'TO catch hold of and encompass in words - to describe exactly -
the life of a single people, much less humanity would appear
impossible," wrote Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace." Despite Count
Tolstoy's gloomy pronouncement, 17 years later Henryk Sienkiewicz
challenged these words when the Polish novelist began to write the
first volume of his epic, "Trilogy."
Not only did Sienkiewicz describe the very heart and soul of the
Poles, he went a step further. He captured the national character of
Poland. The book's impact on Polish national consciousness is almost
impossible to overestimate.
In the foreword of this new English translation by W. S.
Kuniczak, James A. Michener writes: "The Sienkiewicz 'Trilogy'
stands with that handful of novels which not only depict but also
help to determine the soul and character of the nation they
describe.... The 'Trilogy' is a sacred book."
The "Trilogy" is not only a mirror of a nation's soul, as so many
critics recognize today, but also a compendium of all those racial
memories and feelings that make history a living entity rather than
just a listing of facts, dates, and figures.
National epics are rare indeed; perhaps a handful exist in the
great literatures of the world. These sagas with their heroes emerge
as a byproduct of a long history - of wars and the struggle for
Volume I of the "Trilogy,With Fire and Sword," opens in 1647 with
the Cossack rebellions, which broke the Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth's hold on its Eastern territories. The second volume,
"The Deluge," revolves around the dynastic wars with the Swedes, and
the third, "Fire in the Steppe," concludes the epic with the Tartar
and Turkish invasions that precipitated the formation of the Russian
Empire. The first book is now available in translation; the others
will be published in 1992.
When Sienkiewicz wrote his epic (1882-86), Poland had been wiped
off the map. It was shrouded in oblivion. Therefore, it is
understandable that Sienkiewicz harbored strong nationalistic
feelings. Like his Romantic predecessors, he was consumed by the
nation's tragedy and yet passionately enamored of its past. While
others went on to search for mystical explorations, he went back to
history. In his view, the Commonwealth (which included Poland,
Lithuania, and the Ukraine) was in its Golden Age in the 17th
Sienkiewicz's vision was clear. He would forge his "Trilogy" in
the shadow of war while resurrecting the Commonwealth's glorious
heroes in Homeric splendor. In turn, he expected that his writing
would revive nationalistic pride and thus renew a spirit of
patriotism in his countrymen.
Unlike Alexander Dumas, Sienkiewicz thought that the novelist did
not have to distort historical facts to fit the story. He filled
gaps in the history with his intuition and imagination. He was not
writing history, but an adventurous historical epic, as he once
said, "that would uplift the hearts of his countrymen."
The framework of the main plot is built around a class rebellion
among the Cossacks, who bring into the picture their Tartar allies.
The Cossacks lived in the Steppes along the Dnieper River - the Wild
Lands of the Ukraine. Outsiders of society and its classes, the
Cossacks were rebels to all authority and made their livelihood by
raiding and plundering their Mongolian neighbors.
The Commonwealth sought to convert them into a class of serfs. As
a result, tensions began to rise. Soon these savage uprisings gained
In 1648, a war broke out in the Ukraine. A separatist movement
erupted when the Cossacks found a first-rank leader in Bohdan
Hmyelnitzki, a member of the gentry who had a petty grievance with
Yermi Vishnovyetzki, prince of the Ukraine. The neighborhood
grievance exploded into a battle with fire and sword against the