When I decided to look into Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels, I first tried to find him at Chapters Bookstore. He was not to be found, not even his Quo Vadis. You will find any number of new authors’ books about the same period and even the same subject but none by the original master of the genre. I suppose I cannot try to wax too indignant because I only just discovered him myself.
I remember buying one or two of those new authors in the past and how disappointing they were, even before I had Sienkiewicz to compare them with. I remember one awful novel where the author expected us to admire and identify with the knightly hero by telling us he had won a fine horse by staying up all night playing dice. I stopped reading at that point.
In Sienkiewicz, as in O’Brian, or Tolkien, there is no striving, no striving at all. The author’s style is unobtrusive. His techniques are seamless. We forget about the narrator completely. We live in the emotions of the protagonists. We escape to another world. That’s ‘all’ there is to it. How easily it seems to be done! But how hard is to do well!
In my last post we had a look at an example of Sienkiewicz’s poetic style in Knights of the Cross. Now I will share with you an example of his action. I have condensed it down a little. God forgive me, because you should not edit such a masterpiece.
The scene: Zbyszko, our hero, has taken up the Teutonic knight Rotgier’s general challenge to a duel to prove before God the Teutonic Order’s innocence in the affair of the abduction of Zbyszko’s young wife. Zbyszko believes the knight is lying and that the Order is in fact responsible for the abduction.
The fight was to take place in the castle yard, which was surrounded by a porch. When it was broad daylight, the prince and princess arrived together with their children and took their seats in the centre between the pillars, from where the whole yard could best be overlooked. Next to them were the principal courtiers, noble ladies, and the knighthood. All the corners of the vestibule were filled: the domestics gathered behind the wall which was made from the swept snow, some clung to the posts, and even to the roof. There the vulgar muttered among themselves: "God grant that our champion may not be subdued!"
They entered from opposite sides of the arena and halted at the barriers. Every one of the onlookers then held his breath, every one thought, that very soon two souls would escape to the threshold of the Divine Court and two dead bodies remain on the snow, and the lips, as well as the cheeks of the women turned pale and livid at that thought; the eyes of the men again gazed steadfastly at the opponents as at a rainbow, because every one was trying to forecast, from their postures and armament alone, which side would be victorious.
It was in some measure favorable for Zbyszko that he had chosen a combat with axes, because fencing with that kind of weapon was impossible. With long and short swords, with which it was necessary to know the strokes, thrusts, and how to ward off blows, the German would have had a considerable superiority. But even so, Zbyszko, as well as the spectators, recognized from his motions and management of the shield, that they had before them an experienced and formidable man, who apparently was not entering a combat of this kind for the first time. To each of Zbyszko's blows Rotgier offered his shield, slightly withdrawing it at the concussion, by which means even the most powerful swing lost its force, and could neither cleave nor crush the smooth surface. He at times retreated and at times became aggressive, doing it quietly, though so quickly that the eyes could hardly follow his motions.
Rotgier, who had fought in many wars and battles, either in troop or singly, knew by experience that there are some people, like birds of prey, who are born to fight, being specially gifted by Nature, who bestows all things, with what others only attain after years of training, and he at the same time observed that he was now dealing with one of those. He understood from the very first strokes that there was in this youth something as in a hawk, who sees in his opponent only his prey, and thinks of nothing but getting him in his claws. Notwithstanding his own strength, he also noticed that it was not equal to Zbyszko's, and should he get exhausted before succeeding in giving a final stroke, the combat with this formidable, although less experienced, stripling, might result in his ruin. Thus reflecting, he determined to fight with the least possible effort, drew the shield closer to him, did not move much either forward or backward, restricted his motions, and gathered all the power of his soul and arm for one decisive stroke, and awaited his opportunity.
The terrible fight lasted longer than usual. A deathlike silence reigned in the porches. The only sounds heard were the sometimes ringing and sometimes hollow blows of the sharp points and edges of the axes against the shields. Such sights were not strange to the princes, knights and courtiers; and nevertheless a feeling, resembling terror, seemed to clutch all hearts as if with tongs. It was understood that this was not a mere exhibition of strength, skill and courage, but that in this fight there was a greater fury and despair, a greater and more inexorable stubbornness, a deeper vengeance. On one side terrible wrongs, love and fathomless sorrow; on the other, the honor of the entire Order and deep hatred, met on this field of battle for the Judgment of God.
Photo of Krakow Castle courtyard by Galen Frysinger