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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1551

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.

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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, which may include a symbolic death and rebirth, and then returns to his society to bestow a boon on his fellow man.

Archetypal criticism and the concept of the monomyth are useful for understanding parts of The Song of Igor's Campaign. They may also explain something of why this epic has held the respect and won the admiration of readers over a long period of time—it sets out in symbolic fashion the process of human renewal or psychic growth.

First, the hero Igor hears what Campbell calls the "call to adventure." He journeys beyond the territories he is familiar with, leaving Russia far behind, as is conveyed in the refrain, "O Russian land, / you are already beyond the culmen." Since a culmen is a hill, this phrase conveys the sense that Igor and his men have completely cut themselves off from their own world. Indeed, the battle takes place "in the field unknown, midst the Kuman land" (276).

Before this, the author has linked Igor symbolically with the sun. Vsevolod refers to his brother as "one bright brightness" (73) and only eighteen lines later, as the warriors assemble, Igor notices that the "bright sun" is eclipsed. This temporary "death" of the sun foreshadows the fate of Igor, who is like a sun to his men. The metaphor of Igor as sun is continued in the short battle scenes. He and Vsevolod are "two suns"; they are "crimson pillars" that are extinguished and veiled with darkness as they sink into the sea. These are images that suggest the setting of the sun on the horizon. Light is covered by darkness.

It is remarkable that Igor now disappears from the action of the epic completely, until his escape over three hundred lines later. The author does not disclose his fate. In terms of the monomyth, Igor is in the condition Campbell describes as "the belly of the whale," where he is completely enveloped in the unknown. This is a symbolic loss of self, a sleep, or even a death, that contains the seeds of the hero's rebirth. Seen in this light, the simple phrase "Igor sleeps,"—which appears when the author finally returns to Igor—suggests a significance beyond its immediate context. Igor may be asleep, but he is now ready to wake up: "Igor keeps vigil" is the very next line.

When the hero is ready to return to his society, the monomyth often features what Campbell calls the magic flight, in which the hero receives supernatural aid on his journey home. Sometimes the flight includes a sea journey at night.

Igor's escape resembles a magic flight. His relationship to natural and supernatural forces clearly undergoes a change at this point in the narrative. The winds whip up at night, and God (perhaps it is the god of the wind) shows him how he can return to Russia. This is a contrast to the adverse way the wind blew during the battle, which helped to ensure Igor's defeat. Now, as Igor makes his break for freedom, he is more at one with nature than he had been before, and similes drawn from nature (ermine, duck, wolf, falcon) are used thick and fast to describe him. Swimming across rivers plays a role in his escape, and he also engages in a charming dialogue with the River Donets, in which each praises the other. This relaxed exchange on the banks of the river is quite different from Igor's calamitous experience at the swift-flowing River Kayala where he met his defeat. And nature has even more to offer Igor as he tries to escape his pursuers. Magpies and ravens fall silent, enabling the woodpeckers to guide Igor to the river with their tapping.

All this is suggestive of rebirth, an effect reinforced by Igor's destination when he finally reaches Russia. He does not return to his home in Novgorod-Seversk. Instead, he goes straight to Kiev, the capital city of Russia, where he is to present himself at the "paternal golden throne" (736). This is the throne of Prince Svyatoslav. In the epic, Svyatoslav is presented as the ideal ruler, who rebukes Igor for his rashness and his willingness to put the quest for personal glory above his duty to Russia and the other princes, especially Svyatoslav himself. The implication of Igor's journey to Kiev is that during his captivity—his time "in the belly of the whale"— Igor has learned from his mistake. Now he recognizes where his duty lies, and he seeks to make amends. And as Igor reenters Russia, the author appropriately returns to the sun image, which is also a metaphor for the prince himself: "The sun shines in the sky: / Prince Igor is on Russian soil" (841—42).

Igor's rebirth, then, consists of his growth beyond pride and personal ambition into a leader who accepts his place in the social hierarchy and who knows how to act in a way that brings the support of nature. In terms of the monomyth, this is the boon that Igor brings to his people. The author points out that the body cannot function without the head, and so a people cannot function without their leader (835–40). It follows from this that the influence of the head is felt throughout the body, just as the influence of the sun is felt throughout the body of the earth. Now that Igor, Russia's son/sun, has risen once more, his own growth can, or should be, Russia's too.

