995—they have been translated into French and Japanese, have won numerous honors—including Canada's Governor General's Literary Award for The Last Quest—and have been lauded in quality literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada.

But it is the enthusiasm of the children that Zeman treasures most.

"Children understand this story, and they like it because it teaches us the value of life," she says. "It makes us realize that the greatest gift we have is life itself."

Only 11 when she was introduced to the Gilgamesh epic, Zeman associates the story with her father, noted Czech film maker Karel Zeman, best remembered for his animated films Tales of One Thousand and One Nights, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and Baron Münchhausen.

"My father loved all fairy tales and legends," explains Zeman. "And especially he loved Gilgamesh, because it contains a judgment," an important moral truth.

At least 5000 years old, the Epic of Gilgamesh was only rediscovered in the 19th century, when cuneiform tablets on which it was written—some dating back to the third millennium BC—were unearthed at sites in Mesopotamia, at the Hittite capital at Boğazköy in Anatolia (See Aramco World, September/October 1994) and at Megiddo in Palestine.

Inscribed in ancient languages of the Near East, these tablets might have remained unknown to all but scholars had not the translators discovered that the epic included the story of a serpent who steals the secret of eternal youth, and the story of a great flood—both tales bearing a striking resemblance to aspects of the creation and flood stories of the Bible and the Qur'an.

Even today, most people associate the Epic of Gilgamesh with these stories, which predate both the Biblical text and the revelation of the Qur'an. But as Zeman and her father knew well, there is more to Gilgamesh than this. The epic stands alone as a story of high adventure, great victory, grievous loss and, finally, wisdom gained.

No two versions of the epic are quite the same, but all tell of Gilgamesh, the more-than-human king of Uruk, who inherited the beauty and strength of the gods, but the mortality of humans.

In Zeman's retelling, the story begins when Gilgamesh requires his people to build a great wall around his city to proclaim his power. Ground down by the endless task and in despair, the people pray to the gods for help. Their deliverance comes in the form of the wild man of the forest, Enkidu, who is brought to Uruk by the temple courtesan—or, in Zeman's version, the temple singer Shamhat.

The two heroes battle, then, somewhat puzzlingly, become fast friends. They set out together to track and kill the monster Humbaba, and later, the Bull of Heaven—but tragedy strikes. Because they have defied the gods, Enkidu is stricken with an illness and dies. Overcome by grief, and by the knowledge that he too will die, Gilgamesh crosses the Waters of Death to reach the one man who has achieved immortality, Utnapishtim.

Utnapishtim survived the Great Flood, and he tells Gilgamesh that if he can stay awake the six days and seven nights it will take Utnapishtim to tell the tale of the Flood, he will give Gilgamesh the secret of immortality. But Gilgamesh falls asleep and fails the test. In pity, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh where to find the plant of eternal youth Gilgamesh dives to the bottom of the sea to retrieve the plant, only to have it stolen by the serpent when he falls asleep. It is then that Gilgamesh realizes that, like all mortals, he must inevitably die. Yet the story ends on a redeeming note: When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he reflects on the good works he and Enkidu accomplished, and realizes that immortality comes from the good a person achieves in life.

Though literally as old as the Sumerians, the Gilgamesh epic remains surprisingly poignant. In a poetic translation, such as the one John Gardner and John Maier completed just before Gardner died (See Aramco World, July/August 1983), the death of Enkidu remains as heart-wrenching to modern readers as it must have been to the Sumerians and Babylonians of long ago. Yet, like any good story, Gilgamesh also has its share of romance, adventure and suspense—qualities, Zeman believes, that make the epic as appealing today as it was 5000 years ago.

"It is one of the great wisdom stories of the world," she asserts.

But how to present this ancient poem in a way that the children of today—raised on television and computers—will understand?

Zeman's great gift is that she has been able to take the events of the story and recreate them in a series of beautifully realized vignettes, set in a Sumeria that, while historically accurate, would visually be the envy of any animation studio.

"Sumeria is buried under the sand. No one really knows what Sumeria looks like," says her husband, Eugen Spaleny. "What Ludmila has done is to take artifacts from the great museums of the world and, with them, create her own Sumeria."

Her sources fill the Spaleny bookshelves. Books from the Louvre, the British Museum and other museums and universities share shelf space with translations of the epic itself, including the one by Gardner and Maier.

"I looked at these books over and over as I worked," says Zeman, spreading them out on the table to reveal illustrations of an ancient Sumerian lyre, the mosaic-covered columns of Uruk and the Standard of Ur, all of which are illustrated in her trilogy.

