Character transformation of Gilgamesh throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tales of the protagonist’s transformation are as old as time. People are always seeking heroic remembrance or an unattainable goal. The Epic of Gilgamesh, being one of the earliest tales in Western civilization, has similar themes. Gilgamesh is not like any other human being. Gilgamesh is a semi-divine being. The story of Gilgamesh is one where we observe the protagonist’s transformation through different interactions in the poem. As such, the friendship connection with Enkidu is geared toward transforming the attitude of the King toward his people. Enkidu’s friendship changes the King into a better ruler for the people of Uruk.  Although Gilgamesh’s character at the beginning of The Epic of Gilgamesh was not befitting that of a king, he transforms progressively through Enkidu’s connection and physical experience.

There is a distinct character transformation of Gilgamesh throughout The Epic of Gilgamesh. For instance, in the beginning, Gilgamesh was arrogant and self-centered, with a perfect body (George 1). This description paints a picture of a tall and strong man. However, in the prologue, the tyrannical nature of King Gilgamesh is introduced as the people of Uruk complain to the gods about his behavior. The authoritarian character of Gilgamesh grows with every passing day (George 3). As such, he would not spare anyone his wrath as he would take a newly wedded bride for himself. He did what he would please as there was no being that could stand in his way. According to George (4), “Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father, by day and by [night his tyranny grows] harsher.” This statement describes the character of Gilgamesh at the beginning of the poem. Gilgamesh is a tyrannical King with no concern for his subjects. However, at the end of the poem, Gilgamesh is lauded as a hero. His character at the beginning of The Epic of Gilgamesh was despicable and not befitting of a king, but the transformation happens with time, and the nature of Gilgamesh is changed through different experiences.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh,  the King encounters different scenarios that change his attitude toward people. In the natural world, transformations are ubiquitous, and in a psychological nature, they are pervasive and essential for Gilgamesh. Therefore, the protagonists are transformed to reach their potential. This change either occurs intrinsically or extrinsically. For King Gilgamesh, the intrinsic change occurred through dreams. For instance, after Gilgamesh explains to his mother, Ninsun,  about the coming of Enkidu in his dream, she describes that Enkidu (who was not yet known to the King) would be necessary to save his life. Evidently, Ninsun is clever, wise, and knowledgeable in everything, and according to her, the King would love Enkidu as he would a wife (George, 10). However, at this early stage, Gilgamesh’s response was unlike his. Gilgamesh says, “… Let me acquire a friend to counsel me, a friend to counsel me I will acquire!” (George 10).  Through this reaction, it is evident that the King is on the path toward realizing that his tyrannical character is not beneficial. This is the beginning of the King’s willingness to transform his character.

Arguably, extrinsic change for the King came through Enkidu. The gods offered Enkidu as an equal to challenge the King. As such, they pray to their Goddess of Birth, Aruru, to “create the equal of Gilgamesh, one mighty in strength” (George 3). Through this statement, we get that the purpose of Enkidu was to ensure Gilgamesh’s transformation. According to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and King Gilgamesh’s friendship began after fighting each other (George 16). Despite their first encounter being combative, it developed into a rich friendship. King Gilgamesh was used to getting his way, and no one could stop him. However, after the fight, one could assume that the King would execute Enkidu, but to their surprise, he embraced Enkidu.

Additionally, through compassion, Gilgamesh shows a shift in the King’s character. After accepting Enkidu, Gilgamesh introduces him to his mother, who disapproves of their new friendship. Enkidu gets heartbroken, but the King goes to comfort him. Gilgamesh tells him, “‘Why, my friend, [did your eyes] brim [with tears,] your arms fall limp, [your strength ebb away?” (George 18). Evidently, these comforting words show the King as compassionate. The soothing words are a radical shift from the description of the King’s character at the beginning of the story. The start of the friendship between the two was a necessary ingredient for the complete transformation of Gilgamesh.

Moreover, as the friendship between the King and Enkidu progresses, the King’s character keeps on transforming. For instance, despite Gilgamesh being a mighty warrior, he proposes that Enkidu and he should go and kill the Humbaba, a beast that protects the forest. However, before leaving for the journey, the King does something that an authoritarian and arrogant character seldom does. The King, through his speech, asks for the people’s blessing. He proclaims to the people that, “I shall ride] a road [I know not:] give me you’re blessing as I go on my journey, [so I may see again] your faces [in safety,] and return [glad at heart] through Uruk’s gate!” (George 32). This announcement seemed to be a turnaround for his character, and it made the people want to protect their King by urging him not to go. The King’s character is transformed; he has a changed outlook toward his kingdom and his subjects.

The death of Enkidu reveals that the King is transformed. Enkidu narrates to the King a dream that he had that indicated he would soon die. The King offers to petition for Enkidu’s life. He says, “To the one who survives [the gods] leave grieving: the dream leaves sorrow to the one who survives. The great gods [I’ll] beseech in supplication, let me seek out [Shamash,] I’ll appeal to your god…” (George 57). From this statement, the King is not self-centered or proud; he considers the need of another. For instance, while petitioning the gods, Gilgamesh refers to Enkidu as a friend. He says, “My friend saw a vision which will never [be equaled!]'” (George 62). This showed the compassion and care that the King had towards Enkidu. At this point, it would be unjustifiable to term the King arrogant.  Despite the good intentions of the King, he could not prevent Enkidu from dying. The King was shaken by the death of his friend that he composed a song to remember the adventures he had with Enkidu.

The King’s search for immortality made him become a better ruler for the people. For instance, after the funeral of Enkidu, Gilgamesh proceeds to go and find Utnapishtim, who was rewarded with eternal life by the gods (George 88). The conversation between the two shows a change in Gilgamesh. On meeting Utnapishtim, the King says, “‘I was fully intent on making you fight, but now my hand has stayed in your presence.” (George, 88). This shows that the King is no longer violent. All the experiences of the past have ensured that the King has gained a new perspective on life.  Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a test that he should stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh fails the test, and he is forced to go to Uruk. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant that restores the youth (George 98). The King finds the plant, but as he is camping, a snake steals the plant, and there is no hope for immortality for the King. The King is forced to reconcile with his mortality. The King weeps while talking to Ur-Hanabi. He says, “Ur-Hanabi, toiled my arms so hard, for whom ran dry the blood of my heart? Not for myself did I find a bounty, [for] the “Lion of the Earth” I have done a favor!” (George 99). From this statement, it is evident that King Gilgamesh appreciates the mortality of life. He gets a different view of life about mortality.

In conclusion, one can observe the character transformation of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, through the poem’s progression. The King’s transformations occurred through two phases in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The first phase was through the friendship with Enkidu. Most of the character transformation requires a mentor, and the poem’s creator provides Enkidu to provide mentorship and guidance for the King. The second phase was during Enkidu’s death. At the poem’s beginning, we see a tyrannical king forcing his subjects to pray to the gods. In the end, however, the King is transformed and is benevolent towards his subjects. Transformation is a journey and does not happen abruptly.