The story of Gilgamesh, an ancient epic poem written on clay tablets in a cuneiform alphabet, is as fascinating and moving as it is crucial to our ability to fathom the time and the place in which it was written. Gardner's version restores the poetry of the text and the lyricism that is lost in the earlier, almost scientific renderings. The principal theme of the poem is a familiar one: man's persistent and hopeless quest for immortality. It tells of the heroic exploits of an ancient ruler of the walled city of Uruk named Gilgamesh. Included in its story is an account of the Flood that predates the Biblical version by centuries. Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man of the woods named Enkidu, fight monsters and demonic powers in search of honor and lasting fame. When Enkidu is put to death by the vengeful goddess Ishtar, Gilgamesh travels to the underworld to find an answer to his grief and confront the question of mortality.
The appearance therefore of Gardner's translation - it is his, as the introduction makes clear - is an exciting event, and it raises our hopes that someone has at last caught in English something of the ancient art. Gardner was not a poet, but he was an artist with words....The language here is simple and direct, at times approaching the freshness of the original. When Gardner is right - that is, accurate - he is almost always very right. Unlike the scholar's version, his has the right tone and the right word in the right place....Occasionally the language is uncharacteristically affected....But what flaws Gardner's achievement, and flaws it seriously, are the startling inconsistencies of his translations and the many translations that are simply wrong, at times accompanied by an inept commentary....In brief, I regret to say that this translation, though it is often excellent, must be used with caution. It is quite uneven. But it is also encouraging, clear evidence of what might be achieved by the close cooperation of the artist and the scholar. -- New York Times