1984; 404 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Historical Fiction; Myths & Legends. Overall Rating : 6*/10.
I know what you’re thinking: just who the heck was Gilgamesh?
Well, he's a legendary hero of an ancient (Akkadian) epic called The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets and in cuneiform somewhere around 2100 BC. That in turn was based on an earlier (Sumerian) account about presumably the same guy, although in that version he was called Bilgamesh.
The Akkadian version is quite complete; the Sumerian version is fragmentary. You can read about all this by looking up ‘Gilgamesh’ in Wikipedia.
Although the Gilgamesh in the ancient story is legendary in nature, there is evidence that there really was also a historical Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, and that the clay tablet tales are just legends that cropped up about him as time went on. The case can be made, therefore, that The Epic of Gilgamesh is in fact the earliest work of fiction that has ever been found.
But using cuneiform to write a book on clay tablets is a PITA, and there is a practical limit to just how long such a tale of fiction can be.
It almost screams for an enterprising modern-day writer to come along and flesh out Gilgamesh’s story.
What’s To Like...
Make no mistake about it, Robert Silverberg is a revered and renowned Sci-Fi writer, but Gilgamesh The King has zero science fiction and zero fantasy. It is 100% Historical Fiction, and Silverberg does a wonderful job of making you feel at home in the Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago. The details of the settings flow smoothly, without any hint of being an info-dump. Some of them did seem like anachronisms to me – antimony, planets, steel, the phalanx, and beakers – but I’ll trust in the author’s research that such things really were around way back then, albeit probably viewed and spoken of in different terms than we do nowadays. I do have some serious doubts about a vampire working its way into the story though, which does occur here.
There’s a lot of holy sex going on, as well as a lot of not-so-holy sex; and a lot of nakedness to boot. The chapters are short (41 of them to cover 404 pages), and the Introduction and Afterword, although similar are well worth your time to read. The story is told in the first-person (Gilgamesh’s) POV. I seem to be reading a lot of those lately.
I’ve never read the historical version of this story, but in reading the Wikipedia entry for it, it is obvious that Robert Silverberg’s rendering of it sticks closely to the Akkadian version. Still, I also enjoyed the ways in which the modern story goes its own way. While Gilgamesh sees gods, goddesses and demons in just about everything, Silverberg carefully presents how natural events could just as easily explain everything. I especially liked the alternate version of the Flood narrative, and of Ziusudra’s supposedly “eternal life”.
The main themes that Gilgamesh seeks enlightenment about are : a.) what happens after you die?, b.) can you avoid death if you’re partly divine?, c.) the roles that gods seemingly play in the daily affairs of the world, and d.) are gods and demons real or not? Those questions are still asked today. Gilgamesh receives answers to some of these, but not all.
The ending is good, and the epilogue is even better. Gilgamesh The King is a standalone novel, a one-off effort by Robert Silverberg in a genre quite foreign to him, and AFAIK, he’s never contemplated a sequel to it.
“We are a free city!” I cried. “Are we to surrender?”
“There are wells to dig and canals to dredge,” said Ali-ellati. “Let us pay what Agga demands, and go about our business in peace. War is very expensive.”
“And Kish is very mighty,” said Enlil-ennam.
“I call for your pledges,” I said. “I will defy Agga: give me your support.”
“Peace,” they said. “Tribute,” they said. “There are wells to dig,” they said. (loc. 1994)
I sat upon my high throne, thinking, Enkidu has died and shuffles about now within that place of dust, cloaked like a bird in gloomy feathers, making his evening meal out of cold clay. And soon enough I must go to that dark place too. One day a king in a grand palace, the next a mournful creature flapping his wings in the dust – was that the fate that awaited me? (…)
Flies, flies, buzzing flies: we are nothing more than that, I told myself. What sense in being a king? King of the flies? (loc. 3700)
Gilgamesh The King sells for $7.99 at Amazon. Robert Silverberg has been a prolific writer of science-fiction since the 1950’s, and there are a slew of his novels available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $5.99 to $13.19. There are also a number of his short stories and novellas available for a lesser price. If you are patient, though, a number of his works are periodically discounted at Amazon, which is how I snagged this book.
(T)here are times when it is perilous to think. (loc. 1811)
I had some difficulties with Gilgamesh The King. There were some significant slow spots, particularly in the early going, when Gilgamesh is telling us how wonderful he is at everything. As a protagonist, I found him to be a royal a$$hole, but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the good citizens of Uruk felt likewise.
Also, as a storyteller, Gilgamesh leaves a lot to be desired. Spoilers abound, and he tends to “telegraph” the plot twists that are coming down the pike. I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been better to tell the tale in the 3rd-person POV. Then again, I also wonder if I would’ve appreciated the story more if I had read (a translation of) the Akkadian version, or at least the Wikipedia article first.
But patience is a virtue, and things pick up around 50%, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh become buddies and set out upon their quest. And the myth-busting portions of the second half of the book will give you pause when any theology wants you to practice “blind faith”.
6 Stars. Add 2 stars if you’ve read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and loved it. You’ll find Gilgamesh The King to be a fascinating book. For the record, I found Siddhartha to be boring from beginning to end.