in the skin of a lion. [The Epic of Gilgamesh]

Gilgamesh is described as a wise and accomplished king who is determined to conquer mortality upon witnessing the death of his beloved friend and companion. He ultimately fails, realizing that the only way mortals can achieve immortality is through the establishment of civilization and culture. Ondaatje uses a quotation from this epic as the title of his novel to draw our attention to the similarities between this ancient hero and the one he presents: Patrick Lewis.

As Ondaatje becomes each of his characters and each of his characters becomes an alter ego for Ondaatje, as "each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story" (157), the writer participates with the workers in building the viaduct and the water filtration plants. An historical figure, Commissioner of Public Works Rowland Harris, the powerful master builder, is one of the most surprising alter egos for the writer in this novel; like Harris, Ondaatje dreams of wonderful structures and then brings them into being; like Harris, he looks at Patrick and identifies him as the ancient hero Gilgamesh.

It's interesting to note that Patrick rarely sees himself as a hero, but instead as a "watcher, a corrector...He had lived in this country all of his life. But it was only now that he learned of the union battles up north...And all of his life Patrick had been oblivious to it, a searcher gazing into the darkness of his own country, a blind man dressing the heroine." [In the Skin of a Lion p.157] 

Gilgamesh's fight with the lions in the night is both an act of self-preservation and an act of anger that the beasts still enjoy life while Enkidu is dead. Similarly, Patrick Lewis's attempt on Commissioner Harris's life and the Waterworks grows out of his anger at Harris's continued success and power while Patrick's love, Alice Gull, is dead. Harris retains his power as he orders the explosives removed, but, in recognizing Patrick as Gilgamesh, he recognizes the power and importance of the workers, the underlings; the unknown man who fails in his subversive mission, whom Harris previously designated as "among the dwarfs of enterprise who never get accepted or acknowledged" (238), is now identified as a hero.

Can Commissioner Harris be seen as a type of hero as well? It's true he neglects the workers and does not acknowledge their contribution until the end of the novel but, as no story should "be told as though it were the only one", perhaps we should see it from his point of view. He dreams of bringing the viaduct into life, infrastructures crucial to the growing city of Toronto. Maybe he chose not to see the workers, because he knew there was no other way. Because for every triumph there exists defeat. Perhaps later on in the book Harris finally realizes that his ignorance of the workers, be it deliberate or involuntary, will not go unnoticed without consequences.  

One of the themes of The Gilgamesh Epic concerns harnessing the power of the strong so that, instead of harming society, it benefits it. For Gilgamesh, the loss of his comrade, his period of mourning, and his learning the secrets of the great Flood turn him from a wild, strong youth into a responsible ruler. The definition of the hero changes from the man of sheer physical strength to the man with special knowledge of the human condition, of death and survival, as expressed in Enkidu's death and the story of the Flood. In the scene at the puppet theatre, Patrick sees himself as the hero, the rescuer, as he rushes on to the stage to save the exhausted Alice. As he joins with the workers, his power resides in his knowledge of explosives. At the end of the book, he has acknowledged that he is not the hero/rescuer. He has perhaps learned what Van Nortwick sees as the main lesson of The Gilgamesh Epic:“... the poem suggests that Gilgamesh must learn to see himself not as preeminent among men, but as part of a larger whole, ruled by forces often beyond his ability to control. Rather than challenge his limitations, he must learn to accept them and live within them: maturity requires humility which requires acceptance, not defiance, not denial.” (37)

Here it is suggested that given Patrick's circumstances, it is not possible for him to be a hero in the sense of Commissioner Harris because various societal structures do not allow him to. This does not mean, however,  that he is not a hero. "Alice had one described a play to him in which several actresses shared the role of the heroine. After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters. In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language. Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story." [In the Skin of the Lion p.157] The silent Patrick is just as heroic as the man who brought the viaduct from his imagination to reality. We need to recognize that there is no absolute heroism, because it all depends on who tells the story and how it is told.

In acknowledging Patrick Lewis as hero, as Gilgamesh, Commissioner Harris cedes power to those less politically powerful than himself. By calling for a nurse with medical supplies rather than the police, Harris accepts his role in the death of Alice Gull and accepts his "amateur" status (242) in the midst of the truly powerful. In acknowledging his own role in the accident that killed Alice Gull, Patrick ends his defiance and denial, freeing himself to journey toward Clara in the final chapter of the novel.
[source: link to similarities

11/27/2010 05:30:54 am

" We need to recognize that there is no absolute heroism, because it all depends on who tells the story and how it is told." --YES! Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest much the same answer for all of our questions this semester: there is no absolute 'canadianess' in literature -- it all depends on the 'stories' the reader brings to the text before opening a single page ....
wonderfully insightful and thoughtful exploration here, thank you Jade.

11/27/2010 05:33:10 am

Shoot - I know I am talking to you Lucy, not Jade .... sorry, I type too fast!


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