The Song of Igor's Campaign

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Literary Style

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Epic FeaturesThe Song of Igor's Campaign contains many of the elements of the traditional epic. It is about a heroic figure, Igor, who is of national significance for Russia. The setting is vast, stretching across the great expanse of Russian lands, and the author augments this effect by recalling many battles from the past and naming the places where they were fought. The action involves feats of courage in battle, and the omniscient point of view adopted by the author allows him to tell of events widely apart in time and place. This also allows him to convey the inner feelings of some of the characters through dialogue and description. Finally, epics usually begin with an invocation to a muse, and this is echoed in the Song: the author starts by recalling the skill of the earlier bard, Boyan.

However, many aspects of the traditional epic are not present in the Song of Igor's Campaign. Supernatural beings take no part in the action. The Song relates events in the immediate not the distant past, and is therefore more directly historical than other medieval epics. It is also much shorter and more concise than the traditional epic, and it is written not in verse of elevated language, but in what scholars of the Russian language describe as a cadenced (rhythmic) prose. Nor is the Song entirely a narrative work. The story of Igor's campaign, his capture and escape, takes up less than half of the epic. The remainder consists of lyrical lamentations for Russia, omens, dreams, exhortations by the author to other Russian princes, and nostalgic flashbacks to events in Russia's past.

The author gives a hint at the beginning of the metaphoric style of his work. He writes that when Boyan wanted to recall some deed of old, "He set ten falcons upon a flock of swans, / and the one first overtaken, / sang a song first" (21-24). Seven lines later, the author explains his metaphor: Boyan did not literally do this, the ten falcons were his ten fingers and the flock of swans were the strings of his musical instrument.

Many more metaphors are used in the epic. One of the most striking is the metaphor of battle as farming. For example, Oleg "sowed the land with arrows" (236). The metaphor is repeated in lines 278-79, where the earth "was sown with bones / and irrigated with gore." The crop that these seeds produce is "grief” throughout Russia. The metaphor recurs in extended form when the author recalls the fate of Vseslav at the battle at the river Nemiga. Warriors' severed heads are "spread sheaves," the threshing implements are steel swords, and the threshing floor is where lives are laid out. Souls are "winnowed" from bodies and the banks of the river are sown with bones (651-58).

Similes are frequent. A simile is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two unalike things that resemble each other in one aspect. In this epic, the comparisons are usually made between humans and animals or birds. Boyan is compared to a nightingale and an eagle; warriors on both sides are likened to gray wolves; the Kumans as they advance are like "dispersed swans." When Igor's wife laments his fate, she is compared to a cuckoo, and when Igor escapes from captivity, he speeds to the reeds by the river "like an ermine," settles on the water "like a white duck," then runs "like a demon wolf” and flies "like a falcon" (751-59). The effect of these similes is to suggest the close...

(This entire section contains 933 words.)

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connection between the human and the natural world, which is one of the themes of the epic.

The author makes full use of color imagery. Red and gold are the most prominent colors. Igor's men carry vermilion shields (vermilion is a brilliant red color), and the Kuman standards, or flags, are also vermilion. The battle scene features "bloody effulgences" at dawn (a red sky) and "crimson pillars" (a metaphor for Igor and his brother as they go down to defeat, perhaps suggesting the setting sun).
Gold is used always with references to the nobility. Igor has golden stirrups and a golden saddle; his brother Vsevelod has a golden helmet. Princes have "golden thrones"; Svyatoslav's tower is "gold-crested" and his words are golden. In Russian art of the period, gold symbolized glory and magnificence.

The Kumans are associated with black ravens and black clouds. The color blue is used to describe not only the river Don but also the wine of sorrow that Svyatoslav drinks and the mist that surrounds the sorcerer Vseslav.

Another technique used by the author is hyperbole, a figure of speech which employs exaggeration to heighten an effect. When Igor's brother Vsevolod describes his own warriors he emphasizes that they have been well trained for battle. A series of hyperbolic statements follow. His men were "swaddled under war horns, / nursed under helmets, / fed from the point of the lance" (79-81). The point is that his men have been bred for warfare since an early age. Then when the author appeals to Vsevolod, Prince of Suzdal, for assistance, he says Vsevolod's men are so powerful they can scoop the river Don dry using only their helmets (502-03). Similarly, Rurik and David were so effective in battle that their helmets floated on blood; Yaroslav has hurled heavy missiles over the clouds (529), and the iron breastplates of Roman and Mstislav make the earth rumble (553). In each case the exaggeration heightens the dramatic effect: great power is available for Russia if the princes would only use it.

Media Adaptations

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Prince Igor, an opera written in 1890 by the Russian composer Alexander Porfir'yevich Borodin, is based on in The Song of Igor's Campaign. Borodin added to the tale some episodes and descriptions from two Russian chronicles.

In the 1920s, Russian artist Ivan Golikov painted a series of lacquer miniatures illustrating The Song of Igor's Campaign. These are considered to be masterpieces of this Russian art form. According to M.A. Nekrasova, ‘‘A distinctive and expansive rhythm conveys the determined spirit of the Russian warriors .... The colour blue ... is always threatening. Blue flashes of lightning rend the clouds on the morning of the battle at the Kayala river; Svyatoslav sees a blue wine containing deadly poison in his dream; and the werewolf Vseslav is shrouded in blue mist. Golikov makes extensive use of this symbolic meaning of the colour, especially when depicting the eclipse of the sun over the heads of lgor's army.’’ More information on this genre can be found at the Web site, "Russian Lacquer miniatures,’’ [June 11, 2000].

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Anonymous, The Song of Igor's Campaign, translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Random House, 1960.
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed., Princeton University Press, 1968.

Cizevskij, Dmitrij, History of Russian Literature: From the Eleventh Century to the End of the Baroque, Moulton & Co., 1960.

Guerney, Bernard Guilbert, A Treasury of Russian Literature, Vanguard Press, 1943.

Kuskov, Vladimir, A History of Old Russian Literature, Progress Publishers, 1980.

Zenkovsky, Serge A., ed., Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, E. P. Dutton, 1963.

Lindstrom, Thais S., A Concise History of Russian Literature, Volume 1, New York University Press, 1966.
The first chapter contains a useful account of the origins of Kievan Rus, and gives an informative overview of The Song of Igor's Campaign.

Mirsky, D. S., A History of Russian Literature, edited and abridged by Francis J. Whitfield, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.
A good one-volume history of Russian literature from the earliest days to the twentieth century.

Thompson, John M., Russia and the Soviet Union, 4th edition, Westview Press, 1998.
The first chapter, "Ancient Russia and the Kievan State," gives a good overview of the development of Kievan Rus and its political and social structure.


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