The best epic poetry books

6 authors have picked their favorite books about epic poetry and why they recommend each book.

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The Iliad

By Homer, Robert Fagles (translator),

Book cover of The Iliad

I am cheating a little here because ‘Homer’ can refer to either the Iliad or the Odyssey or both. Either way, those are the two foundational works of ALL western literature and of much ‘world’ literature besides. They are both very very long verse epics, originally composed and handed down orally by a combination of memory and performance improvisation, but eventually committed to writing in the Greeks’ then-new alphabetic script. 

If there was just one poet called Homer, his genius lay in his selection of a single unifying theme for both monumental poems – the anger of Greek hero-warrior Achilles (Iliad), and the ten-year travels and travails of petty Greek island king Odysseus (Odyssey). But most of us think that two different ‘monumental composers’ did the business. 

Both epics spoke to and helped form the ancient Greeks’ sense of identity as a people, the Iliad in…


Who am I?

I have studied Classics and Ancient Greek history since my teens, I read ‘Greats’ (Ancient History and Philosophy) at Oxford, completed an archaeological doctorate on early Sparta also at Oxford (1975), while spending my teaching career (1972-2014) in Northern and Southern Ireland, and in England at Warwick and Cambridge Universities. I retired as the inaugural, endowed A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture before taking up my current position as A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. I have been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of some 30 books on ancient Greek history, most recently Thebes: the Forgotten City of Ancient Greece.


I wrote...

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

Among the extensive writing available about the history of ancient Greece, there is precious little about the city-state of Thebes. At one point the most powerful city in ancient Greece, Thebes has been long overshadowed by its better-known rivals, Athens and Sparta. In Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks' achievements--whether politically or culturally--and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.

The Odyssey

By Homer, Emily Wilson (translator),

Book cover of The Odyssey

No list of Odyssey reworkings would be complete without Emily Wilson’s stunning translation. I first heard Emily give a talk on her translation at Harvard, and the clear, spare voice she brings to the poetry, as well as the thoughtful way she talked about her decision-making process and some of the major problems in giving a fresh new angle to the Odyssey – particularly the fact that it has always, up till now, been translated by men – makes her version my favourite translation of this wonderful, complicated text.


Who am I?

I’m a writer of historical fiction about the ancient world, and an academic – I’m a Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and teach and research Classics at the University of Exeter. I’ve loved the ancient world – and historical fiction about antiquity – ever since I read Robert Graves’ I, Claudius at the age of eleven. Now, as both a writer and a classicist, I delve into the ancient world from all kinds of different angles – whether that’s teaching classes about women writers and Classics, clambering over the ruins of Troy, analysing almost-lost texts from the ancient world, or writing novels that give a voice to the women of ancient Greek myths.


I wrote...

For the Most Beautiful

By Emily Hauser,

Book cover of For the Most Beautiful

What is my book about?

Three thousand years ago a war took place that gave birth to legends  to Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, and Hector, prince of Troy. It was a war that shook the very foundations of the world. But what if there was more to this epic conflict? What if there was another, hidden tale of the Trojan War? Now is the time for the women of Troy to tell their story.

In this novel full of passion and revenge, loyalty and betrayal, bravery and sacrifice, Emily Hauser breathes exhilarating new life into one of the greatest legends of all  in a tale that has waited millennia to be told.

Conan

By Robert E. Howard,

Book cover of Conan

There are many reasons why I love the character Conan. He is big, strong, and fearless in the face of danger. He battles monsters of epic proportions and evil beings to satisfy his own bloodthirsty tale of revenge. That plus the action kept me on the edge of my seat. 


Who am I?

I am an international award-winning fantasy author, who’s been writing since 2003. My love of Dungeon and Dragons and Martial Arts have influenced my writing and created a world full of wonder. I have an extensive background in both Western (Sword fighting) and Eastern Martial Arts, and I use that knowledge to create so many memorable fight scenes throughout the series.


I wrote...

A Demon's Quest: The Beginning of the End

By Charles Carfagno Jr.,

Book cover of A Demon's Quest: The Beginning of the End

What is my book about?

