Epic Continent

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 11 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

Thanks to John Murray Press and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

This is a pretty cool idea for a book. The author goes on a personal odyssey, visiting the locations from some of the great European 'epics' - myths, legends, literature and folklore, whilst exploring his own life and the impact these tales still have on cultures and people today. What an awesome premise for a book.

The epics included are: 

The Odyssey
The Kosovo Cycle 
The Song of Roland 
The Nibelungenlied, 
Njal's Saga

I was familiar with The Odyssey (obvs), The Nibelungenlied and Beowulf but had only heard of the others in passing, so it was really interesting to learn more about these and the countries in which they are set. 

I found the author's writing style to be engaging and evocative and his background as a travel writer was clear. As well as being an engrossing travelogue, the book also felt deeply personal. Make no mistake though, there are no luxury hotels or glamping experiences here.

As the author criss crosses across Europe, he is reflects on his own life whilst also experiencing the modern issues of the countries he visits and how these parallel the epic stories they birthed. This was more successful in some cases than others, and the links to modern events were not always coherent or clear. I also thought it would have been beneficial to have a short summary of each of the featured epics at the beginning of each section, particularly as I was not familiar with them all.

The book has been comprehensively researched, and the provision of Further Reading and Bibliography sections are useful for signposting readers to find out more about the featured epics.

Overall, a pleasure to read and I finished this book feeling more than slightly jealous of the author despite some of the hairier situations he experienced on his journey around the eponymous 'Epic Continent'.
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Epic Continent is writer, traveller and passionate history lover Nicolas Jubber's fourth book and explores the connection between storytelling, both the past and present and the impact centuries-old tales still have throughout Europe today. It looks at some of the continents iconic tales in context — split into six parts and topped and tailed by a prologue and epilogue, this book really captures the imagination and is a truly fascinating read. 

The different sections each dedicated to an influential, enduring poem or story are as follows: The War That Launched a Thousand Ships — The Odyssey, Elegies for an Everlasting Wound — The Kosovo Cycle, A Song for Europe — The Song of Roland, The Taste of Götterdammerung — The Nibelungenlied, How to Kill a Monster — Beowulf, and finally - A Wasteland of Equals — Njal's Saga. The inclusion of Sources, Further Reading and Bibliography sections at the back are a nice touch for those who wish to read more on the subject.

Jubber depicts the places he travels to in such a rich and vivid way that it's very easy to pick this up and lose a few hours between the pages and before you know it you've turned the last one. The way the author links the times in which these epics were written to the tumultuous modern times in which we live is incredibly interesting and is the perfect illustration of how history is forever doomed to repeat itself.

The potent mix of travel, history and literature is compelling and will appeal to a wide range of readers. It also highlights the fact that the state in which Europe currently finds itself in terms of the refugee crisis, widespread division and loss of confidence in the political establishment is itself reflected in these tales of old. Many thanks to John Murray for an ARC.
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Epic Continent is a literary travelogue that charts the locations, history, and reception of six European epics. Focusing on change, war, and dominant narratives, these stories often span locations and Jubber travels across Europe, from Greece and Turkey of the Odyssey to Iceland for the Saga of Burnt Njal, to follow their progress. They are all major works—most will be familiar in name if not content, especially Beowulf, the Odyssey, and Song of Roland—and the focus is on major moments in history and important landscapes. At the same time, there is a lot of focus on modern Europe, on the refugee crisis and unity; Jubber meets a lot of refugees on his journey and also notices how similar tensions are found in the epics themselves.

The mix of travel with literature and history is an interesting one, feeling similar to other writers who combine specific journeys to find the locations of things and stories with descriptions of the people they meet there and their own reactions. The personal—from the lives of the refugees Jubber meets to a continuing theme of grief and dealing with it—is surprisingly present in a book about travelling through the great epics. Much of these stories' reception history is tinged with the same violence, conflict, and ideological problems as occurs in the stories themselves (most obviously the Nibelungenlied and the Kosovo Cycle) and Jubber tries to highlight this, though it is clear he would need more space to fully explore the issues. Instead, the book has to pass through a lot of material in a short space, fitting six epics into one book.

It is likely that Epic Continent will draw in people interested in the epic works, but what is perhaps most notable is the way Jubber's travels through their locations and history give space to reflect on modern Europe and its divisions and problems. In some ways it is a manifesto for cross-border stories and a shared epic tradition, even though the history and content of these is not straightforwardly good.
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Journeying from Turkey to Iceland, award-winning travel writer Nicholas Jubber takes us on a fascinating adventure through our continent’s most enduring epic poems to learn how they were shaped by their times, and how they have since shaped us.

Jubber’s vivid but honest perspectives on the places he visits are difficult to fault, reminding me in moments of Bill Bryson’s wit in his travel books as he explores these lands to find links to the classics we know of today. Meeting people and sharing their stories, is really what the writer does best in this book while adding his own strong style to the mix to make for a great read. 

I also like how this book bares it all, not just the travelling to find these links to the past, but also about the writer. The impact on him of losing his medication for example is eye-opening and refreshing, and something so many I’m sure could relate to in this book as he deals with the pitfalls of travel and losing them while climbing to reach a cave. I feel this travel is just as epic for him, as it is for the poems he is writing about. 

A great mix of the poetic and the personal, Jubber in this book gives us an insight in travelling through these incredible places, but also how they connect back to the stories and why they are still relevant today - it’s been too long since I read The Odyssey but I think it’s going to the top of my TBR now, I want to connect to it in a new way thanks to this book.
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