Tolkien in the Ukraine

books and literature recommended readingLet’s Play Name That Book

Can you identify the source of this extract? Place and people names have been removed to make it marginally harder.

At times great wars would fill these territories, and then the sea of grass seemed to become a real ocean in which tides of crimson _____ caps flowed between horizons. The gray _____ spread there in crescent waves, and the winged regiments of _____ horsemen rode in their leopard and wolf-skin cloaks draped over glittering armor, and then a forest of spears and lances with horsetail standards and a blazing rainbow of many-colored banners rose over the _____. At night, the neighing of warriors’ horses and the howl of wolves echoed in dim prophecy through this wilderness, and the booming of kettledrums and the blare of copper horns and bugles flowed all the way to the misty Lakes of _____ and to the shores of the _____seas….

If you smacked the buzzer before the end of the extract, you’re wrong! Have another guess, and bonus points if you can name the national origin  of the author and the decade in which it was written.

Dum-de-dum dee-dum de-dum. Finished googling?

That’s right! Good guess. This bit of Tolkienian prose comes from the 1884 Polish national epic With Fire and Sword by that wildman of historical fiction Henryk Sienkiewicz. So for readers who loved the wit, romance, and drama (and literary CGI effects) of Lord of the Rings, but just can’t bear another orc, this is your next read.

WFAS is the first volume of a trilogy (traditionally referred to as The Trilogy) set during a vastly important chunk of European history that you know absolutely nothing about. (Well, I didn’t.) In fact, it was written during a vastly important chunk of European history you know almost nothing about and for the same reason national epics are usually written: to uplift a people undergoing an identity crisis.

If you are wondering what the heck is up with Ukraine, double up on your reading. Follow up WFAS with Gogol’s Taras Bulba, or the other way around if you want the Ukrainian side of the story first. In a nutshell, Poland was once a great, huge, massive, and powerful empire in the heart of Europe that was ripped apart by the ambitions (and armies) of Sweden (yes, Sweden!) to the west and Russia to the east. Ukraine ostensibly belonged to Poland, but the Cossacks who lived there never acknowledged that. When you hear rough, tough, scarey people (like Estella in Great Expectations) referred to as Tartars or Cossacks, the explanation is here. WFAS is about the uprising of the Cossacks against the invasion of Polish armies. (Yes, yes, there’s a plucky female, a Falstaff, and a conflicted hero. It comes completely stocked.)

I don’t know if Tolkien read Sienkiewicz, but I would bet dollars–yes, even to donuts–that he drew on descriptions of warfare in the Steppes. Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War (Crimea being that strategic peninsula dangling off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast). In Sebastopol Sketches, he described a military encampment thus:

The quayside contains a noisy jostle in grey, sailors in black, women in all sorts of colors, . . . and right here, lying about on the very steps of the landing, are rusty cannonballs, shells, grapeshot and cast-iron cannons. . . . A little further off is a large, open area strewn with enormous squared beams, gun carriages, and the forms of sleeping soldiers, . . . carts laden with hay, sacks or barrels come and go; here and there a Cossack or an officer is passing on horseback. . . . To the right the street is blocked by a barricade, embrasures of which are mounted with small cannon; beside them sits a sailor, puffing on his pipe. To the left is a handsome building with Roman numerals on its pediment, beneath which soldiers are standing with bloodstained stretchers. . . .

Style-wise, Tolkien may have been a few decades behind the times, as his language in places is distinctly (and I believe deliberately) nineteenth century, but Edmund Wilson’s charge that Tolkien had “no instinct for literary form” is probably more an expression of his discomfort with Elves and Cossacks occupying the same landscape than an unbiased appraisal of the books’ literary quality.

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