The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Mazeppa; or, the Dwarf's Revenge. A Romance of the Wild Horse of Tartary (1863-1864)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Mazeppa; or, the Dwarf’s Revenge. A Romance of the Wild Horse of Tartary was written by “Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa” and appeared in The Boys’ Miscellany, or Boys’ Own Weekly Paper (Nov. 14, 1863-Feb. 27, 1864). “Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa” is a pseudonym for James Skipp Borlase. Borlase (1839-?) is an interesting man, much more so than his characters. He was a failure as a husband and as a solicitor and became a writer out of desperation. Borlase wrote widely, including a great deal of material for boys’ magazines like Boys’ Leisure Hour under the pseudonym of “J.J.G. Bradley.” Borlase was also a plagiarist, lifting material from other writers.

The main character of Mazeppa is a fictionalized version of Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa (c. 1640-1709), a Ukrainian Cossack hetman who fought for Ukrainian independence from Russia.

At the Castle of Laurinski the noble young warrior Mazeppa visits Theresa, the woman he loves. She is the daughter of the Lord of Laurinski. Unfortunately, the following day Stanislaus, Count Palatine, is due to visit the Castle of Laurinski. Stanislaus plans to ask for Lady Theresa’s hand in marriage. Theresa’s father is likely to slight Mazeppa and to grant Stanislaus’ request, as Stanislaus is a powerful lord as well as a neighbor, while Mazeppa is only a humble page. Listening in to Mazeppa’s discussion with Theresa is the dwarf Zisko, who knows all about Mazeppa. Eighteen years ago the two-year-old Mazeppa had been found wandering in a forest by the Lord of Laurinski. Mazeppa has no idea of his true parentage. When he was found the word “Mazeppa” was branded on his chest, but “Mazeppa” is a Tartar name rather than a Russian one. Mazeppa has grown up in Laurinski loved and accepted by the Russians and Lord Laurinski, and especially by Theresa, but Mazeppa looks like a Tartar and never forgets that fact. Mazeppa secretly meets with Theresa and attempts to persuade her to elope with him to the steppes of Tartary. She is reluctant, and her father catches the two of them together before she can be persuaded. The Lord of Laurinski likes Mazeppa but is opposed to a marriage between him and Theresa until Mazeppa has won himself a fortune and a reputation, so he makes Mazeppa one of the officers who are to lead an envoy of Laurinski troops to Warsaw. Mazeppa is happy for the opportunity to prove himself but is sad to leave Theresa behind. As Mazeppa is walking around the castle he sees Zisko being pursued by an angry mob of peasants, who think the dwarf is poisoning the crops. Mazeppa protects Zisko, and the grateful Zisko, who is not used to kindness from anyone, offers to show Mazeppa a secret. They meet in the armory, and Zisko tells Mazeppa that he knows all about Mazeppa and Theresa. Zisko says that Stanislaus, Count Palatine is his enemy (“he caused me to be scourged from his door. I have never forgotten it, and never shall forgive it”1), Zisko suggests that Mazeppa should kill Palatine in a duel, which will let Mazeppa marry Theresa. Zisko and Mazeppa swear eternal friendship.

Stanislaus arrives at Castle Laurinski and a great tournament is held in his honor. Stanislaus is repellant, but he is a skilled knight and fights well in the tournament. Mazeppa is only a page and ordinarily would not be allowed to enter the tournament, but he follows Zisko’s advice and dresses as a black knight. In this guise Mazeppa is allowed to enter the tournament, and he defeats everyone he faces, although both Lord Laurinski and Theresa immediately recognize him beneath his black armor. Stanislaus offers to break his lance against the black knight on behalf of Theresa. She begs Stanislaus not to hurt the black knight, and Stanislaus thinks, “She wishes to save him, he must die.”2 But Mazeppa unhorses Stanislaus. That night Stanislaus is approached by Mazeppa, who challenges Stanislaus to a duel. Stanislaus refuses–he will duel with someone he considers to be a serf–but Mazeppa ignores Stanislaus’ refusal and attacks him. Mazeppa wounds Stanislaus but is forced to flee when Stanislaus’ men arrive to save their lord. When Lord Laurinski is informed of the fight he is furious with Mazeppa. Mazeppa finds Theresa, and she agrees to elope with him. Her maid Zenitha and Zisko agree to accompany the pair.