An early indication that Zeman had succeeded in combining charm and authenticity in her settings came from the British Museum, where she had sent the book before publication to be checked for accuracy. It was returned along with an order for 1000 copies, to be sold in the museum shop!

Yet even more than her settings, it is the way Zeman handles her characters that makes her books come alive. Arrogant Gilgamesh, fair-minded Enkidu, beautiful Shamhat—all are presented in ways designed to convey the maximum amount of conflict and emotion, just as they would be in a film version of the Gilgamesh epic—which is what Zeman intended to make in the first place.

"It was something we had been thinking about," says Zeman, explaining that when she and her husband emigrated to Canada in 1984 the only world they knew was the world of film.

Since childhood, Zeman had worked as her father's assistant. For many of those years Eugen had been the Zeman studio's chief animator. But when Emily Carr College in Vancouver invited the couple to teach film technique to their students in 1983, things began to change. Not only did Czechoslovakia's then-communist regime refuse the couple permission to go but, accusing them of pro-Western sentiments, it asked Ludmila to leave the studio, conscripted Eugen for construction work and even made life difficult for their school-age daughters, Linda and Malvina.

For Zeman and Spaleny, there seemed no other choice. In the summer of 1984 the family left behind all they had and made their way through Yugoslavia to a refugee camp in Austria, and finally to Canada and the teaching assignment they had hoped for. For the next year, the couple devoted their days to teaching film design and animation technique; during their nights, working on their kitchen table, they managed to produce a short animated film, The Cedar Tree of Life, which appeared on Canadian Sesame Street.

Only 30 seconds long, it nevertheless attracted the attention of the Canadian National Film Board, which invited them to Montreal to make a 10-minute film—on their choice of subject. The result was Lord of the Skies, a paper-cutout animation film that, within a year, won 11 international awards, including a blue ribbon at the 1993 American Film Festival. In 1994 it was shown at the Sundance Festival and was short-listed for an Oscar nomination.

The huge success reawakened the Spalenys' interest in a Gilgamesh film, to be more ambitiously conceived. Harking back to the halcyon days of the Karel Zeman studios, they decided it would be a feature-length animated film, 80 minutes long. That would take money—a great deal of money.

While Spaleny began to search for backing, Zeman returned to her second career, book illustration. Armed with books she had illustrated in Czechoslovakia, a promising story idea and her film story-board of Gilgamesh, she approached Tundra Books in Montreal, noted for its excellent children's books. The meeting was all that Zeman had hoped for: When Tundra president May Cutler saw the Gilgamesh storyboard, she had only one thing to say. "Can you do a book like this?"

"At first I didn't know if I could," remembers Zeman. "In a film, you have close-ups and long shots to build emotion and show action. In a book, you have to include all these things in just one picture."

Which, it turns out, is exactly what Zeman did.

In the opening pages of Gilgamesh the King, the reader sees the dark face of Gilgamesh glaring out from the great wall, almost as if in close-up. In the middle distance, hundreds of men pull a giant Assyrian sphinx. At right, a drummer beats the time. In another part of the illustration, women wail in despair and, in the far distance, a Babylonian hanging garden rises behind the great wall.

Scale and colors combine to tie these different elements into a single picture. The detail is remarkable, as is Zeman's graphic style.

"My father always taught me that the style of presentation should fit the story," says Zeman, who, by shading her drawings with stippling and tiny broken lines, has recreated the look of an old-fashioned steel engraving. "It is a style of long ago," she explains, "to show that this is a story that happened long ago."

Like many of the illustrations in her books, the opening scene of Gilgamesh the King is rendered in hues of blue and gold. But here the colors are dark, the shading heavy, the atmosphere foreboding.

"Color conveys emotion," explains Zeman, who tints her drawings with clear watercolors imported especially from Czechoslovakia—reds for drama, grays for sorrow, yellows for contentment.

In the scene that introduces Enkidu—in contrast to the scene that introduces Gilgamesh—Zeman places the wild man of the forest under a golden sky, lit by a terra-cotta sun. Around him are the animals he loves: resting sheep, wide-eyed gazelles, a sleepy lion. As Zeman's sunny palette implies, this is a place of peace and contentment.

At least until the next page, when vibrant greens and yellows introduce another element in Zeman's arsenal: action.

At the top of the page, the gazelles are seen flying in one direction as a hunter turns in his chariot to target Enkidu's friendly lion. But at the bottom of the page, the hunter is haplessly chasing his own chariot as Enkidu rides off with it, the gazelles and the lion tucked safely in the chariot itself.

Horse, hunter, gazelles and lion seem infused with movement. Before Zeman ever puts pen to paper, she works out the characters' actions by means of paper cutout "puppets."

