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.
Lines 1-70: Invocation
The epic begins with a tribute to Boyan, an eleventh century Russian bard who paid tribute in song to the military exploits of Russian princes. Nothing is known of Boyan other than the allusions to him in the Song. The author praises Boyan's poetic inspiration and names three princes who were subjects of Boyan's songs: the great ruler Yaroslav, prince of Kiev from 1019 to 1054; Mstilav, who was known as Mstilav the Brave, and Roman, who was killed by the Kumans in 1079. The author then says he will tell of events that happened in his own time, not in the past, and he introduces his subject: he will describe how Igor led the Russian forces against the Kumans in defense of Russian land. Then follows another brief apostrophe (direct address) to Boyan, in which he imagines how Boyan might sing of Igor's military campaign.
Lines 71-150: Preparations for Battle
Igor's brother Vsevolod joins Igor. Vsevolod speaks in affectionate words of his brother, and tells Igor to saddle his horses, for his own are ready. Vsevolod then praises his own soldiers as having been bred for battle from an early age. They are masters in the pursuit of honor for themselves and glory for their prince. Next, Igor addresses his army. He tries to inspire them with heroic words about how it is nobler to die in battle than to be taken captive. Filled with ambition, he says he wants to drink from the water of the River Don, which is at the Kuman frontier. But as Prince Igor mounts his horse and rides into the prairie, there are various ominous signs in nature. These include howling wolves and the song of a bird (daeva) traditionally associated with misfortune. But the Prince is so eager for battle he does not notice them.
Line 151-180: Early Russian Success
The action now moves immediately to the battlefield. On the first day of battle, the Russians are victorious. In the early morning, they slaughter their enemies, and take away booty such as beautiful cloths and garments. They also capture young Kuman women and bring them back as part of the spoils of war.
Lines 181-230: Russian Adversity
The second day of battle day begins with ominous signs from nature. When battle commences, the fortunes of the previous day are reversed. The Russian army is surrounded on all sides by the enemy; they retreat. As the earth groans under the weight of the conflict, the Russians fight bravely and inflict heavy casualties on the opposing side. Igor is not mentioned directly, but his brother Vsevolod is twice singled out for praise of his courage and prowess.
Lines 231-266: Rebuke of Igor's Grandfather
As the battle rages, and the signs are bad for the Russians, the author takes a digression. He goes back to the events of former times, and criticizes the princes of that era for their feuding. He singles out two individuals in particular. First he names Oleg, Igor's grandfather, whom he blames for the internal wars that destroyed the unity of Russia. Historically, this was Oleg Svyatoslavich of Chernigov. Next he reminds his readers of the downfall of Prince Boris, who died in battle but whose name was tarnished because he too warred against other Russian princes. He also failed to listen to the advice of Prince Oleg, who advised him to surrender. This period, the author says, was disastrous for Russia. Death was everywhere, and the peaceful farming of the land was interrupted.
Lines 267-298: Russian Defeat
Returning to the battle, the author says it was the greatest battle of all time. The Russians fight on in the lands of their enemy, but by noon of the third day they are defeated. The two brothers are parted, but their fate is not yet disclosed. The defeat takes place on the shores of the River Kayala, which was a tributary of the Donets river, which was itself a tributary of the River Don.
Lines 299-350: Lamentations
In a long section, the author laments that in the wake of Igor's defeat, unhappy times have now come to Russia. The remaining princes quarrel among themselves, and Russia is subject to invasion on all sides. Grief and sorrow spread across the land as the victorious invaders demand tribute (money) from each household.
Lines 351-390: Igor Rebuked
The narrator then criticizes Igor and his brother for permitting, by their defeat, the evil forces to gather strength. He points out that Prince Svyatoslav, the Prince of Kiev and one of the most powerful of the Russian rulers, had always triumphed over the Kuman enemy. Svyatoslav is the cousin of Igor and Vsevolod. Svyatoslav had even captured the Kuman leader and taken him to Kiev as a prisoner. Historically, this occurred in 1184, a year before Igor's campaign. The narrator says that the peoples of Europe—Germans, Venetians, Moravians and Greeks—praise Svyatoslav. This praise is because the victory over the Kumans kept open the trade routes between Russia and southwestern Europe. But now all that has changed. Many reproach Igor for allowing the Kumans to capture so much Russian wealth. It is at this point that the narrator reveals for the first time that Igor was not killed in the battle, but was taken prisoner.
Lines 391-410: Prince Svyatoslav's Dream
The narrator relates the dream of Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev. It is full of ominous signs. He dreams he...
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