The Epic of Gilgamesh
What’s Up With the Ending?
The last words of The Epic of Gilgamesh repeat (with a slight variation) the opening words of the poem. Just like the opening of the poem, they are an invitation to look at the city of Uruk, to take in its splendors, see how excellently it is constructed. Yep, the story comes full-circle; just the way we like it!
The situation at the end of the poem is that Gilgamesh has returned home from his voyage beyond the ends of the earth. Returning home is always a good ending to a story about a quest—but not if everything has just stayed the same, right? As it happens, something has changed. Gilgamesh went on his journey to find out the secret of immortality, and now's he found it: only two human beings have been granted immortality (Utanapishtim and his wife), and Gilgamesh isn't one of them.
In other words, he'd better learn to live with the knowledge that he will die. From this perspective, Gilgamesh's words about the city could be a sign of growth and maturity. Before, he didn't appreciate such things; now, though, maybe he realizes that human accomplishments on earth are all we've got—so we'd better give credit where credit is due.
The Same But Different
There's one cool difference that we want to talk about. In the opening of the poem, the identity of the speaker is unknown and we, the readers, are the ones being addressed, whereas at the end of the poem Gilgamesh is clearly the speaker, and he is addressing Urshanabi the ferryman. So, here's one thought about that:
Gilgamesh is really about the process of confronting and overcoming the fear of death—which grants a kind of immortality. Like a true hero, Gilgamesh has to go off and learn this secret for the good of humanity. When the poem opens, he's already learned it, and the speaker is able to clue us in right away. The moment at the end when he speaks to the ferryman is the moment that he truly gets it—and that realization is what we get at the beginning. In other words, the beginning of the poem universalizes the individual experience that Gilgamesh has.
Confusing? Yeah. But also kind of cool—and super sophisticated. What are your thoughts?