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Module 1: Great Epics of World Literature

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The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf - The Anglo Saxon Narrative Poem

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Good morning and welcome to yet another session of NPTEL course, Introduction to World Literature. Today we are looking at this age-old iconic text titled The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Refer Slide Time: 00:24) The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic tale from ancient Mesopotamia and is also regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. And this is being classified as one of the earliest and one of the greatest works of world literature in its truest sense. And this is even considered as the Mesopotamian Odyssey but this was written about 1500 years even before Homer wrote Illiad. So the text is that ancient. It is an age-old text considered as the earliest of world literature. It was originally written in Akkadian language and it tells the tale of the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the hero king of Uruk, Uruk being one of the Mesopotamian city-states, and his adventures. So the tale is entirely about the epic journeys and the great adventures that Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk went through. The manuscript of this text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, it was discovered in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by the archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. This was in 1853 towards the end of the 19th century. So it is very significant and important to remember that this text gets the attention of the modern audience only from the 20th century onwards. And to be precise, only after the first world war we find critical and historical attention being given to this text, its reception and its circulation during a time which dates back to more than about 3500 to 4000 years. And when this manuscript was discovered it was found that it was written in cuneiform script on 12 clay tablets and it also dates from around 1300 to 1000 BC. So I want you to keep in mind that the significance of this text is not just literally, it is not just aesthetic. Beyond that, it serves a larger, historical and archaeological function as well. It is in such a context that we begin to look at the Epic of Gilgamesh as an iconic text in world literature which also tells us about the significance of such works even before the term was coined, even before discourse on literature or literary tradition or even the world literature came into being. (Refer Slide Time: 02:49) So this was one of the clay tablets that was discovered and it continues to be preserved in its original form in London. (Refer Slide Time: 02:57) Along with the epic poem of Gilgamesh, a set of other five poems were also found and the gaps in the tablets -they did not really get a continuous set of tablets which had of the original text inscribed. It took a massive effort by various historians, literary people and archaeologists trying to fill in the gaps in the tablets by various fragments found not just in one spot but in various parts of Mesopotamia and Anatolia. So this text, whatever remnants of text are now available, how it has been translated also needs to be seen in that context. One needs to be attentive to the vast number of centuries that passed in between the time that it was originally written and it was discovered and translated and circulated again. (Refer Slide Time: 03:50) I want to take you through the summary or the important things that are part of this epic poem. In the first half, we are introduced to Gilgamesh who is also the central character of this epic poem. He is a handsome athletic young king of Uruk city. But he is also very cruel and arrogant. He does not come across as a good person and a good ruler. And he does things like challenging young men to contest and combat. He even proclaims his right to have sexual intercourse with all new brides. So he is unleashing terror in the city of Uruk. He also has a semi-divine origin. This also ties up well in the mythical narrative and the dialogue between gods and human beings throughout this poem. And he has a semi-divine origin, his mother being the Goddess Ninsun and father the priest-king Lugalbanda. So this is how we are being introduced to Gilgamesh in the first half of the poem and Uruk citizens are very tired of this terrible ruler. They want to get rid of Gilgamesh and they ask for god's help. Gods play a very significant role in this poem throughout. We find Gods even taking human forms, human attributes and that is what makes this text very enduring in a certain way to the modern audience. And in response to Uruk citizens seeking god's helps they send him Enkidu who is a wild man. He is sent to the city of Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh. He is a wild man. He does not know how to live in a civilized society. He also finds a woman who is teaching him the ways of the civilized world right from teaching him how to eat. When he meets Gilgamesh and there is a long encounter over there and they get into a fight and Gilgamesh wins the fight. But the tale begins to take a twist from then on and Gilgamesh and Enkidu become good friends and they set out on this great adventure which is also a t of the significant sections of the first half. So through a series of events which we shall not be discussing now, they end up killing the bull of heaven and for this Gods punish Gilgamesh by the death of Enkidu. And this is how the first half comes to an end. (Refer Slide Time: 06:14) And in the second half, we will find Gilgamesh setting out on a new journey, a new quest and this time it is immortality. He is deeply mourning Enkidu’s death. He is asking very pertinent questions about life, about death, about immortality and we find him trying to engage with the philosophical questions that men and women are trying to ask even today. So in the tale, we get to know that Gilgamesh is searching for Utnapishtim. He is an immortal man who survived the great flood and the great flood here is presented as a precursor to the biblical Noah. Several scholars believe that biblical floods during the time of Noah are also the storyline is also inspired by the great flood which gets documented in this work, the Epic of Gilgamesh. So he meets Utnapishtim and Utnapishtim tells him to accept his mortality. And this text assumes a very philosophical undertone at this point and it stops being just a tale of adventure. It stops being just the story of Gilgamesh but begins to ask a universal question which continues to resonate even in the contemporary. When Utnapishtim tells him to accept his mortality and tries to convince him that it cannot be changed, it is a very pertinent section where he also tells him and this is of course from one of the translations, life which you look for you will never find for when the gods created man they let death be his share and life withheld in their own hands. So this is the kind of profound discussion that we can find in this text which dates back to more than 1500 years even before Homer’s Iliad. And after this life-changing quest and this encounter with Utnapishtim, we find Gilgamesh returning to Uruk a changed man. He becomes a good king and the documents tell us that he ruled for 126 years. And this is how the epic poem is structured. So it is about many things rolled into one and if we try to take a quick look at some of the important themes. (Refer Slide Time: 08:35) Firstly this text is important for our understanding of Mesopotamia and Kings. There is a historical significance which is of no doubt. But apart from that, there is a timeless universality of friendship, the ideas of kingship, enmity, immortality, death, male-female relationships, about how the contrast between city and the rural life is positioned, about civilization and the wild, about this dialogue and this very ambivalent relation between Gods and humans. We find all that becoming important themes and important elements throughout this text and about the figure of Gilgamesh. (Refer Slide Time: 09:16) And he is not entirely mythical imaginative figure. He is the historical king of Uruk. He appears in contemporary letters and inscriptions found by archaeologists. There is every reason to believe that there was such a king named Gilgamesh. But of course to suit the aesthetic elements in this epic tale he also becomes a semi-divine hero of Mesopotamia. And the story also makes him go through many challenges, face many challenges and come out successful through that to make him the mature hero that he becomes at the end of the story and also making him good. So that is a dramatic element that is being infused into the historical, into the real so that it continues to remain fantastical, universal and has to have an appeal in multiple ways. (Refer Slide Time: 10:12) Some critics think that this work had a substantial influence on Homer. If you are interested in knowing more about this you are welcome to read a Martin West work, The East Face of Helicon- WestAsiaticElementsin Greek Poetry and Myth. There he argues that the poem combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure but it is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence and this is one of the elements that also make the Epic of Gilgamesh a world literature a world literary text in the truest sense. (Refer Slide Time: 10:50) More than many parts that make this text the Epic of Gilgamesh what I find very fascinating and interesting is the positioning of Gilgamesh in world literature. Here we have an epic written more than 3500 years ago by a Babylonian poet. This is in what is now Iraq and this was originally written in one of the Sumerian languages. There are numerous interpretations and this is perhaps the greatest living text in world literature which continues to undergo translations and multiple interpretations. And in Mads Thomsen’s words it “Fascinates by giving access to a society that is no more but whose complexity and both joys and sorrows of daily life shine through.” So this is something extremely g and incredible about this text Gilgamesh. The original literary tradition within which it was part of, the original context within which that was part of the society which produced this text in the first place is no more and we get access to the story and to that context and to that tradition which is no longer there. And at the same time many elements from that context, from that life which continues to be shared in this text, it remains very relevant and almost universal. (Refer Slide Time: 12:10) And there is a section where we find Gilgamesh mourning the loss of immortality when he is also mourning the death of Enkidu. He is asking very pertinent questions about life, about death and he is searching immortality because death strikes him as a reality that the life that is leading, the seemingly adventurous, the seemingly powerful and even the wicked life that he is dealing it, it seems to be of no work if it is not immortal. And this is the section which tells us about how Gilgamesh is mourning the loss of