Not all the components of the monomyth are present in The Song of Igor's Campaign, but examining the epic within that framework shows that it possesses an inner, psychological dimension alongside the political one.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.

The Slovo o polku Igoreve: A Poetic Dream

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2529

The Slovo o polku Igoreve is not only the most famous work of medieval Russian literature, but after nearly two hundred years of study it remains among the most mysterious. Much of its symbolism has never been satisfactorily interpreted. Many of its "dark" places continue to remain obscure and hopelessly out of reach, and as a result, the author's original idea remains open to considerable speculation. Although the Slovo is still generally identified as an epic, some scholars, such as D. S. Lichaèev (Lichaèev 1978) have in recent decades began to modify the traditional views, recognizing the significance of the work's lyrical undertone. Unfortunately, however, even this change of viewpoint has failed to bring about any satisfactory re-interpretation.

The aim of this paper is to continue where Lichaèev left off and to demonstrate that the Slovo is not an epic, as it is generally believed, but a highly sophisticated lyrical work. This study offers a new and challenging interpretation of the text, made possible by paying greater attention to the work's poetic idea and composition and by taking a closer look at its author's mode of reasoning and philosophical outlook; it also brings into focus small and often overlooked details of the text which prove to be highly significant.

One basic error that most scholars commit when dealing with the Slovo opolku Igoreve is their nearly unavoidable adoption of a patronizing attitude toward its ancient author. Almost unanimously, they see him as a talented but somewhat confused man who cannot quite decide whether to call his work a tale or a song, and in what exact manner he should sing it. In the past two hundred years, many men of letters recognized the superior poetic talent of the author but saw an apparent lack of logic in the development of the plot, and as a result took up the task of helping him with the tale, often rearranging words and whole passages, and supplying the old author with their own literary ideas along the way. Numerous translations and interpretations, both in prose and in verse, produced the work we have today—obscure, nearly devoid of meaning, absurd in places, and as this study will attempt to show, with its original essence all but lost.

To gain insight into the poetic idea of the Slovo, it is important to take on a willingness to see its author as a sophisticated and complex poetic mind, capable of creating stylistic nuances of both irony and cynicism, whose seemingly illogical composition of the original text is deliberately and purposefully designed.

In my reading I used a Musin-Puškin text, as well as its Ekaterininskij copy recognized by many as the least damaged versions of the work. Both appear in Gudzij's edition. The English translation of the Slovo is adopted in part from Serge Zenkovsky. My comments are placed in square brackets.

The key to understanding this complex work lies mainly in its opening passage, in which the seemingly insignificant particle "bo". . . translated in modern Russian as "ved’” ("it is known" or "it is believed") provides a stylistic nuance of irony which has escaped the attention of most scholars, but is of particular importance. . . . With this detail in mind, the opening passage can be briefly interpreted as follows:

Wouldn't it be nice, brethren, to commence the grievous tale of Igor's campaign according to the conventional style? To begin following the accepted stories of our time, and not according to the whim of Bojan? For he [it is believed] is a sorcerer [and that means he is not to be entirely trusted]; when he wants to compose a song, [they say, he can do magical things:] he can soar over a tree with his thoughts, run as a grey wolf over the land, fly as an eagle below the clouds. [And while doing these magical things,] he would recall the feuds of former times. Then [they say] he would let loose ten falcons upon a flock of swans […]. [But, in fact, all this is not true. He was neither a sorcerer nor did he do any of these magical things. In reality,] brethren, Bojan would [simply] lay his wise fingers upon the living strings and they would sound on their own…

Oh Bojan, if you sang about this campaign while soaring like a nightingale over the tree of wisdom, if you used your mind to fly under the clouds […], then you would sing Igor's song like this: "[…] [i.e., in a very loud, harmonious and heroic fashion. But Bojan did not use his rational mind or wisdom to create a conventional epic, instead, he followed his feelings and free poetic inspiration.]

As a result, instead of the traditionally expected picture of glory, he sees a nightmare, a dark and disturbing dream, deep within his soul. His poetic creation is not the harmonious song of a nightingale but a cacophony of mysterious sounds. In his song, ... jackdaws caw in the dark, foxes bark, eagles screech, frightening battle cries of the devil's children are mixed with the groaning of the earth itself; and Div, a mysterious bird-like deity, cries its ominous warnings. Even when the poet hears trumpets, they sound not gloriously, but mournfully, after the lonely death of prince Izjaslav.

