With Fire and Sword (1883)
Ask around a bit and you'll find no shortage of folks, men in particular, who became readers via their encounters in youth with class adventure tales: The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Ivanhoe, the Lord of the Rings, etc. ask again and you'll find almost no one whose heard of half the Nobel Laureates in Literature, fewer who've read them, and none enjoyed many of them. All the more remarkable then that one of the great adventure authors of all time actually won a Nobel and somewhat tragic that so few have read him in recent decades. But Henryk Sienkiewicz has made something of a comeback and it could not be more welcome.
Sienkiewicz is the great author of Poland--indeed, to some extent his works are said to have created and helped to maintain the strong Polish identity that prevailed through the troubled 20th Century. When his books were first published -- mostly late in the 19th Century -- the English translations were done by Teddy Roosevelt's friend Jeremiah Curtin and, whether they were adequate for their time, they are are terribly dated now and have served to put off potential readers. Add in the fact that neither the Nazis nor the Communists had much interest in fostering Polish patriotism and you've the recipe for lost classics. But then, fittingly as the Iron Curtain was crumbling, Hippocrene Books commissioned a new translation of his greatest works, The Trilogy and Quo Vadis?, by the highly-regarded Polish novelist W. S. Kuniczak, and these eminently readable versions won Sienkiewicz a modern audience. New translations of other works followed, then a terrific film version of In Desert and Wilderness, and a massive Polish television adaptation of the Trilogy. Suddenly we've a surfeit of riches and some catching up to do.
If you're just starting out it might be wise to begin with Quo Vadis?, a stand alone tale of Christians in Rome that really deserves a fresh film treatment. But it's well worth your time to dive into the Trilogy, the first volume of which is the magnificent With Fire and Sword. Set in 1647, amidst a Cossack uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it tells the story of a young Polish patriot and hero, Yan Skshetuski, and his love for the beautiful Helen, who is also coveted the brutal Bohun, who fights with the rebels. Pan Yan's twin tales give us epic history and grand romance, while his compatriots offer comic relief. There's his wily servant, Zjendjan, whose semi-faithful service somehow keeps lining his own pocket. There's the mopey giant Pan Longinus, who has sworn a vow of chastity until he lives up to the example of his forebears and takes off the heads of three enemy soldiers with one swing of his massive battle sword. There's Pan Michal Wolodyjowski, whose bravery and feistiness belie his diminutive stature. And, best of all, there's the Falstaffian Pan Zagloba, who makes up in drinking capacity, gluttony, and biting wit what he lacks in zeal for battle, as he keeps his one good eye peeled for threats to his corpulent frame.
It'll take you a hundred to a hundred and fifty pages to orient yourself and get used to the odd names and nicknames, but the subsequent thousand pages go by far too fast. It's one of those stories you don't ever want to end.
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd