CM January 5, 
1996. Vol. 2, Number 12

image The Last Quest of Gilgamesh.

Retold and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman.
Montreal: Tundra Books, 1995. 24pp, cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88776-328-6.

Subject Heading:
Gilgamesh (Legendary Character).

Grades 4 - 6 / Ages 9 - 11.
Review by Kenneth Field.


At the mouth of a river at the end of the earth a man lies, near death. Could this be Gilgamesh, the all powerful King of Uruk, loved by his people, famous throughout the ancient world for the magnificent wall he had built around his city?
What has brought him to this desperate state in this lonely place?

It was the fear of Death. Death had taken his dearest friend, Enkidu. Earlier it had taken the beautiful Shamhat, whom they both loved. As Gilgamesh watched their spirits fly off as birds, he resolved to get rid of Death before it took him from his people. His last quest would be to find the secret of immortality.

image So begins the last book of the trilogy that retells the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. In the first two books, Gilgamesh the King and The Revenge of Ishtar, the hero Gilgamesh, who is half god and half man, learns of human love from his friends Enkidu and Shamhat, and of the tragic loss of not only his friends but his people through death. Thus we now find him close to death himself and yet still struggling against it. The spirit of his friend Shamhat comes to Gilgamesh to give him guidance in this final struggle. With her assistance, and renewed strength, Gilgamesh sets out on his final quest -- to overcome death.

Ludmila Zeman's retelling captures this last stage of Gilgamesh's development -- the realisation that even he will not be able to evade death attain immortality, but that his memory will live on nonetheless in the hearts and minds of his people. But for anyone unfamiliar with the epic, there may be some difficulty in piecing the events recounted in the trilogy together in a way which will give meaning to the whole story. This will be particularly true for children to whom the story is read.


The story, as retold by Zeman, flows well, and she incorporates all of the elements of the epic, such as the immortal survivors of the flood and the plant of life. But she does not convey the arbitrary nature of the gods' behaviour in bringing floods or bestowing immortality on humans. These seemingly unpredictable and irrational acts were accepted as beyond human understanding in the ancient world. In this day and age when scientific explanations for everyday events dominate our lives it is difficult to think of a time when acts of the gods were viewed as just that.

The illustrations are fashioned after eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious engravings. They give the story a biblical tone which is quite appropriate given the mythic elements, such as the flood, which recur in the Old Testament. The colouring is beautiful and captures the changing tones of this last quest very well. (The Last Quest of Gilgamesh was the 1995 Governor General's Award-winner for English-language children's illustration.)


Together, the books in the trilogy are a reasonably accurate retelling of the Gilgamesh story, and as such are a good introduction to children to some of the mysteries of the ancient world. The explanatory notes at the end of the volume provide useful background for the reader, although a fuller discussion of the meaning of the epic would be useful, and a map or maps would help to allow the reader to physically locate the place in which the story originated.


Kenneth Field is a librarian for Traill College at Trent University in Peterborough, ON.

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Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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