The Song of Igor's Campaign is one of the classics of medieval epic literature and the only surviving example of the epic form written in Russia. It was written between 1185 and 1187, shortly after the events it describes took place. The epic relates the unsuccessful expedition of Prince Igor of Novgorod-Seversk, in Russia, against the nomadic tribes known as the Kumans, who had been raiding Russian lands in the southeast. Igor is defeated and captured but he eventually escapes and returns to Russia.
The manuscript of The Song of Igor's Campaign was discovered in 1795 and first published in 1800. The one surviving manuscript was then destroyed in the fire of Moscow in 1812. Fortunately, a copy had been made for Russia's Catherine the Great. However, there are many corrupt passages where the anonymous author's meaning is unclear.
The Song of Igor's Campaign has always been treasured for its literary quality. It is dense with imagery, simile and metaphor, and shows great structural variety. To the tale of Igor's military campaign, the author adds reminiscences of Russia's past. He employs laments, panegyrics (passages which lavishly praise a person), omens and dreams. The Song of Igor's Campaign is also notable for its poetic view of nature, in which animals, vegetation and natural forces react to and even shape the actions of humans. The author's psychological insight into his characters has also been admired.
The major theme of the work is the author's passionate plea for unity amongst the Russian princes, who had a history of feuding among them. The author believes that disunity leads to disaster for Russia. A melancholy feeling therefore pervades the epic. Although the author makes Igor's defeat seem more important than it was historically, his words proved prophetic. Early in the next century Genghis Khan's Mongol army conquered Russia and subjugated it for 200 years.
Note on the Author
The author of The Song of Igor's Campaign is unknown. Scholars believe the epic was the work of one man, not the accumulated effort of many, but anything else said about the author is speculation. From the text it appears that the author was very familiar with military life, and it is possible that he took part in Igor's campaign. The anonymous author also knew about hunting, and had detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna of the prairies. He was learned in books and oral tradition and was well acquainted with the genealogies and histories of the Russian noble families. It is possible, then, that he may have been a court poet, or a close companion of a prince.
When The Song of Igor's Campaign was discovered in 1795, some suspected it might be a forgery. However, few question its authenticity today. Scholars point out that the Old Russian language in which the Song is written is used with great skill, and no one in the eighteenth century had the knowledge or the poetic genius to forge a work of such high quality. This is the same verdict that Alexander Pushkin, the foremost Russian poet, reached at the time the manuscript was discovered. He said there was not enough poetic ability in the entire eighteenth century to forge even a small part of The Song of Igor's Campaign.