Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe

Author Nicholas Jubber explores the locations of the epic stories of Europe.

Be careful what you ask for, or the gods may grant it.

In my case, it was a visit to the Underworld. Tramping along the bony ridge of the Mani, on the southern edge of mainland Greece, I was following word-of-mouth advice to a little-known cave named after Hades. Up a goat-track, past several layers of scree, over a hilltop and down a pulse-thumping gradient towards a cave drilled into the sea-ledge. After swimming in the powdery light of the cave, I clambered back up, grabbing at thistles to stop myself from falling. But where was my luggage? I'd stowed it under a rock. Only problem: there were hundreds of rocks, limestone jaws bared across the cliff-side. After trawling for a couple of fruitless hours, I hacked my way through the borage and thistle, avoiding huge spiders and their tensile webs slung between the thorn bushes, and stumbled, bruised and bleeding, on the road back to town. I was shaken and bereft of my backpack, but also strangely excited. The Homeric epics dramatize the awesome power of nature; after my misjudged hike to Hades, I had learned that for myself.

My Greek cliff-side misadventure was part of a journey across Europe, from the ruins of Troy in Turkey to a medieval hero's Icelandic farmhouse. I was following a string of epic stories across the continent, hoping that by travelling in their slipstream I could learn about the cultural connections at the core of European identity and what they teach us about Europe today. I was often surprised by what I discovered. Many of these ancient stories are still exciting audiences, still inspiring new adaptations. So I attended a public recital from the Odyssey in Athens, met graffiti artists using Homeric imagery to criticise Northern European economic hegemony, encountered Basque demonstrators at an eighth century battle-site, who celebrate the death of the Frankish hero Roland as their 'greatest military victory', came across an Arabic version of the same tale performed by travelling pearl-divers from the Gulf, and encountered activists in the Midlands of England aspiring for economic decentralisation through the political structures of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By following the European epic trail, I discovered a stranger continent, more politically active and more engaged in its historical and literary heritage, than I had previously known.

Uvac river Sebia
View of the Uvac River in southwest Serbia. master2/Getty

The most intensely recalled of European epic stories is surely the Kosovo Cycle. A series of epic songs about a fourteenth century battle, it's still recited by traditional performers, guslars, in the mountain villages of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Credited with partially sustaining Serbian identity through four centuries of Ottoman Turkish dominion, these stories have been harnessed by politicians at key moments in history, from the Serbian Uprising in the nineteenth century to the conspiracy to assassinate Arch-Duke Franz-Ferdinand in 1914 (the spark that lit the First World War). In the 1990s, firebrand politicians like the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić invoked these stories in their campaigns of 'ethnic cleansing'. In a bar in Belgrade, I was shown the gusle (a single-stringed fiddle) used by Karadžić when he was in hiding. In Bosnia, I came across a gathering of guslars. Mechanics, accountants and brick-layers, they washed their greasy arms at the sink, before sitting around a wooden table, drinking rakija, smoking high-tar cigarettes and singing folk-songs. It could be after-hours at any working men's club around the world – it just so happens their songs were about a battle that took place in 1389AD.

These are controversial stories. Karadžić was filmed performing them while Sarajevo was bombarded under his orders, in the longest siege in modern history. The binary conflict depicted in the epic, between 'Christians' and 'Turks', found its way into the rhetoric used by Karadžić and his military commander, General Ratko Mladić, to justify their policy of 'ethnic cleansing'. Amongst the guslars I met in Bosnia was a former soldier, who recalled their impact: 'We sang and played gusle in the trenches, in the mountains when we were resting, and just before the fighting', he told me. 'It made me stronger from playing it, and it made the other men stronger from listening.' This is a reminder of the dark side of epic storytelling. These stories are like wild beasts: beautiful and powerful, but with sharp teeth.

My journey swung between the landscapes of Europe's epic stories – the sun-baked shoreline of Greece, the battle-riddled valleys of the Balkans, the sodden lava-fields of the Icelandic Sagas – and the people who are narrating or re-imagining these tales today. For every guslar, reciting the old versions, I met somebody reconfiguring these tales around today's world. In the Rhineland city of Worms, a festival was taking place to celebrate the Nibelungenlied, the German Iliad. Under the rose windows of the Romanesque cathedral, which features in this tale, a modern adaptation took place, performed to a full house.

