Thursday, May 18, 2006

Historical novels and historical visualization

An awful lot of what we know about the past -- or think we know-- comes by way of hugely successful historical novels, many of them written in the 19th century and repeatedly made into big budget movies in the 20th and since. Think of Dumas' Three Musketeers and Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, or The Talisman which had a big influence on Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven -- at least, so I'm told.

Are those images accurate? Well, let me tell you the tale of With Fire and Sword, written in the 1880s by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, about the glorious period when Poland in confederation with Lithuania, bestrode Eastern Europe, occupying most of what is now Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Sienkiewicz himself lived in a period when this same area was occupied by Russia, Austria and Germany, and there was no Polish state or citizenship. With Fire and Sword is set in the 17th century when, if you follow the novel, Poland-Lithuania through shortsightedness in high places lost control of Ukraine, which descended into revolt, invasion, and chaos.

It's meant as a great historical tragedy, and the lost wonders of the Ukranian landscape are a big part of the tale.

Interestingly enough, Sienkiewicz, who lived in Warsaw, had never seen the Ukranian landscape. He reconstructed it for himself and his Polish readers -- most of whom must not have lived in Ukraine either -- on another great, spacious steppe, the American prairies, which he had visited. Thus Sienkiewicz may have seen Ukraine as Poland's "Lost America."

The above image is from the 1999 film version of the book. I wonder where they went to film the sweeping plains and mighty rivers of Ukraine?


Blogger Clemens said...

Prof Muhlberger - if you will allow a comment from someone outside your class- I am glad to see you mention 'With Fire and Sword', esp the movie version. The novel was only one vol of 'The Trilogy' as the Poles call it. All have been turned into movies by the same director,Jerzy Hoffman. They all have superb musical scores. Encourage your students to watch the move if they can.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Muhlberger - I was searching your blog for information on mediaeval textiles when I came across your post on "With Fire And Sword". My father grew up just outside the village of Zbaraz, on the slopes of the actual mountain where some of the action in this novel historically took place. When he was a boy, he used to take his book, "With Fire and Sword", and sit between the ruins of the monastery and the castle, picturing the action in the story all around him. It was a very happy memory for him.

I did not know there was a movie version! I must watch it. Thank you for reminding me of my father today.

Marya Kanas-Miller

6:35 PM  

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