Last month, 108 contributors — journalists, academics, writers, literary critics, etc — from 35 countries were invited by BBC Culture to share their list of five stories that they believe have shaped our world. Not favorites, mind you, but stories that “have had the most impact on shaping ideas and changing minds throughout history.” The scope was further clarified as follows:
The stories should be fictional narratives (in the form of epic poems, plays, novels – oral or written) that have shaped society, changing the way people think or live, and have endured across generations (not necessarily the stories that have shaped literature). They are stories that have marked a turning point in a society and the worldviews of the people who heard or read them. They can be from any era, and anywhere in the world.
We’re not including religious or political texts, or any non-fiction.
I was honored to be among those invited. Below, I am sharing my five picks and the reasons why. Also, at the end, you can check out the final published lists at BBC Culture’s website.
Please do share your five stories that you think have shaped the world in the comments if you are so inclined.
1/ Ramayana (c. 11th century, attributed to Valmiki)
There are several ancient world epics that have influenced much of the fiction that has come after them. And we continue to retell these epics today in new versions — whether reusing the archetypes/tropes or re-situating the narratives in more contemporary settings or simply reframing the narrative from a different character’s perspective.
While it is hard to pick the one epic that has had the most influence, I’m going with the ancient Hindu epic poem, Ramayana, because of how it continues to influence Indian culture and beyond today — both in India, across the global Indian diaspora, and several other Asian countries. Many in the Western world may not have heard of this Hindu epic but its influence has been far-reaching.
A large portion of the story is about the Odyssey-like 14-year journey-in-exile of its main hero, Ram. The archetypes of the ideal strong leader and husband supported by his ideal “pure” and good wife and ideal brother and more illustrate the whole “good conquers evil” belief system through allegorical stories told in Sanskrit verse. As with other ancient epics, there are some of the usual tropes: long-term exile, star-crossed couples, good versus evil, and more. Even today, at various levels of Indian society, the main characters of the Ramayana — Ram, Sita, Laxman, Hanuman, Ravana, Shoorpanakha — are invoked in daily conversations to indicate particular traits/attributes.
In India, the Ramayana has been adapted across Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions. Beyond India, the Ramayana is also culturally important in other Asian countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. So, in addition to the several Indian language versions, there are Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese, and Malaysian adaptations too.
[Note: The Ramayana itself is not a religious text but a story about how the gods lived among human beings at one time. Not unlike the Odyssey or the Iliad.]
2/ Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare (1597-1599)
The two most adapted plays of the most famous playwright and storyteller in the English language are ‘Hamlet‘ and ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. The reason I picked this is that we see this eternal tale of a love triangle, star-crossed lovers, class warfare, etc., playing out in stories from so many countries and cultures. It has endured as one of the most well-known love stories of all time. And, again, it has given us universal archetypes and tropes that have endured and shaped stories through the ages.
While I am not a huge fan of love stories, this one has something for everyone. There’s the family saga, the thriller aspect with the warring factions, the passion of the young people, the beautiful setting of ancient Verona, and the witty Shakespearean dialogue. What’s not to love?
It may not be Shakespeare’s best-written play but it is definitely the most well-known and among two of his most adapted.
3/ Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
This is, arguably, the first anti-slavery novel that is also credited for giving a big boost to the Abolitionist Movement. Even more, it is said to have laid the groundwork for the American Civil War — there’s that apocryphal story that President Abraham Lincoln said, on meeting Stowe, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
It is a sentimental novel with explicit religious overtones. It is more a work of propaganda rather than a great work of literature, as many critics have pointed out. Further, it has given us some poor stereotypes of black people. But it is definitely 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. As such, it was the first widely-read political novel in the US. It soon gained currency across Europe and the rest of the colonized world and was translated into many languages. I studied it in high school in India in the early-80s. And it has influenced many more fictional narratives from Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle‘ to Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved‘ and beyond.
Incidentally, this is the only one of my picks that made it to BBC Culture’s final top 10 (see below.)
4/ The Lady With the Dog by Anton Chekhov (1899)
Chekhov gave us the art of the literary short story like no other writer before him. It is hard to pick a single story of his but this is definitely the most anthologized. What makes it stand apart from all other stories of extra-marital affairs is what Richard Ford has said in his introduction to ‘The Essential Tales of Chekhov’ (Ecco, 1998):
Now, what I would say is good about “The Lady with the Dog” . . . and indeed why I like it is primarily that it concentrates its narrative attention not on the conventional hotspots — sex, deceit and what happens at the end — but rather, by its precision, pacing and decisions about what to tell, it directs our interest toward those flatter terrains of a love affair where we, being conventional souls, might overlook something important. “The Lady with the Dog” demonstrates by its scrupulous notice and detail that ordinary goings-on contain moments of significant moral choice — willed human acts judgeable as good or bad — and as such they have consequences in life which we need to pay heed to, whereas before reading the story we might’ve supposed they didn’t.
And that last point about how ordinary things in life often involve major choices and consequences is what the best literary short stories are about because they help us think more about such choices/consequences, improve our self-awareness, and develop empathy toward others.
5/ The Harry Potter Series (1997-2007)
I am in my mid-40s, so this is not exactly aimed at my demographic. Yet, it has a universal, cross-generational appeal. And, despite how much this entire series has borrowed from many other fictional works before it (Tolkien, The Iliad, the Bible, Shakespeare, and more), it has managed to define the coming-of-age of at least two generations worldwide like no other. It has also influenced many other works across various media. It is a global phenomenon like no other and even adults enjoy reading the books. Currently, it stands as the bestselling series ever.
What it has done beautifully like no other series, I believe, is blend so many genres together: fantasy, drama, horror, romance, mystery, thriller, etc. Entire entertainment industries have benefited from these stories of a young wizard, his friends, and the overcoming of evil with learned magic and innate goodness.
Read about the overall #100Stories BBC Culture Project.
Here are the lists from all who contributed.
And, based on final contribution tallies, here are the top 10 stories that have shaped the world.