immortality. “Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept, down his cheeks the tears were coursing. He spoke to Ur-Hanabi, the boatman for whom Ur-shanabi toiled my arms so hard, for whom ran dry the blood of my heart?” So totally very sensitive epic, it is very emotional in many of its segments. (Refer Slide Time: 13:11) And very soon we find King Gilgamesh moving from feelings of the disappointment of not achieving immortality because he is also convinced that death is part and parcel of this life. From that we find him moving towards the beauty of the dynamic and complex society that he rules over and he begins to see his position as a ruler from a different perspective, in a truly different light altogether. And this is the change, this is the magnificent shift that we face in the second part of the poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the first half, we find Gilgamesh taking almost a wicked kind of pleasure from ruling his people, from completely suppressing them and taking charge of things which he ethically should not, controlling things and overpowering things in a way that he should not. But in the second half, we find. This is the section which comes towards the end of the poem and we find him taking comfort in the walls that he has built around the great city. I read you a brief excerpt. “When at last they arrived, Gilgamesh said to Urshanabi, this is the wall of Uruk which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. Climb the stone staircase more ancient than the mind can imagine. Approach the Eanna temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equalled in size or beauty. Walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city. Inspect its mighty foundations. Examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built. Observe the land it encloses, the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and the temples, the shops, the marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.” This is how it goes. So towards the end when his perspective has entirely changed when he comes to terms with the immortality that is part of his life that the knowledge that death is part of the very life that he has, he becomes to appreciate the work of his hands. He begins to appreciate what he can see as the outcome of his life and when he is admiring and taking comfort in the walls that he has built it on the great city. The Epic of Gilgamesh is also telling us that there is another way in which immortality can be achieved. It is through the works that you leave behind and here Gilgamesh is looking at the walls, the staircase, things magnificent and small and he is even looking at very minute things like brickwork and masterful plan that has gone into it and the nature around it and how organically he has managed to put everything together. And this is perhaps the greatest message that the Epic of Gilgamesh also leaves us towards the end that immortality is in the works that you produce in the societies and the lives and the many things that you build around you whether they are in the form of walls or the form of relations or in the form of the legacy or the value system that you leave behind. That is the way to immortality and we find Gilgamesh a changed person and a good ruler and a mature person truly emerging as a hero with this realization. And to think that such a profound text existed about 3500 years back that itself is a very unique contribution and that itself is a very unique way to approach world literature from the contemporary. (Refer Slide Time: 16:54) And this text Gilgamesh has been increasingly seen as a unique world literature text. It is a unique case in international canonization because this is one such text which is now cannot be supported by the reception of a living literary culture. One is not even aware of the literary culture in which it was produced and how it was received and circulated then. There are only certain conjectures which s to assume that perhaps the text was translated and circulated at least in some parts in and around Mesopotamia and Sumeria. This work in modern times what makes it very unique and significant is that it has been read always only in translation. So this also brings us to some of the questions about translation, about the original text and the role that translated text plays. And we find these texts and how these texts are being brought back to life. We find them asking newer questions, interesting questions and more challenging questions about the idea of translation and the practice of translation. What makes it all the more unique in the case of Gilgamesh is that this text is often sometimes not even often almost always read-only in a scholarly context and it is a text which is primarily of academic interest and through this academic interest the entry point is scholarly academic for sure but through this, it also makes it possible to present a text that is both a cultural and religious document and also an aesthetic achievement. So this is a unique way in which the Epic of Gilgamesh is being presented. But this does not take away the impact on the general reading public either. That is what makes this text a unique kind of a text in international canon and also in the traditional world literature. And the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the very few texts which also showcases the openness of the Western canon and it also tells us that it is not very important to know about the original literary edition to be able to appreciate a work at a different point of time. And this text is again one of those texts where one does not bother about the source