The Song of Igor's Campaign Essay - Essays and Criticism

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Essays and Criticism

The Epic in the Light of Mythologist Joseph Campbell's Description of the Monomyth

There has not been a great deal of detailed critical work in English on The Song of Igor's Campaign. It is often discussed fairly briefly in surveys of early Russian literature, and critics usually note the historical background, the poetic language and symbolism, and the political theme of Russian unity. Occasionally, a few parallels have been noted between Song and other medieval epics, such as the Western European The Song of Roland and the Germanic epic, the Nibelunglied.

However, The Song of Igor's Campaign differs from the typical medieval epic. The Song of Roland has its origins in events four centuries before the work was written; similarly, the historical events underlying the twelfth century Nibelunglied go back to the fifth and sixth centuries. Both of these epics contain miraculous or supernatural elements, such as the miraculous sword wielded by Siegfried to kill a dragon in the Nibelungleid, and the equally miraculous sword Durandal, as well as the magic horn, possessed by the knight Roland in The Song of Roland.

In contrast to these, The Song of Igor's Campaign remains much closer to historical events, having been written within a year or two of their occurrence. The author shows little interest in the kind of supernatural events that play an important role in other epics. There are few magical happenings in The Song, and those apply to a peripheral character from the past, Vseslav, who is used by the author as a bad example of princely conduct.

The Song of Igor's Campaign is also far less deeply imbued with Christian values and symbolism than The Song of Roland. In the latter work, Roland is helped by the direct intervention of the Archangel Gabriel; Charlemagne and his knights embody the Seven Cardinal Virtues of Christian moral theology, and the pagans embody the Seven Deadly Sins. In contrast, although The Song of Igor's Campaign was written two centuries after the conversion of Russia to Christianity, the Christianity it exhibits does not seem to be central to the author's way of interpreting the world. It is true that the Kumans are described as infidels and pagans, and the epic concludes with a passage praising the Christian knights, but the Christianity extends no deeper than that. The author's purpose is more political than religious, and the gods he prefers are the pagan gods of mythology, not the Christian God, who is mentioned only twice. And one of those references (in line 733) may be, according to translator Vladimir Nabokov, a corrupt passage, possibly altered by a Christian transcriber. The original word may have been Stribog, the god of the winds. Stribog is one of four pagan gods mentioned; the others are Dazhbog, the god of abundance, Hors or Horus, the god of the sun, and Troyan, whose function is not known but who is invoked four times.

Although there are differences between The Song of Igor's Campaign and other epics of the period, Song nonetheless contains certain elements that can be elucidated by an approach known as archetypal criticism. This is a method of analyzing literary texts in terms of recurring symbolic or structural patterns (archetypes) that appear in the literature and mythology of many diverse cultures. One of the best known archetypal approaches was developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With The Thousand Faces, which was first published in 1949 and became a bestseller in the 1980s. Campbell noticed that many mythological stories, although different in surface details, followed a similar underlying pattern. He called this pattern the "monomyth." In the monomyth, a hero journeys to an unknown or unfamiliar realm, undergoes many trials,...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

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The Slovo o polku Igoreve is not only the most famous work of medieval Russian literature, but after nearly two hundred years of study...

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