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.