Across the land, peace has reigned for generations. But now, demons have found a way to breach the world and cloaked themselves as humans. They are deceitful, clever, and often manipulative as they position themselves within the Martial Orders of mankind to lie in wait like a ticking time bomb and conquer the world of humanity. But another crucial journey is being undertaken. Wronged by a close friend, Gilex is on a road of revenge as he leads his devoted band of followers on a treacherous journey to find the fabled Circle of Demise. However, finding the circle will prove harder than expected and the rewards might not be what he was seeking.

Thus begins the enthralling Demon’s Quest epic, a spellbinding tale of adventure, magic, and myth . . .

The Iliad of Homer

By Homer, Richmond Lattimore (translator),

Book cover of The Iliad of Homer

Homer’s Iliad is a fabulously exciting tale of action and heroism, as the mightiest Greek heroes fight beneath the walls of Troy for the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But there is so much more to it! It’s partly the tale of one man’s anger, and partly a timeless tale about war and sacrifice for all humanity. Homer confronts some of the most significant human problems with amazingly contemporary power and nuance: the beauty and horror of combat; the inseparability of glory and destruction; the raw emotional power of reconciliation between mortal enemies; and the fact that there is more to life than revenge and more to being a man than slaughtering other men. Richmond Lattimore’s inspired translation makes you feel like Homer himself is reciting the tales to you.


Who am I?

I was introduced to the fascinating world of the Ancient Greeks by an inspirational teacher at my Primary School when I was about 10 years old—he read us tales of gods and monsters and heroes and heroism, and I was entranced. My grandpa bought me a copy of The Iliad. I read it with my torch under the bedclothes and embarked on a magical journey that has seen me spend the greater part of my life travelling in the world of the Ancient Greeks, both physically and intellectually. Those characters, both real and mythical, have become my friends, enemies, warnings, and role-models ever since.


I wrote...

The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato's Ideal State

By Steve P. Kershaw,

Book cover of The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato's Ideal State

What is my book about?

The Atlantis story, first told by the Greek philosopher Plato, is one of the most intriguing tales from antiquity. But where did Atlantis come from? What was it like? And where did it go to? The author follows the quest for Atlantis from Scandinavia to Antarctica and explores how the story has been manipulated by successive generations—used by the Conquistadors to justify their annexations, and by Himmler to prove the Aryan supremacy. 

The Atlantis story is remarkably prescient in our ‘post-truth’ world, not because it invites a search for a mysterious lost continent, but because of its warnings about the disastrous effects of Atlantis-style luxury, excess, corruption, and imperialism on a prosperous society. It should be prescribed reading for every modern political leader.

The Odyssey

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

Book cover of The Odyssey

It doesn’t get any more epic or classic than Homer’s Odyssey. Of the many trials the hero overcomes, outwitting Polyphemus (the Cyclops), and tying himself to his ship’s mast to hear the alluring call of the Sirens, are my two favorites. Everything about this war-weary hero’s saga to return back from Troy to Ithaca is storytelling at its finest. I’ve always loved Greek mythology, and Homer demonstrates the capricious pettiness of the gods as they play games with us mere mortals. When Odysseus finally gets home, everything is changed. He’s changed. At least his dog still recognizes him. Read it and you will understand why this is a story that books are written about.


Who am I?

I have come to better understand myself as a character in a wonderful story called life. That story, in this lifetime, is bookended by birth and death. It’s my own personal narrative of transformation and it’s ongoing. What will come next on my individual Hero’s Journey? Understanding this story structure provides me with insights and inspiration to make it a good story with a happy ending. It also helps me appreciate that there are many challenges to be overcome along the way.


I wrote...

Serpent Rising

By Victor Acquista,

Book cover of Serpent Rising

What is my book about?

Winner of the 2021 International Book Awards for Best New Age Fiction. A blend of mystery, suspense, adventure, and thriller, book one of The Saga of Venom and Flame recounts a heroine's journey of transformation into a warrior for truth in the great War of the Two Serpents.

Serena Mendez is a pill-popping dysfunctional who is haunted by trauma she experienced in her youth. She is unaware of her latent potential. A clandestine brotherhood hunts her for the threat she represents. To fulfill her true destiny and unleash the power within her blood, Serena journeys to six continents where she uncovers the truth of who she is, and what she must do. A warrior stirs—a Lightbringer… She is Serena Mendez… She is a Candelaria.

