December 16, 2001*
Last night I finished David Ferry’s rendition of Gilgamesh; I read it out loud. It has reminded me of my favorite moment ever in “Star Trek”: the Epic of Gilgamesh as told by Patrick Stewart in “Darmok,” an episode during the fifth season of “The Next Generation” TV series. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise tells the story to an emissary, another starship captain, of an alien species that can speak only in metaphor. The alien captain, Dathan, knows there is narrow hope, but great need, for his people to communicate with others. Gambling that two strangers will bond when forced together to fight a common foe, he has kidnapped Picard from the bridge of the Enterprise and transported them both, without possibility of outside help, to the surface of a lonely planet, where their only companion is a monster making its way steadily toward them across the wastelands, and heralded by roars.
The scenario is ancient and more primal than Star Trek tends to be. No wonder that the name of Gilgamesh, whose earthy and vigorous story is our oldest surviving written epic, should show up in this episode. Picard’s use of the story of Gilgamesh highlights the rich themes in this installation of “Star Trek” – friendship, communication, loss – and elevate this episode to a level of quality that one critic, at least, found to be surpassed only by the series finale, “All Good Things,” which was invisibly but powerfully designed after the Book of Job, an ancient parable whose age and origins are so similar to those of Gilgamesh.
Dathan, able to speak only in metaphor, repeats these words to Picard: “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” He adds more clues, like “Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.” Meanwhile the monster is heard approaching in the distance. Picard’s own priority being communication – such is the original mission, after all, of the starship Enterprise – he takes the cue. He surmises that on this planet, known as Eladrel, he and the alien captain are facing a situation similar to the one faced by Darmok and Jalad, whoever they were, on an island called Tenagra. Picard realizes that he is being fed myth or history from Captain Dathan, and that he is being invited to understand, to surrender to the danger for a higher purpose: a first meeting between two civilizations. When the monster arrives, Picard fights alongside Dathan. Picard’s crew, orbiting overhead aboard the Enterprise in a tense stand-off with the alien ship, know nothing of this purpose. They try to beam Picard back to the Enterprise until blasts from the alien ship foil the attempt, but the transporter beam has momentarily rendered Picard immobile on the planet below, at a terrible moment. The monster, a body-less thing that travels as a dark shadow of energy in the shape of a two-legged beast, materializing at will in places of its choosing and then disappearing, has attacked again. Picard, screaming in protest at the Enterprise’s attempt to snatch him away, can only watch while the beast hurls its blows upon Captain Dathan; the monster moves on, either incapable of eating, or hungry only to kill. Picard, now released from the transporter beam, joins his new friend, now laying near death on the ground.
Then Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh. Night has fallen and a campfire burns. Dathan is still alive and capable of speech, though dying. He asks for a story, and Picard begs off for a moment. He can’t tell stories, he says, “and besides, you wouldn’t understand.” Dathan sighs in disappointment. Picard reflects again: “Perhaps that doesn’t matter. You want to hear it anyway.” And Dathan does desire it. Paul Winfield’s face, under so much makeup, conveys the sorrow and the eagerness of Dathan, listening raptly to a story that he manages to understand because he feels its heart without following its sentences. He hears the poetic phrases, gathers their essence, and knows that he already has heard, in his own lore, the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.
This is how I remember it.
This is a story … a very ancient story … from Earth. I’ll try and remember it. Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh … a king …. at … Uruk. (Dathan repeats “at Uruk” to show he is following). He tormented his subjects. They cried out aloud to heaven, “Spare us from his madness. Send us a companion for our king.” Enkidu, a wild-man, from the forest, enters the city. Gilgamesh … fought … Enkidu. They fought in the temple. They fought in the streets. Gilgamesh … defeated … Enkidu. They became great friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, at Uruk. (Dathan repeats this phrase in appreciation). The new friends went out into the fields … where …the great Bull of Heaven was killing men by the thousands. Enkidu caught the Bull by the tail. Gilgamesh struck it with his sword. (A delighted and rapt Dathan exclaims softly, “Gilgamesh!”) But Enkidu fell to the ground, struck down by the gods. And Gilgamesh wept bitter tears, saying, “He who was my friend, he who was my companion, in adventure, and in hardship, is gone forever.”
