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...
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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 is covered by a black shroud, drinking wine that makes him sorrowful. Strangers from a foreign land pour pearls onto his chest (pearls were a traditional symbol of tears). And all night he hears the ravens calling.
Lines 411-450: The Prince's Dream Explained The Prince's boyars (nobles) explain the dream to him. They tell him the story of Igor's ill-fated expedition, of how the forces of darkness overcame the forces of light. The victorious enemy is likened to a brood of panthers marauding across Russian lands, celebrating their revenge. Glory has faded from Russia and only shame is left.
Lines 451-490: Svyatoslav Speaks Svyatoslav replies in words that give more insight into why the narrator rebuked Igor in the previous section. The Prince says that Igor and Vsevolod acted too rashly. Although they showed courage, they were too ambitious, and that was why they failed.
Lines 491-590: The Bard Appeals to Russian Princes The narrator now appeals, one by one, to the surviving Russian princes. He asks them to unite in defense of Russia. First he addresses Volodimir, who has been wounded trying to repel the Kumans as they attack the city of Rim, on the river Sula. Then he appeals to the powerful Vsevolod, Prince of Suzdal, for assistance. Next he turns to Rurik and David, noting their military prowess and appealing for their help in avenging the Russian defeat. He makes a similar appeal to Yaroslav of Galich (Igor's father-in-law), whose troops have proved their mettle. Then Roman and Mstislav are evoked as mighty warriors who have subdued Hins, Lithuanians, Yatvangians, and Kumans. Ingvar and Vsevolod, and three unnamed sons of Mstislav, are next. The author calls on them to protect the prairies and avenge the Russian land.
Lines 591-610: Tribute to Izyaslav The narrator recalls the bravery of the warrior Izyaslav, who was killed in battle in 1162 against the Lithuanians. Izyaslav fought alone, without his two brothers, Bryachislav and Vsevolod, and this is honored by the author as a sign of Izyaslav's courage.
Lines 611-630: Reproach of Yaroslav and Vseslav Yaroslav, the subject of an appeal by the author in lines 523–41 is now rebuked. (There is some doubt amongst scholars about whether this may in fact be a different Yaroslav). Along with the descendents of Vseslav, he is held responsible for the invasions of Russia by the Kumans. The invasions happened because of the feuding between the Russian princes.
Lines 631-686: The story of Vseslav Vseslav of Polotsk (d. 1101) conquered Novgorod in 1067, but was then defeated at the river Nemiga by Yaroslav's three sons. (Novgorod had traditionally been ruled by the House of Yaroslav.) In 1068 Vseslav became Prince of Kiev for seven months. He had a reputation for being a magician. These facts explain many of the references and expressions in this section. Vseslav is said to cast lots for a maiden; the maiden is the city of Kiev. He touches the golden throne with his staff—an allusion to the brevity of his reign. At night he has the ability to envelop himself in a blue mist as he travels, or to take on the form of a wolf-signs of his power as a magician. Lines 645–48 allude to Vseslav's victory at Novgorod, and the following lines (649-58) to his defeat at Nemiga.
Lines 659-686: Assessment of Vseslav The narrator elaborates on the nature of Vseslav and his magical powers. He ruled his territories by day but at night he prowled like a wolf. He managed to travel all the way from Kiev to Tmutorakan in one night—an incredible journey since Tmutorakan is more than 700 miles southeast from Kiev! Then when the bells of the Church of St. Sophia in Polotsk tolled matins (morning services) for him, he could hear them in Kiev, 350 miles south. Despite the fact that Vseslav was physically strong, and a magician, he still suffered personal catastrophes. The author quotes the bard Boyan as having said of Vseslav that no one can escape the judgment of God. This section concludes with another short passage mourning the fate of Russia. It looks back to the glory days of Vladimir I and then in regret to the present, in which Russian forces are divided against themselves.
Lines 686-730: Lament of Yaroslovana, Igor's Wife Igor's wife, Yaroslovana, stands on the walls of the city of Putivl and laments for her lost husband. She says she will fly like a cuckoo to the river Kayala and wipe the wounds from Igor's body. The remainder of her lament is divided into three parts, each of which apostrophizes (addresses directly) an inanimate force. First, she asks the wind why it chose to blow the weapons of the enemy in the direction of the Russian army. Why could it not just blow on the seas, setting the ships in motion? Then she addresses the river Dnieper. She says that since the river had the power to pierce the stone hills that run through the land of the Kumans, it can also respond to her request and return her husband to her. The last part of her lament is addressed to the sun. She asks the sun why it sent its hot rays onto her husband's warriors, scorching them on the battlefield when there was no water available.
Lines 731-770: Igor Escapes One night Igor escapes from his Kuman captors. At midnight, on the other side of the river, a friendly Kuman named Ovlur provides him with a horse at midnight. Igor swims across the river, leaps on the horse, and speeds away. Ovlur accompanies him. The account of the escape is brief, but it follows the description given in the chronicles of the period. According to the chronicles, Igor's guards were enjoying a boisterous night drinking fermented mare's milk, and this gave Igor his chance to slip away.
Lines 771-802: Igor Speaks to the River Donets The River Donets tells Igor that he will receive glory, and Russia will receive joy. In return, Igor praises the river. He says it carried him on its waves and he has enjoyed the green grass on its banks and the mists that enveloped him in the shadows of its trees. He compares it favorably to the river Stugna, which is a tributary of the Dnieper, south of Kiev. It was in that river that Prince Rostilav (paternal ancestor of Igor's wife) was drowned in 1093, after a battle with the Kumans.
Lines 803-830 : Igor Pursued by the Enemy Two Kumans, Gzak and Konchak, pursue Igor on horseback, but soon realize they cannot capture him. Gzak suggests that they kill Igor's son, Vladimir, whom they still hold captive. Kochak replies with a suggestion that they enmesh Vladimir in the charms of a beautiful woman (presumably so that he will not be able to escape). Gzak replies that if they do that, they will end up with neither the woman nor Vladimir. Then he adds that the birds will start to beat them on their own territory. (The conversation between the two Kumans is difficult to interpret, and no commentator has satisfactorily explained these puzzling lines.)
Lines 831-861: Igor Returns to Russia The author quotes a passage from a song by the bard Boyan, in which Boyan says it is hard for a body to be without a head—that is, for a land to manage without its king or leader. After pointing out how badly Russia misses Igor, the author describes the effect of Igor's return to Kiev. The sun shines and maidens sing, cities and whole countries rejoice. Igor goes immediately to the church called the Blessed Virgin of the Tower. The Song ends with a song of praise in honor of Igor, his brother Vsevolod and his son Vladimir, and to all the Christian knights of Russia who are fighting the pagans.