With Fire and Sword is the first volume of Sienkiewicz’s celebrated trilogy of life under the Polish Commonwealth of the seventeenth century. It opens almost in the midst of battle between the rebellious Cossacks of the Ukraine, in the southeasternmost reaches of Polish-ruled territory. Led by Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the rebellious Cossacks press into the interior of the commonwealth from the wild lands on the border. Hmyelnitzki has allied himself with the foreign Tartars, which appalls Pan Yan, the Polish officer sent by Prince Yeremi to keep order. There are all sorts of shifts and maneuverings, along with murders, as the two sides sort themselves out. Hmyelnitki first must get rid of some Cossack rivals, which he does by accusing them of traitorous association with a Polish spy. To a certain extent, Hmyelnitzki seems more concerned about internal rivals than the ostensible enemy.
Intertwined with the military adventure story is the story of Pan Yan’s love for the princess Helen, a sweet and pure girl mistreated by her greedy relatives. Throughout the book Pan Yan is both trying to defeat the Cossack rebellion and get back together with Helen, who has fallen into Cossack hands. He has trouble doing this, however, because he himself is captured at one point and at another point is ill and exhausted, so it is his servant Jendzian and his friend Zagloba who rescue Helen.
Zagloba, who is often compared to William Shakespeare’s...
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