Epic poem: these dry, dusty monosyllables box in a seamless, organic ritual of storytelling of such stature and power it has enthralled men – absorbed them utterly – for thousands upon thousands of years.
The epic has the things we love; the characters who have just enough of us about them to be riveting, who tread long, involved, unthinkable paths on our behalf. Through them, we can battle the cyclops, or rebuff Morgan Le Fay, or duel with Vader.
That’s why this little illustration – chosen for Side View’s theme this week – is so engaging. It lays out a smorgasbord of epic possibilities.
But does it include everyone?
Let’s match it against one of the oldest epics we know.
Gilgamesh. Twelve ancient tablets, give or take, and those only the standard version found in the library of an ancient Assyrian King. The best part of four thousand years old, there are wandering versions, fragments, story wisps, which weave like a dream, back and forth over the same episodes, re-working them, re-telling them.
I can’t tell it all here and now. Of course not; but even the beginning is a gut-crunching tablet-turner, and in those ancient days when the story was told for entertainment I am left wondering how anyone ever got any sleep.
The epic begins with a master stroke, for the story opens, not with a hero, but with an anti-hero.
Gilgamesh. An arrogant, bored monarch, accustomed to oppressing his people, and with Lord’s rights. You know: the ones more usually associated with mediaeval lords; they had the right to sleep with any of the women in their fiefdom, on the first night after they married.
Got you now, haven’t I?
Gilgamesh indulged his rights constantly. He lived the law right royally. And why shouldn’t he? He was two-thirds God. The man was an icon. A little seamy, maybe, but a very powerful player.
And no one stood up to him. Gilgamesh was the epic hero you love to hate.
So the Gods put their celestial heads together, and they thought: let’s make something to distract him.
And they made a man. A wild and hairy man who lived with animals, named Enkidu.
They made him, but they didn’t lead him straight to Gilgamesh. No; in his first appearance, he was making a nuisance of himself uprooting all the traps which had been set by a local trapper. The trapper enlisted Gilgamesh’s help, and Gilgamesh advised using a weapon he knew well: women.
A stunning, shapely temple prostitute was employed to seduce Enkidu away from the whole business of traps for seven days. Which she did professionally and with aplomb. And at the end of that, she took him back to Gilgamesh’s city.
But it seems nothing could keep the wild man out of trouble. He heard about Gilgamesh and those lord’s rights, and he was outraged. He resolved to sort the business out once and for all.
Most people would have thought up a cunning plan at this point. But not Enkidu. He marched straight to the bedroom where the bride awaited and stood in front of the doorway.
Whereupon there was the most almighty fight between two-thirds-god and wild man. Of course, two-thirds god won; but somehow, by the end of the whole business, they had forged a bond of friendship. And they resolved to go away together on a great adventure.
Perhaps we should add a few more characters to the opening picture from our post today. It needs an anti-hero, and a wronged bride, and a wild and hairy but well-intentioned man.
After all, they were here before all the rest.