St Peters Cathedral Worms Rhineland
St. Peters Cathedral in Worms (Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany) is the site of the Nibelung saga. hsvrs/Getty

After the show, I met the playwright, Albert Ostermaier, who had re-imagined this tale with the uber-German hero Siegfried as a Jewish officer in the First World War. In the previous year's showpiece, Siegfried was re-configured as a Turkish migrant. Ostermaier was deliberately challenging clichés about German heroic identity, and the perception of this 'nationalist' tale. 'A lot of people misunderstood the Nibelungen story,' he told me, 'and they used it for their own purposes.' In the early nineteenth century, it was distributed as a field edition to soldiers fighting against Napoleonic France; in the twentieth century, it was harnessed as recruiting propaganda for the First World War and marshalled by the Nazis, used in speeches by leading figures like Himmler and Goering, its iconography exploited for propaganda throughout Germany's darkest era. Only now is this deeply misunderstood tale emerging from its troubled shadow.

In Ostermaier's cast, the German Queen Kriemhild – usually depicted as a blue-eyed blonde with long golden plaits – was translated into a woman of African heritage. The nomadic chieftain Attila was portrayed as an Arab. Some conservatives in the audience grumbled at Ostermaier's re-telling (a campaigner from the Alternativ für Deutschland insisted it was a corruption of the original tale), but it reflected a growing trend. For ancient stories are being adapted all over the world. In times of re-assessment and consciousness-raising, we can use old stories not only to explore our relationship with the past, but also to examine the shifting values of our own society.

These stories change, as our societies change, and we look into their layered narratives for the threads that run between the past and the present. But the landscapes, in many cases, are resolute. You can stroll the pine-scented hills of Roncesvalles, where the chivalric Frankish hero Roland fell; you can visit the 'Ravens' Cliff' where Odysseus' swineherd Eumaeus watered his pigs; you can walk the Nibelungenweg, the path taken by the knights of Burgundy towards Attila's palace in the German epic.

Eyjafjallajökull Volcano
Houses at the foot of the eyjafjallajokull volcano at sunset in Iceland Aleksei Kondratev/Getty

In Iceland, you can trawl through saga sites as if you're hiking across the parchment on which those bloody tales were scrawled. I hitch-hiked and camped around this idiosyncratic island, so often at the mercy of the elements it felt as if I'd stumbled into the sleet-sodden pages of the sagas. Rain cascaded down my backpack and wind buffeted me as I clambered towards the lush green hills of Hliðarendi. So beautiful is this place, according to the beloved Njal's Saga, that the hero Gunnar refused to leave it even when he was exiled. 'Fair is the Lithe,' he declares in the sagas' most iconic speech, 'so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair... and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all.' It was only when I slept at Hliðarendi, woken by the piping of the snipe, gazing over hay-fields towards the dramatic volcano of Eyjafjallajökull and the table-shaped hill of Stora Dimon, that I fully appreciated Gunnar's reluctance to leave it behind.

This is the thrill of travelling amongst long-ago stories – the journey makes them all the more vivid, whilst showing why these stories continue to resonate. Later, I met an artist who had designed a tapestry based on Njal's Saga, installed in a museum so members of the public could weave their own part of the tale. 'We still have authors who are making new stories out of Njal's Saga,' she told me, 'because it's alive.' The same can be said of many of our epic tales, for these are the stories that endure, passed from one generation to the next. By travelling in their wake, I learned how they fit the places that spawned them, and continue to exert their influence. Rooted in place, these are the foundational stories of European and Western consciousness, and they are likely to be re-read and re-told for many centuries to come.

Nicholas Jubber is the author of Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe from Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Nicholas moved to Jerusalem after graduating from Oxford University. He'd been working two weeks when the intifada broke out and he started travelling the Middle East and East Africa. He has written three previous books, The Timbuktu School for Nomads, The Prester Quest (winner of the Dolman Prize) and Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard (shortlisted for the Dolman Prize). He has written for the Guardian, the Observer, and the Globe and Mail.

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