What’s the first novel ever written?

11 min readDec 22, 2020

Storytelling is a universal human impulse. Nowadays, novels are written in just about every corner of the planet. But that wasn’t always the case.

Just how old is the novel? Is a novel’s basic essence influenced by when and where it was written? Or is there something that all novels have in common, regardless of the culture that produced them?

Let’s find out!

Google “what’s the world’s first novel?” and the answer you’ll see over and over is The Tale of Genji. Written around 1010–1021 by Imperial lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji tells the story of the romantic and political adventures of Prince Genji, outcast son of the Emperor of Japan and ideal aristocrat of the Heian period in which the story was both written and set.

The Japanese title of the work, Genji monogatari, places the book within the monogatari genre of fiction: an extended prose tale developed by Heian court women that’s comparable to the novel. The term has been applied to Japanese translations of Western novels, such as The Lord of the Rings ( Yubiwa Monogatari) and To Kill a Mockingbird ( Arabama Monogatari).

But not everyone agrees that The Tale of Genji is the oldest novel in the world. Some say it’s the Greek story Chaereas and Callirhoe, which was written in 123 CE, or its Latin contemporary by Apuleius.

But there’s a much older text that fits the bill. Much, much older. In fact, it’s the oldest work of literature in the world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh was a semi-legendary king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk who reigned sometime around 2700–2500 BCE. Scattered tales about him date back to not long after his death. Since written language was invented around 3000 BCE, that means that almost as soon as they could write, people started writing about Gilgamesh.

According to translators John Gardner and John Maier, the Gilgamesh story “was worked and reworked for two thousand years, kept alive by a tradition of scribal schools set up in Sumerian times and lasting into the early Christian era. … Gilgamesh stories appear [in] Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite.”

The text we now have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in the Akkadian language sometime before the 13th century BCE by a scholar/exorcist/priest named Sîn-lēqi-unninni. His take on the tale is less a retelling than a reshaping of the older Gilgamesh stories. “Sîn-lēqi-unninni made use of Sumerian and Akkadian materials that were in some cases a thousand years old when he took them up,” write Gardner and Maier. “With [his version] we have something that begins to look more like the work of an ‘author’ in the modern sense of the word.”

Then, for hundreds of years, it was lost and forgotten.

It was during an excavation of the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria, that The Epic of Gilgamesh was reintroduced to the literary world. In the early 1850s, bits of broken clay tablets covered in an unfamiliar writing were found buried within mounds in what is now the city of Mosul, Iraq. In 1857, the writing system, known as cuneiform, was deciphered. The first translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh was published in 1876.

Not only does it have a single, definitive author who functions like a novelist, Sîn-lēqi-unninni’s Gilgamesh has a novelistic structure. But rather than chapters, the narrative is divided into twelve tablets. Each tablet has writing on the front and back, like the pages of a book. The words are read from the left side of the tablet to the right, and from the top of the tablet to the bottom, like English. The text is divided into six columns on each side of the tablet, neatly separating it into sections.

Overall, the layout is surprisingly familiar to a 21st-century reader.

The story found on the tablets, too, is striking in its modernity.

“The more we try to fit ‘Gilgamesh’ into the pattern of [the] archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky, and postmodern it seems. It is the original quest story. But it is also an anti-quest, since it undermines the quest myth from the beginning,” writes Gilgamesh translator Stephen Mitchell.

Gilgamesh, the tyrannical king of Uruk, is part human, part god. Suffering under his reign, his people beseech their deities for help. Rather than smite Gilgamesh, the gods create an ideal friend for him: a Tarzan-like wild man named Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the perfect partners (in friendship and, unfortunately, in crime). No longer interested in tormenting his citizens, Gilgamesh sets his sights on the monstrous Humbaba, guardian of a mystical forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay him and chop down his sacred cedar trees. This irks the gods. Then, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu strut home to Uruk, insult the goddess of love and kill the magical bull of heaven, the gods decide it’s time for Enkidu to go.

