Monday, May 20, 2013

On the Field of Glory by Henryk Sienkiewicz

An echo of past triumphs
At the end of the 19th century, Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz produced a monumental trio of epic historical novels, known simply as The Trilogy, in which he detailed the military triumphs and tragedies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 17th century. On the Field of Glory, published in 1906, is an odd sequel of sorts to these excellent novels. Although none of the fictional characters of The Trilogy appear in this later novel, some are mentioned in passing conversation alongside real historical figures, indicating that Sienkiewicz intended this book to exist in the same fictional/historical universe as those earlier works. The book’s title and subtitle, “An Historical Novel of the Time of King John Sobieski,” lead the reader to believe that he is in for the same brand of sword-clashing action delivered by With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski, yet On the Field of Glory is a book of a different breed.

Like the novels in The Trilogy, this book begins with personal matters on the home front. The hero faces a disgrace from which he must redeem himself, and the best way to do so is through brave service to his country. In this case the protagonist is the young knight Yatsek Tachevski. (This review is based on the English translation by Jeremiah Curtin, so I am using his spelling of proper names.) Although descended from an old, respected noble family, Yatsek nonetheless has fallen into poverty and has little to show for his distinguished pedigree but a small rural estate. The book begins with Yatsek fighting a series of duels. Rather than inspiring swashbuckling romance, however, these duels only serve to remind one of the stupidity inherent in a chivalric code that forced reasonable men who respect one another to maim each other over the slightest of insults. News soon arrives that war with the Turks is imminent, and all the male characters prepare to depart for battle, including Yatsek, who is absent for most of the book. The novel then focuses on his love interest, Panna Anulka Sieninski, a beautiful, orphaned young noblewoman who lives on a neighboring estate with her guardian, Pan Gideon. Her beauty and her orphanhood make her a target for some unsavory individuals who seek to prey upon her honor and her estate. In Yatsek’s absence, it is up to his friends to protect her.

As the book goes on, it eventually becomes clear that the story will never reach the battle promised by the title, and that the entire book will consist of Anulka’s plight. Halfway through, Sienkiewicz seems to realize that his initial villain is not dastardly enough, so he changes horses mid-stream by offering a new one. The book does succeed in capturing some of the atmosphere of The Trilogy books, like the camaraderie among soldiers swapping old war stories, and the honor of gentlemen toward their ladies. There’s quite a bit of comic relief worked into the conversation, though I suspect half of it is lost in translation. Sienkiewicz, through his characteristic Catholic perspective, tries to encapsulate the Polish spirit during this bygone era. At this time the Commonwealth possessed the most formidable military in Europe, and the Poles depicted here see themselves as chosen by God to defend Christian Europe from the pagans. The male characters all have a die-with-your-boots-on mentality, confident that they will be rewarded in Heaven for their selfless sacrifice. While this is par for the course in adventure novels, Sienkiewicz takes it so far that the writing often reads like a propaganda pamphlet for Polish pride.

On the Field of Glory is not a bad novel, but it doesn’t compare to Sienkiewicz’s masterpieces. Ultimately it feels like scenes lifted from The Trilogy and cobbled together in an attempt to recapture some of his former glory. If you are a real Sienkiewicz fan and an enthusiast of Polish history it’s worth a read, but don’t expect to be awestruck.

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