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A roughly chronological list of the world's greatest epics

John M. Lemon
The list author says: "I was one of those guys who snoozed through The Iliad in high school. I had no interest in epics, and thought they were stuffy and boring. Then, a few years ago, I saw Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf at a local book store. The cover was so cool, I picked it up and started flipping through it. The internal book design was beautiful. Plus, it was a duel language edition. There was just something about it that said, "Buy me. Buy me right now." I suggested Beowulf for my bookclub. Surprisingly, all of the guys voted it in, and all of the guys really liked it. This 900-year old epic was a hit.

Then, a few month's later, I saw a boxed set of Fagle's Homer translations. Again, they were just so beautiful. I turned to the first page of The Iliad, and the words jumped off the page. "Hmmmm," I thought, "maybe I oughta give Homer another try..." I'm so glad I did. Homer was a life-changing read. He raised the bar for my literary standards, and I've been hooked on epics ever since.

So, here is a list of epics that I've read or intend to read.

I've include both poetry and prose in this list. While most epics were originally poems, many have been rendered into English as prose. To provide a comprehensive list of major works, I've included titles in both categories. I hope you find this list helpful."
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
"Gilgamesh is required reading if you enjoy epics. This ancient story contains an account of the Great Flood that predates the biblical version. This verse version by Stephen Mitchell is lively and accessible."
The Iliad / The Odyssey
The Iliad / The Odyssey
"This is that boxed set I mentioned in my introduction. The Iliad & the Odyssey are mandatory for any serious reader of epics. Homer was not only a first-rate poet, he was a top-notch story teller. For beginners, try the Fagles or Lombardo translations. If you've already read Homer a few times, then try Fitzgerald."
Mahabharata
Mahabharata
"This cornerstone of Indian culture began as a 24,000 line story about the struggle for a kingdom in northern India. Over the next 1000 years, it morphed into a sprawling, chaotic jumble over 1,000,000 lines long. Fortunately, most English translations cut out the later additions, leaving us with the core story, which is a real gem. Try the William Buck or Krishna Dharma translations."
The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic
The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic
"Ramayana is another cornerstone of Indian culture. I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I selected this translation for several reasons: 1) The Amazon reader reviews are unanimous in their praise, 2) It is faithful to original tale."
The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica (Penguin Classics)
The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica (Penguin Classics)
"This is the Greek epic of Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest for Golden Fleece. While it is well written, there is more travelogue then story here. However, the section on Jason and Medea stealing the fleece is superb."
The Aeneid
The Aeneid
"This Roman epic is about Aeneas, who flees Troy with his people to settle in Italy and father the founders of Rome. It includes the famous story of the Trojan Horse. This book is challenging, but worth the effort. It is one of my all-time favorites. There are many excellent translations. Try Mandelbaum, Fagles, Lombardo, or Fitzgerald."
The Metamorphoses of Ovid
The Metamorphoses of Ovid
"In this epic, Ovid retells the myths that have transformation as a key story element. The myths are Roman, but most of them have Greek origins. This is a key literary source for Dante, Shakespeare, and countless others. The Mandelbaum translation is superb, and a complete joy to read. Highly recommended."
The Thebaid: Seven against Thebes (Johns Hopkins New Translations from Antiquity)
The Thebaid: Seven against Thebes (Johns Hopkins New Translations from Antiquity)
"I haven't read this yet, but it is sitting in my library. After thumbing through it, I have to say it looks excellent. Statius was a major influence on Dante and other Italian epic poets. He is all but forgotten today. I'm not sure why, because the passages I've read are gripping. I'm looking forward to reading it!"
The Trojan Epic: The <I>Trojan Epic</I>: Posthomerica (Johns Hopkins New Translations from Antiquity)
The Trojan Epic: The Trojan Epic: Posthomerica (Johns Hopkins New Translations from Antiquity)
"Quintus wasn't a great poet, but we was a decent story teller. In this epic, he tells many of the Trojan War stories that Homer left out. These are events that precede and follow the events recorded in the Iliad. I read a prose translation called The War at Troy, by Frederick Combellack. I'm looking forward to reading this new verse translation by Alan James."
The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge
The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge
"This is a prose epic from Ireland, written sometime in the 8th century. It is about a cattle raid that is held off by the hero, Cuchulainn, also known as the Hound of Ulster. While it has its flaws, it also has some really splendid moments and is worthy of any epic lover's attention."
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition)
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition)
"Seamus Heaney provides us with a masterful verse translation of a rip-roaring tale. Lord of the Rings fans, take note: Tolkien was the first to really point out Beowulf's literary merit. Beowulf also inspired Tolkien's "ring" concept and the Hobbit's dragon-slaying scene. It's a quick, fun read. Highly recommended."
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings
"A hugely influential eleventh century Persian epic."
The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics)
The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics)
"In your epic quest, be sure to include a few Norse sagas. They are written in prose and tend to be fast-paced, bloody, and to the point. Just the way you like it, right? The Saga of the Volsungs is one of the most famous. You can tell it influenced Tolkien, and it was also Wagner's primary source for his Ring opera cycle."
The Song of Roland
The Song of Roland
"This French epic from the Middle Ages is also second-rate, but it is reasonably well-written. It's also crammed with vivid descriptions of battles, blood, gore, and head-cleavings. If you like lots of action and aren't too worried about plot, historical accuracy, or character development, this is the epic for you. I read the Glyn Burgess translation, which is nicely done."
