Gilgamesh and Beowulf, Essay Example

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Essay

Gilgamesh and Beowulf: A Contrast and Compare

Two of the oldest epic tales are Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the first from ancient Sumerian and the second from within the 8th and 11th centuries. In each story the hopeful hero goes on a quest, one in search of eternal life, and one to seek glory. But despite their bravery and dedication, greed is the driving force and neither accurately represents their cultures.

Gilgamesh’s quest is to search for the secret of eternal life and restore to life his friend who died, Enkidu. This means journeying past the gates and on till he must cross the lake to find Utnapishtim in paradise and learn from him. This myth is heavily loaded with religious meaning and it could be stated its purpose is to help explain religion in its society. It includes sacred rituals and places and helps define the proper roles of nature and people. It can be analyzed best according to Joseph Campbell’s views since in Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s attempt to resurrect him, it deals directly with the pattern of “initiation, separation, and return”.

Beowulf’s mission is not a personal one as is Gilgamesh’s, but one for glory. Hrothgar requests his help to defeat Grendel, the monster of Herot, and Grendel’s mother. Considering the cultural atmosphere of northern Germany in the time just after Rome fell, Beowulf sought a glory that would see his name live forever. This idea is seen when he proclaims, “Each of us will come to the end of this life on earth; he who can earn it should fight for the glory of his name; fame after death is the noblest of goals.” (Heaney) It is seen again when he requests ‘Beowulf’s tower’. Freud might say Beowulf’s quest is really one seeking approval and could stem from a lack of approval and heavy criticism of his parents, specifically his mother.

We’ve seen the courage of Gilgamesh in deciding to set upon a quest that can only lead to death. He also demonstrates loyalty to Enkidu with his mission. Beowulf, too, demonstrates loyalty and dedication. He tracks Grendel to ensure the monster’s death and fights without hesitation when he encounters Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. Beowulf finishes the quest. Bravery is another trait that Gilgamesh and Beowulf share. Gilgamesh shares his conquests with Enkidu, “We hunted together. We killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.” (Sanders, lines 147-148) And when Utnapishtim finally reveals the mystery of eternal life to him, Gilgamesh enters the lake and takes the prickly plant. Beowulf denies his own self-preservation and willingly sails to battle the monsters. He fights on, right up to his last breath. All of these traits were encouraged by both cultures in their own time, so the myths reinforce the moral code of each society.

Despite his brave and dedicated ways, an obsession with obtaining eternal life grows the closer to the end of the journey he gets. He is inconsiderate and greedy in his interaction with Utnapishtim. He falls asleep during Utnapishtim’s story of the flood and upon waking his only thought is to persist in asking for the secret. Later, Gilgamesh wades into the lake, leaving the plant unprotected and an easy meal for a serpent. Beowulf’s quest is also marred. He is inconsiderate, greedy, and superficial. He accepts Hrothgar’s plea for help not because he genuinely wants to free them from the monster, but out of hope for glory. This ultimately leads to his downfall during the battle with the dragon, having attacked out of desire for the treasure without first considering his odds. And even on his deathbed, his lasting glory in the form of a seaside tombstone is Beowulf’s last thought. This section of the myths shows what traits were undesirable in their cultures and also reinforces the moral code by showing to stray from it is to invite downfall into one’s life.

Bravery and determination helped Gilgamesh and Beowulf endure their quests, but it was greed and selfishness that propelled them. These last traits were frowned upon in their civilizations and the stories may have served the purpose of demoting such traits. Gilgamesh and Beowulf may have accomplished great feats, but neither one earns the title of epic hero.

References

The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N.K. Sanders. London: Penguin Books, 1972, 61-9.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, translated by Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

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