Because who doesn’t like reading about unlikely heroes, legendary battles, and (mostly) happy endings?
Last week, I put together a list of my personal top seven classics to avoid like the plague (and creatively dispose of if you can’t). While that was incredibly fun to compile, here’s a list of epic classics that leans less towards book-destroying (unless you absolutely hate them, in which case, go ahead) and more towards run-out-and-hunt-them-down-at-the-nearest-book-store. These eight classic novels, compilations, and series are filled with tales of heroism and cowardice, victory and defeat, funeral pyres and new-filled thrones, magic rings and talking lions, and much, much more.
1. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
This seven book series was my first introduction to the world of fantasy when my mom read them aloud to me (with voices!) when I was little. Each of the seven novels follows the story of the Pevensie children or their friends and their adventures in the magical land of Narnia, and each is a really quick read—perfect for a homework break. The story begins in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the four Pevensie children are sent away from London to live with a professor in the English countryside during World War II. While playing hide-and-seek in the professor’s enormous old house, Lucy, the youngest, happens upon a wardrobe in a spare room—a perfect hiding spot, filled with old coats. But when Lucy goes further in, she discovers that what’s brushing her arms isn’t soft fur, but trees and snow. So begins the four children’s adventures in Narnia, a magical world ruled by the evil White Witch, waiting for the return of the rightful king, Aslan.
Themes: Adventure, Deep Magic, sacrificial love, redemption, good vs. evil, and the most epic, fierce, not safe but good, lion in literature.
Takeaway: Don’t ever accept Turkish delight from a stranger, especially if she’s a scary lady who calls herself the Queen of Narnia and is strangely curious about how many siblings you have.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien
These four books are some of the most well known fantasy novels, especially since Peter Jackson’s recent movie adaptions. While they probably need little explanation, for those who haven’t read them yet, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are thrilling stories set in the fantasy world of Middle Earth, with lots of adventure, battles, and magical creatures (like “nasty hobbitses” and elves). Despite the occasionally dense passages on hobbit customs and sometimes confusing character genealogies, these four books are definitely worth the read. Also—congratulations! You’ve officially discovered the source of all the Boromir memes that flood the Internet (especially around finals).
Themes: Sacrifice, loyalty, bonds of fellowship, epic quests, courage, quotable Gandalf moments.
Takeaway: Second breakfasts are a thing, humans aren’t as cool as elves, and in the pitch black of your room at night, there is no way that you’ll ever imagine a small, hunched figure creeping towards your bed, big blue eyes staring at you inches from your pillow, whispering “my preciousssss….” while hiding a rock behind his back. See? Totally impossible.
3. The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
This five book series follows Taran, an orphan and Assistant Pig-Keeper to the wizard Dallben, along his quest(s) to save the land of Prydain from Arawn Death-Lord. In the series, Taran meets Gurgi, the hairy dog-like/man creature, Eilonwy, the feisty princess, Gwydion, the wise war leader, and Arawn (who, as can be guessed by his last name, is an Evil Villain). My summary doesn’t even begin to do this series justice. While The Chronicles of Prydain is not as well known as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, it ranks alongside them because of its powerful story. Taran’s journey from child to adulthood with its laughter, embarrassment, adventures, sorrow, and deep questions asked to the hero (and the reader) will stay with you long after finishing the last page.
Themes: True valor, importance of birthright, the undead Cauldron-Born, and more incredibly wise quotes from an elderly wizard.
Takeaway: Everyone—including Assistant Pig-Keepers—can be a hero.
4. The Mabinogion, by Anonymous
The Mabinogion is an eleven-story collection of Welsh mythology that was translated and complied in the mid 1800s by Lady Charlotte Guest, but which was written as early as the 1000s. These fascinating legends are enjoyable to read on their own and to compare with other similar (but distinctly different) mythologies, like those from Ireland and Scandinavia. What makes this especially interesting is its connection to The Chronicles of Prydain. Like Tolkien (who lifted ideas and objects for his books from Beowulf), Lloyd Alexander borrowed some items and names from the Mabinogion (including Pryderi, Gwydion, Arawn, and the black cauldron that can only be broken by a living man being thrown inside), as well as the Welsh language and landscape.
