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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

With fire and sword; Teutonic knights

Henryk Sienkiewicz
Traduction de Jeremiah Curtin et Alicia Tyszkiewicz

Texte intégral

1Title: Ogniem i mieczem (With fire and sword); Krzyżacy (Teutonic knights)

2Originally published: as Ogniem i mieczem. Opowieść z lat dawnych [With fire and sword. A story from ancient times] in Słowo, 1883–1884. First edition of Teutonic knights in Słowo and in Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 1897– 1900

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from English translations: With fire and sword. An historical novel of Poland and Russia, translated by Jeremiah Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1898), pp. 770–776; The Teutonic knights, translated by Alicia Tyszkiewicz, newly edited and revised by Miroslaw Lipinski (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993), pp. 762–786.

About the author

5Henryk Sienkiewicz [1846, Wola Okrzejska (in Podlachia, present-day east Poland) – 1916, Vevey (Switzerland)]: writer. Born into a gentry family in the poor region of Podlasie, Sienkiewicz moved with his family to Warsaw, where he had the opportunity to study at Szkoła Główna, a Polish higher education institution which was closed down after the defeat of the January uprising in 1864. He never completed his studies at the Russian Warsaw University that replaced the Szkoła Główna, but very soon became one of the most popular journalists in the Russian part of Poland. He traveled to the USA and Western Europe, and visited Istanbul and Athens, publishing witty reports and essays in the Polish press. In the 1880s, Sienkiewicz started to publish his historical novels, which soon became very popular. In 1900, a special state committee offered him a small estate in Oblęgorek near Kielce. Sienkiewicz to this day is celebrated as a writer, historian and pedagogue. His work was also popular outside Poland, and in 1905 he received the Nobel prize for his novel Quo vadis? Sienkiewicz did not consider himself primarily an artist. In spite of the respect shown for his work, he acted more like a philanthropist than a literary figure. He established scholarships for Polish writers (among the beneficiaries were Stanisław Wyspiański, Maria Konopnicka and Stanisław Przybyszewski), took care of orphans, and used every opportunity to promote the ‘Polish case’ in the West. Commitment toward national duties and individual responsibility for the national cause were also the characteristic qualities of other students of the Szkoła Główna such as Bolesław Prus and Aleksander Świętochowski. Sienkiewicz’s political sympathies were close to those of the Polish nationalist camp: during the revolution of 1905, he advocated the autonomy of the Congress Kingdom (the western part of Russian Poland), and defended national solidarity under the leadership of Roman Dmowski’s ‘National Democracy’ Party. He attacked the German authorities for their attempts to assimilate Poles from Prussia, and accused the Polish socialists of national betrayal. During the First World War Sienkiewicz was active in a Polish exile group in Switzerland that supported the Entente. He assisted the Red Cross in their efforts to provide medical aid for the inhabitants of the Polish territories.

6Main works: Humoreski z teki Worszyłły [Humoresques from Worszyłło’s case] (1872); Szkice węglem [Sketches with charcoal] (1880); Za chlebem [For bread] (1880); Janko Muzykant [Janko the musician] (1880); Z pamiętnika poznańskiego nauczyciela [From the diary of a Poznań teacher] (1880); Bartek Zwycięzca [Bartek the winner] (1882); Latarnik [Lighthouse-keeper] (1882); Ogniem i mieczem [With fire and sword] (1883–1884); Potop [The deluge] (1886); Pan Wołodyjowski (1888); Sachem (1889); Bez dogmatu [Without dogma] (1891); Rodzina Połanieckich [Połaniecki family] (1895); Quo vadis (1896); Krzyżacy [Teutonic knights] (1900); W pustyni i w puszczy [In desert and forest] (1911).


7Henryk Sienkiewicz belonged to the group of writers and publicists who were influenced by the ideology of positivism. They advocated the economic and social modernization of the country as well as the termination of explicit irredentism. Since the Russian authorities were not interested in supporting Polish development, the positivists relied on the internal resources of Polish society, appealing to the gentry and the bourgeoisie to support the modernization of the country and the education of the lower social strata. Contrary to other members of the intelligentsia in the Russian part of Poland (such as Aleksander Świętochowski or Eliza Orzeszkowa), Sienkiewicz, a successful bourgeois writer and journalist (both financially and in terms of popularity), was a conservative.

