Friday, March 16, 2012
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz
With Fire and Sword is a sweeping, romantic, historical epic, originally published in 1884 by Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Though little read by American audiences, this book deserves a place of honor alongside such classics as The Three Musketeers, War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, and Les Miserables. The opening chapters required a little historical research just to figure out what was going on, but once I got my bearings it was a great ride.
The story begins in 1647, and takes place mostly in the Ukraine, which was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at that time the most powerful nation in Europe. The novel follows the events of the Hmelnitski Uprising (This review is based on Jeremiah Curtin’s English translation, so I’m using his spellings of proper nouns). Bogdan Hmelnitski led a Cossack Revolt against the Commonwealth, with the aid of the Tartars (Muslims from the Crimea). Pan Yan Skshetuski is a lieutenant in the Commonwealth forces led by Prince Yeremi. Shortly before the uprising Yan meets the love of his life, Princess Helena. As the fighting breaks out they are separated and spend most of the novel trying to get back together. One major obstacle to their reunion is Bogun, a fierce and powerful Cossack leader who also loves Helena, and takes her captive. Pan Yan has three comrades-in-arms: Pan Michal Volodyovski, Pan Longin Podbipienta, and Pan Zagloba. These four soldiers display a friendship similar to the four comrades of The Three Musketeers, with Zagloba providing most of the comic relief.
If there’s a weakness to this book it’s the plotting. The great adventure classics by Hugo or Dumas are intricately crafted so that each chapter is crucial to pushing the story forward. With Fire and Sword feels like it has quite a bit of filler. There are several chapters of the heroes drinking and talking about how they should all go look for the princess, but very few chapters of the heroes actually looking for the princess. About six instances occur of characters coincidentally running into Bogun, when two probably would’ve sufficed. Despite these few low points, the book overall is very exciting, and filled with memorable characters and events.
This novel contains some of the most vivid and gruesome depictions of warfare ever written. If they gave a prize for most impalements in a novel, Sienkiewicz would surely have won it with this entry. Atrocities are committed by both sides, beheadings are commonplace, and the torture of prisoners is routine. At one point, as the Commonwealth forces are approaching a town of particularly rebellious peasants, Yeremi instructs his soldiers to “Kill them so that they know they are dying,” a philosophy that permeates the book. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all blood and guts; Sienkiewicz also shows us the political intrigue behind the military strategy. And let’s not forget, this is, after all, a love story.
This is the first book in a trilogy of historical novels by Sienkiewicz. The second volume is The Deluge (aka Potop), and the third is Pan Michael (aka Pan Wolodjowski or Fire in the Steppe). After reading the first book, I can’t wait to tackle the other two.
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