Monday, November 19, 2012

Pan Michael by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A stunning conclusion to a monumental trilogy
Pan Michael is the third volume in what is simply known as “The Trilogy,” a series of three historical war epics by Polish Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Published in 1888, this book completes the saga that began in With Fire and Sword and continued in The Deluge. Originally titled Pan Wolodyjowski, it has also been published in English under the title Fire in the Steppe. The title character, Michael Volodyovski, was a supporting character in the first two books; here he finally gets a starring role. (This review is based on the English translation by Jeremiah Curtin, so I am using his spellings of proper names.) The story takes place from 1668 to 1673, during a war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire.

This final volume of Sienkiewicz’s spectacular trilogy differs from the first two installments in that, for most of the book, warfare takes a back seat to romance. Like the two previous books, Pan Michael is an epic adventure of love threatened by war, so the first order of business is to find a love interest for Michael. At the end of The Deluge, he was engaged to Anusia Borzobogati, but, perhaps because Sienkiewicz didn’t feel she was a sympathetic enough character, she dies of a mysterious illness in chapter one. Stricken by grief, love is the last thing on Michael’s mind, but the indomitable Pan Zagloba makes it his personal mission to find a new bride for his old friend. The first twenty chapters of Pan Michael constitute a sort of self-contained romance novel worthy of Balzac or Anthony Trollope. Michael, the “little knight” renowned as the finest swordsman in all the Commonwealth, doesn’t see any combat until about halfway through the book, but once he unsheathes his sword sparks fly and blood flows. The final quarter of the book is devoted to the epic warfare this trilogy is famous for, and the battles are as intense, brutal, and powerful as anything Sienkiewicz has written.

The books in The Trilogy take place in roughly the same time period as Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers novels, and they share much of the same atmosphere of swashbuckling adventure and brotherly camaraderie. Sienkiewicz’s books, however, are much more realistic in their portrayal of military life, more accurate in their depiction of historical events, and more solemnly respectful of life and death. There is a gravitas to the Polish trilogy that is missing from the Musketeers books. While his books are still fun to read, Sienkiewicz deals much more seriously with universal themes like love, honor, duty, and vengeance. At times Pan Michael is reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad. Religion is a constant presence in this novel, not in a preachy way, but as an accurate representation of the importance of Catholicism in Polish culture, particularly during this time period. Though the motivations of the Turks are handled with far more brevity, Sienkiewicz shows equal respect to the religious piety of his Muslim characters. While both sides refer to each other as “dogs,” “infidels,” or “non-believers,” Sienkiewicz demonstrates how both forces are motivated by their conception of God, and those soldiers of either side who remain faithful to their ideals are worthy of honor and reverence.

The best volume in Sienkiewicz’s trilogy is The Deluge, but Pan Michael takes a close second. These books constitute a truly monumental achievement. Together they offer months of exciting reading and about a semester’s worth of education in Eastern European history. For anyone who loves historical literature and epic adventure, Sienkiewicz’s trilogy is an essential read.

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