Anyone who is familiar with Polish reading habits will be aware that their appetite for speculative fiction is insatiable. Heading into the local bookstore, the number of fantasy and science fiction books lining the shelves far outweigh the other genres, even popular fiction. While spec. fic. is certainly enjoying popularity at the moment in the US, it does not compare to what one finds in Poland, seemingly everyone taking a shot at a Pratchett or a Martin. This begs the question, in what part of Polish culture did this love come from? After reading The Teutonic Knights, I think I may have found a potential source.
Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for his novel Quo Vidas, a meticulously researched novel about Roman life at the time of Christianity’s onset. Awarded for the historical spirit in which he wrote the novel, the same devotion can be found in all other of Sienkiewicz’s books, including The Teutonic Knights (also known as The Knights of the Cross). Forgivably biased to his fatherland, The Teutonic Knights tells the the story of Poland’s fight to retain its independence under threat of its Templar neighbors in the 13th century. The Teutons to be kept at bay, Sienkiewicz portrays the crusaders as the blackest of villains, despite that they were knights templar and played a marginal role in the Catholic church. The Teutons wanton disregard for Polish honor an affront that could not go unanswered, the tale is told from the point of view of two Polish knights, the older Maczko and the younger Zbiszko, each symbolically representing facets of Polish history, the honor of the past and the hope for the future. There are several memorable secondary characters who complete the story, but it is the individual duels and wars for honor and virtue these two wage against the Teutons which take center stage. Sienkiewicz could not have chosen a better climactic moment to resolve tension than the Battle of Grunwald, which finishes the novel and sets Poland back on its feet toward regaining independence.
Good and evil the only forces at play - character motivation beyond obvious - the style of The Teutonic Knights seems a bit simplistic by today’s standards. But one must remember to place the book in the context of Sienkiewicz’s time, particularly the beginning of the 20th century when Poland was lacking independence. This and other novelizations of proud moments in Polish history served to bolster patriotism and national pride, fostering the hope one day they could regain their nation from the occupiers. In fact, it’s possible the current day independence of Poland owes some small debt of gratitude to Sienkiewicz and other Polish writers of the time for writing of national pride with such spirit. And so while characterization and morals are expressed in all too clear terms - baddies vs. goodies - it must be remembered that the lifelike representation of individuals was not Sienkiewicz’s goal. Rather, he intended to show the larger social and political forces at work and the direction they were headed. As such, Sienkiewicz’s masterful interweaving of historical background with plot elements involving the struggle for power remains the strong point of The Teutonic Knights. Sound anything like modern epic fantasy?
(Side note: with heroic knights, damsels in distress, and risks of honor aplenty, this is a book Don Quixote would have loved!! Strange that Don Quixote was written 300 years prior…)