Bowulf Essay, Research Paper
There are many differences and critical comparisons that can be drawnbetween the epics of Beowulf and Gilgamesh. Both are historical poems whichshape their respected culture and both have major social, cultural, andpolitical impacts on the development of western civilization literature andwriting. Before any analysis is made, it is vital that some kind of afoundation be established so that a further, in-depth exploration of thecomplex 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 namedfor 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 godsrespond to the prayers of the oppressed citizenry of Uruk and send a wild,brutish man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. When thecontest ends with neither as a clear victor, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become closefriends. They journey together and share many adventures. Accounts of theirheroism and bravery in slaying dangerous beasts spread to many lands. When the two travelers return to Uruk, Ishtar (guardian deity of thecity) proclaims her love for the heroic Gilgamesh. When he rejects her, shesends 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. AfterEnkidu’s death, Gilgamesh seeks out the wise man Utnapishtim to learn the secretof immortality. The sage recounts to Gilgamesh a story of a great flood (thedetails of which are so remarkably similar to later biblical accounts of theflood that scholars have taken great interest in this story). After muchhesitation, Utnapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh that a plant bestowing eternalyouth is in the sea. Gilgamesh dives into the water and finds the plant butlater loses it to a serpent and, disconsolate, returns to Uruk to end his days. This saga was widely studied and translated in ancient times. Biblicalwriters appear to have modeled their account of the friendship of David andJonathan on the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Numerous Greekwriters also incorporated elements found in the Gilgamesh epic into theirdragon-slaying epics and into stories concerning the close bond between Achillesand Patroclus. Gilgamesh is definitely the best known of all ancient Mesopotamianheroes. Numerous tales in the Akkadian language have been told about Gilgamesh,and the whole collection has been described as an odyssey the odyssey of a kingwho did not want to die. This is one of the major differences between theheroic characters. Beowulf, in order to achieve immortality through the talesof his bards, must perish in battle to accomplish this task. A similaritybetween both characters is their desire to obtain immortality. They both havedifferent techniques in trying to reach their ultimate destination, althoughboth 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 kingAshurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC). The gaps that occur in the tablets have beenpartly filled by various fragments found elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Anatolia.In addi tion, five short poems in the Sumerian language are known from tabletsthat were written during the first half of the 2nd millennium BC; the poems havebeen 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 theGilgamesh who ruled at Uruk in southern Mesopotamia sometime during the firsthalf of the 3rd millennium BC and who was thus a contemporary of Agga, ruler ofKish; Gilgamesh of Uruk was also mentioned in the Sumerian list of kings asreigning after the flood. Much like Beowulf, there is, however, no historicalevidence for the exploits narrated in poems and the epic. The Ninevite version of the epic begins with a prologue in praise ofGilgamesh, part divine and part human, the great builder and warrior, knower ofall 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 amonganimals. Soon, however, Enkidu was initiated into the ways of city life andtraveled to Uruk, where Gilgamesh awaited him. Tablet II describes a trial ofstrength 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 therest of the engagement is not recorded in the surviving fragments. In Tablet VI Gilgamesh, who had returned to Uruk, rejected the marriageproposal of Ishtar, the goddess of love, and then, with Enkidu’s aid, killed thedivine bull that she had sent to destroy him. Tablet VII begins with Enkidu’saccount of a dream in which the gods Anu, Ea, and Shamash decided that he mustdie for slaying the bull. Enkidu then fell ill and dreamed of the “house ofdust” that awaited him. Gilgamesh’s lament for his friend and the state funeralof Enkidu are narrated in Tablet VIII. Afterward, Gilgamesh made a dangerousjourney (Tablets IX and X) in search of Utnapishtim, the survivor of theBabylonian flood, in order to learn from him how to escape death. He finallyreached Utnapishtim, who told him the story of the flood and showed him where tofind a plant that would renew youth (Tablet XI). But after Gilgamesh obtainedthe 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 (perhaps “drum” and “drumstick”) given to Gilgamesh by Ishtar. The epic ends with thereturn of the spirit of Enkidu, who promised to recover the objects and thengave a grim report on the underworld. Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the most important work of OldEnglish 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 late10th century. On the basis of this text, Beowulf is generally considered to bethe work of an anonymous 8th-century Anglian poet who fused Scandinavian historyand pagan mythology with Christian elements. The poem consists of 3182 lines,each line with four accents marked by alliteration and divided into two parts bya caesura. The structure of the typical Beowulf line comes through in moderntranslation, 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, withheavy use of metaphor; a famous example is the term “whale-road” for sea. Thepoem tells of a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes ofthe monster Grendel, half man and half fiend, and Grendel’s mother, who comesthat evening to avenge Grendel’s death. Fifty years later Beowulf, now king ofhis native land, fights a dragon who has devastated his people. Both Beowulf andthe dragon are mortally wounded in the fight. The poem ends with Beowulf’sfuneral as his mourners chant his epitaph. Both Beowulf and Gilgamesh are loved and are shown loyalty from theirpeople. Although both Beowulf and Gilgamesh represent two different types ofheroes, both achieve ultimate good through their actions. The need for love andloyalty is also manifested throughout both poems. Death merely becomes anincident in the lives of Beowulf and Gilgamesh. They both teach its audienceand invaluable lesson: What matters is not how long, but rather how well welive.BibliographyFry, Donald K. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. EnglewoodCliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968. A collection of essays on the poem currentup to the mid 1960s.Fulk, R.D., ed. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology. IndianaUniversity Press.Indianapolis: 1991. Fulk’s anthology is a diverse collection ofcritical approaches to Beowulf. Essays range from the poem’s structure anddesign 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 oldEnglish literature. New York : New York University Press, 1986. Excellentoverview of the history of Old English literature with a good chapter on Beowulfand heroic poetry. A good place to start for an orientation to Beowulf inliterary historical context.Nicholson, Lewis E., ed. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. South Bend, Ind.:University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. A standard collection of scholarlyessays 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 determinethe date when Beowulf was composed. The studies used many different methods todetermine its origins, from grammar and sentence construction to comparing thetext to historical knowledge. The collected essays present many opinions, butthey 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.