A prominent news outfit in UK conducted a poll in April 2018, where experts around the world were asked to select up to five fictional stories they felt had shaped the mindsets of mankind or influenced the history of humans.
According to the poll conducted by BBC Culture, about 108 authors, academics, journalists, critics and translators in 35 countries voted the list (below) as the most influential and enduring works of fiction.
While their choices were selected from novels, poems, folk tales and dramas in 33 different languages, including Sumerian, K’iche and Ge’ez, the experts also gave explanations to their selections.
While Homer’s Odyssey topped the list, Frankenstein, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart rounded” up the top five.
See list below:
1. The Odyssey (Homer, 8th Century BC)
Top on the list was The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem of the 8th Century BC and Natalie Haynes, a writer and broadcaster, explained why it took the number one spot.
“Because it is one of the great foundational myths of western culture; because it asks what it means to be a hero; because it has great female characters in it, as well as men; because it is full of gods and monsters and is properly epic and because it forces us to question the assumptions we might have about quests, war, and the ever-current issue of what it means to return home.”
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel took the number two spot, and for Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu, “it is hard to think of any literary work today that could ever have such an impact.”
According to Jenny Bhatt, writer and Contributing Editor at PopMatters calls it “the first widely-read political novel in the US” and “the first work of fiction that openly addressed the cruelty of slavery, human exploitation, the lopsided legal system, the entrenched patriarchy, the need for feminism, and more.”
3. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
Frankenstein, a 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley, came in at number 3 and Roger Luckhurst, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, London, described it as “the quintessential story of the modern world”
The compelling story of the scientist who brings a creature to life has become one of the most enduring images in modern literature and beyond, and the monster serves as the “ultimate metaphor”, says Lena Wånggren, Research Fellow in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
Sitting at number four is George Orwell’s ground-breaking dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The novel was a popular choice with our voters and it was “because it captures a truth about totalitarianism and human history,” says book critic Alex Clark. Novelist and reviewer at the Boston Globe, Rebecca Steinitz, meanwhile, comments on how the story’s “themes of totalitarianism, technology and surveillance have been endlessly relevant and resonant since the day it appeared.”
5. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958)
The number five spot goes to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – a story that tells the colonisation of a Nigerian tribe from the point of view of an African.
Things Fall Apart exploded stereotypes about Africa and brought to life the true impact of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Achebe said that “this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, ‘rudimentary souls’” – many of those who responded to our poll agreed, and it reached number five.
6. One Thousand and One Nights (various authors, 8th-18th Centuries)
One Thousand and One Nights made the list due to “A timeless work,” says Ainehi Edoro-Glines, Assistant Professor of Literature, Marquette University.
“It gets at the primordial human desire for the story that never ends – which can very easily stand for life that never comes to an end.”
7. Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes, 1605-1615)
The novel was considered by many to be the first ever published and Terry Hong, critic at the Smithsonian Asian-Pacific American Center, certainly thinks so: “The Western canon was established with this evergreen, never-aging buddy adventure.”
Miguel de Cervantes’ satirical account of an aging Spaniard besotted with tales of chivalry who becomes a latter-day knight-errant himself has inspired a long-in-development film by Terry Gilliam, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and a popular Broadway musical.
8. Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1603)
Despite having three novels in the top 100 (the other two were Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka), it was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that made the number eight spot.
Why is this? “Few other stories have entered as deep into world culture and influenced the way we think about our muddled selves,” says UK author and critic Adam Thorpe. “We enter Hamlet’s inner core and emerge rinsed of illusion, yet fully aware that we are watching an actor playing someone forced to act just to save his life, remonstrating on the foot-scuffed line between sanity and madness.”
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)
One Hundred Years of Solitude was selected at number 9 by experts with a wide range of nationalities – as well as writers from Chile, Colombia and Mexico, the novel by Gabriel García Márquez was among the picks of those from Egypt, Nigeria, South Korea, Algeria and Norway.
The experts focused on how it helped to create a more global outlook. “It was the way the first world noticed Latin America existed,” says Oscar Contardo, a journalist at La Tercera newspaper, referring to Macondo – the town at the heart of the novel. “No matter if you are Chilean, Argentinian or Colombian, you will always be a Macondo citizen for the rest of the world.”
10. The Iliad (Homer, 8th Century BC)
Despite earning the top spot, Homer’s 8th-Century epic poem about the futility of war and gods making playthings of men also made the list of 10.
Not only is it one of the finest literary evocations of soldiers in combat – and relevant to our own era of ‘forever war’ – it actually has inspired military action of its own.