In his latest book Epic Continent, 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. Here he gives us an example of how there are echoes of these tales today:
A boatload of men grapple with PTSD and the challenges of the Mediterranean, pulling themselves away from an Asian war-zone.
A political elite divides into bitterly contested sides, each refusing to compromise as chaos erupts.
A terrorist threat binds two Scandinavian states together, as a long-held alliance brings succour to an embattled kingdom.
These may sound like the scenarios on our newsfeeds and printed on the front pages of our newspapers. But they also happen to be the plot-lines for some of our oldest epic tales. The Odyssey, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf – these are the tales at the root of European identity, tales forged out of periods of crisis.
Travelling around Europe in the slipstream of six epic tales, I set out to understand Europe through these foundational stories. The Homeric epics played a key role in uniting the squabbling islands and cities that eventually formed the nation of Greece, and became a cornerstone of the propaganda on which the Athenian Empire was run. The siege of Troy, the event that sparked these tales, can justifiably be called the ‘Big Bang’ of European culture. Long after Homer’s epics, it inspired Virgil’s Aeneid, about the foundation of Rome; and Trojan ancestry was claimed by chroniclers and poets in medieval Britain, France and Germany; whilst an Icelandic historian insisted that Troy was the origin of the Norse gods.
But the impact of the Homeric epics is reasonably well-known. What surprised me as I delved deeper amongst Europe’s epics was their collective knack for intruding across history, influencing movers and shakers in some of Europe’s biggest moments, from the Crusades to World War II. And another, even more startling surprise: there are echoes of these tales booming around Europe today.
Here’s an example. In the Pyrenees, I hiked through resinous pine forests and across sun-beaten hillsides, making my way towards a memorial to the eighth century warrior Roland, who died in 778AD. In the epic tale, the Song of Roland, he falls after blowing his war-horn in a battle against the Muslim Saracens – the ultimate big bad for medieval Christian poets. But gathering around the hilltop on the day I visited – singing, dancing, holding up flags and squeezing an accordion – were a couple of hundred Basque demonstrators. Historically, it was their ancestors who killed Roland, and they identify the epic hero with the powerful states obstructing their desire for independence.
‘This is the first war the Basque people won,’ said one demonstrator, holding a banner emblazoned with the date of Roland’s death.
‘And,’ added her companion, ‘the last!’
My journey across Europe was full of such moments – when history flared to life. Sometimes it was disturbing, especially in the Balkans where epic tales are still used by politicians (and indeed elsewhere – only recently, a poem about Odysseus was quoted by the Brexiteer Mark Francois in a press conference). Sometimes it was uplifting. Amongst all the dark tales of historical exploitation, I saw instances of epic tales re-imagined for the twenty-first century: theatrical versions in which the focus was shifted to long-neglected characters, especially women.
These are the stories that have lasted the longest, and they are likely to carry on, for as long as our quarrelsome species manages to endure. Whether we choose individually to ignore them, we can be sure of this: there will be people telling these tales, and re-interpreting them, until the lights go out at the End of Days.
Join us on Thursday 16th May 2019 as Nicholas Jubber comes to Stanfords to talk about exploring Europe’s epic poems. Book tickets here.