He dies. Slowly and tragically. And the story takes a sharp turn. Gilgamesh is wracked with grief. He abandons his kingdom and wanders the wilderness searching for a way to overcome death (not entirely to bring Enkidu back — his motivations are remarkably complex from a psychological perspective). Eventually he comes across the Sumerian version of Noah, learns that death is inevitable for everyone, and resigns himself to go home and live the best life he can until the end of his days. His quest is both a failure and a success: he hasn’t obtained a miracle, but he has gained wisdom.

I made a rough estimate of the word count of Gilgamesh, taking into account breakages in the extant tablets that have resulted in missing words and lines. The entire text, if undamaged, would clock in somewhere above 20,000 words in English. Well within novella territory; certainly a contender for shortest novel ever written.

But it’s not classified as a novel. Scholars consider it to be an epic poem.

What is an epic poem?

Over at Bookriot in her piece on the world’s first novel, Anna Gooding-Call claims Gilgamesh is not a novel.

Writes Gooding-Call:

  • Novels must be fictional narratives focusing on specific human experiences. The Epic of Gilgamesh is not fictional so much as extremely exaggerated.
  • Gilgamesh is an epic poem. As cool as that is, novels are written in prose. Poetry can wait outside.
  • It’s kinda short. How long does a book have to be to be a novel? Longish. Not brief. ‘Book-length.’ Like another popular type of media, you know it when you see it.

As to her first point, I don’t know about you, but I don’t regularly hang out with a Sumerian goddess who also happens to be my mother, battle forest demons and magical bulls from heaven, or chat with immortal men who survived a flood that killed all of humanity centuries ago. I’d call that fiction, not “exaggeration,” extreme or otherwise.

Addressing her final point, “It’s kinda short. How long does a book have to be to be a novel?” that’s exactly what the World’s Shortest Novel series is here to discover. As we explored in “ How long should a novel be?” the length of so-called “real” novels is arbitrary, mainly driven by publishers and prone to change as readers’ tastes, market forces and genre conventions evolve. Also, isn’t it interesting that the length argument only ever goes, “Too short, not novel,” never in the other direction? The latest English translation of The Tale of Genji comes in at a staggering 1,300 pages, but you’ll never hear anyone claim, “That’s too long to be a novel.”

But what about her second point, “ Gilgamesh is an epic poem. As cool as that is, novels are written in prose.” This I’ll give her. Novels are written in prose. Gilgamesh is an epic poem.

Or is it?

Let’s define our terms before we make any assumptions about what Gilgamesh really is.

An epic is a lengthy narrative (storytelling) poem written in a formal, lofty style that recounts the deeds of a legendary or historic hero. It can also be a play or novel that resembles an epic poem. The first epics were not written, but performed.

Interestingly enough, people didn’t always consider Gilgamesh to be an epic poem.

“When [ Gilgamesh] was discovered a century ago, the poem was often called a ‘legend,’” write Gardner and Maier. They note that it was Assyria-studies expert Paul Haupt who suggested “a connection with the Greek epos, in which the oral presentation of the poet is the defining characteristic. The work has come to be called, conventionally, the epic of Gilgamesh.”

This presupposes that the twelve clay tablets found in the Library of Ashurbanipal were brought out of their royal repository for public readings, which is not something we can assume. And here’s a crucial detail to consider: neither the writer of Gilgamesh nor his readers called it by the Akkadian word for “epic.”

The ancient Mesopotamian literary catalogs that record the existence of the text referred to it in two ways. The first was “He who saw the deep,” which is the first line of Gilgamesh. The other was “The Iškaru of Gilgamesh.” Gardner and Maier explain that “the term usually translated as ‘series,’ has the semantic range of ‘work assigned to be performed,’ ‘materials or supplies for workmen,’ and ‘finished products.’ Also, ‘literary work’ … the term does not shed much light on the genre of the work.”

In fact, “genre” is a concept that was completely foreign to literature until very recently.

“Until a few centuries ago, ‘literature’ meant only poetry or drama; most cultures didn’t even have a word (much less a critical rhetoric) for long prose fictions,” Steven Moore writes in The Novel: An Alternative History. “Consequently, there are older book-length prose ‘romances,’ ‘sagas,’ ‘tales,’ ‘pastorals,’ ‘legends,’ ‘acts,’ ‘picaresques,’ and ‘folk epics’ that are novels in everything but name. When critics argue that these earlier forms aren’t really novels, they mean conventional, modern novels, a provincial view that ignores the wild diversity of fiction in our own time as well as in the past. Just because older, foreign novels don’t exactly resemble those on the New York Times best-seller list, it doesn’t mean they’re not novels.”

