Examples of Epic Storytelling
May 21, 2008 4:49 PM   Subscribe

What are some of the best examples of epic storytelling that have taken place?

And by epic, I mean "vast, can't-believe-I-got-here-from-there," kind of stories: space operas, long and treacherous journey of the reluctant hero, birth-to-death stores, etc. I think of stories that are on such a grand scale that you feel as if you traveled a lifetime's worth of experiences to create a context for the overall message. I really enjoy this kind of storytelling, whether it be in literature, movies, video games, or song.

What are excellent examples of epic stories that take place in various mediums? Ultimately, I'm looking for some new experiences, so anything off the beaten path (like, not Lord of the Rings) gets bonus points.
posted by SpacemanStix to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
East of Eden by Steinbeck
posted by HotPatatta at 4:51 PM on May 21, 2008

Discussion of epic songs.

Top 10 epic songs

posted by HotPatatta at 4:53 PM on May 21, 2008

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Last Emperor (film)
posted by HotPatatta at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2008

I think "Glue" by Irvine Welsh covers a fair span of time and experiences.
posted by Jimbob at 4:58 PM on May 21, 2008

Scenes from a Marriage, full version.
posted by fire&wings at 5:02 PM on May 21, 2008

The Razor's Edge
by um, summerset's mom?
posted by stubby phillips at 5:04 PM on May 21, 2008

The Storyteller
posted by -harlequin- at 5:04 PM on May 21, 2008

The Dune series covers tens of thousands of years of human history, including tremendous social and political upheavals. There are also a handful of characters that survive from era to era and help to create a unified narrative.

The Space Odyssey series of books and movies charts a similarly wide swath of human evolution, past, present, and future.

For a more human-scale story, All the King's Men is a solid "Great American Novel", and shows the rise and fall of a powerful politician as seen through the eyes of his personal assistant. Les Miserables is another great personal story that comes to mind, with lots of characters and an epic scope.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2008

The Time Traveller's Wife, by Audrey Niefen...something
Accelerando, by Charles Stross.
And of course the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, Confusion, System of the World) by Neal Stephenson
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2008

I'd have to think that Henry Darger holds the record for most epic story. His manuscript "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm", found posthumously tallies in at a whopping 15,145 pages in length and is accompanied by hundreds of beautiful wall-sized watercolors and drawings he created to illustrate the story. Examples of the art can be seen here.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2008

The Dark Tower, by Stephen King.
posted by kbanas at 5:20 PM on May 21, 2008

I'm glad you asked this. Years ago, I read Last and First Men, and it's about as epic as you can get, but that link says that the same author has another book, Star Maker, that's a history of the entire universe. That'll be the next book I read.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 5:32 PM on May 21, 2008

Babylon 5
posted by jbrjake at 5:32 PM on May 21, 2008

Well, there's the Iliad and the Odyssey.
posted by trip and a half at 5:33 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Mahabharata is teh ownage.

Wikipedia: With more than 74,000 verses, long prose passages, and about 1.8 million words in total, the Mahabharata is one of the longest epic poems in the world.

It's also a major text of Hinduism. And predates anything mentioned so far. Could take a while to finish reading, though.
posted by WalterMitty at 5:38 PM on May 21, 2008

Since Olaf Stapledon has already been mentioned, I'll recommend Poul Anderson's Tau Zero. It's mind-boggling in its universe-spanning sweep.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 PM on May 21, 2008

The Gouda by Jay O'Callahan is epic, and heavily bizzare.
It's an audiobook only, directed at kids, but I enjoyed the ride.
posted by TheCoug at 5:44 PM on May 21, 2008

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
posted by jabberjaw at 5:52 PM on May 21, 2008

Seconding The Time Traveler's Wife. Audrey Niffenegger, btw.
posted by Phire at 6:06 PM on May 21, 2008

in song format:
Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier by Corb Lund.

It is especially surreal because it's told entirely first-person.
posted by Acari at 6:07 PM on May 21, 2008

Six Feet Under.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:10 PM on May 21, 2008

H Rider Haggard's The Saga of Eric Brighteyes.
posted by SPrintF at 6:11 PM on May 21, 2008

Cerebus. Twenty-seven years of work, 300 issues, 6000 pages to chronicle the life story of an amoral humanoid aardvark. It does go a bit mad about two-thirds of the way through.
posted by Hogshead at 6:12 PM on May 21, 2008

Dire Straits' Telegraph Road
posted by pompomtom at 6:13 PM on May 21, 2008

(Hope you like sci-fi/fantasy)
* The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny - great fantasy/sci-fi series, 10 books, although only the first 5 are really good. The best part about the series is how small it starts, i.e. the main character knows nothing and by the end everything is different (hard to say much more without giving away the plot)

* The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - Part 1 of what should be 3 part series. Best fantasy I've read in a very long time. Like the above, it starts simple and just keeps pulling farther and farther back. Unfortunately, only the first part is out, but the author claims to be done (more or less) with the rest, it's just being revised.