The Poem of the Cid: Dual Language Edition (Penguin Classics) (Spanish Edition)
The Poem of the Cid: Dual Language Edition (Penguin Classics) (Spanish Edition)
"Another Medieval epic told in direct, simple language. It is better than The Song of Roland, but lacks the artistic quality of Beowulf. It's a quick read, though, so don't leave this one out!"
Njal's Saga (Classics)
Njal's Saga (Classics)
"Don't miss this prose epic, often called "the Icelandic Iliad." It is the story of a fifty-year series of blood feuds and the struggle to contain them within a precarious legal system. This saga is a fast-moving look into the Scandinavian world of 1000 years ago."
The Song of the Nibelungs: A Verse Translation from the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (Refiguring English Studies)
The Song of the Nibelungs: A Verse Translation from the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (Refiguring English Studies)
"A wonderful verse translation of this German epic. It contains some of Wagner's source material for his Ring opera cycle. As far as literary quality goes, it's second rate. However, it is fast paced and a major national epic."
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)
"Don't miss this little gem. It is one of the best of the medieval epics. Well worth the effort. And Brian Stone's essays provide excellent background info for appreciating the work more fully. Also check out the new translation by Simon Armitage."
Three Kingdoms (Chinese Classics, 4 Volumes)
Three Kingdoms (Chinese Classics, 4 Volumes)
"As far as I know, this Chinese epic wasn't originally a poem. However, it is certainly an epic. This is China's equivalent to the Iliad/Odyssey or Mahabharata/Ramayana sagas."
The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy
"This masterpiece of structure, allegory, and symbolism is the most challenging book I've ever read. At least try to read Inferno. Patient readers who continue reading will find plenty of additional treasures. I read the Ciardi translation. His poetry is excellent, and his notes are indispensable. I also recommend the Mandelbaum translation, based on other things I have read by him."
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales
"I'm wimping out on my Chaucer here by listing a "modernized" version. But I thought I'd get familiar with an "easy" version before I dug in with the original Middle English. Important tip: Read it aloud. That's when you really hear the music. A few of the stories are duds, but the good ones are superb."
Troilus and Criseyde (Penguin Classics)
Troilus and Criseyde (Penguin Classics)
"Again, I'm wimping out by posting a modernized version. This epic is based on a Trojan War story that is also included in Ovid. See? Chaucer liked Ovid, too!"
Orlando Furioso (Oxford World's Classics)
Orlando Furioso (Oxford World's Classics)
"This epic is a parody of medieval romances, and was itself lampooned by Cervantes in Don Quixote. The version I've selected for my list is a critically acclaimed prose translation. If you poke around, you can also find Barbara Reynolds' verse translation, which is now out of print."
Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata)
Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata)
"Epic of the First Crusade in the eleventh century. I haven't read it yet, but this Anthony Esolen translation looks excellent."
Paradise Lost (Norton Critical Editions)
Paradise Lost (Norton Critical Editions)
"I'm ashamed to say I haven't read this one yet; but naturally, I'm looking forward to it. I selected this edition for my list because of its excellent reviews, its scholarly but unobtrusive footnotes, and its critical essays."
The Kalevala: Or Poems of the Kaleva District
The Kalevala: Or Poems of the Kaleva District
"This unusual national epic of Finland is based on a collection of songs. The songs are very old, and were first compiled as a book in the 1670s. They later gained wider popularity from a collection published in the mid-1800s. I recommend the Magoun translation."
Lady of the Lake (Eclectic English Classics)
Lady of the Lake (Eclectic English Classics)
"This mini-epic is about Scottish clan wars during the reign of James V. It can be a bit slow and confusing at times, but the poetry is first-rate and it has several really great scenes. Be sure to get an edition that discusses the historical context and has decent footnotes."
Idylls of the King (Penguin Classics)
Idylls of the King (Penguin Classics)
"This epic retells many of the key stories from the Arthurian legends."
John Brown's Body
John Brown's Body
"This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem about the American Civil War."
ODYSSEY: A MODERN SEQUEL
ODYSSEY: A MODERN SEQUEL
"A Nobel Laureate's stunning sequel to Homer's Odyssey."
Aniara: An Epic Science Fiction Poem
Aniara: An Epic Science Fiction Poem
"This science fiction epic poem is very popular in Sweden, where its author won the Nobel Prize."
The Donner Party (poetry)
The Donner Party (poetry)
"A sparse, fast-paced epic about the Donner Party's journey west and the hardships they encountered. An excellent poetic supplement to George Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger."
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
"This mini-epic, by one of America's most honored poets, tells a tragic tale of the American West. Recommended."
Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works African Authors Series)
Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works African Authors Series)
"This recent epic was translated from the original Zulu into English by its author. The poetry, story, and characters are excellent. If you can find it, read it. It is definitely worth your time."
The New World: An Epic Poem
The New World: An Epic Poem
"The saga of an epic hero in a fractured United States, some 400 years in the future. It explores themes of relativism, fanaticism, honor, and personal sacrifice, with elegance and restraint. I admit, a sci-fi epic poem sounds nerdy. But this book is downright inspiring. It is also proof that the epic is not dead and deserves a place in contemporary literature. Don't miss this one!"
Genesis: An Epic Poem of the Terraforming of Mars
Genesis: An Epic Poem of the Terraforming of Mars
"Another contemporary epic by Frederick Turner. Genesis was the first major work of fiction to not only suggest the idea of terraforming Mars, but to also provided a feasible solution for doing so. This erudite book has it all: action, battles, philosophy, the works."
The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic
The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic
"This is a dramatic retelling of the Odyssey, in blank verse. It is a series of dialogs that boils the Odyssey down to its essence. It's kind of "Homer for beginners," but fast-paced, very well written, and certainly worth reading."