Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz is best known in the United States for Quo
Vadis, which was made into a movie starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, and
Peter Ustinov. With Fire and Sword, however, outperformed Titanic in Poland. Its
characters are, if anything, far more colorful than Dumas' Three Musketeers. The
Deluge is an epic on a national scale.
Sienkiewicz wrote his Trilogy for the purpose of "uplifting the hearts" of his
countrymen at a time when Poland did not exist as an independent country. He
works his own political opinions into the stories (much as Tom Clancy's
characters often express the author's opinions on current affairs and policies)
and exposes the deficiencies that eventually led to the destruction of the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Trilogy has valuable lessons for today's
United States, for it shows what can happen to even a powerful and dominent
nation whose leading citizens begin to place their own welfare above the nation's.
Remember that the Commonwealth was ideologically very similar to the United
States in its principles of individual liberty, freedom of religion, and freedom
of expression, so its history does indeed have many lessons for 21st-century
With Fire and Sword
The story begins in 1648. Hussar lieutenant Jan Skshetuski rescues a man from a
gang of cutthroats, only to discover later that he saved Bogdan Chmielnicki (Khymelnitski):
the man who is to lead the Cossacks in a bloody civil war! Skshetuski also falls
in love with Princess Helen, whose foster mother, Princess Kurtsevich, has
promised her to the Cossack colonel Jurek Bohun.
Principal characters: Sienkiewicz's "Four Musketeers"
Jan Skshetuski, an officer of Hussars (heavy cavalry) and the role model of an
officer and gentleman.
Jan Onufry Zagloba, a cross between Homer's Ulysses and Shakespeare's Sir John
Falstaff. He loves food and wine ("I hate empty bottles!"), and he likes to tell
tales that exaggerate his bravery. The truth is that he'd rather avoid combat
("I hate crowds"). Unlike Falstaff, however, he will fight when circumstances or
honor compel him to do so. Then he is so angry at the disturbance of his
peaceful routine that he becomes very dangerous to the enemy.
Jerzy Michael Wolodyjowski, an officer of dragoons (light cavalry). He is known
as "the little knight" because of his small stature, and he has a short yellow
mustache that begins to twitch at the prospect of combat. He is an expert with
the szabla (curved Polish sabre) and he likes to use it: The Deluge describes
him as having "more fun than a puppy in a duck pond" during a melee with the
Swedes. Another scene in The Deluge reminds one of a description of a Clint
Eastwood character, the Outlaw Josey Wales ("Ain't a hard man to track; he
leaves dead men wherever he goes.") This is because he is too short to be seen
in the battle but his friends know where he is because Swedish reiters are
dropping right and left.
Longin Podbipyenta, of the House of Hoodsnatcher. This giant Lithuanian knight's
ancestor gained the name Hoodsnatcher (or Cowl-Cutter) for beheading three
hooded knights of the Teutonic Order with one blow at the Battle of Grunwald
(1410). Pan Longin has taken a vow of chastity until he also beheads three
enemies with one blow, and he carries a giant sword for this purpose. He is the
only one who is strong enough to wield it. Despite his obsession with chopping
off heads, he's a benevolent knight who wants only the best for his comrades and
Other principal characters:
Bogdan Chmielnicki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. (He's played by Bogdan
Stupka, the Ukrainian Minister of Culture, in the movie version.)
Jurek Bohun, a young Cossack colonel who is Jan Skshetuski's rival for Helen's
hand. He goes over to Chmielnicki after massacring her foster family (when he
discovers that they've promised her to Skshetuski).
Duke Jarema Wisniowiecki, a headstrong but resolute leader who opposes
Chmielnicki. (His son Michael Korybut became King of Poland later but he was a
Jendzian, Skshetuski's servant. He's always pointing out that he's not a
commoner but a noble (szlachta), although a poor one. He's also always trying to
get rewards from his master and loot from the battlefield, but he is a loyal
servant to Skshetuski.
The Deluge (Potop)
This epic story is set during the Swedish invasion of 1655, and it forces the
principal characters to deal with betrayal and treachery. The protagonist,
Andrei Kmicic, is a headstrong young man whose thoughtless violence gets him in
trouble and threatens his relationship with his fiancee Olenka Billevich. When
war breaks out with Sweden he swears allegiance to Janusz Radziwill, the Hetman
of Lithuania. What he doesn't know is that Radziwill has conspired to betray the
Commonwealth to the Swedes.
Sienkiewicz was a Catholic and Christian imagery appears in his stories. Janusz
Radziwill's fall into treachery is almost like Lucifer's fall from Heaven.
Lucifer would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, and Radziwill makes it
clear that he'd rather be King of a ruined Commonwealth (or part of it) than
serve the rightful King, Jan Kazimierz.
A jester's traditional role is to admonish his master, because he can do so
without causing his master to lose face. (Onlookers can dismiss the jester's
criticism of his king as a joke, whereas a similar admonition from a counselor
or noble had to be taken seriously. The Fool's Prayer is an example, as is the
jester's role in King Lear.) Sienkiewicz uses Kristof Opalinski's jester
Ostrozka to provide commentary on Opalinski's betrayal of the Commonwealth at
Uistye: "Ostrozka was writing something with a piece of charcoal, and the dire
biblical words of warning, laden with doom and promises of disaster, appeared
one by one, as grim as ghosts, above the darkened doorway: Mene... Tekel...
Fares..." This was the "handwriting on the wall" that appeared when the
Babylonians were found wanting, and their lands given over to the Medes and the
Persians. It was the author's obvious indictment of the personal characters of
the Commonwealth magnates who would make themselves parties to such abject
treachery. (Zamoyski (p. 130) reports that Zygmunt's court fool Stanczyk taunted
the king for making Prussia (the remnants of the bankrupt and defeated Teutonic
Order) a vassal of Poland in 1525 instead of crushing it utterly.)