* The book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, long, complicated, but utterly worth it.

* Hyperion Series by Dan Simmons, The first book is the best here, but overall, suckage stays away.

*Baldurs Gate 1&2, The story, especially in the second is HUGE, there is over 200 hours of gameplay within and a fairly compelling story as well.

However, baldurs gate has nothing on
*Planescape: Torment, This is worth digging up and going through the trouble to get it to run on a modern pc. It has, bar none, the best story of any game I've ever played. I think I'd describe it as fairly epic as well.

Personally, I found Stapledon's books (Last and First Men, Starmaker) to be so "epic" that they are difficult to read as stories and instead become histories. Which is really what they are. Future histories.
posted by pwicks at 6:36 PM on May 21, 2008

It may be a little obvious, but Wagner's Ring Cycle is epic in every way and the scale of every element is really impressive- from the huge orchestra, to the choruses, dancers, and supernumeraries, to the design, and just the sheer length of the thing. If you're already familiar (or after you become familiar) you might enjoy a documentary called "Sing Faster- The Stagehand's Ring Cycle". It's a really funny, honest look at what it's like to create an epic journey.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 6:48 PM on May 21, 2008

You might really enjoy James Michener's books (e.g. Hawaii, Texas, Chesapeake, etc) or Edward Rutherfurd's (London, Russka, Sarum, etc). Both tend to write sweeping, epic tales about a particular place that follow a set of characters and their descendants through hundreds or even thousands of years of history. These are big, thick novels that are perfect Sunday afternoon on a patio reading.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:59 PM on May 21, 2008

posted by Nelsormensch at 7:01 PM on May 21, 2008

and there's that other odyssey: 2001

but that's not really off the beaten path, is it?

ok, how's about Little Big by John Crowley - it's easily one of the most beautfully written fairy tales of all time - as for being epic, well, it ends with the end of history - can't get much more epic than that

seriously, one of the best books I've ever read... ever.
posted by jammy at 7:09 PM on May 21, 2008


beautfully = beautifully
posted by jammy at 7:11 PM on May 21, 2008

The three books in Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) by Kim Stanley Robinson.
The HBS series Band of Brothers or From the Earth to The Moon.
The movie Gettysburg.
The song Hurricane by Bob Dylan.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:17 PM on May 21, 2008

Getting away from SF and fantasy, you can't go past the Forstye Saga, the novels, or the latest BBC adaptation.
Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels are fantastic as well, and you can read them out of order.
Russian: War and Peace from the nineteenth century and Dr. Zhivago from the twentieth.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:21 PM on May 21, 2008

Grab yourself an SNES emulator (or better yet, an actual SNES) and find yourself Final Fantasy VI (III on the SNES), Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and (if epic silliness is acceptable) Earthbound. Those are five of the most epic games ever.
posted by Caduceus at 7:32 PM on May 21, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (Very complex novel, about a two partners that go searching for the answer to a mystery, and ends up journeying all across China to solve a bigger puzzle)

The Court of the Lion by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri (about the Tang dynasty in China, during a period where the emperor's oldest son dies and his favorite concubine goes crazy, spanning across many characters

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls - A wonderful memoir starting from her childhood to her adult life. One of my favorite books ever. It really is astonishing to see how far she goes.

Butterfly Lovers - A beautiful story, expressed through the violin concerto. I've seen this story as dance performances, orchestral performances, movies, cartoons, or just a written story. If you want to hear a good rendition, I would recommend Vanessa Mae's version.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck - A story of a poor farmer and his rise from poverty, through years of famine, to wealth, until his death. It truly makes you feel his family's despair and joy as they go through them.

If you're into Chinese literature at all, the most famous ones are "Dream of Red Chamber", "Journey to the West", and "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (although I have not read any of them).

I'd also agree with the recommendations for The Joy Luck Club, Time-Traveller's Wife, Pillars of the Earth, James Michener, and Edward Rutherfurd.
posted by jasminerain at 7:37 PM on May 21, 2008

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a modern novel that moves from the 19th century to an unnamed apocalyptic future. It is no Tolstoy, but it is a damn good novel.

I recently read Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I didn't love it, but it covers thousands of years of human history to fit your description rather well.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:38 PM on May 21, 2008

If you enjoy science fiction, here is the source code used for for all subsequent space operas: The Lensman series, by E.E. Doc Smith.
You also might enjoy the Skylark series by the same author.

