Henryk Sienkiewicz, an early Nobel laureate, wrote historical novels set mostly in the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that, like Shakespeare’s history plays, have a resonance well beyond their initial audiences and historical settings. Sienkiewicz lived and wrote at a time when Poland’s imperial neighbors had erased it from the map of Europe, and yet Poland stubbornly refused to disappear. Polish rebellions, particularly against the Russian Empire, kept the hope of independence alive. Polish Legions, under banners that read Za naszą i waszą wolność (“For our freedom and yours”) fought across Europe in places where revolutionary freedom struggled against old empires, establishing a tradition that has continued down through the centuries. Poles cracked the Enigma machine, enabling the World War II Allies to read German communications; Polish airmen formed 16 squadrons in the RAF, including one that shot down the most enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain. It’s no coincidence that during Russia’s current aggressive war against Ukraine, Poland has been called the world’s largest humanitarian NGO.
Sienkiewicz’s books both draw on and contribute to these traditions. His second-most famous work is a trilogy of novels — With Sword and Fire, The Deluge, Fire on the Steppe — set around the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s wars with Sweden. (His most famous is Quo Vadis, which I have not read.) The trilogy was written, as many editions say on the frontispiece, “to lift up the hearts.” He wrote to bolster Polish patriotism, but the exact content of that patriotism was very much up for grabs. One of the protagonists of the trilogy is Lithuanian. Other key characters came from the Commonwealth’s eastern border regions and would probably be Ukrainian today; still other characters have Tartar ancestry, as in fact numerous Polish nobles did.
I gather that within modern Polish literary circles, liking Sienkiewicz is a rather retrograde position: he is a writer who was old-fashioned before 1900, his characters loudly proclaim their Catholic faith, he writes sympathetically of the glory of battle. That’s all true, but I think it’s a bit like criticizing Shakespeare for being a Tudor partisan who cast other dynasties in a negative light. Siekiewicz also writes movingly about the pity of war, his main characters are unforgettable, and the sweep of his epic puts much of modern fantasy to shame. In this case, I am glad to be a foreigner and not have to worry that liking Sienkiewicz puts me at odds with my peers.
On the Field of Glory was published in 1906, Sienkiewicz’s third-to-last book, written when he was nearly 60. It is set in 1682–83, when Poland is on the verge of going to war with the Ottoman Empire to lift the siege of Vienna, a turning point in European history. I had expected that the book would be mostly set during the campaign, but nearly all of the action happens before the Polish army has begun to gather, and Vienna itself is only mentioned in an epilogue that the translator put together from contemporary Polish sources. (Sienkiewicz did not write the other two parts of a planned trilogy that would presumably have carried the tale through to the great battle.) This expectation threw me a little bit, and I spent a fair part of the novel’s early chapters wondering when Sienkiewicz would get on with it.
The story takes place near Radom, which is now a city a little north of halfway between Warsaw and Krakow. In the late 1600s, this would have been well into the western part of the Commonwealth, which stretched nearly all the way to Kyiv. It begins with a traveling party worried about getting attacked by wolves deep in winter in a patch of wilderness between small villages and nobles’ manors. Gideon Pagowski is traveling with his ward, Anna Sienninska, and is in such a hurry to get home to Belaczaczka that they are traveling through the night. Anna is an orphan, poor but from a very distinguished lineage. Pagowski is well into middle age, prosperous, but known for haughtiness toward the peasants who work his lands and the servants who run his household.
They are set upon by wolves made bold by the harsh winter, and things look bad until local nobles who had been patrolling against both bandits and wolves ride to their rescue. The heroes of the moment are Stanislaw Cyprianowicz and the four Bukojemski brothers. When dawn breaks, the neighborhood discovers that Jacek Taczewski, another young noble who has been friends with Anna since childhood, was likewise endangered by wolves and spent the night up in a tree. The Bukojemskis, who are brave but heedless and not terribly bright (as deliberately written by Sienkiewicz to be difficult to tell apart), make merciless fun of him, provoking him and eventually challenging him to a duel over Anna. Typically for the era, Anna’s thoughts about a duel on her behalf are irrelevant to the participants. Sienkiewicz writes of her disapproval, and later gives her considerable agency, but he shows the time of the Commonwealth as one when women were considered objects of others’ actions.
That night with the wolves sets considerable plots and intrigues into motion. The impending war about the Turks inspires some to service but finds them in need of finances for the retinue appropriate to a noble of distinguished lineage. Others use the public task to try to advance their private fortunes. Sienkiewicz juggles them all with aplomb, even as characters’ misunderstandings plunge some into misery and others into unexpected dangers. Nor does he miss the link between private actions and public outcomes. Trying to join the mustering army in Warsaw, the Bukojemskis have gambled and brawled, and have come home broke and barely ahead of the law. They ask for help from the older Cyprianowicz, father of Stanislaw, a wealthy and respected man.
But [Sir] Cyprianowicz stopped before [the Bukojemskis], placed his hand on his forehead, and began to speak:
“I am angry, it is true! But less angry than sad. For when I think that there are many men such as you in this Commonwealth, my heart is pained, and I ask myself: how will this mother of ours be able to withstand all onslaughts that threaten her with such children? You wish to apologize and receive my forgiveness? But—dear God!—it is not a question of me or my horses here, but of something a hundred times more important, for it concerns the public well-being and the future of this Commonwealth. The fact that you do not understand this, that even such a thought has not entered your heads, and that there are thousands like you—the heavier is the sorrow, the more severe the concern, the greater the desperation of not only me, but of every worthy son of this motherland.”
“For God’s sake, your grace, how have we sinned against our motherland so?”
“How? By lawlessness, by wantonness, by riotousness and drunkenness … Oh, how lightly our people take such things! But they do not know how this disease is spreading, they do not see what is happening to the walls of this wonderful edifice and how the ceiling is about to collapse over our heads. A war is threatening us; it still is not known whether the pagan will turn his might against us, and you—Christian soldiers—what is the best that you do? Trumpets are calling to battle, and all you think about is wine and wantonness. And with a merry heart you cut down the guardians of laws that establish whatever kind of order remains. Who made these laws? Nobles! And who is trampling them? Nobles! How is this country supposed to present itself on the field of glory, this antemurale Christianitatis, when it is inhabited not by soldiers, but by drunkards, not by citizens, but by carousers and brawlers?” (p. 155)
Any connection with contemporary events is, as it was when Sienkiewicz wrote, left for readers to decide for themselves.