When Radziwill announces his support for the King of Sweden at a banquet, Pan
Zagloba denounces him as a traitor and most of the colonels throw down their
bulava maces to show that they will not serve Radziwill. Sienkiewicz makes the
colonels' moral dilemma very clear. Michael Wolodyjowski is among those who
refuse to betray their country but the act of disobeying his Hetman is an almost
unthinkable breach of the military discipline he's followed all his life.
Another objects to Radziwill's actions but resigns himself to obeying his orders,
no matter how distasteful. Andrei Kmicic stands frozen and does nothing despite
Olenka's entreaties to oppose the Hetman's treachery. He doesn't want to betray
the Commonwealth but he's sworn on the Cross that he will serve the Hetman.
Radziwill throws Zagloba and the colonels in a dungeon but a Hungarian regiment
mutinies against him. Kmicic helps suppress the mutiny, which makes him a proven
traitor as far as the others are concerned. The Hetman persuades Kmicic that he's
really trying to serve the Commonwealth and that he plans to turn on the Swedes
at the right moment. (One of the few things to Radziwill's credit is that he
actually tries to position the Swedes near the Russians, with whom Poland is at
war, in an attempt to get them to fight one another.) When Kmicic meets Janusz
Radziwill's cousin Boguslav, however, he learns the truth; Boguslav is willing
to allow the nation's destruction as long as the Radziwill family comes out on
top. This is the turning point at which Kmicic decides to change sides. The rest
of the story is his journey of redemption, which leads him to participate in the
famous defense of the Jasna Gora ("Bright Hill") monastery at Czestohowa.
Czestohowa (the Commonwealth's Fort McHenry?) is a turning point not only for
Kmicic but also for the Commonwealth, for its successful resistance is the
beginning of the end for the invaders.
The stormy romance between Andei Kmicic and Olenka Billevich seems like an
allegory of the relationship between the Polish szlachta and Poland itself. The
petty squabbling, quarreling, and self-serving behavior of the szlachta
alienates them from their country as Kmicic's headstrong and reckless behavior
alienates him from the woman he loves. "It seemed to Kmita then that Poland and
Olenka were one and the same, and that he had doomed them both and handed them
voluntarily to the Swedes" (Kuniczak translation, p. 753). Sienkiewicz obviously
wishes to leave a clear lesson here for the free people of any nation.
The story foreshadows two issues that emerged during the Second World War: the
Germans who were "only following orders" and the Vichy French who collaborated
with the Germans. What is one supposed to do when his superior orders him to do
something that is obviously wrong? At what point does acquiescence to a
victorious invader for the purpose of avoiding further harm to one's country
become collaboration with an enemy? Can someone collaborate with the enemy for
the purpose, as Janusz Radziwill claimed, of turning on him and overthrowing him
at a more opportune moment? (The few colonels who went along with Radziwill were
in a semi-feudal system in which a retainer obeyed his lord and the lord was
supposed to obey the King. Radziwill's foreign mercenaries had no such dilemma
because they owed their loyalty only to their paymaster.)
Colonel Wolodyjowski (also known as Fire in the Steppe)
Michael Wolodyjowski gives up on life and joins a monastery after his wife dies.
His friends will have none of this, and Pan Zagloba develops a scheme to get him
to leave the monastery. He finds a new love in Basia, an energetic and
courageous young woman who later shoots an enemy during a battle and pistol-whips
a Tartar who tries to abduct her. Wolodyjowski and his friend, the Scottish
artillery officer Ketling, are placed in charge of the defense of the fortress
of Kamenets (1673), which is under siege by a Turkish army.
The story shows very clearly how a civilian government's lack of resolve can
lose a war that the soldiers have won (can anyone say "Tet Offensive?") The
fortress' defenders are winning the battle when the Council decides to surrender.
Wolodyjowski and Ketling, who have vowed to defend the fortress to the death,
will have none of this. They blow up the fortress' magazines to deny Kamenets to
the Turks, and perish in the rubble. The priest who delivers "the little knight's"
eulogy asks who will protect the Commonwealth now that its greatest soldier has
perished, at which point the Hetman Jan Sobieski (later king) enters the church.
The epilogue shows the Turks getting theirs at the Battle of Chocim (1673).
Epilogue: the Relief of Vienna and the Second World War
An onslaught of tyranny and chaos menaces Civilization itself. The enemy is
literally at the gates and failure means a Dark Age of slavery and oppression.
Then the weary and beleaguered defenders see a mighty army come over the hill...
In 1683, the defenders of Vienna saw their approaching salvation in the lances
of King Jan Sobieski's armored and winged Husaria. In 1943, the defenders of
England knew the tide was turning when General Patton's tanks arrived in North
Africa.1683 was, however, the high water mark of the Commonwealth's power. The
nation had already begun to forget the qualities that had made it great; this
was evident from the events of the past few decades. The Partitions of Poland
began less than a hundred years after the Commonwealth saved Europe from the
During the 1970s, the United States began to lose the manufacturing capability
that led to victory in the Second World War. Our Congress has its own Opalinskis
and Radzivills, people whose first priority is their own political success as
opposed to service to the country. They are unwilling or unable to understand
that wealth must be created through agriculture, mining, and manufacturing, and
that it cannot be legislated into existence. The Senatorial filibuster is now
used to block judicial appointments, as the Liberum Veto was once used to break
up the Sejm. Members of our judiciary look to other nations' laws instead of the
Constitution for guidance, and a former President is believed to have accepted
political campaign contributions from a hostile foreign power. Ostrozka showed
how the handwriting was on the wall for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth's
ideological successor and heir, the United States, needs to take the same
warning very seriously lest it suffer the same fate.