According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a hero is defined as a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. Keeping this definition in mind, Gilgamesh is reflected as a hero since he was two-third god and one-third man having supernatural strength. Furthermore he was destined to die and spent his entire life in quest for immortality. The epic narrates how the character has evolved throughout the twelve tablets and ended up being a completely different person to what he was initially.
Okonkwo, the protagonist of 'Things Fall Apart' is described as a person who was admired in his village for his bravery and strength. He was respected throughout the nine villages and everybody spoke of his gallantry with great awe and respect. Unlike Gilgamesh, Okonkwo's fame rested on personal achievements. He turned out to be a great man because of his own efforts and not because he was entitled to it by birth.
Okonkwo was one of the strongest men in Umoufia. He was masculine and considered emotions as a sign of weakness. He detested his father's attitude towards life and struggled personally to be as different from him as could. He considered his father a failure and strived for power. Okonkwo is described as manly which is reflected by many things such as his constant winning streak at wrestling and his performance in tribe wars. He was a struggler, a survivor. Due to these successes, he was full of pride and superiority. "He was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war." (Achebe 2)
The arrogance was reflected in every action by Okonkwo. He believed in getting things done by force. He had a condescending attitude towards the less accomplished members of his tribe and his attitude towards women was equally patronizing. He had several wives and all obeyed to him out of fear and dread of Okonkwo's anger. "Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children."(Achebe 2)
Gilgamesh also proves to possess great strength through his successes in several trials. Due to this reason, he too was forceful and expects everyone to give in to his orders. People are fearful of his authority as depicted by the helplessness in the initial tablets. "There was no withstanding the aura or power of the Wild Ox Gilgamesh. Neither the father's son nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother's daughter nor the warrior's bride was safe."(Carnahan 4)
Gilgamesh was created by the gods with special attention due to which he possessed good looks and strength. The characters of Gilgamesh and Okonkwo are portrayed as overbearing and arrogant. Gilgamesh always kept the city in a commotion and had a constant need to show his power upon the people. He asserted his right to sleep with virgins before their husbands could touch them. Hence the character is immature and arrogant just like Okonkwo with his inflexible outlook on life. The stubborn intolerance and bigotry depicted by both the characters causes them to face different challenged later in their stories; Okonkwo, with the invasion of white men in the African tribes, and Gilgamesh with the battle for immortality and companionship of Ekindu.
Both the characters were driven by different set of motivations. Okonkwo's dream was to be a well-known and respected member of his tribe. He considered his father a failure because he was poor and never wanted to end up like him. In order to accomplish this goal, he strived throughout his life and was able to earn the respect that he sought. Gilgamesh's prime quest was to become immortal especially after his friend Ekindu's death. Gilgamesh met with a series of challenges during his quest and faced them bravely.
The goals of Okonkwo and Gilgamesh ultimately have not been met. Okonkwo's dream of earning respect in his tribe falls apart with the advent of Western dominance in the clans. He is unable to exercise his authority and influence people. He was thrown out of the clan due to which he lost respect. His oldest son, Nwoye, converted to Christianity which was unacceptable for an Orthodox such as Okonkwo. Hence, he ended up as a failure, just like his father. Gilgamesh, on the other hand also failed to achieve his goal of immortality. He falls asleep when Utnapishtim challenges him to stay up for 6 days and seven nights in order to achieve immortality. Furthermore the flower that Gilgamesh obtains from the bottom of the sea also gets stolen by a serpent. Therefore, Gilgamesh fails to achieve his goal of immortality.
Although, both the characters failed to achieve their goals, the outcomes of the failure are what set the two characters apart. Gilgamesh is transformed by his quest whereas Okonkwo remains a bigot and ends up finishing his own life. The true act of bravery is embracing reality and accepting new challenges. Gilgamesh learns to deal with his failure and returns to his homeland as a better leader with greater wisdom and sensibility. He learns from his journey and gains spiritual knowledge. The shallow journey is altered into a spiritual journey, and opening Gilgamesh up to new horizons. He accepts his limitations in the end and understands that he is immortal. However he also discovers that he can accomplish great things despite these limitations. "Urshanabi, climb up on to the wall of Uruk, inspect its foundation terrace, and examine well the brickwork; see if it is not of burnt bricks; and did not the seven wise men lay these foundations?"(Carnahan 11). He unravels the true meaning of life in his mortality and becomes a better human being, a much wiser and just king instead of an arrogant fool. Okonkwo on the other hand fails to embrace reality. He cannot come to terms with the invasion of White people and the Christian culture. His rash attitude, anger and violence don't subside even by the end of the novel. Okonkwo's personality didn't allow change and seeing his views get discarded by the white men was unacceptable for Okonkwo. Hence despite the numerous admirable traits which he possessed, his inability to accept change pushed him to terminate his heroism and he ended up killing himself. "…Okonkwo's body was dangling," (Achebe 25). His suicide was an act of cowardliness proving him to be weak.
Another differential trait of Okonkwo and Gilgamesh were their receptivity to emotions. Okonkwo considered emotions to be a sign of weakness. He was in conflict with his assertion as shown by his concern for his daughter Ezinma. Gilgamesh was not afraid to show emotions on the other hand. He deeply cared for his friend Enkidu and grieved his death. He erected a statue in his friend's honour which shows that he was not afraid to show love for the ones he cared about. "…I had the people of Uruk mourn and moan for you, I filled happy people with woe over you, and after you (died) I let a filthy mat of hair grow over my body, and donned the skin of a lion and roamed the wilderness..." (Carnahan 8).
The comparison of both characters drives the debate to the conclusion that both characters are the protagonists of their stories however; fitting the description of heroes is another matter. Okonkwo, although a protagonist, is a tragic hero of the story. The tragic hero is unable to meet a dignified fate due to a tragic flaw which was exactly Okonkwo's case. His intolerance and stubbornness were his prime flaws which drove him to take his own life in the end. "…his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and…