The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Book 5 | Summary

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Summary

The towering, fragrant trees of the Cedar Forest stand before Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who can see the Cedar Mountain, home of the gods, far away. The heroes take their axes in hand and enter the forest on Humbaba's path. Fear strikes Enkidu, who prefers to return to Uruk and be known as a coward than to go on. Despite Gilgamesh's praise of Enkidu's courage against lions and his insistence that two will prevail where one might fail, Enkidu is terrified. He has seen Humbaba's razor-sharp tusks and bloody, fiery face. Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to think of the joy and fame of battle, not of death, and the two go on deep into the forest, to Humbaba's den. The monster sees the men and roars, "Prepare to die." Now face to face with the monster, Gilgamesh shakes with fear and can't move. Suddenly, Enkidu finds his courage and reminds Gilgamesh that they fight together. As they advance, Humbaba insults the men, whom he recognizes, as "a pair of frightened girls" and calls their plan insane. He will easily rip them apart. As he speaks, his appearance takes on the form of "a thousand nightmare faces," and Gilgamesh stops once again, terrified, until Enkidu reminds him of their combined strength.

The heroes attack as Humbaba stomps so furiously that the mountains split, pouring out ash and fumes to blind the heroes. But Shamash sends the four winds to blow the fumes away and stop Humbaba in his tracks. Soon Gilgamesh's knife is at Humbaba's throat, and the monster pleads for mercy. He offers to be the king's slave and give him cedars to build a temple to Shamash and a great palace for himself. But Enkidu warns Gilgamesh not to listen: "Kill him before you become confused." Humbaba addresses Enkidu, who knows the laws of the forest. Enlil assigned Humbaba the task of guarding the forest and will punish anyone who kills Enlil's guardian. Humbaba didn't kill Enkidu at the forest's edge, so now Enkidu owes him mercy.

Ignoring the monster's arguments, Enkidu advises Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba before Enlil becomes angry and stops him. Then Gilgamesh will achieve the fame he seeks. Defeated, Humbaba utters a curse that Enkidu will die in pain and Gilgamesh will grieve without end. These words cause Gilgamesh to pull back in horror, but Enkidu again urges the king to ignore Humbaba's words and strike, "Now!" Three strokes of the king's axe bring the monster down, and his blood fills the valleys as the trees echo the sound of his fall. The heroes cut off Humbaba's head as a light rain falls. They venture on into the forest to chop down cedars, including the tallest tree, intending to float the trunks down the Euphrates River to Nippur, where Enlil's temple is. The tallest cedar they will fashion into a great door that only gods may go through. The men lash the trunks into a raft, and Enkidu steers it down the river as Gilgamesh holds their trophy, Humbaba's head.

Analysis

Epic heroes often deny fear or seem, when in the rage of battle, not even to know it exists. This is the case, for example, with Achilles in the Iliad and especially with Beowulf, who when Grendel attacks becomes oddly calm, mentally taking notes about the monster's method of attack. In many cultures, a hero who shows fear is hardly worth the name. But Gilgamesh's culture takes a more practical tack. Fear is expected. Only a madman (as Humbaba says in his insulting speech) would face this monster fearlessly. More courageous than the blind rage of battle that wipes out the instinct of self-preservation, the choice to persist despite fear makes Gilgamesh and Enkidu continue down the path. When the courage of one fails, the other urges a few more steps forward. Neither could continue on his own, but together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are two halves of one heroic heart.

The battle, when it comes, is waged as much in words as in deeds. Humbaba's insults are personal and pointed: Gilgamesh may fancy himself a strong, wise king, but he is a fool whom Humbaba can easily tear apart. As for Enkidu, that "gutless, fatherless spawn" of unnatural birth, Humbaba spared him when he grazed with the wild herds because he was too skinny to be worth eating. Humbaba's breath is fire and his tusks are fangs, but his discouraging words, too, are weapons. The longer Gilgamesh listens, the more "haunted" by the monster he feels. Humbaba's words expose Gilgamesh's disdain for death for the bombastic lie it is. Even after Shamash stops Humbaba in his tracks to allow the heroes to best the monster, Gilgamesh is susceptible to Humbaba's words. First, Humbaba appeals to the king's mercy and tempts him with power and wealth. Enkidu pleads, "Don't listen." Then Humbaba reminds the men that he could easily have ambushed and killed them. Enkidu again urges Gilgamesh to ignore Humbaba and act before Enlil and the other gods step in angrily. When Humbaba lobs his strongest argument, prophesying Enkidu's death and Gilgamesh's grief, the distressed king actually lowers his weapon till Enkidu gets stern. "Close your ears," he urges. Gilgamesh yells a battle cry, perhaps to drown out Humbaba's next verbal attack, and strikes. He does the deed, but had Enkidu not been by his side to turn away temptation and fear, he likely would have failed. The friend who once advised strongly, with tears and sighs, against the adventure and the friend who laughed at the possibility of death seem to have exchanged stances so that, throughout the adventure, each continues to balance the other.

Enkidu is steadfast throughout Humbaba's attempts to sway Gilgamesh toward mercy, but readers may notice that it's also Enkidu who has the idea to float the cedars to Nippur to build a mighty gate for Enlil's temple. "May Enlil delight in us," he prays. Perhaps because of Humbaba's curse, Enkidu is eager to please the high god, who outranks Shamash. The heroes find themselves between two deities: Shamash, who urged them on to this fight and without whose assistance they would likely have died, and Enlil, who assigned Humbaba to guard the cedars. Yet the great cedar door will also honor Gilgamesh's achievement, since everyone who sees it will know its story. And Gilgamesh carries Humbaba's head as a trophy as the men ride the raft down the Euphrates. On the one hand, the danger has passed, victory has been won, and the men rejoice. On the other, Enkidu's desire to appease Enlil, who did not assist them in their quest, adds a disquieting overtone to the great conquest. The reality of the heroes' defiance of the gods is never far from the exciting moments of the chase and the battle, and when Humbaba dies, rain begins to fall, as if the heavens lament what has happened and what must happen later.

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