We are what we read. It has been proven that the language we speak shapes the way we think and see the world. Consequently, it defines who we are. As Michel C. LaCrue puts it, "while most animals communicate in order to convey environmental information such as danger or where food is located, humans have evolved and developed an articulated language for a myriad of uses, and our language is the basis for how we shape and maintain reality" (LaCrue). The researcher compares modern Political Action Committees with the ancient oracles in the way they shape our vision of the present and the future (LaCrue). I would go even further to suggest that it is literature that serves as the modern oracle. Literature is the highest form of language realization, of thinking, feeling and remembering through words. We mentally digest what we read gaining experience we might have failed to come across in the real world. We live hundreds of lives and they enrich our personality with alternative perspectives which help us better understand the other, but also get a deeper insight into who we really are. In linguistics there is a hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism. I would argue that there must also be a hypothesis of literary relativity and determinism. The life of an individual is both reflected in and determined by the books she chooses. In turn, the life of a society is mirrored but also shaped by the literature that is circulating in it. This is why it is crucial to read the key texts of our civilization as they help us understand in what direction our society is heading. Through the books I read and 'digested' within this course, I could obtain an insight into the way people saw the world centuries ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf have provided me with an opportunity to observe how modern notions of heroism, and, consequently, of success and achievement were shaped, and how they relate to the modern ethics and culture.
The notion of 'heroism' is one of the most fascinating and at the same hard to define phenomena in the world history as it reflects the way the civilization sees the ideal individual in a particular epoch. In order to understand what a hero is today one needs to turn back to the roots of heroism. The first hero of the humankind is Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Akkadian cuneiform poem written c. 2150-1400 BC, precedes Beowulf, another paragon of epic art, by more than 2500 years. Yet, surprisingly, the two eponymous characters, as it turns out, have a lot in common. And what is more, both of the poems sound fascinatingly modern when read with the attention to detail and thoughtfulness they deserve. Both poems give their own definitions of a hero, which correlate with the developmental stage of each ethnos and reflect their views on such crucial issues as life and death, self-identification and place of the individual in the society. Both definitions have something to teach us about who we are as a part of the civilization and how we have come to be this way.
The two poems give a researcher abundant comparative material. There is little chance of direct influence (North and Worthington 177), but similar plot details can be found, including the quest, a fight with a monster, having to descend underground, etc. These parallels are likely to stem from the general epic genre conventions (George 53). The heroes are both rulers and can boast extreme strength. Gilgamesh is "like a wild bull he makes himself mighty, head raised (over others)" (The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet I) and "there is no rival who can raise his weapon against him" (The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet I). Beowulf is the "stoutest and strongest" (Beowulf, IV, 9). Still, they are slightly different in their character and attitude to life. Gilgamesh, whose mother is goddess Ninsun, is impetuous, temperamental, outspoken, sometimes even rude, relying more on his incredible physical strength than reasoning. "I am extraordinarily strong", he tells his mother in Tablet 3 (The Epic of Gilgamesh) when planning his journey to kill Humbaba, and his mother reacts by blaming his "restless heart", which drives him into this perilous campaign (The Epic of Gilgamesh). If he can be considered related to anyone among other epic heroes, it would be the Greek warrior Achilles. Beowulf is extremely strong and brave too, "of heroes then living / He was stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble" (Beowulf, IV, 9), but his character is slightly different. He sets on his mission to help Hrothgar showing his loyalty and readiness to come to the aid of the king in trouble, even if it might cost him his life. This shows him to be quite self-sacrificing. Beowulf is decisive, courageous, fearless, yet, also deliberate, methodical, practical. These qualities can be observed in the scenes of his preparation for the voyage and in the way he behaves in Heorot where he never loses his watchfulness. Thus, in Beowulf, the reader witnesses the hero's natural "progress from adventurous youth to wisdom-weighted old age" (Blomfield 396). Apart from his extreme strength, other sides of his character such as "knightly courtesy" (Blomfield 396) and "vain beside humility" (Blomfield 396) are brought into the light. In general, he belongs to a different type of a hero, a culture hero, characteristic of a more advanced developmental stage associated with the refinement of weapons and tools.