Thus, since the irony of [his utterance] was not taken into account, the author's artistic method was misunderstood both by his contemporaries and by modern scholars alike. Both compare him to a sorcerer, which he quite obviously was not, and both fail to recognize in wisdom and thought the opposition to free feeling of one's heart. It appears that wisdom and rational thinking, in Bojan's understanding, are connected with the generally accepted and easily recognizable artistic clichés, loud and heroic; while pure artistic inspiration, on the other hand, is heard in the esoteric melody of the strings sounding on their own and following nobody's rules.

Therefore, in addition to the obvious plot, the author of the Slovo touches the purely poetic dilemma: can a poet let his inspiration roam freely (in a pagan fashion) or does he have to rationally choose what to think and what to feel? According to the introduction, the essence of the Slovo could be seen as a lament of an independent poetic mind trying to come to terms with rigid rules, both artistic and moral. The underlying theme of the work could be seen as a reflection of the inner struggle between the rational and the intuitive, between mind and body, between pagan values and Christian values. The latter would also explain the seemingly casual combination of pagan and Christian elements in the work, which proved to be difficult to interpret for many scholars. Thus, the explicit story of the historically-based battle of Igor' can be seen as a mereuter surface of this multi-layered inner conflict, concealed by symbolism.

Another important aspect of the Slovo is that many of its structural and stylistic elements suggest a dream—rather than a true-to-life recounting of the historical events—lying at the centre of the poem. The "unreality" of the setting is stressed by the ever-present atmosphere of darkness that envelops virtually the entire work, in which supposedly historical events unfold without any apparent chronological order. Indeed, the author himself points at this dream-like state as the source of his vision of the battle of Igor, the picture and sounds of which are evoked in the poet's imagination at the break of dawn...

. . .In the dark of night or in twilight, in a solitary state between dream and awakening, it seems that dark and uncensored feelings roam within the poet's psyche, following their own logic. When the rational mind is eclipsed by a dream-like state, these feelings sometimes transcend into the realm of the subconscious and find their expressions in pure symbols. Thus, it is interesting to point out that in the Slovo, the sun never fully appears in the course of Igor's campaign; the mysterious atmosphere of darkness, on the other hand, is repeatedly stressed by the author. In keeping with this transcendental state, the dark tale is not presented by the direct succession of events; the themes and scenes interchange chaotically; events from the past, future and present casually come together, while the poet perceives their course as natural, seemingly unaware of anything unusual or illogical in their manifestation. Such a psychological perception of events most often takes place in the realm of dreams, when a restless mind tries to sort out past occurrences or project itself into the future in search of answers to its own anxieties.

Closely interwound, both the obvious and the esoteric plot of the Slovo deal essentially with the same issues of moral and spiritual doubts. Apparently, one of the key dilemmas facing both the poet and his hero is the difficult task of choosing between two sets of moral values, Christian and pre-Christian, and abandoning one in favour of another. The irreconcilable contradictions within the poet's psyche and his inability to adequately deal with the problem, it seems, deeply affect his consciousness, and as a result, become projected into the plot. In the beginning of the Slovo the author sets out to tell the whole Christian history of Russia .. .but in fact, he cannot find a single happy event to tell about—only feuds, wars and hunger. The Christian God, it seems, did not bring the promised peace. Left alone with his feelings, the author cannot suppress his frustation and clear longing for the old days when they were all.. .children of the sun-god, strong and united; and he is looking for the answer to the question of why this life ended. Perhaps the old gods themselves are staging their revenge for being abandoned: "Ni chytru, ni gorazdu, ni pticju gorazdu suda božia ne minuti." Possessing an uncommon mind, Bojan obviously has the ability to see sorrowful events coming long before they take place or before anyone else can see them, and the pagan feelings of bad premonitions and dark symbols make the outcome of the events evident to him before they actually happen... (ironically, the same pagan gods, summoned by Jaroslavna, later help the hero to escape).

