Henryk Sienkiewicz Essay - Critical Essays


Some degree of familiarity with Polish history is essential for an appreciation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s The Knights of the Cross and the three novels that form the trilogy. Most translators of these works have, accordingly, provided extensive historical introductions for the benefit of the uninitiated reader. With respect to The Knights of the Cross, the most useful introduction is surely the one written by Alicia Tyszkiewicz to accompany the translation she published in 1943 under the title The Teutonic Knights. Those about to embark on a reading of this work in any one of its various translations can also find an exceptionally clear survey of medieval Polish history in the third chapter of James Michener’s best-selling novel Poland (1983).

The Knights of the Cross

Because of the wedge-shaped black crosses embroidered on their white mantles, the members of the Order of Teutonic Knights were always referred to by the Poles as krzyacy, or Knights of the Cross. (The term krzyacy is derived from krzy, the Polish word for “cross,” and its literal meaning is “those of the cross.”) This order was founded in Palestine around 1190, during the Third Crusade. Thirty-five years after its founding, it was formally invited by Duke Conrad of Mazovia, in an act of utter folly, to settle along the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Its official mission was to subdue a heathen people called the Prussians, who were closely related to the Lithuanians both culturally and linguistically. The Teutonic Knights succeeded in subduing the Prussian tribes within fifty years, chiefly by following a policy of extermination, and then sought to expand their realm at the expense of the Lithuanians under the pretext of spreading Christianity to this still-pagan people. They also turned on their Polish hosts, despite the fact that Poland had already converted to Christianity in the tenth century. An alliance between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was clearly in the interests of both countries, and in 1386 the Polish Queen Jadwiga and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagieo were wed. Both nations were thus joined in a personal union. As one of the conditions for his elevation to the Polish throne, Jagieo agreed to abandon paganism and to impose Christianity on his Lithuanian subjects.

The inevitable confrontation with the Teutonic Knights occurred on the morning of July 15, 1410, when a combined force of 46,000 Poles, Lithuanians, and assorted allies joined battle with 32,000 of the enemy on the fields near the little village of Grunwald in East Prussia. By day’s end, half of the Teutonic Knights lay dead and the other half were in captivity. Although the Order continued to exist until it was secularized in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, its power to expand had been effectively checked. The victory of Poland and Lithuania at Grunwald was the subject of one of the most famous historical paintings by the Polish artist Jan Matejko (1838-1893). How deeply the crushing defeat of the Teutonic Order continued to rankle the sensitivity of the Germans over the succeeding centuries may be inferred from the concerted effort made by the Nazis to locate the whereabouts of this huge canvas after their conquest of Poland in September, 1939.

Prior to this date, Matejko’s painting had been the centerpiece of the collection housed in the Polish National Art Museum in Warsaw. Fearing for its destruction at the hands of the Germans, the curator had the canvas removed from its frame and rolled up so that it could fit into a crate made of solid oak. This crate was then placed in a concrete vault five feet underground at a secret location in eastern Poland. The German authorities offered a reward of two million Reichsmarks (a sum equivalent to $750,000 in terms of the currency exchange rates in effect at that time) as well as safe passage out of Poland to a neutral country to anyone who would reveal the location of Matejko’s painting. Today the Grunwald picture is on permanent display in the fortified medieval castle at Marienburg that was built by the Teutonic Knights to serve as their central administrative headquarters. Marienburg, moreover, reverted to its previous Polish name of Malbork at the end of World War II.

Sienkiewicz’s The Knights of the Cross has the Battle of Grunwald as itsclimax and may be considered the literary counterpart of Matejko’s renowned historical canvas. Parts of the book were, in fact, read publicly by Sienkiewicz himself while standing beside the painting that had been his constant inspiration in the course of writing the novel. In addition to presenting a graphic description of the battle itself, Sienkiewicz offers his readers a brilliant pageant of medieval society as it existed in northeastern Europe around 1400. The cast of characters is predominantly fictive, but there are a few historical figures in the novel. King Jagieo and Queen Jadwiga, however, play relatively minor roles. The historical figures and the fictive characters, it should be noted, function independent of each other for the most part. Neither of these groups plays a significant role in determining the fortunes of the other.

The fictive plot that runs parallel to the historical events described in the novel centers on a young Polish knight, Zbyszko, and his relationship with two women. He falls in love with a delicate beauty named Danusia and marries her. At the same time, he maintains a strong friendship with Jagienka, a warrior maiden who is very much like him in terms of robust health and vivacious demeanor. Danusia, who happens to be the daughter of the powerful Polish magnate Jurand, is kidnapped by members of the Teutonic Order shortly after her marriage to Zbyszki in an attempt to wrest political concessions from her father. While in captivity, Danusia is mistreated to such a degree that she dies directly following her rescue by Zbyszko. After a long period of mourning, Zbyszko decides to marry Jagienka, who really should have been his first choice in matrimony from the outset. As for Jurand himself, he, too, falls into the clutches of the Teutonic Knights and is subjected to bestial treatment. Sometime after his release, his erstwhile tormentors become his prisoners. Instead of avenging himself by retaliating in kind, Jurand chooses to pardon them. In this way, Sienkiewicz is underscoring his belief that the Polish gentry had more affinity with the ideals of Christianity than did the monks belonging to the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The degree of haughtiness, cruelty, and lust for power attributed to the Teutonic Knights by Sienkiewicz might once have appeared somewhat excessive, but the traumatic events that occurred in Poland and in much of Eastern Europe in the course of World War II have done much to enhance the plausibility of his portrayal.

The alliance between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that made the victory at the Battle of Grunwald possible was to continue over the next two centuries, despite many periods of acute political tension. In 1569, moreover, the two countries agreed to a charter, known as the Union of Lublin, that united them in a single political entity called the Polish Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a multinational state whose territories extended from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. In addition to incorporating the Poles and the Lithuanians within its borders, the Commonwealth comprised large numbers of Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Tatars. The viability of such an oddly constituted state was put to the test in the seventeenth century through a series of domestic insurrections and foreign invasions, and it is these trials that furnish the historical background for the works that form Sienkiewicz’s trilogy.

The central event in each of these three novels involves the...

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