Recommended ancient classic literature for beginners
October 3, 2008 11:38 PM   Subscribe

Where do I start with ancient classic literature, especially accessible versions of mythological or vaguely historical tales? Preferably from Anglo-Saxon or Norse traditions, but I'm open to anything really good.

The only pre-19th Century classics I had to read in school were by Shakespeare. I enjoyed them and moved on. But now I see that I missed a whole world of classic literature. I have always been fascinated by the the Arthurian legends and started to read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur once, but struggled with it - I am about to try John Steinbeck's take on the Arthurian legends, which seems a bit more accessible. I really enjoyed Marco Polo recently (The Penguin Classics version), and have just discovered Beowulf. Of the plethora of works out there, which are the best and most enjoyable reads?

Extra credit for pointing me to translations/interpretations that are enjoyable for a non-scholar, while still reflecting the original essence.
posted by rocks009 to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The Icelandic Sagas are bleakly hilarious. Imagine poets who wander the land killing people and holding horse fights.

Egil's Saga
Ljot sprang swiftly to his feet. Egil bounded at him and dealt at once a blow at him. He pressed him so close, that he was driven back, and the shield shifted from before him. Then smote Egil at Ljot, and the blow came on him above the knee, taking off his leg. Ljot then fell and soon expired. Then Egil went to where Fridgeir and his party stood. He was heartily thanked for this work. Then sang Egil:

'Fall'n lies the wolf-feeder,
Foul worker of mischief:
Ljot's leg by skald sever'd
Leaves Fridgeir in peace.
From the free gold-giver
Guerdon none I seek me,
Sport I deem the spear-din,
Sport with such pale foe.'

Ljot's death was little mourned, for he had been a turbulent bully.
The poetry of the sagas relies on kenning, the use of a descriptive rather than a noun to describe something. So Ljot in this poem is the 'wolf-feeder', since he was a bully who killed people.

There's also the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson, who was a descendant of Egil and who also is thought to have written Egil's Saga.

Or you could dip into Burnt Njal's Saga, which deals with a series of blood feuds and features a horse fight!
posted by winna at 12:01 AM on October 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes is used in classics courses in many colleges - it collects most of the Greek & Roman mythologies into one coherent narrative. Although it is focused primary on Greek style myths, there is also a section devoted toward Norse.

I recommend this book because it provides a solid academic grounding which will come in handy if you do start to study the original source materials (i.e. you decide to read to Iliad.)

A point of semantics though: You write, "Where do I start with ancient classic literature, especially accessible versions of mythological or vaguely historical tales?" Bold mine.

First of all, please don't carelessly toss around words like "ancient," "classic," or "literature." These words have very specific meanings and in your rush to find new entertainment, you shouldn't confuse any of them. And further mythology and history are mutually exclusive (because one is fiction, and the other is, well... and account of events that actually happened.) Not trying to to derail, but if this is a style of reading that you're going to explore, you should at least start by getting your terminology straight...
posted by wfrgms at 12:15 AM on October 4, 2008

Gilgamesh. One thing that impressed me (other than it being likely the oldest written story in the world) was how alien it is. Compared to Gilgamesh, ancient Egyptian and oldest Greek stories read like 19th century novels, or is it just me? Too bad it's incomplete.
posted by rainy at 12:37 AM on October 4, 2008

If you like Beowulf, you might like other moody OE stuff: The Wanderer, the Seafarer, the Ruin, the Wife's Lament... You can find most of this stuff online (original and translation) and the poems are short enough to enjoy in one sitting.
posted by No-sword at 1:22 AM on October 4, 2008

Howdy - not part of the Anglo-Saxon or Norse tradition, but still in the "really good" camp - how about The Iliad or The Odyssey?

The Iliad is basically a war-story, driven by the anger of Achilles, "the most violent man alive". In terms of enjoyability, it gets extra points for its description of the feuding Greek gods and godesses, who cheat, bully and plot against each other in an very humorous fashion. Also its exciting battle scenes, where violence and death are described in a very brutal, visceral way. Achilles going into battle has a similar feel to me to Arnie taking down all those cops in Terminator. (This makes it better in this respect than Morte D'Arthur, whose battles scenes I found incredibly dull - "First Kay struck Godwin down, man and horse; then Ulfric struck Wynot down, man and horse; then Hrothic struck Pirre down, man and horse; blah blah blah.)