"When I do an illustration," says Zeman, "I build a scene, just as I would for a film." There is the setting, often filled with wonderful artifacts. There is the sky, which is always drawn separately. And then there are the characters.

Designing the characters takes time. In the case of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Zeman drew on Assyrian prototypes, giving her heros the same curled hair and beards, and in the case of Enkidu, a set of horns, to differentiate him from his alter ego, Gilgamesh.

But these characters are static.

To make them life-like, Zeman cuts them out of the paper on which they are drawn, joints their arms and legs, and moves them across her drawing of the setting, just as she would for an animated film. When she has found exactly the movement she wants, she stops the action and photocopies the scene. This is the basis for her drawing.

Then come the refinements. Often, to achieve the right effect, she exaggerates the length of limbs. In Zeman's illustrations, arms stretch out in anger, necks bend forward in anticipation, legs leap high to cover distances.

Movement indicates emotion as well. When Enkidu falls in love with Shamhat, two birds kiss in mid-air. When he challenges Gilgamesh, jagged cuneiform flies from his mouth like spear-points.

"The original poem," says Zeman, "barely describes the battle." But in Gilgamesh the King it rages back and forth atop the city wall until Gilgamesh slips and begins to fall—saved only when Enkidu reaches out his hand to rescue him.

In this single scene Zeman solves a serious creative problem—why the two adversaries become friends—and at the same time paves the way for the adventures that follow in her next book, The Revenge oflshtar.

The Revenge oflshtar opens when an earthquake shatters the palace at Uruk, killing the beautiful Shamhat. The monster Humbaba is blamed, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to destroy the fire-breathing demon.

Here, red skies predominate as a giant Humbaba sits menacingly atop his volcano, threatening a tiny Gilgamesh and an equally tiny Enkidu.

Then, in a sudden reversal of fortune, a still-tiny Gilgamesh jams his spear into Humbaba's open jaws, enabling the two heros to decapitate the creature with their axe and impress the watching goddess Ishtar.

But there is more trouble to come. When Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's proposal of marriage, the vengeful goddess storms the city atop her malevolent Bull of Heaven, a winged creature that literally fills the sky. In a daring attack, the heros capture and kill the bull. Then Enkidu adds a fatal insult by throwing the bull's tail in Ishtar's face.

Silhouetted before a dramatic red sky, Ishtar cries out that Enkidu must die. Her terrible decree paves the way for the final scene in the book, the death of Enkidu.

"It took me such a long time to do this scene," says Zeman. "In the poem it is so powerful," she says, reading from the Gardner-Maier translation.

"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 his rolls of hair.
He tears off and throws down his fine clothes like things unclean.

"But how to show this? I took the puppet, and moved it and moved it. Even so, I must have drawn it 20 different times."

Zeman's text, in contrast, is brief: "'Do not leave me now, dear friend,' [Gilgamesh] begged, weeping. 'Together we fought monsters and won. There is more for us to do.' But Enkidu did not wake."

"All through the text, my daughter Linda helped me. Emotionally, she is like me. My English is not good," says Zeman, who learned the language only after coming to Canada. "But when I told her what I wanted to say, she made it sound right."

The death of Enkidu leads logically to the final book in the trilogy, The Last Quest of Gilgamesh.

As described in the ancient tablets, the quest is a terrifying one. Half-mad with grief, Gilgamesh sets out to find the secret of immortality, a journey beset with dangers: giant scorpions, burning sands, even the Sea of Death.

But not all is darkness.

In one of the first scenes of the book, Gilgamesh reaches down to save a lion cub from falling from a cliff, much as Enkidu saved him from falling off the city wall. It is this delightful cub, inspired by the lion cub Gilgamesh carries in the famous Assyrian statue in the Louvre, that prevents The Last Quest from being a tale of unremitting woe.

"When Gilgamesh lost his companion, I gave him a new companion," explains Zeman—a companion who provides a lighthearted counterpoint to the troubles that beset the hero.

When Gilgamesh navigates the Sea of Death, the lion cub sinks deep into the boat, its tail wrapped pragmatically around the stern. When Utnapishtim points to the flower of eternal youth, the cub looks doubtful. And when Enkidu reappears briefly at the end to show Gilgamesh the glory of their city, the lion joins Gilgamesh astride the powerful bird that Enkidu has become, entranced by the scene below.

Like all good stories, the Gilgamesh epic ends with understanding, if not triumph. Gilgamesh has failed to gain the secret of immortality. He has lost the flower of eternal youth. But in the end he accepts his responsibilities and resumes his role as king. He has completed his journey of enlightenment.

For Zeman, the completion of The Last Quest marked the end of her own journey of self-discovery.

