I’m in Mallorca, a Mediterranean island that throughout history has been buffeted by invasion, war, hunger, prosperity and tourism. It feels an appropriate place to immerse into the wider European story as told by Nicholas Jubber, who in Epic Continent sets out on a physical and mythological journey to uncover what it means to be European.
Jubber finds that place and story are deeply linked – ‘the contours of the story seem to wind, eternally, out of the shrubs and rocks’ – but also finds the stories of Europe ‘joined together in so many surprising ways’. The carefully chosen stories he explores include the Anglo-Saxon masterpiece Beowulf, the Greek epic The Odyssey, and stories less wound into British consciousness such as The Song of Roland, or The Nibelungenlied – a story which, after the Nazis got hold of it, became ‘an anthem for German nationalism’.
These epics were based on moments of change – the aftermath of the Trojan War; the collapse of a Germanic kingdom; the transition from paganism to Christianity. But many of these stories were lost for centuries including Beowulf, written down over 1,000 years ago. It wasn’t until its interpretation by and influence on Tolkien that it became one of Europe’s most influential stories again.
The word ‘epic’ derives from the Greek epein – ‘to say’. Epics were created to be spoken, and so ‘before the age of printing, were able to sink deep roots, entangling themselves around the core of European culture’. The stories that Jubber travels for us, then, are the myths that made Europe. They are our foundation and a ‘pulsating part of daily life’, spoken in various forms by ordinary people for millennia. In Epic Continent, these ancient, tattered stories are offered as signposts to help us understand the birth of Europe – and so, perhaps, its future.
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