Gilgamesh The Hero by Geraldine McCaugheran

Given my interest in mythology and storytelling you would think I would have read one of the oldest known stories in the world and one of the foundational myths of Western Civilization. But while I was aware of the epic of Gilgamesh I had not read the poem or any prose versions of the story. Until I stumbled on Gilgamesh the Hero, a version aimed at younger readers, at a library sale.  And I am so glad I did – besides getting a great book for a buck – because this was a great read no matter what your age.

Here is Kirkus:

McCaughrean turns in a robust, exciting rendition of the world’s oldest written epic. After many astounding feats, proud, powerful king Gilgamesh sees his beloved sidekick Enkidu die, and becomes terrified of doing the same. Abandoning self-respect, he searches the world for the secret of immortality, crosses the Waters of Death to hear the tale of undying Utnapisthim (better knows as Noah), and at last returns home, to make wiser bids for immortality by telling his tale, and raising children. Thanks to the former, as McCaughrean points out, he’s better known today than Ishtar, Enlil, or any of the other “immortal” gods he fought and worshiped. Enhanced by Parkins’s expressionistic tableaus of gnarled, dramatically posed figures, she relates his adventures with gusto-“Gilgamesh calmly strung his bow. ‘Don’t launch the funeral barge yet. What can go wrong with the two of us side by side?’ ‘Do you really want me to tell you?’ said Enkidu”-while vividly capturing his pride, soul-deep anguish, and the personal cost of his hard-won wisdom. The most riveting retelling yet of this ancient, ageless tale.

This is a perfect example of why I find these young adult illustrated readers a great way to explore myths and the power of story. You get a great story with powerful and evocative language, wonderful illustrations and an accessible introduction to a timeless tale. What’s not to like?

What is remarkable is how McCaughrean manages to convey the power and deep emotion of this elemental story and yet keep it in a “family friendly” style. The temptation of Enkidu communicates the nature of desire and the way it changes Enkidu mentally and physically but leaves the actual sex off-stage so to speak.  In the same way the violence and emotions are handled very well. The anguish of Gilgamesh at Enkidu’s death is palpable but none of the scenes are too violent or disturbing for younger readers.

Readers also get an introduction to the stories that informed Mesopotamian cosmology and myth and eventually the Bible; the creation of man, the flood, etc.  Thus the book provides not only literary entertainment – a great story – but also a better understanding of culture and the role of myth.  Readers get a sense of the unchanging role of human nature; can see how elements of this ancient story are issues we can relate to and can even speak to us today.

So if you have ever wondered about this most ancient of stories, or if this is the first time you have heard about it, I highly recommend you check out this book. A great introduction to this particular myth and to the role of stories – for readers young and old.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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