The years she spent working on the books were not easy. Her father died shortly after she began Gilgamesh the King. Soon after that, Zeman and Spaleny's daughter Linda was struck by a car and badly injured. She recovered completely, but "the pain I felt then made me see Gilgamesh in a new way," says Zeman. "Always, I had been so happy. I had such a happy childhood. Then all these troubles. But in Gilgamesh I saw that this happens to everyone. This is what it means to be human."

Zeman worked on. For three full years, she reports, "all I cared about was Gilgamesh. I didn't care about time. I didn't care about money. I only cared about the books." The effort was intense, but the rewards have been great.

Barely had the first book been published when the letters began to pour in. One of her favorites came from John Maier, who praised Gilgamesh the King and asked for a copy of her forthcoming film to use in his seminars. Another was from Walt Disney Studios, which offered to buy the rights for a film of Gilgamesh.

"It was tempting," admits Zeman. But for her and for Spaleny, the film is a special commitment: to themselves, to her father, to their daughters and, most of all, to the children who have grown to love Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

"Whenever I visit the schools, children ask me what I will do next," she says. Now, she believes, it will be the film. Since the first book was published, her father's former studio has offered to come up with part of the funding, and plans are being made to begin work in the Czech Republic as soon as possible.

"With film, I can show so much more," says Zeman, the bright smile back on her face. "Gilgamesh is a story that lends itself to film. It has action...adventure...wisdom. It is a story all children should know.

"It is a story," she adds, "that everyone should know."

Jane Waldron Grutz dates her interest in Gilgamesh to a 1973 trip to Bahrain, the island thought to be the "Land of Dilmun," where Gilgamesh found Utnapislitim and searched for the flower of eternal youth.

The Discovery of Gilgamesh

Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories ever recorded, it remained hidden to the modern world until the 19th century, when archeological expeditions were undertaken to several sites in the Near East.

In 1843 Paul-Émile Botta began to excavate at the ancient Assyrian site at Khorsabad, in today's Iraq, and in 1845 Austin Henry Layard began excavations at Nimrud (See Aramco World, May/June 1994). Constructed by Sargon II and Ashurnasirpal II, respectively, these well-preserved eighth-century BC sites soon began to yield huge limestone slabs and giant stone panels depicting horses with riders, archers on chariots, sieges and captives—even lion hunts. Many of these enormous artifacts were inscribed with the wedge-shaped characters we now call cuneiform script.

While still working at Nimrud, Layard began another excavation at ancient Nineveh, where he and his assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, were independently to discover the royal libraries of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. Altogether, some 25,000 fragments of tablets were unearthed from these libraries, all inscribed with the same cuneiform writing.

Over the next several years similar tablets were found at other sites in Mesopotamia and Syria.

The discovery of the artifacts prompted a strong interest in ancient Assyria, an interest intensified when, in 1857, Edward Hincks and Henry Rawlinson confirmed that they had found the key to the Akkadian language, also written in cuneiform script. Yet it took another 15 years before George Smith, an unschooled engraver who had been swept up in the universal enthusiasm, succeeded in translating a collection of Akkadian tablets from the Ashurbanipal library—and discovered the story of Gilgamesh and its references to the Great Flood (See Aramco World, January/February 1971).

The news of his discovery created a sensation. Almost immediately, the owner of the London Daily Telegraph, Sir Edwin Arnold, offered the British Museum, where Smith had become a staff member, a thousand guineas to allow him to go to Nineveh and see what more he could find. With uncanny luck, Smith picked up a tablet on his fifth day at the site that contained 17 missing lines from the first column of the Flood tablet. The tablet, he wrote, fitted "into the only place where there was a blank" in the story of Gilgamesh.

The tablets found at Nineveh were not the only ones to tell the story of Gilgamesh. Other copies of the epic were found at Nippur in Mesopotamia as well as at Boğazköy in Anatolia, at Megiddo in Palestine, at Ugarit in Syria and at Elam in present-day Iran.

Most of the tablets found in ancient Babylon and Assyria, in central and northern Mesopotamia, were written in Akkadian: Both Babylonian and Assyrian are forms of the Akkadian language. The tablets found at Nippur, however, were inscribed in the earlier Sumerian language, which was also written in cuneiform script. The tablets found at Boğazköy had been translated into Hittite and Hurrian, and those at Elam into Elamite.

None of the collections is complete: In all cases some tablets are broken or missing. The most famous and most complete collection remains the one found at Nineveh and translated by Smith, which had been copied, and very probably edited, by a scribe named Sinleqi-unnini. His version is the one on which John Gardner and John Maier based their translation, and it is primarily on their translation that Ludmila Zeman based her Gilgamesh trilogy.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the May/June 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1996 images.