Lugalbanda, the Boy Who Got Caught Up in a War is the oldest known tale from the ancient Mesopotamia civilisation. Older than 5000 years, it was, at first, passed down through oral tradition. An Englishman called W.K.Loftus discovered Urek in 1849. However, it wasn’t until 1888 that an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania uncovered a huge library at Nippur containing 30-40 000 clay tablets. Historians believe these tablets to be around 4500 years old. Two ancient scripts detail Lugalbanda’s adventures. The first poem is called Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave and the second Lugalbanda and the Anzu Bird. Scholars painstakingly translated these tablets in the 1970s. Writer, Kathy Henderson, has brought the tale of Lugalbanda to life for the first time. To find out more, carry on reading this Lugalbanda book review!
Lugalbanda Book Review
What is Lugalbanda About?
So who is Lugalbanda? Firstly, he is the son of Enmerkar, king of the ancient city of Urek. Secondly, he is a brother to seven. And thirdly (and perhaps most importantly) he is father to the very famous Gilgamesh. Enmerkar not only was the king of Urek but he actually drained the marshes to build it in the first place. As myth would have it, the goddess Inanna instructed him to do so. After, Inanna became the city’s patron goddess.
In an attempt to honour Inanna, Enmerkar decides to wage war on the nearby city of Aratta. Aratta was known for its beautiful art and skilled artisans, and Enmerkar wanted to bring this back to Urek, so it too could be glorified. Early on, Lugalbanda (which literally means ‘young king’) is determined to join his father and seven older brothers on their quest to Aratta. The journey to this city involved travel over dangerous mountain terrain.
Unfortunately, whilst travelling through the mountains, Lugalbanda fell ill. He was too ill to travel, either onwards to Aratta or back towards Urek. Reluctantly, his father and older brothers left him in a cave, hoping he would recover. Against all the odds, he slowly regains his strength and attempts to continue the journey alone towards Aratta. On the way he befriends a family of Anzu birds after rather humorously decorating their baby chick. They grant him a wish of being able to run without feeling tired. It is this talent which allows Lugalbanda to consult Inanna. Inanna helps Enmerkar to win the war over Aratta, on the understanding that they did not pillage the city as planned.
Who Wrote Lugalbanda?
Kathy Henderson wrote Lugalbanda in 2006. Henderson is a well-known artist, printmaker, illustrator and author. She has won the Kurt Maschler Award and was shortlisted for both the Smarties Prize and the CLPE Children’s Poetry Award 2014. This is the first time that the two ancient and somewhat obscure poems of Lugalbanda have been put into print, so there is a huge responsibility to do them justice.
Kathy writes a four page epilogue detailing how she came to learn about these adult poems and on hearing them she planted the seed of imagining them as a tale suited more for children. Whilst Henderson attempts a true to the original translation as possible, she recognises her own limitations as a non-cuneiform reader. Archeologists found these two poems apart from each other. Henderson joins them together for the purpose of this book. There is an unfamiliarity to this translation which offers in turn an authenticity mixed in equal parts to a modern fable. She somehow manages to balance the colloquial language from an entirely different civilisation from an entirely different time with the narrative needs of the young modern reader.
Who Illustrated Lugalbanda?
Lugalbanda was illustrated by Jane Ray, who is known for her work on fairy-tales and mythology. Ray has been nominated six times for the Kate Greenaway Medal and has won the Smarties Award and the Aesop Prize. Her specific style, using gold accents throughout, seems to reflect the nuances of ancient Mesopotamia well, resulting in enchanting illustrations throughout. In fact, Ray has given the flavour of Sumer to her watercolour, ink and collage art, which she researched extensively at the British Museum. Each image is full with authentic motifs reminiscent of the old Sumerian reliefs, which memorialise and complement Henderson’s storytelling
Who Would Enjoy Lugalbanda?
Although it is a picture book, the quality of writing and the exquisite illustrations make this perfect for anyone, young or old, particularly those interested in ancient civilisations. This would be a perfect book to read alongside an Ancient Mesopotamian Unit Study. When I read it out to my girls (aged 11 and 14) it took about 35-40 minutes in one go. The book is text heavy and may be better reading it out one chapter at a time for younger children. The story absorbed my girls from the very start and incorporates characters and creatures from Sumerian mythology. As such, it offers a rare but authentic insight into this ancient civilisation.
My Book Review of Lugalbanda: Do I Recommend it?
I really enjoyed Lugalbanda, which is a perfect prequel to the epic of Gilgamesh. The book has lots of underlying themes such as family, loyalty, perseverance, kindness and the futility of war. Lugalbanda, as young prince, has his own journey, not just over the mountains. His character develops from being young and weak to strong and brave. Henderson wrote this book during the height of the conflicts in modern day Iraq. She avoids any attempts to politicise her book, and offers no moral judgement on war.
Lugalbanda has a very abrupt ending. This and the loose ends within the story hint at the incompleteness of the two poems which were found. Henderson herself addresses this and talks about the realities of shattered or fragmented cuneiform. She does her best to convey a complete and authentic retelling of two partial ancient myths.
All in all, Henderson captures the essence of ancient Mesopotamia, using esoteric metaphors which may be unfamiliar to the young ear, but no less beautiful. Whilst this is a child’s adaptation and takes over 30 minutes to read aloud, it somehow fails to have the sense of epic that Gilgamesh or Homer offer. I like the words of Simon Rodberg (2006) who writes: “The charms of the book are much simpler than either timelessness or timeliness: a little poetry, some great paintings and a small boy befriending a big bird.”
Lugalbanda is a tale older than the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. A bit fanciful, but I read about the musings that perhaps this was a myth that Abram grew up with in Ur.
We really enjoyed reading this book and give it:
General Information About Lugalbanda
Kathy Henderson wrote Lugalbanda and Jane Ray illustrated it. WalkerBooks published Lugalbanda in 2007. The ISBN is 978-1-4063-0534-0. Lugalbanda is a 74 page, text heavy children’s book. The text is larger than average and each double page ends with a full-stop making it a good book to read aloud. Henderson has divided the 72 pages into chapters. This means a child or parent can easily read it over a few days, rather than all at once.
It contains a prologue aimed at children, explaining where this tale has come from and in what form. Henderson also includes a four page epilogue, which she aims at the adults. This offers more information both to the historical timeline of the discovery and decipherment of the original cuneiform slabs. And the author incorporates her own journey to rewriting the tale for children. Included are an illustration of a cuneiform slab and a map of the area.
For more ideas about studying Mesopotamia, head on over to my Mega Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study post, which contains lots of recommended resources and free notepages. Oh, and some stem ideas for including science in your history unit studies.
For all my other history lessons, and more unit study ideas, head over to my History page