Invitation to World Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh The Epic of Gilgamesh – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- What’s wrong with Gilgamesh when we first meet him?
- How does Enkidu change Gilgamesh? Challenging the king to combat, as Enkidu does, was a deadly offense. Does the text ever clearly state why or how they go from enemies to friends?
- Compare the characters of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Who was the more heroic? Why? Begin with an explanation of what you consider heroic and see if it is similar to what is considered heroic in the story.
- There are several female characters in the epic — both divine and human. How are women represented in the epic? What roles do they play in the lives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu? Is there a difference between how mortal and divine women are represented? If so, what sorts of differences are there?
- Why does Gilgamesh kill Humbaba? Does Humbaba deserve to die?
- As he lies dying, Enkidu curses the harlot, and then revokes his curse and blesses her. Do you think he was better off in his natural, animal, state, or as a civilized man?
- Why is the issue of immortality so important to Gilgamesh? Does he fear death, or love life?
- Ultimately, what does the story tell us about what it means to be human? How do both Gilgamesh and Enkidu change in ways that might help us answer that question?
- Compare the Biblical story of the flood (Genesis 6-10) with the version of the flood told by Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Now, identify several ways in which the two floods are similar and several ways in which they are different. What do you think is the most striking difference between them? What cultural or theological difference may underlie the differences in the two versions of the Flood story? Explain, using specific examples from both stories to support your ideas.
- In the video, the dancer and choreographer Izumi Ashizawa describes Siduri’s advice to Gilgamesh as paralleling an insight of Zen Buddhism. How do you understand this advice? Do you agree with it or not? What does it mean for Gilgamesh?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- Gilgamesh may be a part-god, superhuman character, but his “power” is only physical, and even his great physical deeds are a sort of handicap—his reliance on force over reason or thoughtfulness is one of his faults. The story of Gilgamesh is focused on human life and human concerns. What is it to be human? Gilgamesh is celebrated for his human successes (loving a friend more than himself, protecting his city, learning to accept mortality), not his divinity. Gilgamesh is critical of tyranny, oppression, violence, conquest, and ambition. It promotes the values of a simple life of rest, and enjoyment of the pleasures of human companionship, love, food, and drink.
- The story’s telegraphed ending, which is very abrupt, has puzzled some. Here is the entire ending into which so much meaning has been extrapolated by readers:
When they arrived in Uruk-the-Sheepfold, Said Gilgamesh to him, to Ur-shanabi the boatman:
‘Oh Ur-Shanabi, climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth! Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork! Were not its bricks fired in an oven? Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?
A square mile is the city, a square mile date-grove, a square mile is Clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar: Three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse.’
There is nothing here at all explicitly stating or showing that Gilgamesh has gained wisdom or understands that his legacy is his city. Although some find this meaning, others see the ending as inconclusive. Which view do you find valid?
- Generally, Gilgamesh is told very quickly—the plot is king and it is unfolded without any narrative delays. What effect is achieved by the sequences of dreams that interrupt the action?
- The poet Yusef Komunyakaa talks of “reading into the silences” of Gilgamesh, in part referring to the many ellipses in the text because of missing or incomplete tablets. Although these absences were not the intention of the original authors of the texts, for Komunyakaa they contribute to its poetic character and its ability to work on the imagination of a modern reader. Do you agree? If so, what happens when missing passages get filled in? Does the work change somehow, becoming perhaps less poetic and more direct?
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.