It is quite obvious that within his heart the poet bitterly blames others for his troubled state. His feelings tell him explicitly that the princes and their feuds are responsible for the lost happiness of the bygone days... This idea of doom and longing for the past is further emphasized by Svjatoslav's lament, in which the hero weeps for his vanished youth that can never be returned. In Svjatoslav's dream, he blames the treachery of [those in his dreams], whoever they were, for his sorrow: they appeared as friends, but in reality they were enemies and should never have been trusted. Symbolically, they dress him in a black shroud, they pour for him blue wine mixed with sorrow, from their empty quivers they pour large pearls and comfort him. Although the exact literary identity of [those in his dreams] has never been clearly established by the researchers of the Slovo (most often they are referred to as foreigners or translators), their historical Greek connection is mentioned in one of Nestor's chronicles. . .

.. .Consequently, one cannot entirely discount the idea of a subtle connection between the acceptance of Christianity by Russia from the Greeks and the symbolism of Svjatoslav's dream, which shows the hero's initial mistake in judgement and later regret. This supposition would also logically correspond to the general idea of the Slovo. Significantly, in his call for help, Svjatoslav appeals to the princes with the voice of the old gods...

.. .Characteristically, the struggle of the princes among themselves.. .presents a certain parallel to the inner struggle within the poet's psyche—the irreconcilable contradictions between the consciously adopted Christian moral values and the concealed (yet quite apparent to the reader) inner pagan desires. Thinly veiled by symbolism, the erotic undertone of Igor's passion is easily recognizable. Perhaps it is also evoked by the old gods who make Igor' forget the Christian values which teach one to resist carnal temptations. The hero's inner fire is translated in the text into a symbolic obsessive need to drink water from a helmet or to break his lance at the end of the enemy's field...

.. .The words "pochot" and "iskusiti" traditionally have erotic connotations in the Russian language. Consequently, Igor's statement.. .which was found illogical by some scholars because it was pronounced by Igor' before he left for the war, appears clearer considering that Igor's inner battle was all but lost. He was, indeed, a prisoner of his own body....

.. .Regardless of the divine warnings, they cannot turn back. Unwittingly, perhaps, the poet is questioning the very virtues of conventional morality. His apparent cynical attitude finds its stylistic expression in the text in the lament of the Russian wives who casually equate husbands with money...

. . .Ironically, "mysliju smysliti" and "dumoju sdumati" (of the dear beloved) is a tautology referring to a rational, cerebral process, while the intuitive affectionate gesture of a gentle touch is reserved for gold and silver.

Free-roaming feelings uncensored by the rational mind apparently bring uneasiness and fear to the poet in the images of beasts, mysterious birds, nightmarish chases, bloody scenes, strange voices and sounds from unknown sources. The voice of Div or the devil's children resound in the twilight atmosphere of lonely contemplation. Typical of a distressed human being, the poet's uneasy thoughts wander chaotically from one subject to another and find their parallel in the doomed fate of Russia or in frustration concerning Igor and all his relatives, which, perhaps, reflects Bojan's personal feelings of guilt and a wish to blame somebody else for his own pagan weaknesses....

.. .Seeing the Slovo in this light also clarifies perhaps the darkest and most often misinterpreted part of the whole work—the sentence just prior to its glorious conclusion. . .

.. .Bojan expressed his wishes to be like the old-time bard of Svjatoslav [….] [because he realized that] it is difficult for the head to be without shoulders [i.e., to have only rational mind without a heart], but it wretched to have a body without a head [i.e., to be ruled entirely by your emotions and physical desires without control of the conscious mind].

This appears to be the main idea of the entire work and it brings the Slovo to its surprising but logical finale: in the bright morning sunshine, Igor, although Christian asceticism was not in his nature, nevertheless goes to church, perhaps with the purpose of asking God to forgive him for his sins and give him renewed inner strength.

It can be concluded, therefore, that the Slovo may be much less muddled and incomprehensible than we are taught to believe; and the key to a new understanding lies not in rearranging words and the sequence of events, but simply in one's willingness to trust the logic and wisdom of the author, in whose tale a historical event of the ill-fated campaign of Igor' serves as a stylistic metaphor for the esoteric struggle within the poet's psyche.

Source: Tatiana Fefer, "The Slovo o polku Igoreve: A Poetic Dream," in Russian Literature, Vol. 42, 1997, pp. 17-24.

A Note on the Text of the Igor Tale

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

No satisfactory solution has yet been proposed for the problems presented by the following passage near the beginning of the Slovo o polku Igoreve:

Let us, brothers, begin
this tale
from old Vladimir
to the present-day Igor,
who pulled out his mind with his fortitude
and sharpened it with the valor of his heart,
filled with the battle spirit,
led his valiant regiments
against the Polovtsian land
for the Russian land.

