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Comparison and Contrast: Gilgamesh and Beowulf

Epic poems have been written since the days of Sumer and ancient Greece, weaving glorious tales of brave heroes that went on impeccable journeys in search for great treasure. Among the oldest epics are Gilgamesh and Beowulf, with the two heroes both going on quests - one to seek eternal life, and the other to seek glory. However, both Gilgamesh and Beowulf are not heroes. Regardless of how brave and dedicated they may be, they are still irrational and greedy and therefore not qualified to represent their respective cultures.

Gilgamesh sets out to learn the secret of life so that he could bring back his dead friend Enkidu. To do this, he has to seek the secret of life from Utnapishtim in paradise, which involves journeying past the gates between the Mashu mountains into the Road of the Sun, past the valley, and across the lake. All this time Gilgamesh has to accept that Enkidu could not help him through the darkness and go on without anyone to help. (lines 106-172). The journey is arduous, as it brings up painful emotions, and Utnapishtim recognizes this. "Two things encourage me to hope, he said; that one can come this far to bring life to a friend." (lines 213-214)

Correspondingly, Beowulf's quest is not as personal as that of Gilgamesh. As the monster Grendel was terrorizing Herot, Beowulf sets out to help Hrothgar. Judging from the setting in present-day Denmark and northern Germany shortly after the fall of Rome, it can be suggested that Beowulf is seeking fame and glory that will, in a sense, give him eternal life. Beowulf, before fighting Grendel's mother, proclaims, "Each of us will come to the end of this life on earth; he who can earn it should fight for the glory of his name; fame after death is the noblest of goals." Again, near death, he thanks God for all the treasure and requests to have his tomb at the water's edge, so sailors can see it and remember it as 'Beowulf's tower.'

Gilgamesh is to be noted for his dedication and loyalty. Upon Enkidu's death, "mad, perhaps insane, he tried to bring Enkidu back to life" (lines 48-50) and eventually sets out to see Utnapishtim even though beyond the gates "there is only death." (line 94) Furthermore, even though Utnapishtim tries to discourage him Gilgamesh insists. "What can I do to win eternal life? The younger pleaded. Wherever I go--even here--I am drawn back to death." (lines 431-432) Eventually Utnapishtim feels sorry for him and relents.

In like manner, Beowulf is also dedicated and loyal. After cutting off Grendel's claw he pursues the monster to make sure that he is dead, and when Grendel's mother seeks vengeance he does not hesitate to fight her. He originally sets out to help Hrothgar and does not intend to leave the quest unfinished.

Gilgamesh is indeed brave. He mentions his earlier conquests with Enkidu: "We hunted together. We killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven." (lines 147-148) He wanders through the desert, past the gates at the mountains, and travels the Road of the Sun in pursuit of one constant goal. After Utnapishtim reveals to him the secret of life that he has been searching for, he braves the lake and the plant's thorns that prick his hands.

Beowulf, without a doubt, is just as brave as Gilgamesh, perhaps even more. Upon hearing of Hrothgar's troubles with Grendel, he sails to Herot and battles the monster and then his mother. In his last battle, Beowulf fights against the fire-breathing dragon and fights on until his very last breath.

However, regardless of his bravery and dedication, Gilgamesh easily becomes obsessed with the question of death and eternal life as his quest continues. The haunting of Enkidu's memory drives him to the peculiar idea of finding eternal life. He is also highly emotional. Just the "movement through the trees" (line 68), the magnificent valley (lines 133-146), and the animal pelts (lines 437-439) remind him of Enkidu and move him to tears. He cries and grieves and mourns constantly. (lines 449-454)

Gilgamesh is greedy, irrational and inconsiderate. Without thinking about the plant's high value, he wades in the lake and carelessly leaves the plant to be eaten by a serpent. While Utnapishtim tells his tale about the flood, intending to make Gilgamesh think twice about getting eternal life, Gilgamesh falls asleep. Once he wakes up, all he asks for is the secret that he had been searching for. He persists, like he did at the gates between the mountains.

Beowulf is no better. He is also irrational and inconsiderate as well as greedy and superficial. The true reason why he sets out to help Hrothgar get rid of Grendel and his mother is his personal quest for glory and fame. Once he ascends to the throne and encounters the treasure-guarding dragon, he sets out immediately to slay it without thinking out the entire situation. All he can think of is getting the treasure by hook or by crook. Upon his death, surrounded by treasure and gold, Beowulf orders to have his tomb placed by the sea so everyone would know and remember him.

Both Gilgamesh and Beowulf may be brave and determined enough to go on quests in search for a great treasure, but such foolish qualities as greed, irrationality and selfishness do not seem to be idealistic qualities embodied by their civilizations. They may be great individuals and rulers, but they are not epic heroes.

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Copyright (c) 1998 by Gemma Truman
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Ah, my first essay from AP English. Unfortunately I could've done better if I put more time and effort into it. (Yes, Mr. Ryback, I am admitting to it!)