The Story of Gilgamesh by Yiyun Li and Marco Lorenzetti

Published by Pushkin Children's Books (ISBN: 978-1782690238)

‘A true friend is a companion for your heart.’

Written between 1300 and 1100 BC, on twelve tablets, The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem, is one of the earliest known pieces of literature.  Told in true story-teller style, with classic repetition, and the voice of the story-teller speaking directly to the listeners, YiYun’s retelling brings this ancient tale to life for junior aged children and is accompanied by uniquely beautiful illustrations by Marco Lorenzetti.  

The story itself is timeless, ‘Any great story is great for the reason that it is not only about its heroes but about ourselves, and that is why Gilgamesh’s story, even though it took place 4000 years ago, is not unlike our own.’  This tale of the power of friendship centres on Gilgamesh – a young, brave but rash king.  He loves his family and longs for adventure.  As a child, Gilgamesh was spoilt, swollen with pride and with an uncontrollable ego.  His kingdom became his playroom and all within it, from the flowers and birds to the houses and the people dwelling within them, were his possessions. Despite his affluence, Gilgamesh wanted more.  But more what?  Unsure, Gilgamesh became baffled and angry, throwing violent tantrums.  

Terrified by this young tyrant, the people of Uruk prayed to the Gods for help.  And the Gods listened; baked from the best clay of the earth, with a body as strong as Gilgamesh and a mind as brave, was Enkidu.  Tossed into the wilderness as an orphan, he grew up like a wild animal, roaming the grasslands. When one day when Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s paths cross, they fight.   Gilgamesh had finally found someone who could challenge him and, as he pins Enkidu down, nearing victory, he feels his anger subside.  He sets Enkidu free and the two men become true friends.

An invincible team, Gilgamesh and Enkidu were capable of great power and Gilgamesh’s desire to be known the length and breadth of the world for his bravery and strength had only grown.  As a result, the young king and his devoted companion journeyed beyond the forbidden forest on a quest to defeat the cruel monster Humbaba.  But the consequences of this decision would change Gilgamesh’s life irrevocably.   

There are many parallels between this tale and the countless myths, legends and traditional tales children have heard from other cultures and religions: the tale of Utnapishtim and the flood shares similar themes to that of Noah and his ark; the creation of Enkidu can be compared to creation stories from multiple cultures and the multitude of Gods and Goddesses could be compared to religions of civilisations such as the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Egyptians.

The Story of Gilgamesh is refreshingly different: nothing like the children would have read before.