Gilgamesh and Okonkwo Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Things Fall Apart and Gilgamesh

Despite being conceived and written during distinctly different eras in human history, both Chinua Achebe's modern indictment of colonial conquest in Africa Things Fall Apart, and the anonymously authored tale of legendary heroism The Epic of Gilgamesh share the common thread of a protagonist struggling to reconcile personal expectations with the rapidly changing world around him. One of the earliest known surviving examples of ancient literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the sprawling story of a hero-king reigning over the land of Uruk, using a beautifully poetic structure and style to tell of Gilgamesh and his tempestuous style of rule. The narrative structure of Things Fall Apart centers on Okonkwo, the respected leader of his small Umuofia clan during a time of intense cultural upheaval, who struggles to maintain his sense of authority, and ultimately his people's very identity. While the characters of Gilgamesh and Okonkwo come from vastly disparate historical eras and regions of the world, they each share a number of personality traits that serve to unite them as emblems of mankind's continual struggle to overcome adversity. By closely analyzing the comparisons and contrasts between the demigod Gilgamesh, who "supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance & #8230; is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull" (George 4) and the patriarch Okonkwo, who "tall and huge & #8230; when he walked his heels hardly touched the ground" (Achebe 3), it is possible to identify the common literary constructions used to create such enduring figures of flawed heroism.

Both Chinua Achebe and the anonymous author of The Epic of Gilgamesh sought to create stories which captured the essence of their particular cultural identities, while also conveying the intensely emotional process of protecting those identities from the encroachment of foreign influence, modernization, or other existential threats. The common thread of a hero proud of past and fearful of the future is weaved throughout both narratives, and when the anonymous author exhorts readers to "take and read out from the lapis lazuli tablet how Gilgamesh went through every hardship" (George 2), one cannot help but be reminded of Okonkwo's devastated harvest, and how "that tragic year & #8230; had been enough to break the heart of a lion" (Achebe 15). Preservation is the central motivation of both Gilgamesh, who grieves the death of his only equal, the wild-man Enkidu, by launching a quest for immortality, and Okonkwo, who desperately tries to shield his clan from the insidious influence of colonial rule. That Gilgamesh and Okonkwo ultimately fail in their solitary struggles a significant similarity, suggesting that both Achebe and his anonymous predecessor had lost the sense of hope which is so carefully manifested in their main characters.

Indeed, Achebe's story has decidedly autobiographical undertones, as his parents resided in the historically respected region of Biafra, a Nigerian province which waged a futile fight for independence during the author's adolescence. The arrival of Christian missionaries signals the slow demise of Okonkwo's own power, as well as the decline of his Umuofia clan, and it soon becomes evident to the reader that Achebe has imbued his fictional world with the emotional turmoil he experienced firsthand during the uprising in Biafra. When Achebe submitted his original manuscript for Things Fall Apart, literary agents initially expressed reservations, but soon came to recognize that, while "the novel as an African form was still very young, 'Things Fall Apart' represented a new approach, showing the collision of old and new ways of life to devastating effect" (Franklin). This fracturing of a collective cultural identity is mirrored by the circumstances plaguing ancient Mesopotamia when The Epic of Gilgamesh was first conceived, as the rapid spread of agriculturally founded urban centers conflicted with the traditionally agrarian concept of civilization. Modern scholars have observed that the tale of Gilgamesh has close parallels with the actual fall of the kingdom of Sumer, a Mesopotamian province which was conquered by the Akkadians, noting that "in the transmission of some of the Gilgamesh stories . . . not only is there a change of language from Sumerian to Akkadian . . . But there is also a marked alteration of emphasis and detail" (Kirk 87). By embarking on an arduous journey to attain immortality, Gilgamesh becomes the embodiment of the anonymous author's Sumerian kingdom, with both defending themselves valiantly before discovering that all things must end.

Befitting the seemingly superhuman status of both Gilgamesh and Okonkwo, both stories begin with laudatory passages which describe their hero's physical prowess and dominance over his fellow man. The opening lines of Things Fall Apart serve to sound a celebration of Okonkwo's achievements, immediately establishing the protagonist's merits as a heroic figure worthy of respect and reverence. By beginning with the bold declaration that "Okonkwo was well-known throughout the nine villages and even beyond," before revealing how, "as a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalzine the Cat," (2), Achebe directs the reader to Okonkwo's status of supremacy. This rhetorical strategy is intended to reflect the previously autonomous way of life enjoyed by African tribes before the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial incursions. When the reader learns that "Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection" because "it was he who opened the mountain passes, who dug wells on the flank of the mountain & #8230; who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun, who explored the world" (George 6), the suggestion of unassailable strength foretells the tragic fall from grace to come.

Another striking similarity between Gilgamesh and Okonkwo is the particularly cruel style of leadership they employ to assure dominion over others. In the first Tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, it is revealed that the hero-king of Uruk treats his people with arrogant disdain, and the anonymous author recounts how "like a wild bull he makes himself mighty, head raised over others" because "there is no rival who can raise his weapon against him" (George 9). Allusions are made to Gilgamesh's abusive relationship with his subjects wives and children, and despite the cryptic language used, the scholarly consensus holds that "his demands mean that filial and conjugal duties are displaced. Daughters have no time to help their mothers nor sons their fathers, and wives are unable to tend the needs of their husbands" (George xlvi). Like most powerful figures who hold absolute authority over others, Gilgamesh has developed a false sense of security, believing that nothing on Earth can truly threaten his reign. This concept of an ascendant culture becoming complacent as their relative power expands is echoed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart, when he writes that "Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors" who "would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement" (10). When the reader learns early in the narrative that "Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand" while "his wives lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper" (Achebe 13), it becomes apparent that his control over the people of Umuofia is based on the same Machiavellian foundations as Gilgamesh's oppression of the Uruk people.

Despite the shared belief in the enduring nature of their culture, expressed by both Gilgamesh and Okonkwo throughout both stories, both heroes are forced to confront the limitations of their own power. For Gilgamesh, the arrival of the divinely created wild-man Enkidu presents the first viable opposition he has ever known, a circumstance which undoubtedly references the plight of Sumerian kingdom when they first encountered the Akkadian empire. When the anonymous author describes the titanic clash between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, describing how "they grappled with each other at the entry to the marital chamber, in the street they attacked each other, the public square of the land" (George 28), he may very well have been recounting the war of conquest waged by the Akkadians on the Sumerian people. Okonkwo meets his own match in the form of Christain missionaries, the forerunners of a foreign invasion whose arrival splinters the clan along spiritual lines, eventually resulting in the colonization of Umuofia by European imperialists. Despite his previous position of prominence of power within Umuofia, by the time his land has been targeted by Christian missions of conversion, Okonkwo had suffered a self-imposed exile for taking part in the tribal murder of his adopted son Ikemefuna. Rendered helpless by his severe loss in stature, Okonkwo is forced to accept that "he had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground" (Achebe 162).

Like Gilgamesh, who resorts to a fruitless quest to attain immortality after his respected rival Enkidu is struck down; Okonkwo embarks on his own solitary journey to redemption, desperately trying to reverse the tides of time and recapture an existence he has lost. The target of Gilgamesh's wrath is Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of a mythical Cedar Forest, while Okonkwo focuses his latent rage on Reverend James Smith and his cadre of missionaries…

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