Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe by Nicholas Jubber

Epic Continent cover

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.