As Mazeppa and Theresa are getting ready to leave the castle Zisko consults with Neida, the Witch of the Glen. He asks her to use her arts to discover Mazeppa’s true identity. She uses astrology and a book of the occult to foretell Mazeppa’s future: there is great danger before him, but if he escapes it he will become rich and powerful. Zisko asks Neida for money for Mazeppa, and she gives him some from out of her strongbox, but when Zisko sees how much money she has in the strongbox he is overcome by greed. He strangles her until she faints, and then he steals the rest of her money. But Zisko is filled with guilt at what he has done and gives the money to a peasant rather than bringing it to Mazeppa. Lord Laurinski sets off after Mazeppa and captures him, Theresa, and Zenitha. They are brought back to Castle Laurinski, but the following day Stanislaus is found poisoned to death. Mazeppa is blamed for Stanislaus’ murder. Lord Laurinski had formerly only wanted to banish Mazeppa, but with Stanislaus’ death Laurinski now decides to punish Mazeppa for murder. Laurinski decrees the worst punishment possible for Mazeppa: he is to be bound to the back of a wild horse and set loose into the steppes. The horse runs until it dies, and Mazeppa, who is starving, thirsty, and possibly dying of exposure, passes out.

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Tartary, four men meet. Hussein, Ali, Suliman, and Hassan are conspirators against Abder Khan II, the king of Tartary. As the quartet conspire the lovely Zuliska greets Abder Khan. Abder Khan bemoans the fact that his son Mazeppa was taken from him by Hussein, Abder Khan’s brother, when Mazeppa was only a baby. Hussein set Mazeppa loose in a forest, and he is presumed to have died. To cheer up Abder Khan Zuliska tells him that earlier that evening she saw the legendary Phantom Horseman. Later Zuliska meets with Abdallah, a noble Tartar warrior who she loves, and then with Hussein, whose love Zuliska has spurned. Hussein threatens Zuliska with death if she will not become his wife. Abdallah rescues her and discovers that Hussein has lied to him about Abder Khan’s decrepitude. The next morning Zuliska discovers Mazeppa, unconscious and bound to the back of a dead horse. Zuliska takes Mazeppa to Abder Khan, and both immediately recognize Mazeppa as Abder Khan’s long-lost son. The overjoyed Abder Khan tells his son Cassim about the discovery of Mazeppa, who is Cassim’s older brother, and since Cassim anticipated becoming the new Khan once Abder stepped down, Cassim is none too happy at this news. Abder Khan tells Zuliska that she will marry Mazeppa. She is not happy about his dictate, since she loves Abdallah, but she is a faithful and loyal subject and will obey. Hussein, Ali, and Hassan meet again and learn about Mazeppa and a potential new conspirator, Cassim, who is unhappy at being displaced by Mazeppa. Cassim meets with the conspirators and throws in with them.

The Chiefs of Tartary meet in secret. Their decision is that Cassim will be the new king of Tartary unless Mazeppa impresses them. Zuliska stops Hussein from murdering Cassim in his sleep. Cassim and Hussein fight, and Cassim kills Hussein. Mazeppa regains consciousness and tells his father about life at Castle Laurinski, and Abder and Zuliska agree that it is likely that Zisko was the one who killed Stanislaus. Abder presents Mazeppa to the Chiefs of Tartary and declares that Mazeppa is the new leader of the Tartars. Mazeppa then announces to the Tartars that he will avenge himself on Lord Laurinski by declaring war on him. Mazeppa’s enthusiasm for war Laurinski impresses the Tartar Chiefs, and they formally accept Mazeppa as the new king. The Tartar army marches on Castle Laurinski, and Zuliska, who has fallen in love with Mazeppa, puts on men’s armor and joins the army in the hope that she will win Mazeppa’s love during the war. The Tartars reach Castle Laurinski but discover that someone has warned Lord Laurinski about the Tartar approach: the castle bridge is raised and the moat is filled with water. Mazeppa suspects Cassim of being the traitor, but Mazeppa is eventually proved wrong. Inside the castle Theresa is being held prisoner. She called her father a criminal for his treatment of Mazeppa, and as punishment she was imprisoned in a tower. But Zisko, who knows all the secret ways of the castle, has been bringing her meals and has become her friend. Zisko believes that Mazeppa is still alive, and when the Tartar army arrives Zisko sneaks out meets with Mazeppa. Zisko begins carrying messages between Theresa and Mazeppa and gives Mazeppa a special cross from Theresa. By this time Zuliska, who is still disguised as a man, has become Mazeppa’s good friend, but when she sees Mazeppa wearing the cross she is pained by it. But Zisko sees Zuliska watching Mazeppa and realizes that Zuliska is a woman, which is something Mazeppa has not yet noticed. Zisko thinks that Mazeppa is cheating on Theresa with Zuliska, and Zisko becomes angered at Mazeppa’s infidelity. Mazeppa sneaks into Castle Laurinski to see Theresa and is caught and thrown in a cell, but the Tartars attack and rescue him. Mazeppa is recaptured during a second attack on the castle, but Theresa and Zisko help Mazeppa escape through the secret underground passageways of the castle which only Zisko knows about. However, the tunnels are flooded and impassable, and Mazeppa is forced to return to his cell. Mazeppa plots the triumph of the Tartars in his jail cells with Zisko while Theresa and Zuliska meet and become friends. Zuliska realizes that Theresa loves Mazeppa, and when Zuliska offers her love to Mazeppa he is kind to her and gently lets her know that he has always been in love with Theresa. The Tartars besiege the castle and eventually sack it, but Lord Laurinski escapes to Warsaw, taking Theresa with him. Through many long chapters Mazeppa and Zisko search for Theresa, at length finding her and returning with her to Tartary. Mazeppa marries Theresa and Zuliska marries Cassim, and they live happily ever after. Zisko corners and kills Lord Laurinski for having scourged him all those years ago, but Zisko is then killed by a pit trap. Mazeppa; or, the Dwarf’s Revenge ends with a discussion of the historical Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa and of Byron’s poem “Mazeppa” (1819).

