With Fire and Sword III: More on Men

Let us first and briefly consider several character portrayals before going on in the next stage to speak of the political dimensions.  I'll pass over our young hero, who is a somewhat more violent version than Scott's most heroic characters and look at the variety of tough men portrayed:  Chelmnitski, Bogun, Tugai Bey the Tartar chief, Zagloba and the Prince.

Chelmnitsk is the pivot of the action.  He is the soul of the rebellion and the personification of the Ukrainian Cossacks.  The wrong he has suffered from the Polish elite--whose leaders he understands very well--have given him, at least in his own eyes, justification, but our hero Pan Jan Skshetuski, has seen through his veneer of patriotism and righteous outrage into the vanity and ambition that eat at his soul. The wrongs he has suffered are real, and the Polish kinglets are disorganized self-seeking arrogant, and yet willing to compromise to protect their own   and position.  Like all Cossacks, the leader is not just a drunk but an obsessive alcoholic, whose binge-drinking not only eases his justifiable anxieties and fears but also permits him to turn a blind eye to the  slaving and murdering committed by the anti-Christian Tartars and to his own vicious cruelties.  And yet, he has the seeds of greatness and a far-sighted vision of an independent Cossack-dominated Ukraine.   That our Polish author can see his virtues is evidence of his moral depth and human sympathy.

Chelmnitski is an ugly brute with a large streak of gratitude.  Bogun by contrast is handsome and can be charming, and, while he is certainly brave, he is nonetheless a complete brute on the inside.  He feels himself wronged by the friends he murders simply because they do not force their cousin to marry a man she loathes.  These are basically his only frienbads in the world, and when the Princess escapes with Zagloba, he has only one desire--a double one--to possess Helena and to devise the most terrible death for Zagloba.

I'll pause here so others can contribute their insights and then in this same post go on to more characters.

One of the most interesting characters is the "little lieutenant" Michael Volodyovksi.  Almost unconscious of his short stature, he has become the most formidable swordsman of his time. He defeats and should have killed Bogun in a duel, devotes himself to the interest of his friend Pan Yan, and sincerely befriends the eccentric Zagloba.  Americans often express admiration for the friendship displayed in odd buddy movies such as The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, but the friends of Pan Yan, including his impudent and shifty servant, the tall Lithuanian, Zagloba, and the Kindly old Cossack who protects him, is vastly more impressive than anything I have seen in a film.

We should at least take a passing glance at the Prince before leaving the topic of manhood, because this glance will lead us to the topic of politics.

Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki (or Yeremi Vishnovyetksi) is an historical character.  In the novel he is portrayed as a grave statesman and warrior.  He was, in fact and faction, a very mature man in his late 30's.  Of Ruthenbian and Wallachian background, he was one or the wealthiest and most powerful nobleman of Eastern Europe with vast estates in the Ukraine.  His son will become King Michael of  Poland.  His conversion from the Eastern to the Western branch of the Church caused some dissatisfaction among the Orthodox.  His wife Gryzelda, aged at the time of their marriage, is a serious and mature lady in her mid 20's at the time of the novel.

As a fictional character, Prince Yeremi is the epitome of the Polish nobleman--brave, generous, kind, but absolutely ruthless I carrying out a campaign of terror against the cossacks and peasants who have raped, murdered, and tortured thousands of people whose only crime was to belong to the wrong class or, worse, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When Pan Yan, elated over news of his fiancee, pardons some prisoners, he is almost afraid to face his Prince, who does, however, understand.

Yeremi is, at his most ruthless, less savage than Richard I of England, but a modern reader may wonder if either the historical figure or the fictional character really had to be as relentless and unforgiving as he was.  Couldn't he have shown a little mercy to the Cossacks and peasants?  Gibbon, in writing of earlier periods, comments that great leaders who indulge themselves in acts of mercy are more typically making the opportunity to win a reputation or feel good but at the expense of the lives and liberties of subjects whom he is duty-bound to defend.  The enemies of the Polish Commonwealth, although they are justly angry with the irresponsible and oppressive Polish nobility, have behaved as savage beasts, and it is as beasts that that they must be dealt with.

Thomas Fleming

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

12 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    The book extensively details the compounded grievances and arguments of the belligerents, which made it quite compelling. It isn’t always a particularly predictable story. One episode which I thought distinguished the plot from more simplistic books was Zagloba’s caveating of his consolation to Helena by saying that her cousins brought their deaths upon themselves by lying to Bogun. I don’t suppose that this is recommended in How To Win Friends And Influence People. The role honesty plays in characters who are often dishonest is interesting as well. Chmelnitski is pretty wily whereas Bogun frequently is too proud or enraged to act deceitfully.

  2. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    It is interesting how Zagloba, the drunken storyteller who drinks off of others, including Bogun, shows such nobility of character when faced with the moral necessity.

    It would be interesting to find out just how accurately the author captures the character of the real Chelmnitski.

  3. Avatar William Shofner says:

    I am constantly blinded by the ghastly display of wanton, brutal slaughter and torture of the Polish people by the Cossacks and Tartars (beheadings, impalings, etc.) to focus much on the grace and charm of the primary characters described in the book, although I readily recognize such traits in individuals such as Helena, Zagloba and Skshetuski. Even Sienkiewicz’s portraits of the physical landscape of the Commonwealth shake with such dread and horror that I often struggle to appreciate the beauty and nobility of these characters. Last year, I read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Its battle scenes were strolls thru a lush Russian park next to the drownings in this bloody Polish pool. I can think of no other book of fictional history, other than maybe Lucan’s “Civil War”, that has shocked my senses as much as “With Fire and Sword”. In sum, I can’t take my eyes out of the book. It is an introduction, albeit frightening, into a history about which I knew next to nothing. Thanks…I think… for the intro, Tom.