And Dathan dies. But his mission is accomplished. The Enterprise crew manages to beam Picard aboard again, and the alien ship begins firing, crippling the Enterprise. Picard opens communications with the dead captain’s crew, and speaks to them in metaphor. He mentions Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra, then adds, “Picard and Dathan at Eladrel.” He invokes the “Beast of Tenagra,” and offers more clues. The alien crew understands and departs, knowing their sacrifice has not been in vain.
Patrick Stewart is a masterful storyteller, and I have never been so spellbound before a television as I was in those few moments with Gilgamesh and Enkidu. How often is great literature read on screen? It was not a story I knew, though I knew its great age and its origins.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” first presented “Darmok” in its fifth season, which ended in June 1992. That was the month that I finished my year at Union Seminary, where one of the assigned texts, in an associated course across the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, was Stephanie Dalley’s translation of Gilgamesh. Yet I don’t recall reading it at the seminary, nor even when I saw “Darmok” shortly thereafter.
The Gilgamesh version I read last night was published in 1992, perhaps too late to have influenced the writers of “Darmok.” Maybe they were inspired by Robert Temple’s 1991 translation, “He Who Saw Everything,” or by Dalley’s translation, published in 1989.
It seems this story has been calling me, and it’s not the only one. Seamus Heany’s translation of Beowulf is now sitting on my desk, and it was praised, like the rendition of Gilgamesh I read last night, for revitalizing an old classic with a modern-English version that stands as a work of art in its own right.
In an online discussion on Tolkien, I had read Michael Dirda’s observation that Tolkien wrote the best essay ever on Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics.” I failed to find that essay at the bookstore but I still bought Gilgamesh, having seen, among other things I liked, Michael Dirda’s praise on the back cover.
Beowulf has this other connection for me: it too, is a work I did not read in school, though required in my ninth grade. I plan to read Heany’s translation of Beowulf out loud.
A few hours before buying Gilgamesh, I had greeted Elena, a Russian friend back from India after ten months. We discussed 9/11 at length and I asked if she’d ever been to the top of the World Trade Center. She had, eight years ago, upon first arriving from Russia. She said looking down on the city was like seeing Babylon, an appropriate term for this city.
The ancient city of Babylon was near Gilgamesh’s home city of Uruk; the lands of his kingdom eventually became part of a much larger Babylonian empire. When Gilgamesh visited the twin peaks of Mashu, I imagined these two peaks eventually towering over Babylon’s empire, like our World Trade Center.
The peaks of Mashu were said to face in opposite directions, one facing the sunrise, the other the sunset. Our twin towers were called the north and the south towers, and since they were off at an angle to each other, there was also an east tower and a west tower. (The north tower, the first one hit and the second to fall, was the west tower). Each had four sides, facing at once to the east, south, west, and north. They were New York’s highest points. They were urban peaks, not unlike Uruk’s towering figures, “the king” and “the companion,” Gilgamesh and Enkidu. And for a brief moment, when the north tower had lost the south tower, I felt how strange and lonely it would be to have only one tower standing, until it, too, came down. I feel like calling our vanished towers by the names of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
In the original epic, Gilgamesh weeps as Enkidu succumbs to a disease brought on by the gods as punishment for destroying the Bull of Heaven. I was moved to tears for Enkidu’s desperation before death. Then there was Gilgamesh’s lonely journey to the end of the world in search of the secret of immortality, thought to reside with the one man who survived the Flood.
Beowulf will follow. What journey of reading will call me after that, I don’t know.
* I wrote the essay above in December 2001, years before YouTube was a thing. Below, the scene from “Darmok”.