The Odyssey has a much more complex plot, and is less accessible than the Iliad. I also found it a lot more irritating due to its (to me) mistakes.* However, I have a cruel sense of humour, and this it has in abundance. For example, it has literature's first ever drunken-fratboy-cheered bumfight (Iras vs Ulysses), has a bizarre feel-dirty ending, and generally narrates a set of arbitary, cruel reverses as Ulysses tries to get back home. (And even when he gets home and gets back with his wife, it's not over.)

I read the translations by Fagles, which are poetic and accessible. Am not a classicist; perhaps others might comment on their fidelity to the originals.

(*Haters, call off the harpies!)
posted by laumry at 1:31 AM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Sorry; Ulysses = Odysseus above. I get the epic poem and the *awesome* 80s kids cartoon mixed up!)
posted by laumry at 1:40 AM on October 4, 2008

Some of best online sources for literature of any kind are the home schooling sites. Calvert School has this wonderful cd, King Arthur through the Ages CD that I purchased for my son several years ago. He still loves it age 23. has many links to some of what you may be looking for. Good luck and happy reading.
posted by bjgeiger at 3:25 AM on October 4, 2008

My all-time fave: The Norse Myths as translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Very, very readable. I got it when I was a teen and have loved it ever since.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:46 AM on October 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

To follow up on laumry's suggestion:

Signet Classics has published both The Iliad and The Odyssey in "plain English" form (i.e., not the copiously broken up poetry style). I found these to be much more accessible than anything else, although some criticize them for not remaining true to the original poetic form of the texts. Nevertheless, if the phrase "epic poem" doesn't sound like something you want to read, then these two books are what you're looking for.
posted by aheckler at 4:05 AM on October 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Kalevala. Ramayana. Seconding Gilgamesh. In short, check out the Wikipedia list of epics.
posted by billtron at 4:49 AM on October 4, 2008

One of my fave pieces of literature in the world is a translation of The Battle of Maldon in the Oxford Anthology of English Literature. It is historic, of course, but wonderful. Other translations not so good.

My personal favorite quote (of all the quotes I know!):

"Heart must be braver, courage the bolder, mood the stouter as our strength grows less!"

If you can't find this, email me and I'll send you a copy of the poem.

All the other OE poems in this are good too, including The Wanderer, especially.
posted by FauxScot at 5:25 AM on October 4, 2008

Most enjoyable translation of the Poetic Edda: by Lee Hollander. It's grim, gloomy, a little hy Victorian, loads of fun to read, and should chill your spine nicely when you get to the end of the world.
posted by tavegyl at 5:57 AM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding the Ramayana and adding the Mahabharata, huge Indian epics that I've read only in the linked-to (much abbreviated, and often controversial) translations, both of which I found marvelously readable and totally enthralling.
posted by dpcoffin at 6:38 AM on October 4, 2008

I also recommend Burnt Njal's Saga, and all the rest of the sagas (a great selection of which can be found in The Sagas of Icelanders from Penguin). For the Arthurian legends, get thee to T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone—never mind the "young adult" label, it's a wonderful read. And from a very different but equally epic/martial/fun tradition, you might try Journey to the West; the Chinese have been riveted by it for centuries, and you could be too!
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on October 4, 2008

This is nowhere near Norse mythology, but I think you'd enjoy it. The Arabian Nights. It's an epic book of tales that take you on journeys far away into foreign lands and mystical places. At times it is harsh, others weird and sometimes it's even funny. It will push your imagination to the limits. I had a children's copy growing up and found this copy at a Border's a few years ago. I plan on trying out a few more serious translations to see if it is as entertaining as the first copy I read. One of my all time favorite books!
posted by bristolcat at 7:53 AM on October 4, 2008

I study and teach medieval British literature, and if you enjoyed Marco Polo, you would probably like The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, trans. CWRD Moseley (Penguin Classics, 2005). The Chronicles of Jean Froissart, trans. Geoffrey Brereton, recounts events from the Hundred Years War between England and France; if you're interested in history, it's a surprisingly good read (Penguin Classics, 1978).

There's a recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage. Hardback was released in the US Oct 07; the paperback is coming out Nov 2008.

I'd recommend Arthurian Romances, by Chr├ętien de Troyes, trans. William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll (Penguin Classics, 1991, 2004). "Eric et Enide" and the "Chevalier au Lyon" are favorites of mine.