8In the 1880s, Sienkiewicz started to write historical novels. The three novels expressly written to strengthen the national resolve by invoking Poland’s glorious past, Ogniem i mieczem (With fire and sword), Potop (The deluge), and Pan Wołodyjowski, became a very popular trilogy. Here, Sienkiewicz describes the seventeenth century wars against the Cossacks, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. While the heroes of the Trilogy are soldiers defending the Rzeczpospolita against external and internal enemies, Sienkiewicz’s evocative literary style succeeds to transcend mere national propaganda. After the first publication of ‘With fire and sword’ public and the majority of literary critics were enthusiastic, and the book became an instant classic and a popular history textbook. While both Potop and Pan Wołodyjowski describe military clashes with Sweden and Turkey, the first part of the trilogy had a hidden agenda. Sienkiewicz, who often described the victories of Polish armies, in this case, presented the victory over the Ukrainians as a tragedy for both sides. The only profiteer of the conflict was—as Sienkiewicz suggests— Russia, who succeded in gaining control over both Poland and the Ukraine.

9The Trilogy was widely debated. In the 1880s, when ‘With fire and sword’ was published, the debate on national history was dominated by the Cracow conservative school (see Michał Bobrzyński, History of Poland in outline). While Józef Szujski and Bobrzyński bitterly criticized the Rzeczpospolita, Sienkiewicz played the role of a national prophet propounding the heritage of a glorious past. The debate surrounding ‘With fire and sword’ played out on two levels. Some writers such as Bolesław Prus and Świętochowski questioned the literary quality of the trilogy, pointing out its schematic nature, its nationalist overtones, and even the sexual and moral deviations of some characters. They disparaged it as a glorification of ‘national slaughter’. On the other hand, the popularity of the book exceeded by far any other Polish novel of the time.

10‘Teutonic knights’ describes the medieval conflict between the Polish Kingdom, allied with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the German Teutonic order. The work offers a perspective on the ‘sacred past’, devoid of the bitterness that accompanies a civil war. The strongly anti-German timbre of Sienkiewicz’s work was boosted ten years after its publication in 1910, when Poles celebrated the 500th anniversary of the victorious battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald in Polish tradition, where the Teutonic knights were defeated by the Polish–Lithuanian coalition under the king Władysław Jagiełło and the grand duke of Lithuania, Vytautas). ‘Teutonic knights’ is thematically close to the trilogy. It portrays the Polish medieval knighthood as it was transformed into the gentry. The ‘Teutonic knights’ depicts the struggle between the Slavic East and the German West, but also describes the appropriation of Western medieval culture, which arrived in Poland simultaneously with German aggression. At the same time, Sienkiewicz questions the cultural role played by the Germans themselves.

11The book met with approval and even received more unequivocal praise than the trilogy. The time of the Warsaw positivists and the Cracow school was coming to an end. ‘Teutonic knights’ first served as the basis of a political claim for ‘National Democracy’, and after 1918, served as a source of anti-German sentiment; playing a role similar to that of Polish Romanticism as an everlasting source of anti-Russian ideas. Until 1945 it was instrumentalized mainly by the right wing of the Polish political scene. After the Second World War, however, communist propaganda made overt use of such nationalist narratives to legitimize its own rule. The tradition of the Battle of Tannenberg, canonized in the form given by Sienkiewicz, was used as an example of Polish participation in the struggle of ‘progressive’ Slavic nations against ‘barbaric’ Germans. Not surprisingly, ‘With fire and sword’ did not share this kind of official communist recognition.