Autobiography of Red

By Anne Carson,

Book cover of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Based on the tale of the Tenth Labour of Herakles, this queer, lush, and cheeky novel grabbed my heart from the moment I was assigned to teach it. I did an undeclared minor in Classics during my undergrad, and aside from being extremely clever with the wordplay, I was delighted by how Carson absolutely takes the mickey out of academic writing around mythology, classical archeology, and translation. Told as a form of free-verse poetry, this novel is comprised of some of the most incredible word-crafting I've ever experienced.

By changing the word “arrows” in the original tale to “eros”, Carson skews and plays with the relationship between the monster Geryon and the hero Herakles, all the while letting Geryon speak to the reader directly.


Who am I?

I’m an actor as well as a writer. I’ve spent more hours than can be counted dissecting stories and characters in order to better understand and transmit them to an audience. While standing on a stage, an actor is never unaware that they are performing for others. We may lose ourselves in a moment, in a character, in emotion, but the applause and the gasps, and the laughter always bring us back. As a writer, I spend a lot of time tapping into that feeling of ignoring-while-being-totally-aware of the fourth wall. I love books that wink at readers the way actors can at audiences.


I wrote...

The Untold Tale

By J.M. Frey,

Book cover of The Untold Tale

What is my book about?

This book follows Pip, who is pulled against her will into the epic fantasy novel series she’s loved since she was a teenager. However, the world is darker and far more dangerous than she could have ever predicted, especially when it turns out the hero is a much bigger misogynistic ass than she knew.

Pip knows how to circumnavigate the Hero’s Journey and the pitfalls and loopholes of this particular world – but what will happen to her beloved characters outside of the comfort of the fantasy they were written for? And what happens when it’s not the male-power-fantasy hero, but the hero’s overlooked and bullied little brother who proves to be her biggest champion?

Starless

By Jacqueline Carey,

Book cover of Starless

Starless is a classic epic—a band of characters undertakes a dangerous quest to fulfill an ancient prophesy—but its creativity will keep you gasping. I dare not enumerate the many marvels Carey created lest I ruin the surprise for readers, but I can tell you that it features thousands of fallen stars who become deities in the world, and manifest their power and identities in varied and unpredictable ways. Besides the magic itself, Starless also features many different cultures and lands that make me think Carey’s mind must be a beautiful and dangerous place! This book might be telling the oldest story, but it does so in revolutionary ways.


Who am I?

An avid reader my whole life, I jumped into epic fantasy at age eleven. Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan were all high school favorites (and they are wonderful) but by the time I had reached the age that I was supposed to be reading their books, my palette was fairly jaded. The thrill of discovering new worlds and surprising magic was growing elusive, but wonder remains my favorite beat as a reader. I consider it the ultimate challenge in my own writing, and I greedily collect books that surprise me with their scope and imagination, leaving me awed and wonderstruck.


I wrote...

Vows of Gold and Laughter

By Edith Pawlicki,

Book cover of Vows of Gold and Laughter

What is my book about?

The Sun Emperor, ruler of the gods, is dying, cursed by one of his own children. Only the tender-hearted Goddess of Beauty, his youngest daughter, is willing to brave the dangers of the Underworld to save him. She is accompanied by the perpetually intoxicated God of Pleasure, the first immortal who disdained becoming a god, and the world’s second-best thief. 

This ragtag band must journey from the icy peaks of the White Mountain and the lush banks of the Kuanbai River to the palace of the Sea Dragon and the halls of the Moon Deer, through court intrigue and bloody battles, power struggles, and magical traps. The Heavens, Earth, and the Underworld will forever celebrate their triumphs – and mourn their mistakes.

The World of Odysseus

By M.I. Finley,

Book cover of The World of Odysseus

This book made a deep impact on me when I first read it decades ago and it influenced me in the way I try to understand and write history to this day. I’d already read The Odyssey when I encountered Finley’s book, but Finley made me believe in a world that became real despite being imaginary. The World of Odysseus is an amalgam of the half-remembered world in which it is set – the twelfth century BC – and of the world in which Homer was composing – the eighth century BC – and of the big gap in between the two, known as the Dark Ages.

It’s a completely artificial world but it’s wholly convincing and coherent – a world, incidentally, dominated by a large cast of formidable women. Finley provides by far the best introduction to it, and he writes in an engaging, unpedantic, highly accessible, and informative…


Who am I?