from where the text came, whether it was the handy work of one person or a group of writers, whether it was handed down as an oral tradition and then noted down by various people. It really does not matter and this tells us about inclusiveness and the openness of canon which at some level is one of the important ideas that world literature should celebrate as well. (Refer Slide Time: 19:48) So as we wrap up this discussion I also want you to stay alert to the fact that this document, this text Epic of Gilgamesh is also seen as a document of a genuinely ancient humanism and this is a kind of humanism that extends beyond humanity to include Gods as well. That is what we see in this text. That is what we see in its presentation and its framework. And in that context when we read through the text we are also being introduced to the God’s generosity, fickleness, hatred and almost all expressions are expressed in human terms and it remains closer to mankind for that reason and for the universal, the timeless appeal that it makes in terms of life, death and questions of immortality. (Refer Slide Time: 20:35) This being a text that reached the modern audience after the Second World War, there is a lot of contemporary work which could be accessed on Gilgamesh. If you are interested in reading more about the context within which Gilgamesh was found and how it made its way to become one of the greatest literature as part of world literature you may want to take a look at these two books, a more recent one being Theodore Ziolkowski’s work which came out in 2011, Gilgamesh Among Us - Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic. Some of the excerpts can be accessed online and there is also this work by David Damrosch, David Damrosch also being one of the theorist of world literature in the contemporary, one of the most renowned theorists of world literature. His 2007 work, The Buried Book - The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. I hope this lecture will also encourage you to access the text and also look at how texts are not just translated and circulated but they are also being made accessible through these different modes of practices, different sciences like history or archaeology or even translation practices. And therein lies the significance of a text like the Epic of Gilgamesh. I thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session. Hello and welcome to today's session where we look at this Anglo Saxon narrative poem titled Beowulf. (Refer Slide Time: 00:18) Beowulf is a narrative poem that has survived since the Anglo Saxon period so it is very very old and it also belongs to the Old English period. This is considered as the first masterpiece of English literature but this has been written in the Old English script which has very little similarity with the current English script. And the poem is set in Scandinavia and the origins are tentative during the Nordic or Viking invasion of Britain and this is just before the Norman Conquest which happens in 1066 AD. And if you are familiar with the British history you would also know that this is a phenomenal year, this is an iconic year in British history,1066thatis when anglo Saxon era is supposedly said to have begun. Beowulf, this narrative poem is now considered more significant terms of its history. There is a historical significance attached to the manuscript and this manuscript interestingly still survives in the British Library and this was copied around the year 1000 AD. And given how most other manuscripts have been lost or have got destroyed, it is rather surprising and very interesting that Beowulf’s manuscript has survived till date. (Refer Slide Time: 01:32) The one event which provoked and triggered an interest in Beowulfin the 20th century was this amazing paper written by the master fantasy writer Tolkien and the paper was titled “Beowulf–the monsters and the critics”. Tolkien who was better-famed as the author of the Lord of the Rings series, he tried to promote the historical and social studyofBeowulfin the context of literary and artistic content. And in this paper which was read out in a session in 1936, he also argued that the mythical content needs to be paid attention to because the other critics, the historians who have been studying Beowulf they had often disregarded the element of the myth, the presence of the dragons, the giants, the supernatural elements which were an integral part of Beowulf. They were often disregarded by the historians and the critics. Tolkien's major argument was that such details are entirely relevant. They tell us about the socio-cultural context of that period because they serve to inform the reader about the belief systems in Britain and Europe at that time. And since those periods, those eras are very little documented and there is a very little archaeological evidence, Tolkien also suggests that one should consider looking at Beowulf not merely as an aesthetic text, not merely as a socio-historical document but also as some kind of a document which will tell us about the belief systems of those periods. How people thought, people believed, and people conceived of the world around them. And it also interesting to note that for the Anglo Saxons the time during which this epic was written, it was conceived, it was composed, it was getting circulated, during that time monsters and myths were not make-believe things for them. They were actually perceived as real phenomena and they were considered as things to be believed and feared and they were an integral part of the belief system of those times of those world orders. (Refer Slide Time: 03:44) And