Mazeppa; or, the Dwarf’s Revenge is an oddity. There were a limited number of story paper serials and penny bloods and penny dreadfuls which made use of unusual historical settings, like Joseph Ingraham’s The Slave King; or, The Revolt of the Mexitili. A Tale of the Last Days of the Aztec Dynasty (1846), and the figure of Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa appeared in several nineteenth century poems and plays, but there were relatively few story paper serials that combined obscure (if romantic) historical figures with an unusual historical setting. Mazeppa is far more faithful to the broad details of Mazeppa’s life than are most serials which make use of historical figures (for example, see: Richard of the Raven’s Crest). Mazeppa makes use of Byron’s poem “Mazeppa” (1819) and incorporates its vocabulary and some of its scenes. This gives Mazeppa a far greater literary provenance than its contemporaries. Mazeppa interestingly welds a pseudo-Gothic inheritance-regained plot on to a historical setting; the combination does not always work, but it is unusual enough to retain the modern reader’s interest for long periods of the story. And in a pleasing touch the serial’s illustrations are drawn in the style of traditional Russian woodcuts.

Lastly, and most unusually for a story paper serial, Mazeppa consistently goes against the reader’s expectations about how the plot will develop. The author does not keep secrets until the end of the serial, does not pad scenes, and does not prolong subplots. The idea of the knight hidden behind black armor proving himself in a tournament is a traditional one in chivalric fiction, most notably in Scott’s Ivanhoe, but in Mazeppa the knight’s identity is immediately obvious to the two people who in other novels would have been mystified by it. In most story paper serials the mystery of the hero’s parentage is the central plot, and its revelation is delayed until the end of the serial, but in Mazeppa the mystery is revealed within a few chapters, and Abder Khan and Zuliska both immediately realize that Mazeppa is Abder Khan’s son. When Hussein is introduced he is a snarling, mustache-twirling villain who is snidely unpleasant enough to have been Mazeppa’s nemesis, and in other novels he would have plagued Mazeppa until the end of the novel, but in Mazeppa he is soon killed off. The secret of Stanislaus’ poisoner is similarly quickly revealed. Finally, the “Can we just be friends?” conversation between Zuliska and Mazeppa, in which Mazeppa tells Zuliska that she is a fine person and a good friend but that he really loves Theresa, strikes an odd note of genuine emotion in a work which generally lacks feeling.

Recommended Edition

Print: Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa, Mazeppa, or the Dwarf’s Revenge. A Romance of the Wild Horse of Tartary. London: Newsagents’ Pub. Co., 1864.

[1] 1 Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa, Mazeppa; or, the Dwarf’s Revenge: A Romance of the Wild Horse of Tartary (London: Newsagents Pub. Co., 1864), 7.


[2] 2 Mazepa, Mazeppa, 8.