Review of the Day: Lugalbanda
Tomorrow I will review a greatly beloved 2006 children's book that blogs everywhere have been praising with harmonized coos. At that time I shall destroy the text before your eyes and dance a tarantella on its remains. Today is Sunday, however. That means I should do something classy. So with that in mind I bring you the world's oldest written text. It don't get any classier than THAT!
The oldest written story in the world. Name it. I'm talking older than the Bible, older than the Koran, and older than the Torah. I hear someone mentioning, "The Epic of Gilgamesh". You're very close. Now just go a mere three hundred years older than that. Did you get it? If you said, "Lugalbanda", then you are correct! Discovered a mere 150 years ago on ancient Sumerian tablets, author Kathy Henderson has pieced together this book out of the poems "Lugalbanda" and "Lugalbanda In the Mountain Cave". The result? An incredibly readable and beautiful book that tells the story of a war in ancient Iraq. Timely, no? The mere fact that Henderson has been able to piece an infinitely interesting tale out of academic line-by-line translations (with some help as well from oral storyteller Fran Hazelton) and combine such a story with the breathtaking art of Jane Ray is reason enough to take a gander at this title. And as the book itself says, "So here, for the first time ever in our days of paper and print, is the story of Lugalbanda told for a new generation".
There once was a boy named Lugalbanda who lived with his seven brothers in the great city of Uruk. Uruk was ruled by King Enmerkar who had built it in honor of the goddess of love and war, Inana. One day, Enmerkar noticed that the faraway city of Aratta had far more impressive treasures and works of art than Uruk. Without further ado then, Enmerkar declared war on Aratta and set off to plunder its booty with his men. Amongst his men came the seven brothers and Lugalbanda. While en route to war, however, Lugalbanda became deathly ill and his brothers were forced to leave him with plenty of good food and drink in a warm cave, praying for his survival. After two days, Lugalbanda awoke and by appealing to the Sun God, the goddess Inana, and the Moon God, the boy was made strong enough to follow his brothers. The tale then recounts Lugalbanda's encounter with the great and terrible Anzu bird, how he got some pretty cool pre-biblical super powers, and the course Enmerkar's war eventually takes. In the end, Lugalbanda is king and his son becomes the great Gilgamesh of lore.
You might ask yourself how interesting a 5,000 year old story (that wasn't even translated until the 1970s) would be to kids today. In this way, Candlewick has been incredibly clever. The book is written with words of a rather large font and then filled to brimming with lush illustrations by Jane Ray. Themes of magic, war, and a boy befriending a great and terrible sky monster... well you might as well be describing the latest, "Chronicles of Droon" adventure. The difference is in the importance of the tale itself. Henderson's care in rendering this tale as accurately and interestingly as possible is to be commended. In the original text it isn't exactly clear if Lugalbanda is the son of King Enmerkar or is just referred to as a prince for another reason. There are lots of questions like that, all handled in an exceedingly deft manner. And as Henderson says of this tale in her "Notes On This Story" at the end of the book, "This was much too important to be left to the world of adults".
Don't go thinking that it was just Kathy Henderson who did all the research on this book, though. Artist Jane Ray studied up on her Sumerian artifacts with visits to the British Museum. This shows in the art. Done in watercolor, ink, and collage, the pictures in this book both reflect the art of the time period while also looking fresh and colorful enough to engage kids today. I was especially impressed with Ray's attention to close details. The baby Anzu bird that Lugalbanda feeds and decorates is spotted with a multitude of tiny flowers and you can make out every barb, calamus, and rachis on the bird's feathered body. It's nice to hold a book in your hands once in a while that can honestly be called beautiful.
Kudos, by the way, to the Sumerians who had the brains to come up with a goddess who was in charge of love AND war. That they could see the connection so directly makes me smile. The story told here about a war fought for the sake of plunder (though in an odd twist, the goddess won't let Enmerkar win until he promises only to take the art and artists and not destroy the town) is slightly odd. Especially when you consider that the hero is on the side of the aggressor. But the struggle for power in the Middle East is an ancient story and here we find the oldest telling of it yet. If you should wish to give this as a gift to a child, I suggest that you talk up the superpowers, battle scenes, and cool monsters as you hand it to them. Children aren't going to find the whole oldest-written-story thing all that cool. But a rainbow colored bird giant with, "the teeth of a shark"? Far better. A surprisingly great read and a wonderfully researched tale. A necessary purchase for all libraries everywhere.