(Disclaimer: My experience with the Fate series is limited to Fate/Zero, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, and some wiki browsing.)
Anime is but one of the things I pursue in my free time. While it may take up most of the space I have devoted to entertainment, another thing I chase with fervent passion is mythology. There’s much one can learn about a civilization by its myths. As a fan of both anime and mythology, the Fate series and I have a love hate relationship. There are times when the series expands on the myths of old and enriches them, leaving me absolutely ecstatic. The final duel between Berserker and Saber in Fate/Zero felt like a natural conclusion to the Arthurian myths. There are other times when the exact opposite occurs. I’d rather not talk about what they did to Nero and Mordred.
But, throughout the Fate series, one servant stands proud and arrogant among all others. Gilgamesh, King of Heroes, is an imposing presence throughout of Fate. Powerful, prideful, and quick to look down upon others, Gilgamesh’s presence would make most other kings feel inadequate. Yet, in a series where one’s legend means everything to one’s power and capabilities, I found myself thinking “who’s Gilgamesh?”. As such, I took it upon myself to read the Epic of Gilgamesh over one particular plane trip. While the Fate tries to stay true to the spirit of its heroes, it was inevitable that someone was going to have to change, if for plot reasons alone. I wanted to know whether the magnificent Gilgamesh was true to the spirit of his epic, or simply an invention of the series.
But first, some background. The Epic of Gilgamesh an epic dating back to around 2000-1000 B.C. (or B.C.E.). What makes this remarkable is that it makes this one of the oldest, if not the oldest piece of literature in the world.
What they got right
Gilgamesh is vain and conceited. There’s no way around it. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh has oppressed the entire city of Uruk with his ego. He’s constantly challenging the men to competitions of strength and agility, and he has decreed that no man may marry his wife until he has slept with her. The Fate Gilgamesh wonderfully represents this with his ego and his smugness. This all figures into giving Gilgamesh a feeling of superiority, conveying the idea that he was born a king.
Secondly, and a bit more hidden, Gilgamesh’s relationship with Enkidu. Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s equal and opposite. Two-thirds beast to Gilgamesh’s two thirds god, just as strong and determined, and Gilgamesh’s only friend in the world. This led to one of my favorite scenes in all of Fate/Zero. During Rider’s final confrontation with Gilgamesh in this scene, Rider proposes that they join together to “conquer the stars themselves”. Gilgamesh responds with hearty laughter, and a refusal accompanied with the words “Unfortunately, there is one friend I ever had and ever will have”. It’s these little details of the Fate series that makes it stand out, and makes all the difference from simply taking a character’s name and general likeness and actually faithfully portraying that character.
What they missed
Throughout the Epic, Gilgamesh is fiercely competitive, and a very active seeker of glory. Despite the fact that the guardian spirit of a forest far from the walls of Uruk presents no threat to him, Gilgamesh actively seeks out the bull to slaughter it. He exhausts all the men of Uruk with his perpetual challenges of strength and endurance. This could hardly be more contrary to Fate’s Gilgamesh, who is content to watch and be entertained. However, this is mainly a plot convenience change, as this sort of attitude from the enormously powerful Gilgamesh of the Fate series would have quickly ended the story.
Secondly, and more mundanely, I must mention that Gilgamesh was not a lithe and blonde bishounen. Gilgamesh was a man among men, with a physique to match. Tall, muscular and almost always shown as bearded, Gilgamesh would be more reminiscent of an Olympian athlete than an anime pretty-boy.
Despite some small inconsistencies, overall, Fate’s depiction of Gilgamesh is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original. Instead of trying to overpower the myth and replace it, Fate’s Gilgamesh flows well with the legend and expands it.
If you wish to to read the Epic of Gilgamesh yourself, there is a wonderful translation available for free here.
I used Stephen Mitchell’s version, which is available on kindle for a price.