Writer Mary McMahon notes, “When one includes epic poems under the field of ‘novel,’ and some scholars do, matters get a bit more complicated. Both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey are far older than The Tale of Genji, and they could in a way be considered precursors to the modern novel.”

But Moore believes this is irrelevant because the themes and plot of Gilgamesh don’t fit into the epic genre at all. “Though Gilgamesh is filled with gods and supernatural events, the all-too-human concern for death lifts the story out of mythology and sets it in the realm of the novel. It’s about male friendship, about putting off and reluctantly accepting maturity and civic responsibilities, about coming to terms with one’s mortality and limitations, all topics more common to the novel than to the epic.”

But what about that sticking point of prose vs. poetry?

According to Gilgamesh translators John Gardner and John Maier, structurally Gilgamesh is “best approached as seventy-two more or less complete poems.”

But are they right?

That depends on your definition of poetry.

Some believe poetry must rhyme. Others allow for alliteration in lieu of rhyme, as seen in Beowulf. Most require some form of meter, or pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables found in the poetry of Shakespeare and many others.

For those who espouse prose poems or free verse poetry as forms of poetry, all bets are off. No meter, no rhyme, no structure, no problem.

What are the features of the poetry of Gilgamesh?

According to Jeremy Black, author of Reading Sumerian Poetry, “Neither Sumerian nor Akkadian verse is based on rhyme. … Sumerian poetry can very broadly speaking be defined in extrinsic terms as a heightened form of language written in lines of verse.” It also appears to lack meter, alliteration, or the sort of line-by-line syllable structure you’ll find in poetry like haiku.

What it has is a lot of metaphor, simile and other “poetic imagery,” which can also be found in prose. And line breaks, as seen in free verse.

Perhaps the shibboleth for determining whether Gilgamesh is a poem or not comes down to how you answer this question:

Is the Pledge of Allegiance a poem?

It doesn’t rhyme. Alliteration is absent. But when written, it usually has line breaks similar to those found in a poem. It contains the “heightened form of language” mentioned by Black. And, when it’s spoken aloud, people instinctively deliver the words in the rhythmic, singsong manner of a poem.

If you consider the Pledge of Allegiance to be a poem, then so is Gilgamesh. If you don’t, then Gilgamesh is prose.

I fall on the prose side of the equation. I feel that both the Pledge and Gilgamesh are poetic but not poetry.

I agree with Moore, who writes, “I would love to claim this as the world’s first novel.” He notes that although it’s shorter than conventional 21st-century novels, “it dramatizes the central concern of the novel [namely] moving from a state of innocence to one of experience and accepting the way things really are.”

But what about the other factors we’ve explored in previous Search for the World’s Shortest Novel posts?

  1. Is Gilgamesh fiction? YES
  2. Does it rely on imagery, not images (i.e., language rather than visual art)? YES
  3. Does the narrative deal with human experience? YES
  4. Is it divided into chapters (sections that are interdependent and integral to the narrative as a whole)? YES
  5. Is the narrative composed of a series of connected incidents? YES
  6. Did its creator or publisher consider it to be a novel? UNCLEAR

Like myth, allegory, folk tale and poetry, there’s something about the novel as a storytelling form that transcends time and place. A novel is a novel, whether the author hails from Thailand or Trinidad, Cameroon or Canada, and no matter if it was written two or two thousand years ago.

Like the recently reconstructed lines from the Humbaba tablet of Gilgamesh, I think we’ve discovered the missing piece of the “shortest novel ever written” puzzle. It’s a crucial piece. It’s the thing that makes a novel a novel. We’ll discuss what it is in the next and final post of the World’s Shortest Novel series.

Be sure to check out my extremely short novel (or extremely long short story?) The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?

Originally published at http://the-delve.com on December 22, 2020.