In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is incredibly complex character that undergoes a number of changes throughout the novel. These changes reflect onto who he will become as well as who he used to be. His values line up with his identity and we will see how both develop with each other throughout the course of the epic. Through self-evaluation and the experience of others, Gilgamesh’s initial value of being a lone, all-powerful leader changes immensely throughout time to simply striving for life. Through analyzing quotations from the text, we will understand more completely what Gilgamesh’s motives are and what causes him to behave in the way that he does.
At the beginning of the novel, the first impressions presented to us of Gilgamesh aren’t positive in any way. The first physical description we receive of him is, “…tall, magnificent and terrible.” (p. 2 l. 37) Immediately, we’re given a sense of Gilgamesh’s looming, all-powerful self, both human and god. Through his actions of lying with every bride before her bridegroom and acting as a tyrant to all of Uruk, it is clear what his values are. Gilgamesh believes that the only thing of worth in the world is having power for himself over all others. He doesn’t care to know any of those he rules, “…he knows not a people, nor even a country.” (p. 5 l. 108) He doesn’t know, nor care to know, what it means to feel compassion for another, until Enkidu comes along.
Enkidu is a ‘match’ for Gilgamesh in more ways than one. Because Enkidu is the only person who can physically measure up to Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh instantly feels a connection to him and soon begins to learn how to care for someone else. Already, Gilgamesh’s values begin to shift. Although he remains focused upon maintaining his supremacy over all, as demonstrated by his urgency to battle Humbaba, his shift in values is best articulated through advice given to Gilgamesh, “‘Who goes in front saves his companion, who knows the road protects his friend.’” (p. 25 l. 4-5) Gilgamesh, by releasing some of his control and considering Enkidu his friend before going into battle, demonstrates a clear change from who he was just a short period of time beforehand. On the way to the Forest of Cedar, Gilgamesh has a number of dreams and is reassured by Enkidu each time, which is an essential moment in Gilgamesh’s value shift. By retelling the dreams to his friend, Gilgamesh is, again, letting go of his power by admitting his doubts and fears. These dreams also give us the first look at what Gilgamesh’s reformed values are. When Enkidu offers words of advice to Gilgamesh just before battling Humbaba, “Forget death and seek life!”, (p. 38 l. 254) Gilgamesh, as we see later on in the text, takes these words to heart in reforming his values.
Enkidu’s death is a major turning point for Gilgamesh as far as his priorities go. In contrast to the beginning of the text when Gilgamesh’s most pressing priority was achieving ultimate power, Enkidu’s death forces him to take a step back and reevaluate his values. As he wanders around the earth mourning Enkidu, Gilgamesh realizes what it is that he values most now: life. He becomes obsessed with the goal of living forever, going as far as to ask Uta-napishti for help, as he has gained eternal life. Gilgamesh is warned by Uta-napishti, “No one at all sees the face of Death, No one at all hears the face of Death, Death so savage, who hacks men down.” (p. 86 l. 305-307) This statement means that Death is the one competitor that Gilgamesh is unable to defeat. Gilgamesh’s inner power-hunger is activated, however, and he strives to achieve his goal of eternal life until the very end, although ultimately failing.
Throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh, we’re given a clear look into Gilgamesh’s motives and inner-thoughts as he grows as a character. His initial main value of control and power is almost completely transformed into a value and a seeking for life. As his intentions shift from destructive to compassion, Gilgamesh too shifts in his thinking as well as his actions. Gilgamesh is a well-rounded character, although his goals ultimately fail, he learns and grows immensely throughout the text.
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