A Critical Appraisal of: Beowulf and Gilgamesh


There are many differences and critical comparisons that can be drawn
between the epics of Beowulf and Gilgamesh. Both are historical poems which
shape their respected culture and both have major social, cultural, and
political impacts on the development of western civilization literature and
writing. Before any analysis is made, it is vital that some kind of a
foundation be established so that a further, in-depth exploration of the
complex 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 named
for 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 gods
respond to the prayers of the oppressed citizenry of Uruk and send a wild,
brutish man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. When the
contest ends with neither as a clear victor, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close
friends. They journey together and share many adventures. Accounts of their
heroism and bravery in slaying dangerous beasts spread to many lands.
When the two travelers return to Uruk, Ishtar (guardian deity of the
city) proclaims her love for the heroic Gilgamesh. When he rejects her, she
sends 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. After
Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh seeks out the wise man Utnapishtim to learn the secret
of immortality. The sage recounts to Gilgamesh a story of a great flood (the
details of which are so remarkably similar to later biblical accounts of the
flood that scholars have taken great interest in this story). After much
hesitation, Utnapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh that a plant bestowing eternal
youth is in the sea. Gilgamesh dives into the water and finds the plant but
later loses it to a serpent and, disconsolate, returns to Uruk to end his days.
This saga was widely studied and translated in ancient times. Biblical
writers appear to have modeled their account of the friendship of David and
Jonathan on the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Numerous Greek
writers also incorporated elements found in the Gilgamesh epic into their
dragon-slaying epics and into stories concerning the close bond between Achilles
and Patroclus.
Gilgamesh is definitely the best known of all ancient Mesopotamian
heroes. 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 king
who did not want to die. This is one of the major differences between the
heroic characters. Beowulf, in order to achieve immortality through the tales
of his bards, must perish in battle to accomplish this task. A similarity
between both characters is their desire to obtain immortality. They both have
different techniques in trying to reach their ultimate destination, although
both 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 king
Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC). The gaps that occur in the tablets have been
partly filled by various fragments found elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
In addi tion, five short poems in the Sumerian language are known from tablets
that were written during the first half of the 2nd millennium BC; the poems have
been 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 the
Gilgamesh who ruled at Uruk in southern Mesopotamia sometime during the first
half of the 3rd millennium BC and who was thus a contemporary of Agga, ruler of
Kish; Gilgamesh of Uruk was also mentioned in the Sumerian list of kings as
reigning after the flood. Much like Beowulf, there is, however, no historical
evidence for the exploits narrated in poems and the epic.
The Ninevite version of the epic begins with a prologue in praise of
Gilgamesh, part divine and part human, the great builder and warrior, knower of
all 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 among
animals. Soon, however, Enkidu was initiated into the ways of city life and
traveled to Uruk,