12Since 1918, the ‘Teutonic Knights’ has been on the compulsory reading list of the elementary school curriculum. In 1960, Aleksander Ford, a Polish film director of Jewish origin, directed a film version (in the late 1960s, Ford was forced to abandon the country due to the massive antisemitic campaign of the Władysław Gomułka regime). The two naked swords, as described in the excerpt used here, sent by the Germans to Władysław Jagiełło as a provocation, have become national symbols that are evoked even in commercials and political rallies.

13Despite the unparalleled impact of his work on collective memory, the literary legacy of Henryk Sienkiewicz is ambiguous. In the words of Witold Gombrowicz, Sienkiewicz is “first class among second class writers,” and his prominence in the national canon is unbearable and—at the same time— unavoidable.


With fire and sword

15On the fields of Berestechko those many legions met at last, and there was fought one of the greatest battles of history,—a battle the echoes of which thundered through all contemporary Europe. It lasted for three days. During the first two the fates wavered; on the third a general engagement decided the victory.

  • 1 Jeremi Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1612–1651): member of the aristocratic Polish-Ukrainian family (...)
  • 2 In the original: Zaporoże (Ukr. Zaporizhia): a region along the banks of Dnieper.
  • 3 Maeotis: the Sea of Azov.

16Prince Yeremi1 began that engagement; and he was seen in front of the entire left wing as, armorless and bareheaded, he swept like a hurricane over the field against those gigantic legions, formed of all the mounted heroes of the Zaporojie2, and all the Tartars,—Crimean, Nogai, and Bélgorod,—of Silistrian and Rumelian Turks, Jenissaries, Serbs, Wallachians, Periotes, and other wild warriors assembled from the Ural, the Caspian, and the swamps of Mæotis3 to the Danube. […]

17The whole army and the king stood gazing on this superhuman struggle. Leshchinski, the vice-chancellor, raised aloft the wood of the Holy Cross, and with it blessed the perishing.

18Meanwhile, on the other flank, the army of the king was approached by the whole Cossack tabor, two hundred thousand strong, bristling with cannon, which vomited fire. It was like a dragon pushing slowly out of the woods his gigantic claws.

  • 4 Tugay bey (?–1651): Crimean Tatar military leader and politician.

19But before the bulk of the enemy had issued from the dust in which Vishnyevetski’s regiments had disappeared, horsemen began to drop away from their ranks, then tens, hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of them, and rush to the height on which stood the Khan surrounded by his chosen guard. The wild legions fled in mad panic and disorder, pursued by the Poles. Thousands of Cossacks and Tartars strewed the battle-field; and among them lay, cut in two by a double-handed sword, the sworn enemy of the Poles but the trusty ally of the Cossacks, the wild and manful Tugai Bey4. The terrible prince had triumphed. [...]

  • 5 Islam Ghiray III (1604–1654): khan of the Crimean khanate from 1644 to 1654.

20Then Islam Girei5 quivered, left the field, and fled; and after him fled in disorder all the hordes,—the Wallachians, the Urumbali, the mounted warriors of the Zaporojie, the Silistrian Turks, and the renegades,—as a cloud before a whirlwind.

21The despairing Hmelnitski caught up with the fugitives, wishing to prevail on the Khan to return to the battle; but the Khan, bellowing with rage at the sight of the hetman, ordered the Tartars to seize, bind him to a horse, and bear him away.

22Now there remained but the Cossack tabor. […]

23Now a storm burst in the heavens, and measureless torrents of rain rushed down. “God was washing the land after a just battle.” The rain lasted some days, and some days the armies of the king rested, wearied from struggles; during this time the tabor surrounded itself with ramparts, and was changed into a gigantic movable fortress.

  • 6 Bohdan Zynovii Mykhailovych Khmel'nyts'kyi (1595–1657): leader of the Cossack uprising against Pol (...)

24With the return of fair weather began a siege, the most wonderful ever seen in life. The hundred thousand warriors of the king besieged the twice one hundred thousand Zaporojians. The king needed cannon, provisions, ammunition. The Zaporojians had immeasurable supplies of powder and all necessaries, and besides seventy cannon of heavier and lighter caliber. But at the head of the king’s armies was the king, and the Cossacks had not Hmelnitski.6 The armies of the king were strengthened by a recent victory; the Cossacks were in doubt of themselves. [...]