There is a very important common heroic aspect to the personality of both protagonists, the one without which they could not be called heroes: it is their thirst for fame and commemoration. Both heroes seek to immortalize their names, which is an integral part of being a hero. As C.Collins metaphorically puts it: "So-and-so never slays dragons. Only famous persons do famous things" (Collins 51). When Gilgamesh sets on his journey to get the Sacred Cedars in order to be celebrated as the vanquisher of Humbaba, he tells his mother: "... let there be rejoicing all over the land, and I will erect a monument of the victory before you!" (The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet III). This remark shows that he is ultimately self-centered and cares only for his own glory. He strives to surpass everyone and urges Enkidu to accompany him to do "a deed such as has never (before) been done in the land" (The Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet III). Fame and glory are the initial stimuli of his quest. Fame is also important for Beowulf, but he has other incentives as well. His primary desire is to help Hrothgar. When the author describes Beowulf's departure for Heorot, he mentions his companions' reaction which is quite parallel to what the reader witnessed in Gilgamesh:
For the perilous project prudent companions
Chided him little, though loving him dearly;
They egged the brave atheling, augured him glory (Beowulf, IV, 13-15).
It can be seen in this passage that though Beowulf's mission is dangerous, indeed, he is supported by his companions as the expedition is not a mere quest for fame and glory, but a mission the ultimate aim of which is to save human lives. There is also another motive that Beowulf has to commit heroic deeds. At the end of the poem, he strives to seize the dragon's treasure which becomes a symbol of wealth and power as means of achieving immortality. The value of the treasure is not only in the fact of owning it, but also in the weight that the wealth gives its owner. Wealth is an attribute of a sovereign, whose duty is to endow a part of his property with faithful warriors. Gold and silver, as the highest emanation of wealth, are identified with the happiness and well-being not only of a specific person, but also of their fellow tribesmen, who gained the favor of the owner of the treasure. To share a bit of wealth means the highest favor and fraternal friendship. As a leader, it is Beowulf's responsibility to procure the gold he can share with his liege men. So, Beowulf's motives seem to be more conscious and diverse than the vain impulse that drives Gilgamesh. Obviously, this is the direction that has defined the further development of the culture of heroism with its present culmination in the cult of a selfless hero hiding his identity who possesses all the heroic qualities except vanity.
One more important aspect that struck me when I was reading both poems was the omnipresent awareness of mortality. Though the two epic texts tell the reader of glorious events and heroic deeds, they are not at all celebratory in their tone. Gloom is the definitive mood of both of them. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu dies of an illness, Gilgamesh is crashed and is musing on the subject of the finite nature of life. Beowulf starts with a funeral and ends with the hero's death of the wound inflicted by the dragon. In the meantime, the hero witnesses many deaths that make him all the more aware of the reality of the end. Yet, the sadness in the hearts of Beowulf is of a different kind. While Gilgamesh has at least one good friend Enkidu with whom he is bound by the ties of friendship and fondness, Beowulf is very lonely, even though he is surrounded by his loyal companions. This loneliness is a manifestation of the extreme individualism inherent in the Medieval epic heroism. Yet, as Lindsey Beth Zachary points out, Beowulf, who "initially stands apart emotionally" from other characters (Zachary), "maintains a focus on gaining glory through deeds of prowess" (Zachary), and whose "concept of suffering only acknowledges physical pain, disregarding emotional pain" (Zachary), later on in the poem undergoes a transformation as he personally encounter suffering and loss and by the end of the text starts to show "empathy by mourning" (Zachary). There is a hope for him too - it lies within the Christian worldview that is conquering the pagan world. The life is gloomy and full of sorrow, but you will be rewarded in the afterlife, it says. Unfortunately, as I noticed, this hope only lingers at the margins, leaving the hero to the melancholy and toughness of his world. I believe, this deep underlying realization of mortality of everything that lives is the essential condition for appreciating the world we live in, its fleeting beauty, the warmth and coziness of your home, love and friendship that you are lucky to have in your life. Death is the other side of life, the other side of the same coin. Only too often modern sagas of superheroes lack this realization of the fragility and preciousness of life.
All in all, both poems have uncovered for me many aspects of the development of our civilization at earlier stages and this has helped me look at the modern culture in the new light. The friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a reflection of the vitally important ability of the sedentary and nomad tribes to unify forces in the face of the willfulness of nature. Their long journey on foot to the distant and hostile mountains in a metaphoric way explains how much stamina was required to be able to import natural resources, as well as to keep borders protected and to expand them from time to time. Beowulf, traveling by ship, is a literary embodiment of the Scandinavian explorer and merchant, conquering the neighboring lands mostly by intellect and his skills of a warrior. If Gilgamesh seems to be quite asocial, Beowulf is a manifestation of a group-ethos which is realized in his care for his king and companions. Gilgamesh, a son of a goddess, manifests the divine character of the power structure, while in Beowulf the hero's origin is not divine, he gains his position of power thanks to his personal qualities which reflects more mobile social structure. The worldview of Gilgamesh is deeply pessimistic and centered on the notion of death. Beowulf impersonates more optimistic Christian world perception attributing more importance to how the heroic deeds will be rew...
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