The Epic of Gilgamesh is arguably the world’s first epic tale, dating from the second or third millennium before Christ, give or take a few days, in both Sumerian and Akkadian versions. Not knowing either Sumerian or Akkadian, I have relied on this English version, which can be dated quite confidently to 1972. I very much enjoyed this book; some stories are timeless, and this is one of them.
Fully half of the book (the first half) consists of the Introduction by the author, giving everything needful to know about the Epic for those of us who may not be current (as of 1972) on Middle Eastern archeology or literature. The tablets containing the Epic, and other tablets containing other Gilgamesh material, were first discovered in the mid 1850s, and more tablets keep turning up to be deciphered and plugged into holes in the story. The Epic itself is given in this edition in a prose version, and without pauses or other methods of noting where the story is nonexistent.
Essentially, Gilgamesh is King of Uruk, two-thirds god and one-third man, who is oppressing his people. The Gods give him a friend, Enkidu, and the two undertake a quest to gain renown, Enkidu then dies, and the distraught Gilgamesh goes to find the secret of everlasting life. He meets a being, Utnapishtim, who was told by the Gods to build a boat, containing the seed of all life, to survive a deluge; when he did so, he was uniquely granted eternal life. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that for the rest of men, eternal life does not exist. He does give Gilgamesh a plant which returns youth, but Gilgamesh loses the plant and returns to Uruk.
Besides the parallels with the Deluge story from Genesis, elements of this plot have been used over and over again in epic literature, and indeed in all great literature. And I am very glad to have read this book, to be reminded again that no man lives forever, not even the great Gilgamesh.