Enkidu is the first anthropo-eccentric figure in world literature. He is the wild man, the hairy man, the wild ass, the donkey, the panther, whose fated brotherhood with Gilgamesh, the more-human-than-human god-king of Uruk, makes them both more human—or, at least, more human(e).
Presented here is a hip-hop rendering of The Epic of Gilgamesh by Baba Brinkman. Brinkman is a bit of a wild man himself, a former tree planter and rogue scholar gone South Bronx. He is a Canadian rap artist with an MA in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature. It states on his website that, following his graduation in 2003, he decided to become a “rap troubadour,” an especially apt term for what Brinkman does. He has written and performed several shows in off-broadway productions and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the most well-known of which are The Rap Guide to Evolution (which Wired covered late last year, available on Bandcamp and others) and the one that started it all, The Rap Canterbury Tales. The latter appeared way back in 2004 (find it on Bandcamp and iTunes), but Brinkman premiered a heavily revised show in 2011, redubbed The Canterbury Tales: Remixed, and just this past month released the recorded version (once again, on Bandcamp and iTunes).
This show, sonically enhanced from its earlier incarnation with live instrumentals and vocal accompaniment, features some of Chaucer’s most-loved tales, including the Nun’s Priest’s fable of proud Chauntecleer the rooster and the gap-toothed Wife of Bath’s tale of proto-feminism. Sadly, no Miller’s tale here, though it can be found on the 2004 album.
Brinkman’s retelling of Gilgamesh opens the show as an appeal to the essential role of storytelling for the human experience, and helps establish his literary-historical cred along the way:
‘Cause this is bigger than me; it’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than rap.
It’s bigger than fingers on triggers and bigger than gangsters slingin’ the crack.
That’s just the latest version of an ancient story,
The rage of warriors hungry for fame and glory.
I’ll show you how deep it goes by opening
With the oldest story that people even know.
I mean, thousands of years before the Anglo-Saxons;
It’s brought to you now through the magic of Penguin Classics.
Brinkman has an enviable command of language, a deft mash-up of what he’s learned from Shakespeare, Eminiem, DMX, John Skelton, Common, and, of course, Chaucer. I love the cool confidence of his internal rhymes and use of assonance as opposed to a strict adherence to a set rhyme-scheme. This strategy makes for some super smooth rhythms. Note, for instance, how he prances from bigger to finger to trigger to slingin’. I laughed out loud when I heard the progression from “slingin’ the crack” to “Anglo-Saxons” and “the magic of Penguin Classics”—both for the delightful half-rhymes and because I was reminded of my undergraduate reverence for the mighty Penguin (as well as my strange internal debate over the merits of Penguin Classics versus Oxford World Classics).
Brinkman’s version of Gilgamesh is hauntingly passionate, though not without some amusing references to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt as he draws Gilgamesh for the audience. As far as I am concerned, Enkidu is, as always, the real star of the story, and Brinkman doesn’t disappoint as he introduces the hairy giant and future soul brother for Gilgamesh.
Now, Enkidu was a wild man
He was Tarzan of the highlands
His body was covered in hair in fine mats
He knew nothing of civilization and finance
A feral child, he ran with the Ibex
And ate nothing but plants, plus he was massive
He had this habit of releasing animals from traps
And snares whenever they got captured.
Brinkman spends the most time describing the means by which Gilgamesh “tames” Enkidu through the seduction of the temple harlot, Shamhat (though he does not give her name for the audience), as well as the decisive wrestling match that seals their brotherhood: “Clash of the Titans/ Their grasps were like vice grips as they grappled and tightened/ Their massive biceps, striving like angry bison.”
Brinkman does make some odd choices in terms of focus and pacing. There is a somewhat amusing aside on the erroneous science of Gilgamesh being two-thirds divine and one-third mortal, though I feel that the tone at this point is a little too academic, rather than epic. Same goes for the lengthy digression only a little later where Brinkman mulls over whether or not Gilgamesh’s exercise of droit de seigneur in the city of Uruk makes him a rapist or not.