Short, strange and wonderful stories can be found among the Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Penguin Classics, 1999).

posted by woodway at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2008

Seconding the William Buck translations of the Mahabharata and especially the Ramayana. They're not scholarly, of course (and the Mahabharata is only a fraction of the gigantic epic) but they are excellent reads. Seconding also the Richard Burton Arabian Nights. I'm sure I don't need to mention the King James Bible but I shall, for the record.

Returning to the British Isles, I love Patrick Ford's translation of the Welsh Mabinogi. I'm probably unique in finding the Tain unreadable, but you might enjoy it.

Great semi-fictional mediaeval writings: The Travels of John Mandeville, Giraldus Cambrensis' account of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Going back in time, Herodotus is a great read.

You might also want to look into the Nibelungenlied, where Wagner got it from.

Coming to the present, for me, Alan Garner's children books come the closest to that cold dark menace of some of my favourite Anglo-Saxon/ Norse stuff.
posted by tavegyl at 8:47 AM on October 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Heh, I actually came in to recommend the Tain. It's a great literary text and quite interesting. I can't find the book right now to see the translator's name.

Regarding the Mabinogion, you might want to read a few pages first before buying it if you couldn't get through Le Morte.

I third Gilgamesh; it stands on in own merits without needing points awarded for its age.
posted by ersatz at 9:07 AM on October 4, 2008

Seconding the Icelandic Sagas, particularly Egil's and Erik the Red's.
posted by Edelweiss at 10:40 AM on October 4, 2008

I loved the Mabinogion; it's really strange. That's what's so wonderful about ancient literature: trying to find what's the same and what's different in the way those people thought about things and how we think of things.

"Song of Roland", "Romance of the Rose", Greek tragedies, Greek comedies.

Not quite so ancient, but a lot of fun: The Decameron.
posted by acrasis at 4:28 PM on October 4, 2008

Herbert Mason's translation of Gilgamesh was super accessible to me, while preserving the original meaning.

You say you're just discovering Beowulf, so here's my favorite translation if you haven't picked one yet: the Signet Classic translation
posted by librarylis at 2:52 AM on October 5, 2008

If you're going to read The Arabian Nights and want a more authentic experience, try Husain Haddawy's much-praised 1990 translation instead of Richard Burton's outdated and exaggerated 19th century translation, which Haddawy criticizes in his introduction as rendering colloquial passages "in a pseudo-archaic style dear to the heart of many a Victorian translator, a style that is totally alien both to the style of the Arabic original and to any recognizable style in English literature." For what that's worth. They're highly readable (with plenty of sex - my god is there a lot of fucking in the Arabian Nights) and, according to critics, the most authentic English-language versions of the originals you can find.

Haddawy also carefully explores the confusing, multi-ethnic history of the stories in his excellent introduction, tracing their early collection and later fame in the West, and relegating some of the most famous tales - Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin - in a 2nd volume because they were added much later by folks like Burton.
posted by mediareport at 6:59 AM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I second Crossley-Holland's _Norse Myths_ for a decent retelling of the, well, Norse Myths. I don't agree with all of his interpretations (he takes Snorri too seriously, IMO), but he uses footnotes well and references all his sources.

The Icelandic Sagas are a blast. Egil's Saga and Njal's Saga are great fun, but I'm also very fond of Gisli's Saga (there is a great 1982 Icelandic film based on it, Utlaginn) and Grettir's Saga. Read one (I'd start with Egil), and if you like them, just work your way through.

If you really get in to it, then you can start on the Eddas and join all those arguments about how seriously to take Snorri and how much he Christianized things.
posted by QIbHom at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2008

Oh, and for Beowulf, I like Chickering's dual language translation. The Seamus Heany has an excellent cover, but the Irishisms in it were very jarring.
posted by QIbHom at 11:33 AM on October 5, 2008

Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes is an excellent and very accessible version of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
posted by ninebelow at 4:46 AM on October 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions - there are even more options than I expected! I finished reading David Wright's prose translation of Beowulf and enjoyed it despite its apparent wordiness. I also have Heaney's verse translation which will be an interesting comparison. I've now moved on to Egil's Saga which is awesome so far. Looking forward to reading some of the Norse and Greek myth compilations too. This list should keep me busy and happy for months!
posted by rocks009 at 11:36 PM on October 14, 2008

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