Saturday, 28 May 2016

Two Tales of Brothers from Ancient Mesopotamia

Two Tales of Brothers from Ancient Mesopotamia retold by John Heffernan, illustrated by Kate Durack (Christmas Press) PB RRP $19.99 ISBN: 9780994234049

Reviewed by Catherine Bauer

Long ago, in the swirling mists of Time, there lived a mighty king by the name of Gilgamesh….

What reader, no matter their age, could resist the promise of mystery and adventure conjured by such a tempting opening as this featured in the latest offering from Christmas Press? The publisher was set up in 2013 with the express aim of bringing young Australian readers in touch with a range of rich and evocative legends, myths and folklore from around the world. In this case, it’s the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, located in modern day Iraq, Syria and Kuwait that has given rise to some of the world’s great heroic sagas, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In this thrilling and lively retelling, author John Heffernan brings to life for young readers two tales from the Epic, while the striking work of new illustrator Kate Durack, who took inspiration from ancient Mesopotamian art, perfectly illuminates the world inhabited by the heroic brothers.

In the first story, The King and the Wild Man, readers meet the brave, fierce and frightening Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. Two parts god, one part human, Gilgamesh is a tyrant whose people fear and resent him. One day the gods decide to teach the power-mad king a lesson and they create another man-god to rival Gilgamesh. The result is the rough and wild Enkidu, fashioned from a piece of clay.

News of this wild man living, who lives in the forests, reaches the king and he sends his army out to capture and deliver Enkidu to him. But the wild man is far too strong for the soldiers and easily evades capture.

After a disturbing dream, King Gilgamesh is told he will meet his brother – a star, born from the heavens, and one who will never let him down. ‘Together you will fight evil,’ the king is told.

Meanwhile, the wild man Enkidu arrives in the city to overthrow the cruel King Gilgamesh and the pair battle one another in a violent struggle that lasts all day and into the night. Finally, the king overwhelms the exhausted wild man and just as Gilgamesh is about to deliver his fatal blow, he realises that the wild man Enkidu is the brother from his dream, arrived to light his way. The king vows to change his destructive ways and the pair agree they will now unite ‘to fight against evil wherever it may be’.

In the second story, Brothers Battle the Beast, the pair does just that when they set out to vanquish the ferocious horned Bull of Heaven, Humbaba, who has been terrorising the villages of Uruk and countryside. The brothers set forth with specially made weapons and armour, in a chariot drawn by four magnificent war steeds.

The man-god brothers and Humbaba meet in a dramatic and furious life-or-death battle, featuring snorting, roaring, stamping hooves and roars that ‘shake the trees to their roots’. Eventually Humbaba is vanquished and the warriors stand in ‘a soft golden light’ that shimmers through the leaves of the forest.
Heffernan’s treatment of these epic tales results in a truly magical pair of stirring, page-turning stories that will engage and delight all ages.

Durack’s rich illustrations and Heffernan’s tight and descriptive text combine to produce what is a great introduction to the epic sagas of ancient times that also include lessons about good versus evil and the ties of family.

A great read, highly recommended.

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