The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a heroic romance, is the earliest great work of Russian literature. Moreover, it is the only surviving heroic poem of the Russian Middle Ages, and it is one of the few pieces of literature known to have appeared in Russia before the nineteenth century. The poem, of which the author is unknown, is admired by most educated Russians both for its place in the Russian tradition and for its literary excellence. Although it is relatively unknown outside Russia, it has been widely translated.
The subject matter of The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is typically medieval: the expedition, defeat, capture, and escape of a knightly warrior—Prince Igor of Novgorod-Seversk (not to be confused with Novgorod the great, a much more famous and important city of old Kievian Russia). Igor’s antagonists were the Kumans, a race of pagan nomads who inhabited the southern steppes around the Don River. Three other princes and their troops accompanied Igor’s contingent: Igor’s brother, Prince Vsevolod; Igor’s son, Prince Vladimir; and Igor’s nephew, Prince Svatoslav. However, while it is an early work, and while it did not appear in a culture notable for its literary and artistic achievements, and while it is a heroic tale of warriors and battle, the poem is far from being a primitive and unsophisticated work. Like the other medieval national epics to which it is sometimes compared, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is the product of a very skillful artist whose insight and poetic skills are of the highest order. In fact, the art of this Russian poem strikes one as being in some respects subtler than that of the nation’s romantic epics; it has been said with some justice that the sophisticated, symbolic technique of the lay has a striking kinship with modern poetic techniques.
The history of the poem is somewhat obscure. It was probably written about 1187, but memory of it was soon lost, and it remained unknown until 1795, when Count Alexei Ivanovich Musin-Pushkin, a distinguished literary amateur, discovered a manuscript copy of the poem. He purchased what was probably a sixteenth century codex from a former official of a recently dissolved monastery. The Lay of Igor’s Campaign was one of several manuscript items included in the codex, which had been in the monastery library. The text was published in 1800, but little was known at that time about interpreting and editing early Russian texts, and the edition was marred by errors and misinterpretations. Moreover, the sixteenth century scribe who had copied the text into the codex was himself unfamiliar with the twelfth century Russian language, and thus the manuscript itself was far from accurate. Before a second edition of the poem could be prepared for the printer, the manuscript was damaged by fire when Napoleon burned Moscow in 1812. Modern scholars have succeeded in repairing much of the damage of time, but nevertheless certain brief passages in the poem remain obscure. It should be noted also that for a time some scholars assumed that the story of the discovery of the poem in 1795 was a hoax and that the poem was a modern forgery. However, a portion of the poem has been found quoted verbatim in a manuscript made in 1307, and thus it has been certified that the poem is genuine.
The unknown author of the lay composed his masterpiece late in the twelfth century, about one or two years after the events of which he writes had occurred. This date can be determined by certain matters that are mentioned in the text. It is known that the characters and the events of the narrative are historical, for the story can be...
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