Since the earliest times, man has been endlessly vexed upon contemplating his own inevitable passing and has obsessed over the possibility of miraculously escaping death, with many famous tales being spun throughout the course of human history depicting this mortal struggle. Two famous characters, the titular Gilgamesh of the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” and Anakin Skywalker of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, clearly display how this struggle is just as present in modern times as it was in days of old. Both of these characters started out as fearless warriors who fought their battles with no regard for their own lives, but after experiencing the tragic loss of a loved one, they turned their impressive skills towards finding the key to eternal life. Ultimately, both heroes will learn to accept their mortality, but one will take the long and painful road of denial and resistance, while the other will accept his worldly fate and enjoy his limited days in the mortal realm. The stories of Anakin and Gilgamesh depict two paths man may take in dealing not only with their mortal fate, but also with the broader issue of the inevitability of change, of which death is only one.
Gilgamesh was a demigod who ruled as king of the strong-walled city of Uruk. Rivaled only by his beloved Enkidu, Gilgamesh was considered the greatest warrior that had ever lived. To call Gilgamesh and Enkidu “friends” would be a grotesque understatement that would fail to do justice to their relationship, for Enkidu was specifically designed by the gods of Sumeria to compliment Gilgamesh in every way. Thus, the two shared a relationship that perhaps surpasses even brotherhood in its closeness. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu embarked on a crusade to eliminate evil from the realm by killing the giant Humanba in the cedar forests of Lebanon. Gilgamesh, arrogantly ignoring the notion that death could easily bring an end to his days, fought with no regard for his own life. That attitude would change however, when Enkidu fell terribly ill and died, and Gilgamesh was confronted for the first time with the notion of his own mortality (World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics).
Much like Gilgamesh, Anakin Skywalker was the most powerful warrior in his realm. Anakin was a Jedi Knight, a sort of warrior-monk that vows to adhere to a code of honor that includes celibacy. Disobeying his Jedi vow, Anakin fell in love with a childhood friend of his named Padme, and the two married in secret, but despite this, he continued with his Jedi training. His miraculous birth resulting from an immaculate conception made it so that Anakin could harness the powers of universe, or “the Force,” to enhance his natural abilities and from a young age, Anakin had always dreamt of becoming “the most powerful Jedi ever.” As he grew older, his skills developed to be superior even to those of his mentors (Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace). During the many wars that plagued his galaxy, Anakin fought valiantly and developed a reputation for brave, though often heedless, behavior, and performing near-miraculous feats on the battlefield with no regard for his, earning him the title “the hero without fear.” Much like Gilgamesh, Anakin would be awakened from his arrogant sense of invulnerability by the grim touch of Tragedy when his mother is murdered (Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones).
As strong as King Gilgamesh was, Enkidu’s death severely wounded him, for it was as if a part of himself had died along with his compatriot, and for the first time, mighty King of Uruk came face to face with the hand of Death. Gilgamesh Witnessing his comrade’s demise shocked Gilgamesh into realizing his own mortality and he set out on a mythical journey to the ends of the earth. The King of Uruk was headed to Mount Mashu, where he sought to locate a legendary sage named Utanapishtim. Also called the “Faraway,” Utanapishim was the only mortal in the Sumerian Pantheon who had ever been granted immortality by the gods, and thus Gilgamesh sought him out in hopes that he may learn the path to immortality as well (World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics).
Though he was incredibly famous for his fighting abilities, and his childhood aspiration seemed to have come true, Anakin became extremely distressed when he began to suffer terrible dreams foretelling the death of his mother. Despite killing untold numbers of enemies on the battlefield, it was only upon his mother’s gruesome murder at the hands of nomadic barbarians that Anakin finally came to understand the gravity of death. Enraged, the young Jedi slaughtered the entire tribe of barbarians as his heart plunged into anguish. He then began having further visions foretelling the death of his wife as well. Just as Gilgamesh had suffered the tragedy of losing his beloved Enkidu, Anakin felt the breath of Death run down his neck with the loss of his mother and it would catapult him into a realm of fear and he embarked on a quest to learn the secrets to evading death. Haunted by that tragic loss and the visions threatening his wife, Anakin now feared losing his beloved Padme to Death’s grip as well. The young Jedi couldn’t turn to his Jedi mentors for guidance, for his marriage violated the Jedi Code that he’d sworn to live by, and thus he sought guidance from a master of the Dark Side of the Force called Sidious. Essentially making a “pact with the Devil,” Anakin agreed to betray everyone he knew and loved and in exchange, Sidious would teach him to wield power over life and death. Complying with his dark master’s demands, Anakin led a slaughter against the Jedi order and rechristened himself Darth Vader (Star Wars: The Dark Lord Trilogy).
