Fire and Sword, II

I am not sensing a great deal of interest in this great novel, but I shall raise one question to see if it receives a response.  If readers have got at least a fourth of the way through the work, they will have read the account of Pan Jan's diplomatic journey, his capture, and his trials.

The are two striking features of this account.  The more obvious one is the brilliance of the author's skill in depicting high adventure.  An American cannot help thinking of historical and fictional narratives of the Wild West.  The savagery and alcoholic madness of the Cossacks, the inhumanity of the Tartars are depicted without flinching.

The second is the depiction of heroic manhood.  In the Anglo-American tradition--apart from some of the works of humor set on the Southern frontier, courage is accompanied by reticence and even irony, but among the Poles and Russians and the more disciplined of the Cossacks, we find ourselves in Homeric company, though even Achilles is kind and humane when compared with the Cossacks.

There is no nonsense about equality.  Pan Jan is conscious of his own nobility and will accept no favors from his inferiors.  He is ready to disdain the favor of his life even when it comes at the hands of so brave--and noble--a rogue as  Helmnitski, and he will not back down an inch, if compromise would detract from his loyalty to his prince.

I'd be delighted to talk about this further....It is, of course, possible that the length of the work, combined with the exotic setting and unfamiliar history, presents an insuperable obstacle even to intelligent and determined readers.

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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

8 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    I simply can’t do any reading right now. I’m being run ragged and everything is a mess. I really do wish I had time.

  2. Joshua Teske says:

    I’ve made it a little past that part. My excuse is the birth of our sixth child, Charles Lumarrie, on January 28th – the feast day of Blessed Charlemagne.

    I’m not sure the question, but to continue the theme, I too am appreciating the heroic qualities of the novel. I’ve read far enough to “see” Werner and the Germans die to the last man and Tugia Bey lament having not taken any of those “Franks” for slaves. Just before that, Barabash dies with the name of Mary on his lips, which reminded me of Jacopo Del Cassero in Canto V of Purgatorio. (It is comforting to read that violent deaths can be holy deaths.) A few chapters prior we meet the “cyclops” Grodzitski ready to die rather than leave the fortress of Kudak: “here was life for me, let my death be here.”

    I too noted that the salvation of Pan Yan (as expressed by Tugai Bey) lay in his nobility and potential ransom. Helmnitski had ulterior motives for his release as we later learn, but those too are rooted in custom, nobility and honor. I will continue to prioritize the book if the conversation continues. Otherwise, I will return to Devils, which I left off to read With Fire and Sword.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s a mistake to read two novels at a time–better to balance fiction with history or philosophy or poetry. Perhaps we can revisit this work at a later date. In the meantime, as I am getting ready for our semi-annual trip home to the Carolinas, we can pause the discussion.

  4. Jacob Johnson says:

    The little I have read so far, I find the novel enjoyable, well-written/translated and a good introduction to a national history I know little about. The descriptive qualities are vividly put down and I’m glad the book has been brought to my attention. Also a bit pressed for time, I’ve so far only skimmed to the fifth chapter, but thankfully I think I’m over the hump of the impediments. “Spoilers” have never been a bother for me so I’ll happily follow any discussion which I am behind on if that is the case, though this is a book I’ll read more than once either way.

  5. Harry Colin says:

    I am enjoying this book immensely and am happy to see your updated post Dr. Fleming. I have been struck by Pan Jan’s tough-minded character; he maintains his honor despite all the challenges of betrayal and uncertainty of his allies. Sienkiewicz is masterful in how he also keeps the fate of Helena very much a part of the novel with all of the anguish that aspect causes Jan, without distraction from the military cataclysm. Can he believe what he hears about her? His integration of German infantry units into the boiling cauldron of Poles, Cossacks and Tartars is handled adeptly; it adds to the intrigue, when in the hands of a lesser novelist it might just add confusion.

    The descriptions – of places and of battles (the valor and efficacy of Polish cavalry especially) – are profound. I don’t get any “long novel fatigue” that I sometimes experience with even other accomplished novelists.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    This weekend, I’ll try to stimulate comments on the second quarter of the book.

  7. Jacob Johnson says:

    I’ve caught up to the capture and interrogation. It takes a bit of time to look at maps and names, but as complex and interesting as the plot is this early in the book, I’m looking forward to the rest of it. I laughed at the inclusion of the detail of one’s ability to know a fight is coming by observing a sudden spike in Cossack drinking.

  8. Kellen Buckles says:

    I am past the half-way point now and look forward to more discussion! Reading the 1898 translation in a version sans introduction was a little daunting at first. Your “rogue Helmnitski” refers to the man my version names Khmyelnitski. Is the former a fairly accurate representation of the true pronunciation? I suspect the Curtin transliteration on Kindle – Hmelnitski – is closer. Pan Jan in this version is Skshetuski, another eyeful if not mouthful; Curtin uses the same spelling. I think I can vocalize those consonants….

    Two more examples of honor might be mentioned: the redemption of Barabash and the refusal of the German mercenaries to switch sides until their contract with the Poles expires in June after which they will happily fight against the Poles.