Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Invitation to World Literature

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Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts

Characters

  1. What's wrong with Gilgamesh when we first meet him?
  2. How does Enkidu change Gilgamesh? Challenging the king to combat, as Enkidu does, was a deadly offense. Does the text ever clearly state why or how they go from enemies to friends?
  3. Compare the characters of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Who was the more heroic? Why? Begin with an explanation of what you consider heroic and see if it is similar to what is considered heroic in the story.
  4. There are several female characters in the epic — both divine and human. How are women represented in the epic? What roles do they play in the lives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu? Is there a difference between how mortal and divine women are represented? If so, what sorts of differences are there?

Plot Actions

  1. Why does Gilgamesh kill Humbaba? Does Humbaba deserve to die?
  2. As he lies dying, Enkidu curses the harlot, and then revokes his curse and blesses her. Do you think he was better off in his natural, animal, state, or as a civilized man?

Themes

  1. Why is the issue of immortality so important to Gilgamesh? Does he fear death, or love life?
  2. Ultimately, what does the story tell us about what it means to be human? How do both Gilgamesh and Enkidu change in ways that might help us answer that question?
  3. Compare the Biblical story of the flood (Genesis 6-10) with the version of the flood told by Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Now, identify several ways in which the two floods are similar and several ways in which they are different. What do you think is the most striking difference between them? What cultural or theological difference may underlie the differences in the two versions of the Flood story? Explain, using specific examples from both stories to support your ideas.
  4. In the video, the dancer and choreographer Izumi Ashizawa describes Siduri's advice to Gilgamesh as paralleling an insight of Zen Buddhism. How do you understand this advice? Do you agree with it or not? What does it mean for Gilgamesh?

Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking

  1. Gilgamesh may be a part-god, superhuman character, but his “power” is only physical, and even his great physical deeds are a sort of handicap—his reliance on force over reason or thoughtfulness is one of his faults. The story of Gilgamesh is focused on human life and human concerns. What is it to be human? Gilgamesh is celebrated for his human successes (loving a friend more than himself, protecting his city, learning to accept mortality), not his divinity. Gilgamesh is critical of tyranny, oppression, violence, conquest, and ambition. It promotes the values of a simple life of rest, and enjoyment of the pleasures of human companionship, love, food, and drink.
  2. The story's telegraphed ending, which is very abrupt, has puzzled some. Here is the entire ending into which so much meaning has been extrapolated by readers:
    321-329

    When they arrived in Uruk-the-Sheepfold, Said Gilgamesh to him, to Ur-shanabi the boatman:

    ‘Oh Ur-Shanabi, climb Uruk's wall and walk back and forth! Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork! Were not its bricks fired in an oven? Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?

    A square mile is the city, a square mile date-grove, a square mile is Clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar: Three square miles and a half is Uruk's expanse.’

    There is nothing here at all explicitly stating or showing that Gilgamesh has gained wisdom or understands that his legacy is his city. Although some find this meaning, others see the ending as inconclusive. Which view do you find valid?
  3. Generally, Gilgamesh is told very quickly—the plot is king and it is unfolded without any narrative delays. What effect is achieved by the sequences of dreams that interrupt the action?
  4. The poet Yusef Komunyakaa talks of “reading into the silences” of Gilgamesh, in part referring to the many ellipses in the text because of missing or incomplete tablets. Although these absences were not the intention of the original authors of the texts, for Komunyakaa they contribute to its poetic character and its ability to work on the imagination of a modern reader. Do you agree? If so, what happens when missing passages get filled in? Does the work change somehow, becoming perhaps less poetic and more direct?