5 sweeping epics to read this National Storytelling Week

Category: News

National Storytelling Week (30 January to 6 February 2022) encourages us to think about the stories that matter to us, and the part storytelling plays in all our lives.

From taut thrillers to sprawling fantasy sagas and literary masterpieces, there are innumerable ways to tell stories that connect with our humanity, ask big questions, and ultimately entertain.

One genre, in particular, has been with us since nearly the start of written human storytelling (see the Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2100 to 1200 BC).

Whether in geographical sweep, the array of characters, or narrative scope, the standalone epic has enthralled us all.

Keep reading for your guide to some classic and contemporary epics to add to your to-read pile as you celebrate National Storytelling Week.

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900 and had a successful career in journalism before she tried her hand as a novelist.

Gone with the Wind was to be Mitchell’s only novel. It won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize and would later be adapted into an eight-time Oscar-winning film – including best actress for its star Vivien Leigh, best picture, and best director.

This Civil War epic follows Scarlet O’Hara – “not beautiful, but men seldom realised it” – and her love affair with northerner and “ungentlemanly” outsider, Rhett Butler.

Over five parts and all but 1,000 pages, a huge cast of characters come of age, find love, and face tragedy. The novel touches on themes of war, slavery, and ultimately survival.

2. The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf

Known as the Swedish Gone with the Wind, Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling was actually published nearly half a century earlier than Mitchell’s novel, in 1891.

Taking place in rural Sweden soon after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the novel follows the disgraced priest of the title as he meets veterans of the war and a string of women admirers against the backdrop of Sweden’s harsh winter.

Lagerlöf won the Nobel prize in literature in 1909, the panel citing the “lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the prize.

3. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

Larry McMurty (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment) is arguably best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning 1985 novel, Lonesome Dove.

Two retired Texas Rangers, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae, set off on a cattle drive from their Texas ranch headed north to Montana. Through dust storms, wild river crossings, and countless other adventures, the pair gather a band of followers around them.

Despite their equally romantic motivations for heading north, their opposing personalities will cause friction, testing their decades-old friendship and the cohesion of the group. Not everyone that sets out from the Lonesome Dove ranch will make it back.

McMurty continued the Lonesome Dove saga in Streets of Laredo (1993), and two prequels, Dead Man’s Walk (1995) and Comanche Moon (1997), placing Lonesome Dove as the third book in the series chronologically.

4. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas is a French writer of adventure stories, best-known for The Three Musketeers and its sequels (including The Man in the Iron Mask), as well as his epic 1846 masterpiece, The Count of Monte Cristo.

The recently promoted Edmund Dantès suffers a miscarriage of justice at the hands of his enemies and is wrongly imprisoned. Fourteen years later, he is released from a hellish dungeon as a new man, and one intent on revenge.

The novel combines the central revenge story with themes of love, honour, friendship and a fast-paced narrative of high adventure, with the Guardian describing Dumas as “a master of ripping yarns full of fearless heroes, poisonous ladies and swashbuckling adventurers”.

5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s international bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible, has been described by the Independent as “a brilliantly realised epic of one family’s journey to the heart of darkness”.

When Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist, takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo Basin on the eve of the country gaining independence, tragedy ensues. Told by the women of the family over the course of three decades, this “harrowingly beautiful saga” follows a broken family as it struggles to rebuild in post-colonial Africa.

The novel was chosen as part of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club in 1999. That year, the novel was also a finalist for the Pulitzer prize.