The greatest epics from around the world

Nicholas Jubber Author Of Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe
By Nicholas Jubber

The Books I Picked & Why


By Seamus Heaney

Book cover of Beowulf

Why 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.

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The Odyssey

By Homer, T.E. Lawrence

Book cover of The Odyssey

Why 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.

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The Nibelungenlied

By Unknown, A.T. Hatto

Book cover of The Nibelungenlied

Why 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.

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The Ramayana

By Valmiki, Arshia Sattar

Book cover of The Ramayana

Why 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.

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Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

By Reuben Levy, Abolqasem Ferdowsi

Book cover of Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

Why 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.

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