Gilgamesh

July 26, 2019 at 4:47 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

If you’re studying ancient history in chronological order, sometime after you’ve read the Book of Genesis, it’s really fun to dive into Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is an epic poem most kids have to read in high school or early college for literature classes, originally written in Akkadian. It’s a mythological adventure about a real Sumerian king documented in history, who, like many kings of old, became a legend passed down through the ages, the truth of his life distorted and lost to deification.

Ludmilla Zeman has a fantastic children’s picture book trilogy that I find to be the best starting point for learning about Gilgamesh. It is consistent with most translations and full of beautiful illustrations. When kiddo was small and we were studying ancient history the first time around, we checked these out from the library over and over again. She loved them. This time I bought them, brand new. They’re worth every penny.

I picked up used copies of the epic for myself. I was disappointed to discover that every translation available was a translation of a translation. I know its ignorant to expect to read direct translations of the Old Babylonian tablets when you pick up a Penguin trade paperback, but I did. I went back to the store after reading through David Ferry’s pretty version and N.K. Sandar’s better translation, looking for something closer to Andrew George’s 2003 version – or better yet, George Smith’s 1870’s version! To no avail. Everyone wants new and better more modern ways to tell the tale, while I bemoan my inability to read archaic clay tablets I’d never get my hands on anyway.

I was hoping to find a cool cartoon on the tale for us to watch together, desiring a repeat of the experience we had when we studied Beowulf in 2016 (YouTube had an amazing cartoon rendition of Beowulf featuring the voice of Joseph Fiennes at the time…). All I found were some not so kid friendly “cliff notes” style videos of people walking students through what it was all about so they wouldn’t have to read the book themselves.

Attention all animators: Please provide a kid appropriate Gilgamesh cartoon, featuring an oddly famous actor of the 90’s of my choice. Thanks.

Gilgamesh is neat. I love the beautiful picture books we own. I will be the parent that makes sure she reads poem and doesn’t watch internet video summaries when she’s older. But I’m not in love with it the way I am with The Iliad and Beowulf. I think it may be the insincerity of it all. It feels obvious that it was a legend born of puffing up the ego of a king and his people. It takes Noah’s ark and twists it, I love reading confirmation that many regions of the world had a major flood, I’m saddened when the details are distorted and inconsistent, making heroes of those who weren’t and forgetting the one man who did obey.

Maybe I’ll love it when I finally get my hands on one of the George translations…

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Beowulf

September 13, 2016 at 1:33 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I have a confession: I never read Beowulf in high school.  Or college.  I read Canterbury Tales more times than I can count (yet only remember a handful of the stories).  I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ad nauseum – and I like that story.  But no Beowulf.  How did I miss it?

I’ll tell you how, we tried to cram so much into such a short amount of time.  We spent hours and hours in school, but spent very little time actually studying.  Somewhere along the way, Beowulf was lost to me.  I’m not sure if I was ever really exposed to it or not.  It might have been something I breezed through in a Norton Anthology and regurgitated the next day for a pop quiz, only to be quickly forgotten.  I couldn’t tell you.  I only know that I had a vague idea that it was an epic poem involving something named Grendel when I began working at a bookstore as an adult.  Even then, I couldn’t tell you if Grendel was the monster or the man.

unknownAs we began our Middle Ages/ Early Ren. (450 AD to 1600 AD) year while classically homeschooling, it dawned on me that this was the year for Beowulf. I had already read the picture book by Eric A. Kimmel to kiddo when she was a wee one, but I’m sure she was so tiny she had fallen asleep; now was the time to embrace the story.

And we did.  I read her the picture book shortly before my trip to Atlanta. It fit right in with all the Celtic and Norse mythology we’ve been reading to bridge the gap between the ancient times and our exciting year ahead.  “What a guy! He tore off the monster’s arm! I can’t even do that,” she exclaimed. She was very pleased that this particular picture book could give the story in “one-sitting, all today” as opposed to the stories of Odysseus and Troy which all took weeks of chapter by chapter to finish. I foresee reading this again and again over the coming months, she loved the story so much; I have to admit, I did too.

4cf814193a0I liked it even more when I discovered there was a cartoon made in 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes as the voice of Beowulf – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA.  We got to watch that and call it school.  It was a lot of fun.  (There’s one for Don Quixote we’ll be watching next year when we make it into the 1700s.)

Naturally, I was curious as to the accuracy of these versions.  I won’t ever truly know, because everything is a translation, but I thought I’d give an adult version a go.  There’s so many versions out there, I think I’ll just try a different one every Middle Ages cycle.  So I took the Constance B. Hieatt version with me to Atlanta and enjoyed it immensely, especially the little extras at the end.

beowulf-cover-hiea-900

The kiddo, of course, keeps asking me why we are using “fake stories as lesson books, they aren’t real stories mother!” I keep telling her, very ineloquently, that these stories help us understand the people who told them.  Read them to her as bedtime stories and naturally she’s thrilled at the excitement of them.

We’ll collect more versions over the years and by the time she is grown she will know the story well – and remember it.  Next go around we’ll even tackle it in poem form, and eventually we’ll read Gardner’s Grendel.

Do you have any favorite versions of Beowulf?  Or, more importantly, do you know any great stories of the time period that should not be missed?

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