Monday, March 10, 2014

John Gardner & Two Missing Tablets

John Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident before he could publish his life's most important work.

Gardner had survived cancer and he had decided to do something important with his life. He was filled with a sense of purpose and focus. He had been working on a translation before he was diagnosed with colon cancer and he had to put it aside while he was hospitalized.

Gardner was a literature teacher who had decided that for reasons he could not fathom, the Epic of Gilgamesh had never been properly translated into English.

Gardner told students in his literature class that the most important part of the Epic, the Curse of Humbaba on Enkidu, was frequently left out of translations entirely and he had never understood why.

He told fellow teachers he thought his new and definitive translation of the Epic was going to shake up the entire world when it was published. He said in learning to translate the Sumerian he had discovered nuances and inflections in the work that seemed to make it a very different story from what english speaking peoples had been presented with. He also indicated he intended to correct the alterations and additions that were introduced very recently in 1400 B.C. by some well meaning scholar. All this is well documented by his students whom he spoke frequently about his pet project on the Epic. His publisher knew he was working on it. The entire literary community had heard about it. It was published in journals and people mentioned it in a variety of places. The book was practically presold because of Gardner's reputation.

Two weeks before publication of his self-styled new and revolutionary work, he died in a single driver accident on his motorcycle. There were no witnesses. There were no other cars on the road. There were people produced who said he had been drinking. His closest friends said it did not seem like him and after he had survived cancer he had been taking precautions to see to it he avoided risks.

John Maier took over and obtained all his proofs and drafts two weeks before he had been planning to publish.

When the new translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh was published, the Curse of the Demon Humbaba had been completely removed altogether. Quite astonishing since it is the single most important turning point of the whole story and it occupies two full tablets out of the original twelve that make up the Epic.

Removed altogether. The purpose of Gardner's translation defeated altogether. The new translation tended to be the most confusing precisely for the sake of what had been omitted from the work. All that remained was a promise by Humbaba that of the two, Enkidu would not be the one who lived the longest.


Bain Dewitt said...

Well, of what use is this, Tex?? Can we get the source, or is it gone permanently? Is there any other translations of the curse? What next??

Some dude said...

Is there any good translation of that part?

Bain Dewitt said...

So... what do we do?

August said...

I was wondering about this, because I went and read the Epic of Gilgamesh after seeing you refer to this curse. I think you referenced nosebleeds once- obviously that wasn't in the translation I got.

Luke said...


Texas Arcane said...


Only a little research will reveal that somebody seems to be picking and choosing. The original Akkadian contains a number of really striking, critical phrases that make the story come to life. If you look you will notice that when it comes time for the curse, many translations leave out all the interesting parts. For example, the Akkadian version talks about Humbaba's face changing as they watch from one horrible visage into another, Gilgamesh complains if they wait any longer he will lose his nerve. This is powerful and strange stuff and you will find many translations leave it out. Funny because this is where the story really hits the high notes and becomes and epic mythological work. The curse in the Akkadian begins with the dramatic "We see now that you, Enkidu, ARE THE MOST DANGEROUS CREATURE OF ALL THE CREATIONS OF ENKI!" (Emphasis in the stone tablets is apparently done with fleurs around the phrases to show they are very important)

FrankNorman said...

Tex, this isn't necessarily part of some Melonhead conspiracy; there's a simpler explanation.
When it comes to things like ancient curses, incantations, and so on, a lot of people are pretty superstitious. Take the belief that everyone involved in disturbing Egyptian pharoah tombs came to a bad end, for example.
Gardner's untimely death might have creeped out the other scholars.

Texas Arcane said...


Yes. I think it did spook scholars, too.

Maybe they shied off any more translation after this.