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…