Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, is Poland’s best-known author. His works include accounts of his travels in Africa and the United States as well as novels. In America his most widely read work was the historical novel QUO VADIS (1896), a story which undertook to bring to life the Rome of the years after the Crucifixion, when the apostles were planting Christianity in pagan lands. His best work is undoubtedly the trilogy that includes WITH FIRE AND SWORD; POTOP (1886; THE DELUGE, 1891), an account of a war in which Sweden invaded Poland; and PAN WOLODYJOWSKI (1887-1888; PAN MICHAEL, 1893, also translated as THE LITTLE SOLDIER), a novel based on the third successive attack on Poland, this time by Tartars and Turks. As Sienkiewicz makes clear, the three wars, all of which ended in Polish victories, established a strong and enduring pride in the Polish nation, but they drained Poland of her manpower so completely that she was unable to maintain her political independence.

In the trilogy, Sienkiewicz endows his heroes with courage and loyalty very close to absolute perfection, and his heroines are models of beauty and faithfulness. In the cold light of reason, they may be hard to believe, yet the extreme demands of bitter war and the inhuman cruelty of the enemy point up the moral that people do sometimes have loyalties which they consider worth dying for in times when quarter is neither given nor expected. There are also different kinds of bravery. Skshetuski has a courage born of love, nationalism, and daring. There is nothing he will not try and little that he cannot endure or do. Prince Yeremi is faced with the most difficult of decisions: whether to abide by the democratic principles that have made Poland great, and, because he accepts the general will, see his country perish, or to seize power in order to save Poland. His decision is the climax of WITH FIRE AND SWORD. The narrative moves quickly and smoothly and has great emotional power; Sienkiewicz combines the best narrative qualities of Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, pere, both of whom probably influenced him.