  • 7 Bogun (in the original, Bohun): a Cossack cavalry officer, one of the main figures of Sienkiewicz’ (...)

25It was Monday, July 7, 1651. The morning of that day rose pale, as if from fright; the dawn was bloody in the east; the sun appeared, red, sickly; a sort of bloody reflection lighted the woods and forests. From the Polish camp they were driving the horses to pasture; the Cossack tabor sounded with the voices of awakened men. Fires were lighted, the morning meal prepared. All saw the departure of Bogun,7 his retinue and the cavalry going with him, by the aid of which he intended to drive away the voevoda of Bratslav, who had occupied the rear of the tabor and was injuring the Cossack works with his cannon.

26[...] The leader, the retinue, and the cavalry receded gradually from the tabor, came to the edge of the forest, glittered once more in the early sunlight, and began to disappear in the thicket. Then some awful, terrified voice shouted, or rather howled, at the gate of the tabor: “Save yourselves, men!”

  • 8 Berestechko (Pol. Beresteczko): small city in Wolhynia and site of a battle between the Cossacks a (...)

27“The officers are fleeing!” roared hundreds and thousands of voices. The roar passed through the crowd, as when a whirlwind strikes a pine-wood; and then a terrible, unearthly cry burst forth from two hundred thousand throats: “Save yourselves! The Poles! The officers are fleeing!” Masses of men rose at once, like a mad torrent. Fires were trodden out, wagons and tents overturned, palings broken to pieces, men trampled and suffocated. Piles of bodies barred the road. They rushed over corpses, amidst howls, shouts, uproar, groans. Crowds poured from the square, burst on to the bridge, stuck in the swamp; the drowning seized one another with convulsive embraces, and crying to heaven for mercy, sank in the cold moving swamp. On the bridge began a battle and slaughter for place. The waters of the Pleshova were filled with bodies. The Nemesis of history took terrible payment for Pilavtsi with Berestechko.8 [...]

28The day of vengeance, defeat, and judgment had come. Whoever was not trampled or drowned went under the sword. The rivers were so filled with blood, that it could not be told whether blood or water flowed in them. The bewildered crowds, still more disordered , began to trample and push one another into the water, and drown. Death filled those awful forests, and reigned in them the more terribly since strong divisions began to defend themselves with rage. Battles were fought in the swamp, on the stumps, in the field. The voevoda of Bratslav cut off retreat to the fugitives. In vain did the king give orders to restrain the soldiers. Mercy had perished; and the slaughter lasted till night,—a slaughter such as the oldest warriors did not remember, and the at recollection of which the hair rose on their heads in later times.

29When at last darkness covered the earth, the victors themselves were terrified at their work. No “Te Deum” was sung, and not tears of joy, but of regret and sorrow, flowed from the eyes of the king.

30So ended the first act in the drama of which Hmelnitski was the author. [...] …then came the plague and the Swedes. The Tartars were almost continual visitors in the Ukraine, carrying legions of people into captivity. The Commonwealth became a desert; a desert the Ukraine. Wolves howled on the ruins of former towns, and a land once flourishing became a mighty graveyard. Hatred grew into the hearts and poisoned the blood of brothers.

31Translated by Jeremiah Curtin in Henryk Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword. An Historical Novel of Poland and Russia, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1898), pp. 770–776.

Teutonic knights

32Meanwhile the German army, coming down from the highest part of the plain, passed Grunwald, passed Tannenberg, and halted in full battle array in the midst of the field. From the Polish camp below, there was an excellent view of the compact mass of iron-clad horses and knights. Keen eyes could even distinguish the various emblems embroidered on the standards flapping in the breeze: crosses, eagles, griffins, swords, helmets, lambs, and heads of bison and of bear. [...]

33Jagiełło had just come from the lakeshore and was on his way to the Polish companies on the left wing, where he had to belt a whole group of knights, when he was suddenly informed that two heralds were riding out from the Teutonic army.