Along broader interests, the Icelandic Njal's Saga is undeniably epic.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2008

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is also quite epic, if somewhat slow in the beginning.
posted by Caduceus at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2008

Houzhe (in English, To Live or Lifetimes) is a film following a family through pre-Communist China to the height of the Cultural Revolution. In my opinion, Chinese history is one of most interesting historical periods of the 20th century.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2008

If you want an introduction to the Ring Cycle, as Thin Lizzy suggested, try the old episode of the always-wonderful RadioLab entitled "The Ring and I." It's from a previous season, so you'll need to download the podcast, but it's worth it.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:25 PM on May 21, 2008

In Polaroid format: a photo a day from March 31, 1979 until October 25, 1997.

"Yesterday I came across a slightly mysterious website — a collection of Polaroids, one per day, from March 31, 1979 through October 25, 1997. There’s no author listed, no contact info, and no other indication as to where these came from. So, naturally, I started looking through the photos. I was stunned by what I found."

For background info, check out this mentalfloss.com article. Trust me, it's pretty freakin' epic.
posted by kidsleepy at 8:40 PM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle
posted by ChickenringNYC at 8:56 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great feedback. Exactly the kinds of things I was thinking of. I'll be following up on a lot of the suggestions here.

pwicks: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I read this book, and I agree, it was a very good read. I picked it up at random at the library one day, and as I got home and researched the author a bit, I found out that it was a guy who I had gone to school with back in my undergraduate days. We only had a couple of classes together, but it was a pretty cool random life thing to run into him again through a random book grab. The wait until the second book is going to kill me.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Yes, this was a great read as well. Very moving.

Babylon 5

I just started watching this! Can't wait to get into it more.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:14 PM on May 21, 2008

Wholeheartedly seconding Stephen King's Dark Tower Series!
posted by juicedigital at 9:45 PM on May 21, 2008

The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye is the epic-est of sweeping epics.
It's about a guy who is born in India to British parents but due to various circumstances is brought up thinking he's Indian...and then is sent back to England, and comes back to India in the military, and there's this princess...well, you should just read it.
posted by exceptinsects at 9:50 PM on May 21, 2008

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Written 700 years ago it blends history, myths, religion and adventure in a true literary experience.
posted by saradarlin at 10:27 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second pretty much any Greek Tragedy (a couple are mentioned by trip and a half).. they are all rather epic by nature. Read it, audiobook it or go and see a live version.

One of my favourite books is "Sky burial' by Xinran. A young couple get married in China in the 1950's and the newly-wed husband is sent into Tibet with the Liberation Army, as a doctor. The wife is informed of his death a few months later but given no explanation. So Shuwen goes to Tibet on a quest to find her husband or his story. She gets lost in Tibet for 30 years and joins a nomad family for a lot of this time. Her journey and encounters are incredible and the book is very moving. It's a true story, told by a Chinese journalist who spent 10 years looking for Shuwen in order to tell her story. Perhaps more of a chick's thing but I would really highly recommend it.
posted by Happycat79 at 12:38 AM on May 22, 2008

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. It was later made into a mini-series.
posted by juva at 1:51 AM on May 22, 2008

Another sci-fi series; The Saga of Pliocene Exile and The Galactic Milieu series by Julian May. Interwoven storyline that is broadly about the mental and ultimately spiritual evolution of humankind that spans millenia (fair bit of time travel involved however). Great hard sci-fi.
posted by elendil71 at 3:36 AM on May 22, 2008

+1 for Book of the New Sun and Hyperion. How about A Dance to the Music of Time - 12 novels, covering a range of characters between the 20's and the 60's.
posted by crocomancer at 4:33 AM on May 22, 2008

Neverness and the proceeding Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy: The Broken God, The Wild and War in Heaven. Epic Transhumanist Space Opera. Not everybody likes the style, but those who do love it completely.
posted by Sparx at 6:46 AM on May 22, 2008

While certainly not as lengthy as Wagner's Ring Cycle, Mahler's symphonies, especially nos. 3 and 8, are awe-inspiring. I suggest Chicago Symphony's recording of the 3rd (there are a number of them, though I think Bernard Haitink is the standard-bearer of Mahler 3 across multiple orchestras), particularly with their insane brass section. As for the 8th, it's still a toss-up.
posted by chan.caro at 7:22 AM on May 22, 2008

Check out Leon Uris.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:25 AM on May 22, 2008

Another vote for the Gene Wolfe New Sun series, the Hyperion books and Julian May's Pliocene series. Sticking with science fiction and fantasy, how about Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz or just about anything by Guy Gavriel Kay?
posted by JaredSeth at 9:30 AM on May 22, 2008

War and Peace
Gravity's Rainbow
Don Quixote
posted by Afroblanco at 12:02 PM on May 22, 2008

posted by sophist at 3:10 AM on May 23, 2008

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