Takeaway: Welsh words sound very different than the letters say they sound, and the language is unlike any other language in the world (there’s an interesting reason for it, which is a cool topic-search for a rainy day). Go ahead, look up a video on YouTube! See what I mean? So cool.
5. Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
An Anglo-Saxon tale of a super human warrior fighting slithering sea monsters, hulking land monsters, and one very scary, fire-breathing air monster? Bring it on.
Beowulf is an approximately 3,000 line epic poem (don’t panic—this is only the number of lines—depending on the copy, the page count can be as short as 100 pages) that focuses on the young warrior, Beowulf, and his quest to defend his allies and kingdom against evil forces. Written in deceptively simple lines, the deep concepts in Beowulf pack a punch. Besides all the epic battles, Beowulf has words like “treasure-giver” (king), “word-hoard” (mouth), and “whale-road” (sea), which make the read even more enjoyable.
Themes and Takeaway: Honor, kinship, arm-wrestling, bravery, spiritual strength, fate, and loud, fun, slightly dangerous family gatherings are still as vital to the human experience as they were centuries ago.
6. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Anonymous
The premise: A green giant walks into King Arthur’s court and offers to play a game—anyone who is brave enough can step forward and cut off his head. But if the green knight survives the beheading, the knight who lifted the ax must also be beheaded in a year and a day. King Arthur is pressured to accept the obviously magical challenge, but to save his lord from pretty much obvious death, his nephew, Gawain, steps in to take his place. Gawain cuts off the green giant’s head, who then bends down, tucks his head under his arm, and rides away. And now Gawain, who doesn’t have a head that reattaches, has to keep his promise and meet the green knight for the return blow. So begins the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and ends a year and a day later, when Gawain….. Oh wait, that’d be spoiling things.
Besides the nail-biting challenge, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has magic, feasting, sharp weapons, a pretend-seductress, highly descriptive accounts of animal gutting, kept (and broken) promises, and one Very Important Girdle. Thrilling stuff.
Take Away: Never, I repeat never, accept a challenge from a magical green giant. He probably has a trick up his sleeve…or his unattached head.
7. Idylls of the King, by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Idylls of the King was written in the mid-to late 1800s by Lord Alfred Tennyson, and is the story of King Arthur’s rise to power, the golden age of Camelot, and King Arthur’s death.
This work is made up of twelve blank-verse poems—a perfect compromise for poetry lovers and haters, since each line is structured but without a sing-song rhyme at the end. Idylls of the King holds its own alongside some of the famous earlier stories about King Arthur (written by Thomas Malory and Chretien de Troyes) because of Tennyson’s skilled storytelling and his lyrical descriptions of Arthur’s story.
Themes: Knightly conduct, battle, and King Arthur—what’s not to love?
8. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
The Grimm brothers published the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812 as a compilation of German folklore. Many of these stories are familiar: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood), and Rapunzel, to name a few.
Warning (so you don’t ruin your happy Disney childhood memories)–
Despite being originally called Children’s and Household Tales, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales are anything but for children. The cheerful magic creatures and happy ending that we’ve come to except in a fairy tale is far, far different from what fairy tales used to be. Gore, horror, wicked fairies, eyes being stabbed out by rosebushes—these are what makes the Grimm’s Fairy Tales anything but cute. The tale “The Death of the Little Red Hen” even ends with these words: “And then everyone was dead.” Wow—that’s…blunt. Isn’t the main character supposed to live happily ever after at the end of the story? Not in Grimm’s Fairy Tales—but the uncertainty of the endings is refreshing compared with the predictable endings to many modern fairy tales.
Takeaway: Never trust magical creatures and never leave the path—ever.
Happy—or should I say, epic—reading!
Katie is a Staff Writer at the Daily Runner.