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Gilgamesh and Star Wars

May 4, 2010

In recognition of Star Wars Day (May the fourth be with you!) I submit this Lucas-inspired Gilgamesh teaching tip. One of the most annoying change to the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV: New Hope) was the removal of moral ambiguity from the character of Han Solo. Yes, I am talking about the great “Han Shot First” controversy. Without taking a stand on the contentious fanboy issue, I submit that it can be useful when discussing Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is available to us in two laconic editions—the Standard Babylonian edition from c.1100 BCE and the Old Babylonian edition from c.1700 BCE. Beyond this there are shorter Sumerian stories of Gilgamesh (aka Bilgames) that date from largely from the 2200-1800 BCE. Among all these different versions there are several telling of the story of Gilgamesh and Humbaba (aka Huwawa), a forest ogre whom Gilgamesh and his associate Enkidu fight in the Cedar Forrest.
In the Standard Babylonian edition Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle Humbaba and have the ogre at a disadvantage. However, before he deals the fatal blow to the forest monster Gilgamesh hesitates. Humbaba pleads for his life, and it is only at Enkidu’s prompting that Gilgamesh actually slays Humbaba. Students often question this event. Why after having gone through so much does Gilgamesh hesitate before dispatching the monster? Isn’t it a foregone conclusion that the hero will kill the beast?

A quick look at the other editions, however, shows that this might not be the case. In one Sumerian version Enkidu kills Humbaba. In another, Gilgamesh apparently lets the monster go. The moment of tension in the story is real. Gilgamesh could let Humbaba go. However, students don’t like this kind of ambiguity. The most common question asked when confronted with these different accounts is “so which one’s right?” or “so which one really happened?” This is where Han and Greedo come in to play.

In the original 1977 theatrical release of Star Wars (Episode IV), Han is confronted in the cantina by the bounty hunter Greedo. While the two verbally joust Han unholsters his gun under the table and dispatches Greedo without even blinking. Han shot first. He’s a morally ambiguous character that you are not sure if you can trust. In the 1997 rerelease of Episode IV the scene was changed so that Greedo shoots at Han and misses, before Han shoots back (apparently in self-defense). In the 2004 DVD release the scene was changed again. Greedo still shoots first, but Han is already moving and shoots back almost instantaneously (still a hero, but more morally ambiguous). Finally, the 2006 DVD has two versions: the 2004 duck and the original 1977 Han shooting first. The question is: which one is right?

Most students don’t have a problem with the ambiguity in Star Wars. But, depending on which version of Star Wars you are watching, this scene could go in one of three different ways (though none end well for poor Greedo). It’s the same situation. It provides a contemporary example of multiplicity of narrative possibility in contemporary storytelling. (It’s also just really fun to do!)
May the fourth be with you.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2010 10:19 am

    Great example of how myths get retold.

    Han shot first. I don’t trust anyone who says Han didn’t shoot first.

  2. May 8, 2010 11:27 pm

    Brill, Jim! Mind if I use this? I’ve been looking for excuses to bring more Star Wars into my class.

  3. May 11, 2010 12:21 am

    BTW, have you seen Robert Crumb’s depiction of this scene in his graphic book of Genesis?

    Why would he put a tribute to these guys in his Genesis in the first place? That’s not so hard. Genesis 6 mentions the heroes of old, the men of renown.

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