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Hot on the heels of the success of Penguin's Great Ideas series, the Classics team is proud to announce for the New Year the arrival of the Penguin Epics, a gorgeously packaged collection of 20 short tales of adventure, drama, and myth. We're thrilled that the epics are making a big splash, as Robert Fagles' new translation of The Aeneid has received much acclaim from critical circles, including The New York Times. Among the stories in this collection is the legendary Beowulf, in which the valiant warrior challenges the fiendish mother-beast Grendel in order to save the ancient kingdom of the Danes and its people from brutal and irreparable destruction. The ever-popular Odysseus, former king of Ithaca, also appears in this series in Odysseus Returns Home. In this tale, the broken king, transformed by ten years of wandering and war, must employ his cunning and ingenuity to help his wife, Penelope, recognize him without ever revealing himself. Other stories span the extraordinary courage of King Arthur in King Arthur's Last Battle to Dante's plunge into the dark forest of the damned in The Descent Into Hell. Buy these exciting tales separately or together as a convenient box set—either way, they are swift and heart-pounding reads you won't forget. So go ahead and channel your inner Sinbad. Just don't forget your sword!


"The Epics depict the most extreme acts of heroism, ambition, bravery and violence, and in doing so they reveal mankind's most profound aspirations and darkest fears." —Philip Pullman

This month Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, celebrates the greatest stories ever told.

Above all, an epic is big. It's about big things—death, courage, honor, war, shame, vengeance. It's about large and public matters— the fate of a nation, the return of a king, the success of an army, the origin of a people. Its protagonists are larger than human beings, and perhaps simpler too: they are heroes. The preservation of an epic is a matter not of private dilettantism, but of national importance. It is less precious than literature, but more valuable.

An epic is independent of the identity of its author. Oh, someone eventually transcribes the often-told tale, sometimes in a highly-wrought style, sometimes as a masterpiece of poetry, sometimes in a rough and clumsy version full of repetitions or jumbled with contradictions or riddled with gaps; and sometimes there's a name attached to it, and sometimes that name is like Homer, meaningless, because who composed the Iliad? Homer. Who was Homer? The man who composed the Iliad. Perhaps. And sometimes there's no name at all: Gilgamesh does not even have a Homer. These days, the author is everything: the book tours, the media profiles, the online interviews, the literary festivals, the signing sessions, the panel discussions promoted by cultural organizations— they could all take place just as happily in the absence of the literary work altogether, because the author as celebrity is all that matters. But with a great tale of the epic kind, all we need to do is accept the work of the scribe with gratitude, and edit the scattered remains as well as we can; and the absence of an author and all the attendant personal appearances and lifestyle features and PR ballyhoo is wonderfully clarifying, like the wind from the desert that smells of nothing.

Perhaps the epic is in some ways the very opposite of the novel, which began on the page and which really came into its own in the era of printing, as a domestic romance that was enjoyed most happily in solitude and in silence. The oldest epics have something of the declamatory about them: they are more suitably experienced through the ear, perhaps, and in company, than through the eye and in private. Like the theatre, the epic is an arena for the hero. Great heroes are uncomfortable in the novel, whose point of view is too close, too familiar, whose lens has exactly the right focal length to pick up the little flaws, the "spots of commonness," in George Eliot's famous phrase. No man is a hero to his novelist. A hero has flaws, to be sure, but they are not on a domestic scale. To see heroes in the frame that best fits the greatness of their nature and their actions, we need to be at some distance from them.

Epic heroes, in fact, seem to be at some distance from themselves. This realization lies behind the crazy and yet tantalizingly rich idea of Julian Jaynes, whose book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Allen Lane, 1976) puts forward the bizarre suggestion that human beings only became conscious in the modern sense during the past 4000 years; that until then, they heard the promptings of conscience, or temptation, or inspiration, as the voices of gods, coming apparently from elsewhere, with no sense that their own minds were responsible. He instances Achilles in the Iliad, experiencing his own reluctance to strike Agamemnon as the goddess Athena seizing his golden hair and pulling him back. Similarly Jane Smiley, in talking of the Icelandic sagas, points out that "...they seem far removed from modern literary subjectivity, and yet, the gossip and the comments of other characters supply a practical and readily understandable psychological context. Characters speak up, they say what they want and what their intentions are. Other characters disagree with them and judge them. The saga writer sometimes remarks upon public opinion concerning them. The result is that the sagas are psychologically complex and yet economical in their analysis" (Jane Smiley, introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders, Allen Lane, 2000). The human interactions in epic stories are out in the open, where all can see them, with the fresh air blowing through them; there is nothing enclosed, nothing stale, nothing stuffy.

Finally, the epic vision is a tragic one. Jasper Griffin, discussing a translation of Gilgamesh in The New York Review of Books, recently remarked: "There is no happy ending, even for mighty heroes who are close to the gods ... This is the true epic vision ... An older wisdom, and a truer poetry, sees that the highest nobility and the deepest truth are inseparable, in the end, from failure—however heroic—from defeat, and from death" (NYRB, March 9 2006). So Beowulf dies in the moment of his triumph against the dragon, and King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table go down to defeat in their final battle, and as Hjalti says in Sagas and Myths of the Northmen in this collection, "It is not possible to bend fate, nor can one stand against nature." Odysseus, safely returned home at last after his ten years of battle and wandering, will not stay in his cleansed and peaceful palace for good; a time will come when he'll want to move on yet again, though he knows that, as Tennyson has him say, "Death closes all." And even Sindbad, that peerless traveler in the realms of wonder, has to succumb in the end, when "there came to him the Spoiler of worldly mansions, the Dark Steward of the graveyard; the Shadow which dissolves the bonds of friendship and ends alike all joys and all sorrows." The epic is not a place where anyone lives happily ever after; it obeys a mightier realism than that.

But everything I can say about the epic is instantly and effortlessly contradicted by a list such as this, so rich and so varied. Stories are always wiser than their commentators, as Isaac Bashevis Singer said. In the 60th anniversary year of the first Penguin Classic, it's wonderful to see the old stories as vigorous and as fresh as they ever were.


In Penguin Classics we are proud to publish great epics from around the world. Along with Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, and the epics of Homer stands the Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowski. We have published Dick Davis's magnificent translation of the Shahnameh in a Classics Deluxe edition. Azar Nafisi, author of the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, contributes a Foreword. Critically acclaimed, Davis's new translation of the Shahnameh was chosen as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post Book World.

For those readers who loved the bestselling book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and are anticipating the release of the movie adaptation in November 2007, you will remember that the heroic tales that the main characters, Amir and Hassan, read together as young boys are from the Shahnameh. Khaled Hosseini commented, "Davis's wonderful translation will show Western readers why Ferdowski's masterpiece is one of the most revered and most beloved classics in the Persian world."

Penguin Epics
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