4 out of 5 stars
Before the written word, stories were spoken, and those that were popular became learnt by others and spread further afield. The best known of them, such as Odyssey and Beowulf, became epics in their own right. We now know them, as they have been written down and even transferred to the screen, but are the people where these stories emerged from still aware of them?
Award-winning travel writer Nicholas Jubber, decided to find out for himself if he could still find traces across the European continent of these stories in the countries that they originated. Beginning in Chios, just of the Turkish coast is where he starts looking for The Odyssey, the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Here it doesn’t take long for him to find traces from the story on the wall in graffiti, as well as meeting people who still seek meaning and comfort from the tales. He listens to recitals, debates over gritty coffee about the power it still has and manages to mislay various things…
The second story in the book is the Serbian Kosovo Cycle. This is about the battle between the sultan Murad and Prince Lazar. It is a fairly bloody and brutal affair if truth be told, and it is often recited by guslars, or bards, who play a single-stringed instrument called the gusle. It was a story of rebellion too, as the recitals evolved as they were under the Turkish occupation, before becoming more written down in the early nineteenth century. There is a much darker and more recent aspect to them though, the stories were used as propaganda by Milosevic who exploited it to bring his own conflict to the region. The stories that he is following through Europe tend to be draped over the culture of each of the countries, but this story is unique that one of the main characters, Prince Lazar, remains can still be seen in a church in Ravanica. He wanted to hear the epic recited by a gusle, heading to the mountains, he didn’t know if he would find one though.
The third story in the book is the French Song of Roland, another battle between the forces of Christendom and Islam. The story was originally written in the eleventh century and then was rediscovered in the Bodleian library by a French scholar who was following a mention in Chaucer. Since that, a further nine manuscripts of the epic have been found. But as it is a French story, the place to start would be Sicily and then onto Spain, before eventually making it to France. Sicily is an amazing island, I know, I saw a little of it last year and it has long been a melting pot of cultures and civilisations. Whilst there he visits the puppeteers in Palermo who have been performing the story for several generations; this may be the last though as people are more interested in their phones that performances.
A brief trip across Sardinia takes him to Saragossa in Spain for the next element in this epic, there he sees the influence that the Moors had over the town before moving onto Roncesvalles to see the place where a major battle took place in the epic. Then on a train to the town of Rocamadour in France to experience the Black Madonna in the twelfth century Chapel of Notre Dame.
Another country and another epic beckons, this time it is Germany and the fantastical The Song of the Nibelungen tracks the collapse of a Germanic kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire involving dragons, murder and betrayal. All a bit Game of Thrones really… This is another of those stories that was misappropriated by the government of the time. The German Nazi government in the 1930s used the messages within for their own propaganda.
Finally, we make it to the UK for Beowulf, that was first written down around 1000 years ago, but first came to light because of the work of an Icelandic bibliophile. It was first seen as a Danish story but has now come to be the only surviving Old English epic. It is full of fantastical tales and elements like the dark fens, feasting in old halls and dragons one again that is somehow familiar to us. This may be because of one JRR Tolkien who robustly interpreted it and used many of the themes in his own books.
The final epic in the book is the great Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal. there is still the tumult of murder, revenge and betrayal that we have come to expect from the other stories, but Unlike all the others this one has a lawyer in the story. The place is quite spectacular from his descriptions in the book as well as being incredibly wet and windy from the storms. It is so very different from where he began his journey in the balmy Mediterranean in Greece.
This is the second book of Jubber’s that I have read and it is as equally enjoyable as that other one. Epic Continent is part history book, part travelogue and him seeking those threads that run right back to the stories of old. It is quite staggering to think that words that were written a millennia ago still can have power and most importantly resonance in the modern world. It is sometimes amusing and I like his sense of immediacy that he comes across in his writing as he deals with the minutiae of daily life as he travels. Well worth reading.