Book review: Gilgamesh, A New Rendering in English Verse

by David Ferry


Gilgamesh is the story of a legendary Mesopotamian king who embarks on a quest for immortality. The Gilgamesh Epic has two primary claims to fame: (1) it may be the oldest surviving written story on earth, and (2) it contains a passage eerily similar to the story of Noah and the Ark. A man builds a big boat, saving his family and lots of animals from a monstrous flood. Like Noah, the flood survivor in Gilgamesh sends out birds (a dove, then a swallow, then a raven) from his “ark” after the rain stops to see if there is dry land anywhere. Like Noah, after exiting the ark he offers a sacrifice to the gods.

Ferry’s interpretation is not really an interpretation; it is a retelling based on other scholars’ translations. It’s a poetic rendition meant to artistically recreate the flavor of the original cuneiform, but in English. The preface calls Ferry’s work “verbal art.” He does take liberties here and there, most times because all of our copies of the Gilgamesh story are fragmentary, even after piecing them together. Yet, he makes a strong effort to be respectful of the best scholarly translations, thus remaining as true to the original as “feasible” (his word).

I haven’t studied any other translations so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of Ferry’s version, but I certainly enjoyed reading it!

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