I became enthralled by the ancient world when as a child I first saw those sand and sandals movies back in the sixties, Ben Hur and Spartacus especially. I began learning Latin aged nine and Greek aged twelve. I started a Ph.D., abandoned it, went to drama school, became a schoolteacher, worked as a professional gardener, became a schoolteacher again, eventually finished my Ph.D., and was lucky to get a job at Colgate University. Over time I realised that what really fascinated me about history was trying to insert myself imaginatively into the ancient world, so I began to ask questions about what it was like to be disabled, to be a refugee, to be a child, and so on.


I wrote...

The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland,

Book cover of The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

What is my book about?

The Other Side of History is a course of lectures that focuses on the daily lives of the underdogs, all those people who are commonly left out of history books, such as hunter-gatherers, slaves, the poor, the sick, the elderly, criminals, foot soldiers, serfs, in a variety of cultures including Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, and so on. Women and children, who are also marginalised in conventional accounts, are prominently featured. The course starts in the Neolithic Period and goes down to the Middle Ages.

My goal is to invite the viewer/listener to imagine the enormous challenges that ordinary people faced and to try to identify with their specific mindset, invariably so different from ours. I talk about a wide range of topics that affected their lives, including religious beliefs, daily routine, diet, clothing, family setup, way of relaxing, and disposal of the dead.

Shadow & Claw

By Gene Wolfe,

Book cover of Shadow & Claw: The First Half of the Book of the New Sun

Crafting a dark, mysterious, and mood-driven enigma, Wolfe paints on a future canvas that is a combination of horror and discovery. Instead of flashing back, the novel seems to flash forward and is impactful for that alone. The main character doesn’t seem particularly special but he inherits a world and grows with the knowledge he attains.

It’s a work that leaves the reader wondering what just happened and why. Who is Severian and why is he special? Is he a man or a god? Does reality shape him or vice versa? Questions draw the reader in. I learned that it’s OK to have an unreliable narrator and not spell out all the answers. Instead, at times, let the reader decide what makes the most sense to them. When done right, it is magical.


Who am I?

I love dystopian science fantasy for the fact that it defines its own reality. The distant, magical aspects of every dystopian world create separation from the world we live in. The reader must cling to the characters, accept their motives and flaws, and finish the ride no matter where it goes. Not every plot needs to reform the status quo. Star Wars was the white-washed exception, and even that got dark at times. Combining flawed characters with flawed settings makes a novel compelling without the need for overly fantastic powers or world-altering events. Sure, I include those too, but futuristic dystopia offers plenty of challenges for simply surviving each day.


I wrote...

Psyker

By Rory Surtain,

Book cover of Psyker

What is my book about?

Fast-moving, edgy, and dark but not graphic or gratuitous, Psyker challenges readers to experience a far different reality from their own.

In the dark, distant future, densely populated hive cities rely on ancient technologies and rigid laws in order to endure. Paric Kilhaven, a scion of a noble House, navigates the sinister, alluring world of his city’s underhive, hoping to escape the fate of an outlawed psyker. Rival gangs and chaotic forces align against him in a fight for the planet’s survival.

Ice Palace

By Robert Swindells,

Book cover of Ice Palace

Back to the cold now as well as back in time to a book I read when I was at school. I remember the first time I read this being utterly confounded by how this little boy, Ivan, was going to survive on his own in the snowy wilderness. Not only that, but how was he going to find his brother: his whole reason for setting out in the first place? I was gripped from the very first page to the very last, and it’s lived in my heart ever since. In fact, when I came to write Nevertell, the Ice Palace was a big inspiration.


Who am I?

I’ve always been drawn to epic journeys. From Jules Verne’s stories exploring the lengths, depths, and breadths of the known world, to little hobbits trekking across vast fantasy scapes in order to steal from dragons, something about the huge proportions of these grand adventures has always drawn me in. Perhaps it was no wonder, then, that my first book Nevertell was set in Siberia: a place so big that its sheer size tested the limits of my imaginings. If you, too, are drawn to sprawling, epic journeys, then these five fabulous recommendations are for you.


I wrote...

Nevertell

By Katharine Orton,

Book cover of Nevertell

What is my book about?

Born in a Soviet prison camp, Lina has never seen the world outside until the night she escapes with her best friend, Bogdan. As the pair journey across a snowy Russian wilderness, they are pursued by a vengeful sorceress and her pack of shadow wolves. The children will need every ounce of bravery - and a little sorcery of their own - if they are to survive…

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