After an incredible journey during which he climbed mountains, waded through a cave of pure darkness, and crossed the River of Death, Gilgamesh finally managed to locate Utanapishtim. When he arrived, The Faraway related to the king that he was granted immortality because he was a survivor of the Great Flood who had been granted immortality for saving humanity, and he decided to test Gilgamesh to determine if he was worthy of this gift as well. Utanapishtim instructed Gilgamesh to keep himself awake for seven days and seven nights, and if he could do so, he would gain the gift of endless life. Despite his best efforts, Gilgamesh failed this test and thus the Faraway decreed that he would not live forever among the gods. Instead, Utanapishtim taught King Gilgamesh to enjoy the life he had, and from this mentor, Gilgamesh came to see that he was gifted with so many fantastic abilities with which to enjoy his days. “The power to be unsurpassed in might they have granted you,” the Faraway told him. “The power to be skilled in wrestling they have granted you. The power to be skilled with the sword, the dagger, the bow and the axe they have granted you.  The power to be unrivaled in heroism they have granted you.The power to teach your people and lead them to wisdom they have granted you.” With this counsel, Utanapishtim then bestowed upon Gilgamesh one final gift; a plant granting unending youth. Though it would not keep him from dying, this gift would allow him enjoy the days he had. Though Gilgamesh eventually lost the plant to a thieving serpent, he did not lose the gift of the Faraway’s advice, and he was able to enjoy the remainder of his days content in understanding and accepting the limits of his mortality (World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics).
Vader, however, was not so wise. Ultimately, Vader not only killed his own wife in his quest to save her, but suffered mortal wounds when he tried to kill his best friend. Only then did he gain the power over death that he sought so desperately. Vader’s new master, Sidious, used the Dark Side of the Force to keep him alive long enough to be fitted with a mechanical suit which artificially supplied Vader with life. Essentially living in a walking coffin, Vader’s heart beat as if he were living, but the enjoyment of live eluded him as he struggled with his choice of artificial life and the costs of that choice for dacades. It was only when Sidious tried to kill Vader’s son, Luke, with barrages of deadly Force Lighting, that the disgraced Jedi finally came to understand that perhaps an artificial life of pain and suffering was worse than natural fatality. Conquering his fear of death and surmounting the temptations he’d succumbed to as Vader, Anakin intervened in Sidious’ attempt to kill Luke, knowing that the electrical charges that would strike him would destroy the life-support systems in his suit that kept him alive. It took nearly thirty years, but by sacrificing himself to kill Sidious and saving his son, Anakin finally came to terms with his mortality. He came to understand that he was afforded certain strengths and skills in his life, and that he should spend the last of his days enjoying them rather than fretting over his inescapable fate (The Star Wars Trilogy).
Since I was a child, the story of Anakin’s struggled have entranced me. In his desperate quests to save first his mother, then his wife, and then himself, Anakin’s duels with the inevitable embody the sense of denial, or rejection of inevitability that we all struggle with as humans. When he states his fear of change, Anakin’s mother counsels him; “but you cannot stop the change, no more than you can stop the suns from setting.”
This same struggle is what I find captivating about Gilgamesh’s epic journey. It’s not just the inevitability of death that he and Anakin are fighting, but also the inescapable nature of so many sad events that affect the world we live in and the struggle to come to terms with the fact that there are things in this life that are beyond our control. Relatives with terminal illnesses, friends who move away from us, getting laid off from a job, and the eventual death of loved ones; these are a few examples of inevitable changes that occur throughout our lives and they’re circumstances that as human we must face in life. For me, Anakin’s struggles have acted as a warning against taking extreme actions to stop the inevitable while Gilgamesh serves as the example of how to accept the inevitable aspects of life and the boundaries of a mortal existence. From these two characters, one ancient and one modern, we can clearly see how this theme is not only a topic of modern literature, but a premise as old as man himself. Hopefully from their examples, we can learn to be more accepting of the aspects of life that are beyond our control and learn to enjoy the life we have in peace.
- Rosenberg, Donna. “Gilgamesh.” 1999. World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Pub. Group, 1999. 26-57. Print.
- Luceno, James, George Lucas, James Luceno, Matthew Woodring. Stover, and James Luceno. Star Wars: The Dark Lord Trilogy. New York: Del Rey, 2008. Print.
- Brooks, Terry, and George Lucas. Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace. New York: Ballantine Pub. Group, 2000. Print.
- Lucas, George, Donald F. Glut, and James Kahn. The Star Wars Trilogy. New York: Lucas, 2012. Print.
- Wrede, Patricia C., George Lucas, and Jonathan Hales. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.
- “The Epic of Gilgamesh on Immortality and Its Ramifications” com. 12 2006. 2006. 12 2006 <http://www.studymode.com/essays/The-Epic-Of-Gilgamesh-On-Immortality-102975.html>. (Consulted for some thematic concepts)
*A note to reader: for the purpose of citation, I listed the novelizations of the Star Wars films, which I own copies of and have read, as the sources for those stories.