From 2100 BC, a story for 2004

Nick Owchar is acting deputy editor of Book Review.

Seamus HEANEY isn’t the only one intent on making the classics relevant to our times. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of “Gilgamesh” (The Free Press: 292 pp., $24) was readied for publication as U.S. tanks and soldiers moved across the same duney landscapes of Iraq once controlled by Gilgamesh, ruler of “great-walled Uruk.” Dating to at least 2100 BC, this epic poem’s relevance for our times, Mitchell has said, is that it presents “an arrogant leader who goes out ... to rid the world of evil.”

Fortunately, that’s as far as Mitchell takes his contemporary spin. He doesn’t refer to Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu, who love each other deeply, as an alternative-lifestyle couple, nor does he call their joint attack on the monster Humbaba a coalition of the willing. Instead, he offers a limpid retelling of this story about absolute power (from Gilgamesh’s birth, “every girl’s hymen has belonged to him”) that was etched on clay tablets centuries before anyone ever sang about a town called Troy.

Long before the Trojan War, it seems, humans were regularly ticking off the gods, who had appointed Humbaba as guardian of the Cedar Forest. They don’t kill Gilgamesh for destroying their creature, though; Enkidu is the one who dies, and Gilgamesh is left to suffer the torments of grief. The realization of Enkidu’s death is graphic, visceral -- “for six days and seven nights I mourned him, / until a maggot fell out of his nose.”

Gilgamesh flees on a desperate search for immortality and loses a magical flower to a wily snake (its cousin undoubtedly lived in Eden). He returns to Uruk exhausted, frustrated -- humbled? -- and probably a kinder ruler than the man we first met. An ancient story’s true relevance to one’s times, Mitchell’s version suggests, resides most in having its message of love, loss and endurance rendered in fresh, forceful language. *