PW met Steven Mitchell in a cafe in the Sheraton Hotel in Stamford, Conn. Over a cup of tea, he talked about how the oldest story in the world has become a tale for our time.
PW: Why did you take on a new version of Gilgamesh?
Steven Mitchell: I've never been satisfied by any other translation. I didn't think the language matched the excitement and the vividness of the story itself. I tried to be transparent, to let the beauty and the wisdom of the text shine through.
Why do you think Gilgamesh is relevant—besides its taking place in what is now Iraq?
Gilgamesh is an arrogant leader who goes out to slay a monster and rid the world of evil. He finds out that you can get in a lot of trouble when you go out to slay monsters.
There is also the issue of gay marriage. In Gilgamesh two men are deeply in love. Enkidu was created by the gods to balance Gilgamesh's manic energies because he was oppressing his own people. They became soul mates, mirror images, and their relationship is talked about in intimate terms.
Also, Gilgamesh is a giant, and recent reports indicate that we are becoming a nation of giants. We are building giant houses and drive giant, gas-guzzling cars, and we ourselves are becoming enormous.
All the more relevant to have a 16-foot hero. Seriously, if you have unlimited power and resources, it's hard to learn humility unless life gives you a lesson.
What is the largest lesson that Gilgamesh can teach us?
I can answer that by comparing it to Beowulf, a very great poem that shows a world in which good and evil are very polarized. God is on the side of the hero and the monster is on the side of evil and there is no ambiguity about it. I think the world view in Gilgamesh is more civilized.
What do you mean by civilized?
It reminds me of the world view of the Iliad, which makes the Trojans just as sympathetic as the Greeks. In the same way, the portrait of the monster in Gilgamesh is really quite touching. When he pleads for Gilgamesh to spare his life, it is really moving. The poet shows us that the monster may have his place in the world. He may have been given his place by forces that are bigger than we are, and if we go out and kill him we may suffer dire consequences.
This is also a story about someone seeking immortality and failing.
But at the end he gets a glimpse of another kind of immortality that has nothing to do with either the ego or with the life of the body. A man who is desperate and grieving is transformed into a wise and compassionate king who rules with kindness and balance.
Is experiencing heartbreak and loss necessary to become a full human being?
Enkidu lost a certain vitality to become civilized. Gilgamesh suffered a huge loss, the loss of the beloved. But that wasn't enough. It is only after he has gone on a quest and exhausted every possible means of getting meaning or resolution outside of himself, only when he is thrown back on his own emptied-out heart, that the transformation occurs.