Common Themes of Two Masterpieces: War and Peace and Gilgamesh

A masterpiece is a work that in style, execution, and resonance far exceeds what other writers have created in the same genre (Janaro & Altshuler, 2017). A masterpiece, has a timeless quality that can always stand on its own, whereas, a classic, may lose relevance based on time and circumstance (Janaro & Altshuler, 2017). A classic can qualify as a masterpiece; but not all do. Qualities of a literary masterpiece include artistry, suggestiveness, intellectual value, permanence, universality, style, and spiritual value. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an example of a western masterpiece and the Epic of Gilgamesh by Sin-Liqe-Unninni is an example of a non-western work. The two masterpieces, War and Peace, and Gilgamesh detail how life altering experiences such as war, battle, and death can enlighten a survivor to appreciate universal love, and friendship while finding the true meaning of existence.

War and Peace is a tale of five aristocratic families during the French invasion of Russia spanning the period of 1805 to 1820. War, death, and the nuances of everyday life are all features of the novel. However, the importance of relationships and family is a crucial realization for the young characters. For example, as Prince Andrey Bolkonsky was slowly dying his thoughts were consumed with the purpose of life and death:

‘Love? What is love?’ he thought. ‘Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source’ (Tolstoy 1845).

Prince Andrey’s spiritual conversion and development is a result of the many tragedies he suffers throughout the novel such as the horrors of the Battle of Austerlitz, his wife dying in childbirth, losing his new fiancée, Natasha, to a married man, his father dying, and his home being plundered (Boyagoda, 2004). Instead of becoming bitter however the former atheist makes amends with Natasha and the man she left him for, actually thanking the circumstances that brought him such pain for allowing him to gain deeper insight into the meaning and value of life. Tolstoy created a paradox by not focusing solely on the tens of thousands caught up in the horror of war, but the ones such as Andrey who were saved spiritually by the experience of living through it (Boyagoda, 2004). The novel shows that accepting this idea of universal love is the ultimate path to peace and greatness, much better to attain in everyday life than the greatness Napoleon was trying to gain through war.

The Epic of Gilgamesh by Sin-Liqe-Unninni is a non-western masterpiece, which is equally compelling as it explores themes of friendship and the coming of age through battle and a great quest. It is the oldest work of philosophical literature and takes place in the city of Uruk around 2750 BCE. It is a story about the moral and philosophical education of a Mesopotamian King, Gilgamesh, as he evolves from a heartless tyrant, to a loving king (Habib, 2008). The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a wildman of the countryside, and their journey to find eternal glory by fighting the dreaded Humbaba is the setting for most of the story. Enkidu’s desire for friendship is highlighted as an important stage of being human. Later, Enkidu dies and the questions that young Gilgamesh laments are timeless and easily applicable to anyone who has lost someone they love:

‘What became of my friend was too much to bear, so on a far road I wander the wild; what became of my friend Enkidu was too much to bear, so on a far path I wander the wild. My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay. Shall I not be like him and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?’ (Tablet X 85)

Likewise, the novel War and Peace explores the significance of life. Early in the story Pierre Bezukhov inherits a vast fortune and is constantly seeking the source of true happiness. While surviving horrifying experiences that war exposed him too he is changed from a foolish party boy to a mature husband and father. He ponders the empty distractions that others consume much of their time with:

Sometimes he remembered how he had heard that soldiers in war when entrenched under the enemy’s fire, if they had nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger. To Pierre all men seemed like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in toys, some in horses, some in politics, some in sport, some in wine, and some in governmental affairs. ‘Nothing is trivial, and nothing is important, it’s all the same – only to save oneself from it as best one can,’ thought Pierre (Tolstoy 1008).

Ultimately Pierre comes to realize that happiness comes from within, not external circumstances, emphasizing the importance of relationships and family. Tolstoy’s core message was that dealing with suffering is an ongoing feature of life in this world, to which the only successful response is the constancy of faith (Boyagoda, 2004). Having been saved by faith Pierre immediately has to face the death of his loved ones:

On the day of his rescue “he had seen the body of Petya Rostov. That same day he had learned that Prince Andrew, after surviving the battle of Borodino for more than a month had recently died in the Rostovs’ house at Yaroslavl, and Denisov who told him this news also mentioned Helee’s death, supposing that Pierre had heard of it long before (Tolstoy 2083).

Pierre draws on his faith and he and the others affected by those deaths, find new lives with each other.

Similarly experiencing the death of a loved one had a profound effect on Gilgamesh. Watching his friend Enkidu’s body decompose forces Gilgamesh to realize that he must die alone and that grieving cannot bring his friend back to life or save himself from mortality (Habib, 2008). Wise words are imparted that life is incredibly brief and death is a surety:

‘No one at all sees Death, no one at all sees the face of Death, no one at all hears the voice of Death, Death so savage, who hacks men down. Ever do we build our households, ever do we make our nests, ever do brothers divide their inheritance, ever to feuds arise in the land. Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly floating on the water. On the face of the sun its countenance gazes, then all of a sudden nothing is there!’ (Tablet X 305,310,315)

The epic of Gilgamesh sounds a warning about the inevitability of death, so that the reader avoids to the course of Gilgamesh, who wasted so much time and energy attempting to find eternal life that he turned his back on family and friends and wandered the wilderness seeking a destiny that was not his to have.

These two masterpieces have maintained their relevance due to human themes that can be easily identified in any era such as universal love, friendship, the meaning of life, and the certainty of death. Both works involve a journey in both a physical and spiritual sense where the perspective of the main character is permanently altered through the experiences of war, death, and battle. Violence renders them humble and appreciative of simpler things such as friendship and family. These words were penned both thousands and hundreds of years ago, yet their message is still relevant today. Modern readers can easily relate as adversities in life can often reveal the value of good relationships and the wisdom of not taking for granted the limited time we have on this earth.

Works Cited

  1. Boyagoda, Randy. “Finding Faith in War and Peace”. World & I. vol. 19, no. 5, May 2004, p. 288 EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=13054791&site=eds-live.
  2. Habib, Khalil 1. “The Epic of Gilgamesh: Death and the Education of a Tyrant.” International Journal of the Humanities, vol.6, no.7, Oct. 2008, pp. 73-77. EBSCOhost, doi:10.18848/1447-9508/CGP/v06i07/42484.
  3. Janaro, R. P., & Altshuler, T. C. (2017). The art of being human: the humanities as a technique for living. Boston: Pearson.
  4. Sin-Liqe-Unninni. The Epic of Gilgamesh A New Translation. Translated by Andrew George, Penguin Books, https://d3jc3ahdjad7x7.cloudfront.net/NRUTVm6ZhlKhuLUJiV0EMwP1RzD8YcWzShoETQ3DN3aPcGWE.pdf.
  5. Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, Planet EBook, https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/war-and-peace.pdf.  
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