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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...
Neo-Assyrian "Flood Tablet"

Dear Readers,

After a number of fits and starts, my colleague, Barbara Hawkins and I have just completed a brand new study guide for any teacher/parent/student interested in studying this most seminal work of literature!  We have incorporated the Charlotte Mason approach to studying great works of literature and we believe you will find this guide a truly helpful tool in understanding and appreciating this epic.

Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest epic and established many of the literary motifs we’ve come to expect in great epic works.  The story of Gilgamesh took place nearly five thousand years ago, but only became familiar to the modern world in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Hearing tales of wondrous treasures to be found beneath the stark desert sands of ancient Mesopotamia, a young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard (pictured above left) began digging in 1844 near the town of Mosul, Iraq.  There he discovered the remnants of the library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), a famous king from the Assyrian period.  Mixed among the twenty-five thousand tablets shipped back to the British Museum were the fragments of twelve tablets containing one of the most ancient masterpieces known to man.

However, since scholars had to learn how to decipher the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets, Gilgamesh continued its obscure existence in the basement of the British Museum until 1872 when George Smith, a curator with a common name, made an uncommon discovery.  He found an account of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia with details that eerily echoed the Biblical narration of the Flood.  “On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning.  I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge” (Mitchell 4).  Smith’s translation, published in 1876, sparked a frenzy to discover and translate the rest of the epic.   Even though no complete version has ever been unearthed, the adventures of this ancient king, no matter how whimsically interpreted, continue to enthrall each and every reader.

The good news for those interested in studying this epic with their young students (3rd/4th grade up to 7/8th) is that the children’s author, Geraldine McCaughrean–winner of the Carnegie Medal,  has written a lyrical and complete edition for the intermediate student.  McCaughrean’s work makes this epic approachable by even the uninitiated.  For those working with older students, or for high school students interested in this period, David Ferry’s A New Rendering in English Verse, is the perfect choice.  The newly completed study guide includes a thorough introduction to the heroic quest, insight on literary components and motifs, vocabulary, writing prompts, comprehension and analytical questions and much more.  As Geraldine McCaughrean notes in her introduction to her children’s book:

I feel a personal affection for Gilgamesh the Hero.  I just love that story.  It epitomizes all the reasons I like myth: because myth predates the whole Children’s Book/Adult Book divide. The stories are about things that mattered to everyone, regardless of age. They’re about the big things –passion and death and terror and God and friendship and heroism…

You can access a downloadable format of our new guide here.  Enjoy your trip to Ancient Sumer!

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Epiphany 2011

Dear Readers,

As today is the Feast of Epiphany it is a suitable time to share some musings on the best children’s books on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child.  Garrison Keillor reminded me on today’s Writer’s Almanac that the word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, and of course, nothing in all of human history is more striking than the incarnation. You can read the rest of Keillor’s insight here.

Astronomers have long pondered the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and what kind of astronomical phenomenon could explain how a star could have led these seekers in the way it did.  Craig Chester, President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, published about 20 years ago a fascinating article about astronomical conjunctions occurring at this time that might explain the wonder of this star.  Below is an excerpt of his fascinating study, but you can read the entire article here.

In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings.  In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.  In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter also came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.  Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah.  The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel [ . . . ] Finally in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun.  This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi [ . . .] September 11, 3 B.C. is perhaps the most interesting date of aSong of the Camelsll.  Not only was Jupiter very close to Regulus in the first of their conjunctions, but the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (of obvious symbolism).”

There are so many ways in which the story of the Wise Men visiting the tiny child in Bethlehem is cause for wonder and awe.  Not remarkably, this awe has produced some really precious children’s books that can help explore that mystery with our children. A favorite of mine is the story written by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)  often entitled The Other Wise Man or The Fourth Wise Man. This story is based upon the fictional premise that there was another wise man who never made it to the nativity, precisely because he was acting the part of the Good Samaritan, and spent himself so completely ministering to those in need on his journey, that he missed his chance to actually meet the Christ child himself. The moral, as you can probably guess is Matt. 25:40.  There are a number of editions of this sweet tale, but I do like the illustrations done by Robert Barret in the edition above.

Another take on the visit of the Magi is entitled Song of the Camels: A Christmas Poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Anna Vojtech.  Coatsworth was a prolific children’s author for over 50 years and is best known for her Newbery Medal winner of 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. This tale in verse is told from the perspective of the camels that carried the magi to the Christ child. “Portents of glory and danger/ Our dark shadows lay/ At the feet of the babe in the manger/ And then drifted away.”  Anna Vojtech’s illustrations for The Song of Camels are filled with rich imagery of the Middle East and present another aspect of this marvelous story.

This is The Star by Joyce Dunbar and illustrated by Gary Blythe centers the action around the marvelous star that brings magi, shepherds, and angels in a confluence of wonder to a dark and humble stable. Blythe’s illustrations have an almost photographic realism to them that illumines the humanity of this night of all nights.

Finally, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger remains one of my most precious Christmas tales. Lizbeth Zwerger’s illustrations brilliantly illumine the pathos, simplicity, and sweetness of O. Henry’s story involving a poor but devoted couple desiring to bless their beloved with their very best gift. They sacrifice what is most precious to them in order to do so.  While its title would lead one to think it involves the magi, it doesn’t actually include them in the story, except to reflect upon the power of gifts given that require a deep measure of self-sacrifice.  O. Henry states, “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.”  I won’t give more of the tale away, as you must read it to appreciate it fully!  May the wonder of the visiting Magi inspire all of us to live in their spirit in 2011.  Happy New Year dear friends.