I began the first unit of “How Literature Happens” with Gilgamesh— perhaps the oldest complete poem known to humanity. And despite this honorific, we know that the words carved out in cuneiform on those ancient tablets had been cobbled together from fragmentary poem cycles written centuries before. And the subject of those poems was a historical king of Uruk, who had lived centuries before they had been written down. So the oldest story humans have is one that already possessed almost 1000 years of transmission history– a divine, beguiling wink at the editors of today from the earliest poets of our species.
My students loved Mitchell’s “version” of the ancient epic, in part because his poetry is so relatable and fluid. But some were frustrated by the fact that he made no indication to the reader where he had rearranged the order of the original tablets and manuscripts, or when he made something up to fill in longer passages lost to the torments of time. An unannotated text made for smooth reading, of course, but it was cumbersome to handle the endnotes without so much as a corresponding asterisk in the main text.
For a short assignment I asked each of them to type out their favorite and least favorite passages, and explain what they liked or objected to. Then I checked out George’s scholarly edition and translation of the tablets– a two volume set that runs around $400 and weighs more than all of the Beowulfs put together. With considerable effort, I managed to find each of their least favorite passages in this massive work, and I brought in copies of the “official” transcription, translation, and notes so they could compare the philological project with the creative one. Then they did something really, really cool: they each rewrote their least favorite bits in a shared Google document. By the end of the hour, they had re-written a majority of the text, and in doing so had participated in the grand and noble process of making literature their own [NB: the site crashed a million times and it was wildly frustrating for everyone, but I do think they had a good time, and the end product is really, really lovely].
From there we went to Fulk’s prose edition and translation of the Beowulf Manuscript– one of two codices in Cotton Vitellius A xv. Including the entirety of the codex’s contents– an incomplete Life of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, Letter from Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf, and Judith– Fulk’s facing-page prose translation seemed dry and distant. Some students eventually warmed up to his Beowulf translation, but the many felt stymied by what they called plotlessness in its predecessors.
Heaney’s illustrated version was met with more enthusiasm, not least because his introductory and prefatory materials showed him to be a *human*– a distinctly different impression from the mechanical and jargon-ridden pages of Fulk (I should say here that I really like and appreciate Fulk’s work, and would love to teach with my favorite translation, by Liuzza). As an early medievalist, I don’t often spend time thinking about authors; the writers and scribes behind of most of what I research are anonymous. As a result, I was particularly struck by how moved my students were by Heaney’s description of how moved he had been in the course of his extraordinary undertaking. By writing about why the project mattered to him, Heaney made his efforts matter to them.
And it is this very notion– the empathetic connection forged by disclosure– that is changing how I feel about these epics, their transmission histories, and my own role as “authority” in the classroom.
That Gilgamesh and Beowulf have been preserved for us is nothing short of miraculous. To be honest, the history of the material survival of these works is far more remarkable and commendable than the Otherworldly adventures and beast-slayings of their protagonists. And I suspect that sharing similar subjects– men who are larger-than-life, these epic heroes– is not quite coincidental. There must be something about the tales of power and pride, fantastical feats of strength and almost unbounded wealth, that appeals to humanity. Yet my students were quick to see that both these stories end ambivalently at best: Gilgamesh fails to procure immortality and returns to his beautiful city with the Greatest Secret for which he has no use; Beowulf’s death leaves his people dispossessed of a ruler, poised precariously on a cliff overlooking their future as a doomed race.
So how have these stories resisted the forgetfulness and folly of humanity, the broker between the productions of the past and posterity of the future?
Epics hold some of our oldest stories; they keep the tales of the “greatest” alive in our minds, and in certain passages (for me: Enkidu’s death; the dragon scene) in our hearts. But we should not neglect the issue of orality: speaking the names of these figures, the descriptions of their monsters, and the lessons of their deeds– as we do in our classrooms, as we do in our offices, as we do in our homes– allows us to access the past, reuse it for the present, and prepare for our future. Spoken language is more adaptable, fluid, and in many cases more powerful than the written word.
As I reconsider how tales of greatness echo in my own life, I can’t help but wonder what works will be read and discussed by students thousands of years from now. There’s no way to know, of course, but I’d like to think that someone in the far more recent future will hear these names and be moved.