In The King of the Fields Isaac Bashevis Singer returns to territory familiar to his readers. Set in ancient, rural Poland, it is highly reminiscent of Der Knekht (1961; The Slave, 1962). Once again, a Jew, Ben Dosa, torn from his homeland, becomes the servant of violent Gentiles. Once more, a non-Jewish woman, Kosoka, falls in love with him, and he initially resists her advances. Finally, he recognizes that she is attracted not only to him but also to his religion, and he recognizes his own love for her. Together they flee, she converts to Judaism, and they marry.
Also typical of Singer’s work are the demons and spirits who seem to rule the characters’ lives. Many of the Lesniks, a hunter-gatherer tribe, believe in the power of Baba Yaga and make blood sacrifices to her. They regard the invading Poles as sacrilegious for their attempts to cultivate the ground, since plowing and sowing desecrate Mother Earth. Some Lesniks view the Polish leader, Krol Rudy, as a smok, “part man, part snake, part devil,” who commands other spirits and deceives people. Cybula, the Lesnik leader, worships a variety of nature gods, though he regards Shmiercz, lord of death, as the most powerful deity.
In this primitive world, carnality and violence abound. Both Krol Rudy and Cybula rape the twelve-year-old Yagoda as soon as they meet her. Kora, Yagoda’s mother, sleeps with everyone in the camp. Later she successfully plots the death of the Poles, who have killed and raped many of the Lesniks. She attempts to sacrifice Kosoka to Baba Yaga, and she dies by the hand of her own daughter. These elements, though more pronounced than in Singer’s previous works, will come as no surprise.
In a number of ways, however, The King of the Fields differs, not always successfully, from the author’s earlier fiction. His best works have in a sense been quasi-historical, quasi-imaginative re-creations of the past. Sotan in Goray (1935; Satan in Goray, 1955) and The Slave explore seventeenth century Polish and Jewish life in the wake of the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649). Die Familie Muskat (1950; The Family Moskat, 1950) and Neshome Ekspeditsyes (1974; Shosha, 1978) consider the early twentieth century Jewish community in Warsaw. The King of the Fields remains in Poland but moves back well before these other novels, into an era that is curiously indeterminate. The Lesniks are an illiterate people just emerged from their nomadic state. The Poles are little more advanced; they, too, are illiterate and barbaric, but they rely on agriculture and have a more clearly defined social structure. Such details suggest the pre-Christian era, but Singer also refers to followers of Jesus praying in Roman catacombs, thus hinting at early imperial Rome. Cybula and Nosek visit Miasto, a medieval walled city, where they meet Ben Dosa, who comes from post-Talmudic Babylon; later, a Catholic bishop comes to convert the Poles (c. 900 c.e.). Laska, a Lesnik, even speaks a bit of Yiddish. German neighbors are called Niemcies, which is in fact the ancient Polish name for them. Singer even gives the correct derivation of the word as meaning unintelligible. Polish knights he calls kniezes, though actually the knez served as head of the village. The Lesniks apparently have even less historical authenticity, seemingly a fictional tribe taking its name from Leszko, grandfather of the first Polish king, Mieszko I, who in turn may be the source of the bishop Mieczyslaw, another apparently ahistorical character.
In The Slave Singer suggests that,...
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