34His heart beat with hope.

35“Perhaps they are coming with a just peace.”

36“God grant it!” replied the clergy.

37The king sent for Witold, but the latter could not come since he was already occupied with preparing his armies; meanwhile, the heralds approached the camp without any haste. […]

  • 9 Ulrich von Jungingen (1360–1410): grand master of the Teutonic knights.

38“Grand Master Ulrich,”9 said the first, “challenges Your Majesty and Duke Witold to mortal battle, and in order to rouse your courage, which seems to have failed, sends you these two naked swords.”

39Thus saying, he laid the swords at the king’s feet. Jaśko Mążyk of Dąbrowa interpreted his words to the king, but scarcely had he finished when the second herald with the griffin on his shield advanced, and said:

40“Grand Master Ulrich bids us also inform you that if the field of battle seems too small to you, he will withdraw his armies somewhat so that you need not loiter in the thickets.”

41Jaśko Mążyk again interpreted his words. Silence fell, while the knights in the royal train ground their teeth at such arrogance and scorn.

42Jagiełło’s last hopes went up in smoke. He had hoped for a mission of concord and peace, whereas it was actually a mission of arrogance and war.

43So he raised his watery eyes and thus replied:

44“Of swords we have enough, but I will take these as an omen of victory sent me by God himself through your hands. The field of battle will be marked out by Him. And it is to His justice that I now appeal, making complaint of my wrong and your lawlessness and pride. Amen!” And two great tears rolled over his sunburnt cheeks. [...]

45The sun inclined towards the west. A brief, heavy shower of rain fell and laid the dust. Jagiełło, Witold, and Zyndram of Maszkowice were just preparing to ride to the battlefield when the bodies of the fallen leaders were brought before them. The Lithuanians brought the body of Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, pierced with pikes and covered with dust and blood, and placed it before the king; but he sighed mournfully and, looking at the huge corpse lying on its back on the ground, said:

46“This is he who this very morning thought himself superior to all the powers of the earth.”

47Then tears began to roll like pearls down his cheeks and presently he spoke again:

48“But as he died a brave death, we will do honor to his valor and give him a worthy Christian burial.”

49And straightaway he gave command for the body to be carefully washed in the lake and dressed in fine clothes and covered, until the coffin should be ready, with a cloak of the Order. […]

50And up above, in the reddening sky, there whirled and circled flocks of crows, ravens, and eagles, croaking and rejoicing noisily at the sight of food.

51And not only did the hostile Teutonic Order lie now prostrate at the king’s feet; the entirety of German power, which had hitherto been overspreading the unhappy Slavonic regions like a flood, was broken against Polish breasts on this day of redemption. So to you, sacred past, and to you, sacrificial blood, be praise and honor for ever and ever!

52Translated by Alicia Tyszkiewicz in Henryk Sienkiewicz, The Teutonic knights, newly edited and revised by Miroslaw Lipinski (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993), pp. 762–786.


1 Jeremi Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki (1612–1651): member of the aristocratic Polish-Ukrainian family, palatine of Ruthenia (Ukraine).

2 In the original: Zaporoże (Ukr. Zaporizhia): a region along the banks of Dnieper.

3 Maeotis: the Sea of Azov.

4 Tugay bey (?–1651): Crimean Tatar military leader and politician.

5 Islam Ghiray III (1604–1654): khan of the Crimean khanate from 1644 to 1654.

6 Bohdan Zynovii Mykhailovych Khmel'nyts'kyi (1595–1657): leader of the Cossack uprising against Poland (1648–1654).

7 Bogun (in the original, Bohun): a Cossack cavalry officer, one of the main figures of Sienkiewicz’s story.

8 Berestechko (Pol. Beresteczko): small city in Wolhynia and site of a battle between the Cossacks and Polish army in 1651.

9 Ulrich von Jungingen (1360–1410): grand master of the Teutonic knights.


Jeremiah Curtin (Traducteur)
Alicia Tyszkiewicz (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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