The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
With Fire and Sword (1884)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
With Fire and Sword (original: Ogniem i mieczem) was written by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) was the most celebrated Polish author of the second half of the nineteenth century, both within Poland and across Europe. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.
Yan Skshetuski is a noble knight in the service of Prince Yeremi Vishnyevetski of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yan meets and falls in love with Princess Helena Kurtsevich, and she with he, but they cannot marry yet, for Skshetuski has tasks he must first perform for Prince Yeremi. Yan and Princess Helena part, and before they meet again the renegade knight Bogdan Zenovi Hmelnitski leads a revolt of the Zaporojian Cossacks against the Commonwealth. Skshetuski and Helena are swept up in the revolt, and are not reunited until nearly eight hundred pages of battle, bloodshed, slaughter, deprivation, misery, starvation, swordplay, and kidnapping have passed.
With Fire and Sword is the first of Sienkiewicz’s trilogy on Polish history. With Fire and Sword is about the 1647-1649 rebellion of the Cossacks; The Deluge (original: Potop, 1886) is about the 1655-1657 Swedish invasion of Poland; and Sir Michael (original: Pan Wolodyjowsky, 1888) is about the 1668-1672 Polish war with the Ottoman Empire. Yan Skshetuski only appears in With Fire and Sword, but secondary characters from With Fire and Sword appear in the two sequels.
Sienkiewicz is arguably the most popular writer in the history of Poland. Over a century after he started writing his work remains well-known and loved among the Polish, and when With Fire and Sword was being filmed in 1998 the debate over who should play the main characters raged across the country. When the film version debuted, there were riots between Polish and Ukrainian patriots, with the Ukrainian president demanding to see the film before it was released due to his fears of the effect that the film would have on Polish-Ukrainian relations. With Fire and Sword has entered the Polish national mythology. But its role in Polish culture has led to its worth being overestimated and to a general excess of passions where the book is concerned. The modern non-Polish reader is not likely to see With Fire and Sword as being the superior of Dumas père’s The Three Musketeers, as has occasionally been claimed, or of similar historical romances. The modern reader is likely to feel that the opposite is the case.
Sienkiewicz wrote With Fire and Sword with the goal of “raising people’s spirits,”1 but the novel’s focus on the empowerment of the Cossacks casts Polish masculinity in a somewhat ambiguous light. Elzbieta Ostrowska suggests that this ambiguity and ambivalence is a part of a postcolonial Polish inferiority complex, especially regarding masculinity.2
One of the largest–possibly the largest–problems that the modern reader is likely to have with Fire and Sword has nothing to do with Sienkiewicz. The original translator of the novel, Jeremiah Curtin, though a passionate fan of Sienkiewicz’s work–he also translated Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis—was not a good writer and produced substandard text. Curtin also did not translate With Fire and Sword directly from Sienkiewicz’s Polish original. Curtin used a Russian language version of the novel which had been edited by the Russians to fit their sensibilities, in much the same way that nineteenth century English translators altered Jules Verne’s work (see: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). So English language versions of With Fire and Sword are not the equal of the original work, and modern readers are likely the poorer for this.
That being said, With Fire and Sword suffers from a number of flaws which cannot be laid at Jeremiah Curtin’s feet. Sienkiewicz provides no context for the events in the novel. Sienkiewicz assumes a level of knowledge, on the part of his audience, of Polish and Ukrainian history that most modern readers, perhaps even in Poland and the Ukraine itself, will not have. This full immersion, the lack of context, and the bewildering variety of long and difficult Polish and Ukrainian names creates a distancing effect for the reader and makes it difficult to lose oneself in the book.
Sienkiewicz also fictionalizes history, often inaccurately. Polish and Ukrainian partisans continue to argue, often in heated and even inflammatory terms, about their shared history and about which side is more to blame for the centuries of misery which both have suffered, often from each other. Sienkiewicz was a Polish patriot and wrote from a pro-Pole, anti-Ukrainian perspective. Unfortunately, Sienkiewicz also warped and simplified history in favor of his own position. Few works of historical fiction are truly objective about the history and people they portray, but few works of historical fiction are as blatantly biased as With Fire and Sword.