Why does the narrator propose to begin "from Vladimir" when Vladimir plays no role at the beginning of the tale? And what is meant by "beginning from Vladimir to Igor"?

Likhachev's argument that this line defines the chronological limits of the events dealt with in the tale is weak in at least two respects. First, Vladimir is mentioned only in passing, and the Igor Tale can hardly be said to deal with him. Second, no similar syntactic constructions in Old Russian have been found to support Likhachev's idea.

Taking words from a passage in the Zadonshchina and from a similar passage in the Slovo o pogibeli russkoi zemli, the only known literary work before the Zadonshchina that closely resembles the Igor Tale stylistically, Roman Jakobson reconstructs the passage this way:

Let us, brothers, begin this tale, because the princes have been sad for the Russian land from old Vladimir to the present-day Igor.…..

Although I think Jakobson is correct in viewing the lines in question as defective, the line he chooses to insert is unjustified both stylistically and textologically.

These lines are linked only by their position before an ot … do construction and by thematic similarity. There are no lexical parallels between the two lines to justify Jakobson's choice of words. In addition, the subordinate conjunction zane zhe ("because") has no place in the Igor Tale, a paratactic work with very little subordination. As a subordinating conjunction of reason, bo ("for") is used throughout the tale.

One can deduce a more likely reconstruction if one compares the unintelligible lines of the Igor Tale with the related Zadonshchina passage as it appears in all of the copies and in a more complete context.

In three of four copies, the ot …do construction contains a number which gives the line a clear meaning. Only copy K-B, like the Igor Tale, lacks the number and is as meaningless in this respect as the Igor Tale passage.

The line from the Slovo opogibeli russkoi zemli on which Jakobson bases his reconstruction was cited above.

The problem with basing a reconstruction on the final lines of this text is that the work is probably only a fragment of a larger composition. The final lines may be incomplete, and the words "A v ty dni bolezn' krestiianom" ("But in these days there is trouble for Christians") may express a complete thought independent of the passage following, which contains the ot… do construction. Either a number or a phrase establishing spatial or temporal boundaries, as in the Zadonshchina, may be missing in the manuscript. That this is indeed the case is suggested by a passage in the sixteenth-century Stepennaia kniga which is styled after the Slovo o pogibeli russkoi zemli or a related work.

As in the Zadonshchina, the ot… do construction serves to connect historical reference points. The passages differ only in that a time span is used as a connector in the Zadonshchina, while the Stepennaia kniga focuses on the place from which the princes rule. This suggests that the mysterious passage in the Igor Tale lacks a phrase or number specifying spatial or temporal boundaries. Because it is more closely related to the passage in the Zadonshchina than to the one in the Stepennai kniga, it is likely that the Igor Tale formerly contained a number at this point in the narrative, as in the Zadonshchina. Letters with a bar, or titlo, were used in Old Russian to represent numbers. They could easily become unintelligible if they were copied poorly or if a scribe forgot to include the titlo. This could eventually lead to the deletion of the number, which is most likely what has happened in the Igor Tale as well as in copy K-B of the Zadonshchina. Before it was distorted, the Igor Tale passage probably read:

Let us, brothers, begin
this tale.
From old Vladimir it was 170 years
to the present-day Igor,
who pulled out his mind with his fortitude. …..

Compare the opening words of the Primary Chronicle: "Se nachnem" povest' siiu"("Nowletus begin this tale"). These words are followed by a lengthy passage which establishes geographical reference points. Later the chronicle sets up chronological reference points with a long series of ot… do constructions, which are preceded by the words: "temzhe otsele pochnem i chisla polozhim ("thus let us begin from here and place dates").

It is worth noting that neither of the two numbers contained in the Zadonshchina copies exactly corresponds to the number of years which elapsed between the Battle on the Kalka and the Battle of Kulikovo (one hundred fifty-seven years). However, the number 170, which appears in copy U, exactly coincides with the number of years between the death of Vladimir the Great in 1015 and Igor's campaign. This even points to the remote possibility that the choice of numbers in the Zadonshchina might have been influenced by the Igor Tale.

Source: Robert Mann, "A Note on the Text of the Igor Tale," in Slavic Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, June, 1980, pp. 281-285.

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Critical Overview