in the contemporary when we look at Beowulf it is perhaps more than an entertaining and engaging tale for us. And of course, this is one of those texts which also tell us about the evidence of the oral tradition and how it has to survive across the many challenges of time and these many centuries. And it is also telling us about the significance of imagination which lives and outlives the times of the text and also how it travels across centuries. One significant evidence is the recent adaptation of Beowulf, a 2007 computer-animated film. And needless to say, it was a huge success as well. So in this context, I would also like to draw your attention to the comment made by one of the critic historians. “The reader's ofsuch modern imitations have to suspend their disbelief to enter such worlds of fantasy; the original audiences of Beowulf”, which is the Anglo Saxon audience, “they actually believed every word”. And this is of most significance to ask when we try to engage with Beowulf in the contemporary. (Refer Slide Time: 04:54) As noted at the beginning of this lecture the survival of the manuscript is something which amazes the historian and the archaeologists and it continues to amaze the ones who undertake a serious study of this text Beowulf. And this is incidentally the only text to have survived the ravages of time and this is considered as a significant historical artefact today. And is possible that many other tales were also written down during that time but since we do not have any evidence either in terms of the manuscript or in terms of other oral traditions which were handed down overages. There is very little known about them and the Ulf, it was also badly damaged by fire. And as the historians noted, but somehow its cargo of words journeyed from the dark ages through the middle ages and into the modern age. And this is the journey, the journey of survival of this manuscript. Beowulf was written in the Nowell Codex. It was written in Old English and this is said to have been composed during the10th and early11th century. And this is also a text which takes us through this transition from the early mediaeval towards the middle mediaeval period. So the historical significance we also note that it supersedes all the other qualities attached to this text. (Refer Slide Time: 06:20) Who was the author of Beowulf? Needless to say, this was written anonymously and that was the order of the day during those times. We do not find the name of the author or the authors. There is no way of knowing whether it was authored by a single figure or it was a collaborative collective effort. During those days there was not this tradition of putting down the name under any text and it could also have been an orally transmitted narrative poem. And there is this wide conjecture that this was perhaps written by a monk or someone else with an academic inclination because very few were literate during those times and not many had access to formal education. And there is this assumption that being able to write such a refined kind of narrative perhaps the author figure or the author figures had access to some incredible kind of education as well. And some historians also believe that it was perhaps a Christian who converted from his pagan Anglo Saxon beliefs to Christianity. Maybe the author was such a figure and this Christian author, his intellectual horizons perhaps have been expanded to include not only biblical learning but the wider world of Christian Latin culture in general because we do see that background in this text getting manifested in very obvious ways. But there is also this contestation that the author perhaps was not a Christian at all. Maybe Christianity was attributed to the author so that it fits in well with the history of the nation that it gets elevated to the level of the national epic, the earliest surviving masterpiece of English literature. So perhapsChristianityhad to be attributed to this author figure to give the text more legitimacy and more credibility. But as noted, there is no way of knowing these things for sure. And the author figure whose presence is very evident in this text, he is viewing the events from a temporal perspective of hundreds of years removed from the time of the poem’s action. So we are also given to understand that though this was written in the 10th and 11th centuries, maybe the action happened a few centuries back and most of them they agree upon 8th century as the century of consensus. (Refer Slide Time: 08:56) Who was Beowulf? Beowulf is the protagonist. The narrative poem is also titled after a protagonist. One does not know whether Beowulf actually existed or not. There is some element of truth perhaps because there is a lo of a historical element that we find in this poem but we never know for sure since there has not been any documentation or archaeological evidence to prove that such a character, such a historical leader, such a historical figure actually existed. The possibility is that he must have been the leader of the Geats some centuries before the story was recorded. And later perhaps the stories of his exploits became intertwined with supernatural elements and this is something we noticed with most of the writings of the earlier times because the past kings, though they were bested with the authority and power they also had to be elevated in terms of their mental and physical attributes to cultivate some amount of mystique and authority among the people. So always in the stories of heroes and the stories of kings we do find a supernatural element getting intertwined either into the personality or into the scheme of events.