Saturday, March 27, 2010

Henryk Sienkiewicz - the second greatest historical novelist of all time?

If you are a regular to the blog, you know that I am a Patrick O’Brian ‘orphan’ - see Patrick O’Brian – the greatest historical novelist of all time. I am a recovering chain-reader of his novels. I think of his main protagonists – Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin – less as fictional characters and more as people I know. Yes, I know, I need to get out more...

Whilst searching the web for other great historical novelists who might take my mind off O’Brian, I came across some promising recommendations regarding Henryk Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz is a Polish writer who is probably best known for his novel Quo Vadis and who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. (You can read a good Wikipedia overview of him here). When I discovered he had written several books set in the period of the Teutonic Knights’ crusades against pagan Lithuania, a subject that interests me, I decided to look into him. I was not disappointed.

I found an online version of his Knights of the Cross here. As with Patrick O’Brian, one only needs to read a few pages to know one is in the hands of a master. The feeling of historical authenticity, the effortless way our interest is aroused and maintained, the living, breathing characters faithful to their individual agendas, all of this reminded me of O’Brian, with a touch of Conan-Doyle. Let us not forget this is not a modern-day author. And all of this comes through in spite of being ‘once removed’ by a translation from the original Polish. In fact, in spite of the translation, there is a poetry in Sienkiewicz that I believe surpasses even O’Brian. (I will probably get some hate mail for saying that).
I will let you judge for yourself with the following passage, which I found particularly beautiful. Let us briefly set the stage: Zbyszko, our young knightly hero, is attending a church service at the court of the King Jagiello of Lithuania-Poland where he claps eyes on Queen Jadwiga for the first time.

Jadwiga entered through the vestry door also. Seeing her enter, the knights standing near the stalls, immediately kneeled, although mass had not begun, voluntarily paying her homage as to a saint. Zbyszko did the same; nobody in this assembly doubted that he really saw a saint, whose image would some time adorn the church altars. Besides the respect due to a queen, they almost worshipped her on account of her religious and holy life. It was reported that the queen could perform miracles. They said that she could cure the sick by touching them with her hand; that people who could not move their legs nor their arms, were able to do it, after they put on a dress which the queen had worn. Trustworthy witnesses affirmed that they had heard with their own ears, Christ speak to her from the altar. Foreign monarchs worshipped her on their knees and even the Order of the Knights of the Cross respected her and feared to offend her. Pope Bonifacius IX called her the pious and chosen daughter of the church. The world looked at her deeds and remembered that this child of the Andegavian house and Polish Piasts, this daughter of the powerful Louis, a pupil of the most fastidious of courts, and also one of the most beautiful women on earth, renounced happiness, renounced her first love and being a queen married a "wild" prince of Lithuania, in order to bring to the cross, by his help, the last pagan nation in Europe. That which could not be accomplished by the forces of all the Germans, by a sea of poured out blood, was done with one word from her. Never did the glory of an apostle shine over a younger and more charming forehead; never was the apostleship united with equal self-denial; never was the beauty of a woman lighted with such angelic kindness and such quiet sadness. (…)
Therefore there came to her people to beseech her, that she ask health for them; there came envoys from the provinces and from other countries, to ask that she pray according to their need, either for rain, or for fair weather for harvesting; for lucky moving time; for abundant fishing in the lakes or for game in the forests. Those knights, living in castles and ‘grodeks’ on the frontier, who according to the custom learned from the Germans, had become robbers or waged war among themselves, at the command of the queen, put their swords in their scabbards, released their prisoners without ransom, restored stolen herds and clasped hands in friendship. All kinds of misery, all kinds of poverty crowded the gates of her castle in Krakow. Her pure spirit penetrated human hearts, softened the hard lot of the serfs, the great pride of the lords, the unjust severity of the judges, and hovered like a dove of happiness, like an angel of justice and peace, over the whole country.

No comments:

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond