Magazine Poland

Henryk Sienkiewicz, the literary soul of an embattled Polish nation

Olga Tokarczuk’s recognition in October put the spotlight on Polish literature— and especially its former Nobel Prize laureates. If Poland had a lot of Nobel winners in this category, one of them, for his literary, historical and national aura, stands out: the first Polish writer to receive, in 1905, the Nobel Prize in Literature, and one of the most renowned Central European authors in history, Henryk Sienkiewicz.

A trip to Sienkiewicz’s childhood home in eastern Poland

Henryk Sienkiewicz was born in Wola Okrzejska, eastern Poland. The main attraction of this small village, today, is his childhood house, where a Henryk Sienkiewicz museum has now been set up. For a museum dedicated to one of the most prominent writers of Polish language, that is a rather unusual one. Very few belongings of Sienkiewicz are displayed. The exhibition is rather diverse and surprising: you can try on Sienkiewicz’ travel cloak, weigh his suitcase; put on costumes inspired by his main novels; you can find multiple translations of his books, from The Deluge to Quo Vadis and read them by yourself. All of this in a traditional Polish house with its flowered garden.

This place strangely mirrors the character of the man himself, and plays like an odd reminder of who he was. If Sienkiewicz has been awarded the Nobel Prize in the early 20th century, it’s probably as much for his literary style as for his popularity— in the two meanings of ‘popular’: he was a hugely successful writer and a man close to the people. The closeness he had with and affinity he felt towards his Polish compatriots strongly impregnated and influenced his literary work. Every single one of his books and novels have been inspired by his fervent love for his country – a country, let’s not forget, that wasn’t even on the map of Europe when he wrote them.

Two masterpieces of Henryk Sienkiewicz: Trilogy and Quo Vadis?

Sienkiewicz’s most famous works include his Trilogy and the stand-alone Quo Vadis. Both of them share this same vision of Poland, and if this feature is more noticeable in the Trilogy, three volumes set in 17th century Poland, the topic of Poland and its people’s suffering are keenly expressed, though in a more metaphorical way, in Quo Vadis.

Quo Vadis tells the story of Marcus Vinicius and his lover, the barbarian hostage Lygia, in the greatest context of the persecution of Christians under Nero; the plot revolves around Lygia being herself a Christian. But what’s the link between 19th century Poland, when Sienkiewicz writes the novel, and the reign of Nero? If these two periods appear not to have any connection for the modern reader at first sight, Sienkiewicz shaped and constructed Quo Vadis as a reflection of the times he lived in.

Poland, since the three partitions at the end of the 18th century, did not exist as a country on the map anymore. When Sienkiewicz wrote his novel, Poland was still divided between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – the author’s native city, Wola Okrzejska, being located in the Russian-controlled territory.

Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis was most famously adapted in an extravagant 1951 Hollywood production, starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr in the lead roles.

A nation without a country

Henryk Sienkiewicz translated the pain of living in a country that wasn’t really his own, as well as the oppression Poles endured, into the story of Vinicius and Lygia. Who is Lygia, if not Poland, and the Polish people as a whole? Persecuted for her Christian faith, she suffers as Poles did under a foreign rule. Furthermore, although her true name is Calina, she’s called Lygia throughout the entire novel.

And this name is strongly symbolic: it comes from the name of her tribe, Lygian – a tribe that lived on a territory that matches modern-day Silesia, Mazovia, Little and Greater Poland. Greater Poland is even the voivodeship where Gniezno, the first capital of Poland, was located. Quintessentially, the Lygian lived in what can be viewed as the crib of the Polish nation – and Lygia embodies and echoes this invisible and allusive legacy.

Fictional characters heralded as national heroes

Sienkiewicz’ work provides some catharsis for Polish people. Even more so than Quo Vadis, the Trilogy looks thoroughly at the destiny of the Polish nation. Composed of three books – With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Fire in the Steppe – the story is set during the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The first volume, With Fire and Sword, examines more precisely the period of the Khmelnitsky Uprising, a revolt of Ukrainian Cossacks against the authority of the Commonwealth. The second, The Deluge, takes place during the so-nicknamed invasion of Sweden. The last one, Fire in the Steppe, looks at the struggle between Ottomans and Poland.

The Trilogy gave birth to characters who became iconic in Polish culture, like Jan Skrzetuski, the main character of the first novel, Helena Kurcewiczówna, Zagłoba, Michał Wołodyjowski, Andrzej Kmicic, Aleksandra Billewiczówna, Podbipięta, and many others. To such an extent that, for example, seeing Podbipięta as a true national hero, the inhabitants of Zbaraj, the city in which he is supposed to have been born, opposed the restoration of their local church, fearing Podbipięta’s grave might be damaged.

A beacon of hope in Poland’s darkest hours

At a time where Polish identity was denied and persecuted, Sienkiewicz’ novel represented a beacon of hope for many Poles. Throughout the 19th century, the three countries that had partitioned Poland tried to break the Polish national pride and spirit. In the part annexed by Prussia, the Kulturkampf took place to annihilate all traces and remnants of Polish culture. In the Russian-held territory, Poles (unsuccessfully) stood up to their occupier a number of times, including during the 1830 November Uprising. Polish intelligentsia emigrated en masse, including to France, like Adam Mickiewicz. Cyprian Kamil Norwid wrote the poem “Fortepian Szopena” – a testament to the Polish nation’s yearning for freedom and embodiment of the relentless repression.

In a striking imagery, Norwid describes how Russian troops threw Chopin’s piano out the window, destroying by a single throw iconic symbols of Polish culture and the very concept of nation more than any slaughter or physical repression would have. This is precisely what Henryk Sienkiewicz opposed in his novels. He wanted, as he wrote in the last sentence of the Trilogy, his longing compatriots to keep alive the hope of an independent and strong Poland. As he said in the speech he gave in Stockholm upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “This homage has been rendered not to me – for the Polish soil is fertile and does not lack better writers than me – but to the Polish achievement, the Polish genius”.

Upholding the legacy of Henryk Sienkiewicz: to what end?

True to Sienkiewicz’s legacy, modern Poland has kept and upheld this longing for freedom, through its culture, novels and works of art. Sienkiewicz, along with other prominent Polish artists like Mickiewicz and his Pan Tadeusz, created the imagery and crafted the modern mythology of their country. A good part of Poland’s most classic and powerful novels was written when Poland was divided, ruled by foreign countries and technically didn’t exist as such.

Their yearning for independence, strength and freedom survived centuries of hardship and remains alive to this day. But let’s not forget one crucial fact: times have changed. Their often-bellicose tone may not be needed anymore, nor should it be necessary to praise this kind of rhetoric which might, in today’s context, easily become superfluous and dangerous. It’s a call to arms at a time when Poland doesn’t need one anymore.

Written by Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg. Passionate about Central European history, culture and literature, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to check out her other articles here!

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