The present work is a translation of a book originally published in French as "La vie Surhumaine de Guesar de Ling le Heros Thibetain, racontee par les bardes de son pays" in 1931 (and reprinted under shorter variants of the title), and in English in 1933 by Ryder & Co., London (reprinted 1959) and in 1934 by Claude Kendall, New York, as by Alexandra David-Neel and the Lama Yongden, and translated "with the collaboration of Violet Sydney." (The description of the translation from Tibetan at the end of David-Neel's 35-page Introduction does not go into details on the turning of French into English. The results are, at least, quite readable.)
I originally became acquainted with Gesar in the 1960s through a rather dingy-looking rebound library copy of the 1934 edition, and was delighted to find it, years later, in a crisp-looking paperback reprint, with a new foreword (by Chogyam Trungpa, who presumably finds the translation acceptable), but otherwise unchanged.
For those not interested in problems of Tibetan history, and the mutual adaptations of Tibetan civilization and Buddhism, the story is more than worth reading as an heroic romance. (Which is how I originally came to it, along with Cuchulain, Finn, and pre-Malory versions of Arthur and Lancelot). There have been some other books on Gesar published in recent years, some including interesting additional material, but the other popular retellings seem at least partly dependant on the doubly-translated David-Neel prose version of his stories. (Which were actually told in verse, and can reasonably be described as a series of epics.)
That there is no comparable one-volume version in English is not surprising. There is in fact no complete "canonical" version in Tibetan to translate; instead, many tellings of episodes and sequences of episodes have been recovered, in written or oral form. David-Neel and her Tibetan associates came up with a reasonably connected story. Until a qualified student of Tibetan language and literature produces a representative selection of these texts in English of manageable length, the David-Neel version will have to satisfy the curiosity of the rest of us. What may be the third volume of the major "Library of Tibet" Gesar translation project, directed by Robin Kornman, was in fact scheduled for publication in January 2004. There are also tantalizing reports of Kornman's projected 800-page version of the Gesar story for Penguin, which as a single volume would be a good replacement for David-Neel. This has apparently been scheduled for publication in late November of -- 2007!*
Fortunately, the version available is highly enjoyable. It offers the reader a self-consciously Buddhist treatment of the story of a military hero, a fighter and conqueror who is presented as an incarnate defender of the Dharma, and Tibet, against a variety of essentially demonic enemies. In this way, the ethos of the old Tibetan royal and noble dynasties is adjusted to the ideology of Mahayana Buddhism, and the traditions of the Vajrayana schools which prevailed in Tibet.
Gesar's story, in this account, is set motion by Padmasambhava, the "Lotus-Born Sage" and "Precious Guru" who is regarded the "Apostle of Tibet," and one of its supernatural guardians. This wonder-working Bodhisattva recognizes that the time has come to beget a mighty hero, to oppose a previously vanquished demon, now triply-incarnated in human forms, and sets about the accomplishment of this goal. (Yes, it *does* sound a bit like Joss Whedon's original version of the Chosen One and her Watcher, reborn through the ages to defend humanity!) It is not merely an ordinary biography, therefore, but covers the hero's previous existence as a higher being, and the circumstances of his conception and birth, as seen from an essentially divine point of view.
Whether you are looking for entertainment or edification, the open-minded reader should find it worthwhile.
*Update, April 2013: Robin Kornman's translation is in at least three volumes, and will appear from Shambhala, not Penguin. Volume One, "The Epic of Gesar of Ling: Gesar's Magical Birth, Early Years, and Coronation as King," is scheduled for official release July 9, 2013. The hardcover editions, at least, will be expensive; I'm waiting for a paperback printing!
In the meantime (that is, while I've been ignoring this review), Christopher Pennick has produced a three-volume retelling, under the series title of THE SONGS AND DEEDS OF GESAR, KING OF LING (2009-2011). The individual volumes are: "Warrior Song of King Gesar," "Crossings on a Bridge of Light," and "The Brilliance of Naked Mind." All three are available in reasonably-priced Kindle editions.