  4. Avatar Kellen Buckles says:

    Two more examples of honor might be mentioned: the redemption of the drunken coward 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.

    Mr. Shofner describes well the revulsion Fleta and I feel at some of the scenes – entrails around the necks of celebrating Cossacks, for example. We debate whether armies of the Christian West ever engaged in such systemic subhuman gore; perhaps the later parts of this book will reveal an answer by the actions of the Poles. One might also speculate about our modern feeding frenzy as our own cossacks (sans honor) seek through “cancellation” to eviscerate the Trump faithful.

    Have any of you encountered the “soul” searching article (2/14 !!) by Virginia Hammernan in which she describes the quandary she faces because her Trump-supporting neighbor cleared her New Hampshire driveway? She even wonders if he was performing an act of contrition as opposed to what any of us would consider an act of neighborly kindness, even duty. She has caught hell (but not enough of it) on the web but two weeks after all that our local paper (Buffet chain now) thought we should see it.

  5. Avatar Kellen Buckles says:

    Does anyone have a detailed map or two showing the towns, rivers, borders mentioned in the novel? The poor quality map in my version is no help at all.

  6. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    I forgot to mention that the portrayal of the Slavic Poles and cossacks, their violent character, their strong, hot emotions, reminds me of descriptions of ancient Celts.

  7. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I posted these paragraphs in the above:

    One of the most interesting characters is the “little lieutenant” Michael Volodyovksi.  Almost unconscious of his short stature, he has become the most formidable swordsman of his time. He defeats and should have killed Bogun in a duel, devotes himself to the interest of his friend Pan Yan, and sincerely befriends the eccentric Zagloba.  Americans often express admiration for the friendship displayed in odd buddy movies such as The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, but the friends of Pan Yan, including his impudent and shifty servant, the tall Lithuanian, Zagloba, and the Kindly old Cossack who protects him, is vastly more impressive than anything I have seen in a film.

    We should at least take a passing glance at the Prince before leaving the topic of manhood, because this glance will lead us to the topic of politics.  

    Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki (or Yeremi Vishnovyetksi) is an historical character.  In the novel he is portrayed as a grave statesman and warrior.  He was, in fact and faction, a very mature man in his late 30’s.  Of Ruthenbian and Wallachian background, he was one or the wealthiest and most powerful nobleman of Eastern Europe with vast estates in the Ukraine.  His son will become King Michael of  Poland.  His conversion from the Eastern to the Western branch of the Church caused some dissatisfaction among the Orthodox.  His wife Gryzelda, aged at the time of their marriage, is a serious and mature lady in her mid 20’s at the time of the novel.

    As a fictional character, Prince Yeremi is the epitome of the Polish nobleman–brave, generous, kind, but absolutely ruthless I carrying out a campaign of terror against the cossacks and peasants who have raped, murdered, and tortured thousands of people whose only crime was to belong to the wrong class or, worse, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When Pan Yan, elated over news of his fiancee, pardons some prisoners, he is almost afraid to face his Prince, who does, however, understand.  

    Yeremi is, at his most ruthless, less savage than Richard I of England, but a modern reader may wonder if either the historical figure or the fictional character really had to be as relentless and unforgiving as he was.  Couldn’t he have shown a little mercy to the Cossacks and peasants?  Gibbon, in writing of earlier periods, comments that great leaders who indulge themselves in acts of mercy are more typically making the opportunity to win a reputation or feel good but at the expense of the lives and liberties of subjects whom he is duty-bound to defend.  The enemies of the Polish Commonwealth, although they are justly angry with the irresponsible and oppressive Polish nobility, have behaved as savage beasts, and it is as beasts that that they must be dealt with.

  8. Avatar Kellen Buckles says:

    The character Zagloba seems in many ways to be a Falstaffian rogue. I wonder if Sienkiewicz intentionally modeled Zagloba on Shakespeare’s character.

  9. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Zagloba is a bit more like Captain Porgy, but I doubt HS had read WG Simms. Zagloba is part Falstaff and part Odysseus. He’d prefer not to fight, drinks and boasts too much, lies all the Princess and his friends, and while the Cossack warrior hero whom he kills makes the mistake of hesitating a second, that is all the fat man needs to despatch one of the greatest warriors of the enemy. He also goes berserk when he sees the virtually crucified body of the friend he had tormented with his gibes and he leads the Poles into victory over the Tartars. A truly extraordinary character whose defects are remedied by his emulation of noble friends.

  10. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    Another interesting exchange, when the disciplined Volodyovksi admonishes Zagloba for drinking with the peasants as not behavior befitting a knight, and Zagloba defends himself by saying it is the fault the lords allowing them the leisure time with which they tempt him to join them. Quite a bit of illiberal wrongthink there, though it seemed as if it was more of an impromptu excuse.

  11. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Volyodovski is speaking as an honorable member of the nobility, while Zagloba is up to his usual tricks of turning logic and morality on its head in order to defend his aristocratic right to do what he wants to do. To the author’s credit, he does not take sides, much less editorialize, though one feels greater sympathy with the little knight.

  12. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    It is interesting too that Prince Yeremi is described as not much taller than Pan Micheal, when Poles tend to be large people, maybe there is a similar theme. Zagloba’s irresponsibility leads in turns out to be positively fortuitous in some cases, in similar ways to Jim in Treasure Island, such as drinking with Bogun allowing him to save the princess. Bogun acting nobly in some instances such as showing respect to Pan Michael after the duel and not betraying the innocence of Helana, at some point leads to speculation that he is the bastard son of a nobleman .