As a young writer, like many young writers, I was obsessed with making my work unique and new, striving for a story that had never been told before. The adage about all stories having been told already antagonized me, as if the world had been desecrated before I had a chance to enjoy it. It was like an adult telling a child to just give up, everything worth doing had already been done.
In recent years, I’ve come to a different understanding about this adage as I’ve delved further and further back into the foundations of western literature. Art is a conversation between the contemporary culture and what’s come before it. There is no vacuum into which art can be placed and exist in a pristine, virginal state. It is an outgrowth, a reaction or reply to what has been done in the past simply by virtue of being done by a human.
In writing, we know the stories of our past so well. They surround us even when the source is buried or unknown to us. An example of this is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I’ve just finished reading for the first time.
Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who ruled the city of Uruk sometime around 2700 BCE. The earliest versions of this poem were written around 2100 BCE, 500 years after Gilgamesh’s death (that would be like someone writing a biography of Shakespeare now), but the version that is commonly recognized as the Epic of Gilgamesh was written sometime between 1300 and 1100 BCE. The poem was handed down from the Mesopotamians to the Babylonians and finally to the Assyrians. Somewhere along the way it was lost to the conversation between cultures and did not surface again until the mid-1800’s when an Englishman, passing through the Middle East, decided to explore some mounds just outside of what is now Mosul in Iraq. He found the lost city of Ninevah, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. In the king’s library, he discovered thousands upon thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform. Twenty-five thousand clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum. It took another decade for cuneiform to be deciphered and another twenty years for a curator to notice that one of the cuneiform tablets contained a reference to a great flood and a man who had built a ship, gathered animals, and rode out the flood until the ship came to rest atop a mountain. Suddenly, the story of Gilgamesh was known again. The Victorians, who were looking for proof of the Bible’s historicity, embraced Gilgamesh. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke proclaimed the work to be “among the greatest things that can happen to a person.”
And yet, more than a century later, the western canon still began with Homer. In high school, we read the Iliad and the Odyssey and were taught these were the earliest known works of western literature. Perhaps the solitary heroes of Achilles and Odysseus fit our American ideals better, the individual battling against injustices or struggling to come home after a traumatic war. I was in school during the post-Vietnam era. It is possible Achilles’ battle rage and rebellion in the face of an unjust leader and Odysseus’ post-traumatic stress wanderings resonated with our teachers more than the buddy epic of Gilgamesh and his struggles to come to terms with his mortality.
Whatever the reason, what interests me about the resurrection of Gilgamesh and its return to the head of the western canon, is how much the poem influenced western literature even while the poem itself remained unknown.
The poem concerns the king Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods out of clay to be Gilgamesh’s equal and teach him how to be a civil and just leader. Enkidu eventually dies and Gilgamesh, in his grief, tries to learn the secrets of immortality by travelling to the ends of the earth to meet the man whom the gods made immortal (as a thank you for building that ark and saving the humans and animals from the flood). What Gilgamesh learns is that you can’t become immortal, humans have been made to die and have to accept their fate. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and becomes a just and beloved king.
The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the civilized man and the wild one, is a pattern that shows up repeatedly in contemporary literature and, especially, movies. It is Lenny and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, it is Victor and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals. It is Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars. It is also Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy.
Gilgamesh is also the original journey story, the model out of which has grown our epic quests. King Arthur was after the Holy Grail which would confer immortality. Our current reality shows all focus on the participants’ quest for the supposed immortality of fame.
Even the hallmark of contemporary literature, the way in which contemporary literature is self-reflexive, calls attention to itself and the artificiality of story-telling, lies in Gilgamesh’s opening lines: Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box/that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid./ Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read/ how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all. (from the Stephen Mitchell translation) Open the box, take out the poem, and there is the story which you are about to read here.
There is truth in the adage that there are no new stories. We have been telling the same stories to each other since the dawn of time. Luckily, we find new ways to do it, new avenues to explore that keep the stories fresh or give us new perspective on the old ones. Shakespeare didn’t come up with new plots or stories, but he was a genius at taking what was out there and reshaping it so that it made us look at it with new eyes. Which takes a heck of a lot of pressure off us writers when we understand that originality is a fool’s errand. It’s all been done before.