I also feel that he winds up a little too quickly, moving from a nice description of the expedition to slay Humbaba, to a mere mention of Ishtar’s Bull of Heaven, and finally to a sadly protracted account of Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s mourning.
I have always found the lament for Enkidu to be some of the most moving lines of poetry ever written. Here are some of those lines from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew George:
Hear me, O young men, hear me!
Hear me, O elders of teeming Uruk, hear me!
I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend,
like a hired mourner-woman I shall bitterly wail.
The axe at my side, in which my arm trusted,
the dirk at my belt, the shield at my face
my festive garment, my girdle of delight:
a wicked wind rose up and robbed me.
O my friend, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild,
my friend Enkidu, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild!
Having joined forces we climbed the mountains,
seized and slew the Bull of Heaven,
destroyed Humbaba, who dwelt in the forest of Cedar.
Now what is this sleep that has seized you?
You’ve become unconscious, you do not hear me! (64-65)
The adaptation of the poem by Derrek Hines is quite powerful as well, and the lament he provides for Gilgamesh really plays up the way in which the wild Enkidu is an essential double for the godly city man. It also foreshadows the latter’s quest for immortality across the floodwaters that separate the world of the living from that of the dead:
How long did I slap your corpse-face
to drive a summer into its ice?
But, O, Enkidu,
how am I to know myself without you. (46)
When was the world so casually robbed? What
was the instant you were
and were not?
Missing it haunts me, and leaves you
a body drowned and not recovered.
Uncovered, unburied in water;
jammed somewhere in the heart’s reef,
exposed on nightmare’s freak low ties,
until I can swim out to join you. (48)
What the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, between the civilized man and the wild man, indicates for me on a conceptual level is the implication of the one in the other, their co-constitution and inter-involvement. As a mytho-poetic figure lurking throughout the history of most world literatures and cultures, the wild man is often that abjected Other who provides a contrast against which the dominant culture defines itself as “civilized.” Residing on the boundary between the human and the animal, the hairy wild man often seems to speak to ambivalent anxieties about our connections to the zoological world, whether it is the insistent feeling of a connection irrevocably lost or irreparably damaged, or, on the contrary, a fear of atavistic degeneration.
But for me the wild man and the natural world he represents is not opposed to the civilized man and the polis. He is not a human being in a raw state of nature, whether that means he is yet to posses or that he has utterly lost the faculties and qualities of civilized existence that make him properly human. No, the wild man is not a negative or privative figure, one suggesting poverty or deprivation of humanity, but rather an affirmative figure. Gilgamesh is, after all, a petulant tyrant before he forges his brotherhood with Enkidu. Only once he embraces the creature who is as much ass, donkey, and panther as man, the creature with a connection to a world that is older than humankind, that precedes the world of civilization and lies at its foundation, only then is Gilgamesh able to mature, to elevate himself as a man. And I should qualify my statement here to indicate that I use the word “man” in a gender-specific way, since heroic epics like Gilgamesh are most often about the cultivation of a particular form of masculinity, of undertaking the (ongoing) responsibility of becoming a better man.
None of this is to detract from Brinkman’s accomplishment with his telling of Gilgamesh and The Canterbury Tales: Remixed. His thematic concern throughout the performance largely has to do with the role of storytelling in our struggle with finitude, that is, the importance of narrative for leaving a trace of our (individual and collective) existence beyond or own short lives.
I would absolutely love to see Brinkman expand his Gilgamesh further, perhaps as part of a show comprised of heroic epics and romances. (The recent show, incidentally, closes with a version of Beowulf, so one can hope something like that is in the works.) Pop culture is currently inundated with stories of super-human heroes. What Brinkman offers as a troubadour, is the opportunity to find out where these stories have their foundations.
Hines, Derrik. Gilgamesh: A Powerful New Version of the World’s First Epic. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Andrew George. London: Penguin, 1999.
Zeman, Ludmilla. The Revenge of Ishtar. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1998.