The greatest epics from around the world

Why am I passionate about this?

Nicholas Jubber has written for the Guardian, Irish Times and Telegraph, amongst other publications. He has won the Dolman Travel Book Award, for which he has been shortlisted three times, and his books have been picked by National Geographic, Wanderlust and the New York Times, amongst other publications, for their books of the year.

I wrote...

Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe

By Nicholas Jubber,

Book cover of Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe

What is my book about?

An account of a journey from Anatolia to Iceland in the wake of Europe’s most enduring epic tales, Epic Continent explores the connections between Europe’s past and present, tramping off the beaten track to Balkan monasteries, a Dark Age battle-site in the Pyrenees, or Scandinavian rock-carvings, and describing encounters with artists, war veterans and investigative reporters whose lives have been entangled with the continent’s ancient epic stories

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Beowulf

Nicholas Jubber Why did I love this book?

A story about monsters, how to fight them, and what it costs. Beowulf is so ferocious he can rip the claw of the demonic Grendel and plunge into the mere to face the monster’s horrifying mother. But the cares of kingship weigh heavily on his shoulders and his death by dragon-fire presages the collapse of his kingdom.

Written down circa 1000AD and hailing from even earlier, the English language’s first masterpiece is full of melancholy poetry, balancing the glamour of the mead-hall with the wistful memory of fallen warriors. I’ve heard it recited in the original Anglo-Saxon, and it’s a moving experience, a worm-hole down the ages, feathered with echoes of the language we use today. It’s a tale of monsters for sure (famously, it was a big influence on Tolkien), but it’s also a tale about diplomacy, kinship, and honour, themes that recur throughout the history of epic storytelling.

Which version to read? Seamus Heaney’s translation is the most poetic, but to experience the thrill of the original, I’d recommend Professor R.M. Liuzza’s bilingual version, so you can enjoy the rich textures of the original alongside a modern translation.

By Seamus Heaney,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Beowulf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Composed towards the end of the first millennium, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the great Northern epics and a classic of European literature. In his new translation, Seamus Heaney has produced a work which is both true, line by line, to the original poem, and an expression, in its language and music, of something fundamental to his own creative gift.

The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed, in that exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels between this story and the history of the…

Book cover of The Odyssey

Nicholas Jubber Why did I love this book?

Possibly the greatest story ever told, and almost certainly the most influential outside of the Bible. For all the marvellous fantasy elements – the man-guzzling Cyclops, Circe with her powers of transformation or the eerie visit to the underworld – not to mention the blood-soaked climax (providing a template for thousands of action tales ending in a single location shoot-out), the story is at its most exhilarating when it slows down to the personal. The reunion between the hero and his long-suffering wife is a poignant climax, and so is Odysseus’s encounter with his son Telemachus, a lost boy who’s spent his whole life yearning for his father’s guiding hand.

Which version to read? There are so many, but I’m still partial to TE Lawrence’s adventurous prose version, first published in 1932, which captures with economic excitement the thrill of Homer’s storytelling.

By Homer, T.E. Shaw (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Odyssey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Homer's epic chronicle of the Greek hero Odysseus' journey home from the Trojan War has inspired  writers from Virgil to James Joyce. Odysseus  survives storm and shipwreck, the cave of the Cyclops  and the isle of Circe, the lure of the Sirens' song  and a trip to the Underworld, only to find his  most difficult challenge at home, where treacherous  suitors seek to steal his kingdom and his loyal  wife, Penelope. Favorite of the gods, Odysseus  embodies the energy, intellect, and resourcefulness  that were of highest value to the ancients and that  remain ideals in out time.

In this  new…

Book cover of The Nibelungenlied

Nicholas Jubber Why did I love this book?

Dark and violent, this twelfth-century tale of love and revenge is a compelling vision of medieval values, combining many of the tropes of later pseudo-medieval sagas – treasure, gory battles, a cloak of invisibility, sexual deception and a dragon – with the spiritual angst that the later tales miss. From Siegfried’s brief encounter with a scaly beast to the fire-and-blood blitzkrieg of the climax – a ferocious battle in the hall of Attila the Hun – the story is told with breathless passion. Whether it glamourises war, or warns against its cost, is a matter of enduring debate. The tale has certainly had its share of cranky fans, from the silent movie filmmaker Fritz Lang to Heinrich Himmler, a testament to its provocative power.

Which version to read? The Penguin edition, translated by A.T. Hatto and published in 1965, offers a very readable prose version that captures the tale’s fiery spirit.

By Unknown, A.T. Hatto (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nibelungenlied as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Written by an unknown author in the twelfth century, this powerful tale of murder and revenge reaches back to the earliest epochs of German antiquity, transforming centuries-old legend into a masterpiece of chivalric drama. Siegfried, a great prince of the Netherlands, wins the hand of the beautiful princess Kriemhild of Burgundy, by aiding her brother Gunther in his struggle to seduce a powerful Icelandic Queen. But the two women quarrel, and Siegfried is ultimately destroyed by those he trusts the most. Comparable in scope to the Iliad, this skilfully crafted work combines the fragments of half-forgotten myths to create one…

Book cover of The Ramayana

Nicholas Jubber Why did I love this book?

The scale of this ancient Indian epic is off the charts, fusing Hindu iconography with story beats of startling familiarity. Monkeys build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka, an army of demons takes on the vanguard of the gods and the villain is felled by a celestial bow. An influence on storytelling down the ages – notably Star Wars – it’s a tale as exciting as it is charming, with a surprisingly downbeat coda, as Queen Sita discovers that being rescued by her divine husband isn’t enough to survive the prejudices of her age.

Which version to read? Arshia Sattar’s 1996 translation is available in Penguin translation. I can’t testify to its accuracy, but it’s a magnificent read.

By Valmiki, Arshia Sattar (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ramayana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana pervades the country's moral and cultural consciousness. For generations it has served as a bedtime story for Indian children, while at the same time engaging the interest of philosophers and theologians. Believed to have been composed by Valmiki sometime between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, the Ramayana tells the tragic and magical story of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, an incarnation of Lord Visnu, born to rid the earth of the terrible demon Ravana. An idealized heroic tale ending with the inevitable triumph of good over evil, the Ramayana is also an…

Book cover of Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

Nicholas Jubber Why did I love this book?

Thousands of years and fifty reigns are dramatised in this chronicle of sixty thousand verses. Set down in the eleventh century by an engagingly grumpy Persian poet who enjoyed the odd cup of wine and fretted about his finances. In the process, he saved (as some would have it) the Persian language and culture. The resonance of his tales has endured down the centuries: traveling in Iran, I met artists who used the story of a snake-shouldered tyrant who gobbles the brains of young men as a parable for the inter-generational tensions of the mullahcracy and the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War; whilst the romance of a beautiful long-haired princess and her tower-climbing lover is the earliest recorded iteration of ‘Rapunzel’.

Which version to read: The nineteenth-century Warner brothers produced an atmospheric full translation, but for a more modern abridgment, I’d recommend The Epic of the Kings, translated by Reuben Levy and published in 1967.

By Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Reuben Levy (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shahnameh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


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Book cover of Returning to Eden

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What is this book about?

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