Our January Book, With Fire and Sword

As I explained in a comment, Curtin was a famous folklorist and historian of the Mongols, whose  death was lamented by Teddy Roosevelt.  He can be long-winded and takes for granted a breadth of reading which not everyone possesses.  Nonetheless, his introduction is very useful.

Perhaps my feeble knowledge can help to clarify the situation.  At the dramatic date of the novel, there are distinct peoples engaged in a struggle for power.  The principle players are:

  1. The Poles, who, pushed eastward by German expansion, have sought to create an empire in Lithuania, and parts of Russia.
  2. The Mongols, who had invaded Europe, particularly Russia and Poland, in the middle of the 13th century.
  3. The Russians, who are recovering from the Mongol conquest and rebuilding their nation with difficulty.
  4. The Cossacks, who are more difficult to categorize.  Their name has an uncertain etymology though it is thought of as a Mongol-Tartar or Turkish word.  They were basically something between cowboys and outlaws, Slavic peasants, Mongols/Tartars, and anyone fleeing from oppression or simply servitude.  They were by this time predominantly Slavic, and living in traditional Slavic free self-governing communities that were coalescing into federations.  They had tried alliances with both Poles and Russians and would end up as allies subordinate to the Russians

I am ready for other questions, such as the meaning of "Pan" before a name.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Joshua Teske says:

    I’ve read a few chapters and struggled to keep the various characters straight, in large part due to their unfamiliar (to me), yet similar-sounding names. Not really a question, but perhaps you’ve got some advice to help keep the main characters and their loyalties distinct. Are there identifying characteristics in the names or forms of address that would indicate affiliation? For example, “Pan” is only every used to address Poles – not sure if that’s true.

    The film version of the third volume, Pan Michael, was called Colonel Wolodyjowski. Based on that, I conjectured that “Pan” is a military title. My wife, who has Polish friends from her time abroad, thought it was more generic, akin to ‘Mr.’ In the end we are unsure.

    Last night I dug out the one polish history book I have, which characterized Cossacks as Ruthenians and other new-comers of various social classes whose sole means of livelihood was fighting the Mongol invaders and had no motive for existence in peace time. Aside from the region they inhabit, is there any distinction between the Zaporozhian and Don Cossacks? I believe this novel is only concerned with the former.

    Some background on the political situation and existing alliances would be helpful. I gathered that Poland and the Cossacks have a tentative peace at the date the novel begins.

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    Today, Pan is more or less simply Mister, but Mister=Monsieur=Signore=Lord, hence in Italian and other Romance languages, we call upon Christ as Mister. Pan Jan is very conscious of his social rank–hence the title which in the 17th century was more like “Sir”–and is very careful, when they rescue they cossack, not to accept a favor from him if he is a nobody. Yes, Pan should be applied strictly to Poles, though I wonder if it could not be given to allies, e.g. Wallachians (Rumanians) in Polish service.

    I think introducing modern notions like Carpathian or Ruthenian could be misleading. I have an aunt who married someone named Kreniskie, and the family always though Uncle Slim was Polish, as he usually said. It turns out he just didn’t want to confuse people by admitting he was Ruthenian. Cossack, it is my understanding, was not yet an ethnicity, but more a kind of political status, as a member of one of those free communities of fighters.

    I hesitate to say too much, lest I mislead people. I should probably race ahead in Curtin’s History of the Mongols to see what he says about this period.

    It is helpful to read the introduction–something I do not ordinarily advise. Curtin knew vastly more than we shall ever know on this subject.

  3. Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Curtin does have a note saying he has more often used Pan with our hero’s first name, than as the author does, with the last, but this is for the convenience of American and English readers.

  4. Harry Colin says:

    I am reading the hard copy that has the Kuniczak translation. So delighted to be reading this story.

    Interesting that you mention possible confusion with the mention of Ruthenian; having spent 20 years in a Ruthenian Catholic parish I can say that there still exists disagreement about just who is and isn’t Ruthenian, and the nature of the Rusyn language. I have always found that region and its peoples fascinating, making this novel all the better.

  5. Joshua Teske says:

    George Vernadsky has a useful summary of the Cossack revolution in vol. V of his Russian history. Can I assume that the man he calls Bogdan Khmelnitsky is the same “Bogun” in the novel? I’ve noted Curtin’s spelling regularly differs from what I’ve seen elsewhere (Kieff for Kiev).

    Can you say anything about the influence of Slavic folk lore and other literary material? Pan Yan’s meeting with Helena and Pan Longin’s vow are the kind of thing that one could conjecture, due to their delightful and fantastic nature, may have an analog in literary or oral tradition. How much did Sienkiewicz draw upon other legends, tales and myths (in particular Slavic ones unfamiliar to a Westerner) to embellish the historical narrative? To draw a comparison with American literature, it would be like Melville’s Shakespearean allusions in Moby Dick. Is it right to think about it this way?

  6. Thomas Fleming says:

    No. Khmelnitsky has already appeared under a false name but later revealed.

  7. Clyde Wilson says:

    It is a great book, but as best I remember the Polish names are unpronouncable and the author persistently refers to the same character by two different names.

  8. Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s not so much that Polish names are difficult to pronounce–though that is certainly true–as that the spelling is incomprehensible. Slavic languages in Cyrillic are easier because the letters have distinct sounds. Names, in traditional societies present problems. How you address someone will depend partly on the familiarity and respective rank of the people. The code is rarely easy to decipher. For example, how would people address Cicero or Caesar? A brother would probably refer to the first name, a friend would use Marcus Tullius. Julius refers to himself in his writings as Caesar, and we follow suit today, just as we refer to Cicero, Cato, et al. Interestingly, the Greeks simply had names and patronyms, though in classical Attic the name was enough, unless the patronym was needed for identification. We still refer to the conservative leader as Thucydides son of Melesias to distinguish him from his cousin the historian.

    One of the clearest signs of American social degeneracy is our misuse of names. Children are encouraged to call adults by their first names, parents give kids utterly meaningless names derived from pop culture or fashion, and many parents are now using gender-neutral nonsensical names drawn from geographical features: Dakota, Hudson, Albany, Brooklyn, Bristol, Ireland.

    Names were once chosen as an ID badge, indicating family connection, religion, friendship. For 50 years now parents–if that word is still acceptable–name their kids after a jewelry store (Tiffany), though ironically, that is a British corruption of Theophania, or a toilet paper company.

  9. Thomas Fleming says:

    PS The names are a nearly insuperable barrier to Russian fiction.

  10. Joshua Teske says:

    I confess to watching and enjoying war movies, but am regularly irritated at the prevailing attitudes towards war expressed in them. I’ve found treatment of the impending violence in this novel to be more attractive and noble; obeying orders and “knowing” how to die are held as absolute virtues (so far). I’ve got a ways to go in the book. Perhaps by the end, all the characters will embrace an insipid pluralism, conscientiously object and vote to ban guns.