Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 867

Patriotism
The love of Russia's homeland and the desire to fight to preserve it is a continual theme in the Song. Early in the epic it is made clear that Igor leads his troops "in the name of the Russian land" (line 50).

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As Igor's army sets off on its mission, the author imagines glory ringing in Kiev, trumpets blaring in Novgorod-Seversk and banners raised in the city of Putivl. In other words, the whole of Russia is rejoicing in patriotic pride at this expedition.

Patriotism is again evoked in the phrase "the sons of Rus" (148) to describe Igor's army as they approach the battlefield. (Rus is the ancient name of Russia.) Their collective identity as Russians is presented as more important than their individual genealogies. In the midst of the battle Igor's men are "brave sons of Rus" (209), and when they fall, they die in defense of the Russian land (298). It is clear that for a warrior, no destiny could be higher than this.

Love of country is again suggested by the poignant refrain "O Russian land, / you are already behind the culmen!" (Culmen means hill.) This is first uttered as Igor and his men enter the Kuman lands. It suggests the affection the author and by extension the warrior feel for Russia, and how acutely they are aware of the fact that they have journeyed to a distant, foreign land.

The tone of melancholy that pervades the epic is linked to the fate of Russia. Sometimes this is in the form of nostalgia for a lost, glorious past. For example, the author laments that as a result of Igor's defeat, "The Russian land shall moan / recalling her first years / and first princes!" (679-81).

Although there are some laments for individuals, as when the Russian women mourn the fact that they will not see their husbands again (331-38), these are quickly followed by a more generalized lament for the Russian nation: The city of Kiev mourns, as does Chernigov and the entire land of Russia. It is this patriotic sorrow caused by the fall of Russia that dominates the author's mind, and it is patriotism that fuels his desire for the Russian defeat to be avenged.

Duty and Responsibility
The author does not present the defeat of Igor as the result of bad luck or the evil tricks of the enemy. As the epic unfolds it transpires that Igor only has himself to blame for the catastrophe. Although the author is sympathetic to Igor, and Igor's courage is never in question, he is rebuked for being too concerned with personal glory at the expense of his national duty. Historically, Igor and the three other princes embarked on their military adventure without the support of the other Russian rulers. This is why in the epic, Svyatoslav III, Igor's cousin, censures him. Svyatoslav had defeated the Kumans only two year earlier, in 1183, and Igor's defeat undid all the Russian gains. Igor's honor is tarnished, therefore, because he acted too rashly. Caught up in martial fervor, he declared, according to words the author places in the mouth of Svyatoslav, "Let us be heroes on our own, / let us by ourselves grasp the ... glory" (480-81).

The moral is that the needs of the nation must be put before personal needs and ambitions. It is a matter of fulfilling one's duty. The author links this theme of Igor's lack of responsibility to occasions in the past when Russian princes have neglected their duty and quarreled amongst themselves. The effect has always been disastrous. These incidents form the substance of many of the laments in the epic. For example, Igor's grandfather Oleg "forged feuds with the sword" (235), and Prince Boris is rebuked for "vainglory" (pride and boastfulness) which he paid for with his life. And according to the author, the feuds associated with Yaroslav and all the descendents of Vseslav (d. 1101) are directly responsible for the invasion of Russia by the Kumans.

Given the author's interpretation of the political events of previous years, it is not surprising that he devotes nearly one-sixth of the entire epic (lines 491-630) to an appeal to the various Russian princes for a unified front to defeat the invaders and restore Russia's glory.

Nature and its Meaning
As in many medieval epics, nature plays an active role in the plot. The natural world is neither neutral nor inanimate. It reacts to human actions. When Igor sets off for battle, there are warning signs in nature: an eclipse of the sun and a storm at night. Nature already knows the outcome of the battle, and these signs might be interpreted as a warning to Igor. But he ignores them, and during the battle nature itself seems to turn against him. For example, the direction the wind blows in causes the enemy arrows to devastate the Russian army. After Igor's defeat, however, nature mourns. The grass droops and trees bend to the ground in sorrow. And when it is time for Igor to escape, nature assists him. The magpies and ravens keep silent, and this allows Igor to hear the sound of the woodpeckers, who with their tapping guide Igor to the river from which he can make his escape.

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