The book is nakedly didactic. Sienkiewicz’s intent in writing the book was to “uplift the hearts of my countrymen” and to inspire Poles; he wrote the novel at a time when Poland did not exist because of the predations of Russia, Germany, and Austria. While With Fire and Sword may inspire Poles and those of Polish descent, everyone else is likely to feel preached at. This exacerbates the novel’s distancing effect and often creates tedium and annoyance. As well, the issues Sienkiewicz cared so passionately about are distant from the modern reader, who is likely to be unmoved by them.
Sienkiewicz’s characters are uncomplicated and one-dimensional. Sienkiewicz presents Yan Skshetuski as a knight without blemish or flaw. Helena is portrayed as pure and innocent and unsophisticated. Both are passionately religious and given to extravagant heights and depths of emotion. In other words, the pair are boring. The lack of any humor, apart from the most broad and lumbering variety, is keenly felt in With Fire and Sword. Gogol’s Taras Bulba, for all its many faults, had a main character who was distinctive, albeit unpleasantly so. Yan Skshetuski is such a stock character, the clichéd parfait knight, that he is ultimately dull and uninteresting despite the suffering and many struggles he endures. Sienkiewicz does attempt to give his characters psychological depth and to present their interior lives, but he fails at it. Sienkiewicz devotes space to describing the personalities of his characters; he is clearly trying to make them real human beings. But Sienkiewicz’s idea of characterization is to tell the reader what the character’s personality is rather than to show it. The reader only rarely gets glimpses of characters’ thoughts. Worse, there is an occasional disconnect between a character’s stated personality and the character’s actions.
Sienkiewicz tries and fails to combine war-is-hell realism with the knightly adventure genre. Sienkiewicz is actually rather good at depicting the gruesome awfulness of war, the innocent civilians maimed, raped, and killed, the brutality of hand-to-hand combat, and the damage done to people’s lives and to the environment. But Sienkiewicz tries to marry this to a traditional epic romance of chivalry and courtliness. The combination is not a harmonious one, especially in light of the historical atrocities of the Cossacks, who are unconvincingly portrayed in chivalric terms.
The novel’s language is stodgy and dull. The imagery is trite, the English is often archaic, and the dialogue is too often strident or unexciting. (Again, at least some of this is the fault of Jeremiah Curtin rather than Sienkiewicz himself). What is meant to be stirring fails to move; what is meant to be emotional is shrill; what is meant to be heartfelt sounds scripted. Sienkiewicz at least avoided the trap Gogol fell into: With Fire and Sword does not have the declamatory, pseudo-epic tone of Taras Bulba. But what Sienkiewicz chose instead is scant improvement. The only exception is the descriptions of the scenery. Like Gogol in Taras Bulba, Sienkiewicz uses With Fire and Sword to craft a love letter to the landscape of Poland and the Ukraine. In those passages even Curtin’s incompetence as a translator cannot dim the loveliness of the writing.
Although With Fire and Sword is in many ways the Polish counterpart and response to Taras Bulba, Sienkiewicz is notably kinder in tone than Gogol. Sienkiewicz has a compassion and humanity that Gogol lacks. The self-righteousness of Taras Bulba is absent and is replaced by a consideration of war's victims. Gogol casts his story and characters in terms of good and evil; Sienkiewicz refrains from doing that.
In Polish With Fire and Sword may be stirring and epic. In English it is a steaming mass of headache.
Print: Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword, transl. Jeremiah Curtin. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
1 Qtd. in Elzbieta Ostrowska, “Desiring the Other: The Ambivalent Polish Self in Novel and Film,” Slavic Review 70, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 503.
2 Ostrowska, “Desiring the Other,” 503-523.