Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

This tale, of a couple of battles in 1185, was purportedly written in the years shortly after the battles. Internal evidence points to an origin shortly following the actual events. The manuscript, however, was not discovered until documents from the monastery of St Saviour in Yaroslavl’ turned up in 1788-92. Amongst them was this text.

The only trouble is that this original perished in a fire at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The text we now have is a copy – one of several were made for prominent people of the period. The most famous is the copy made for the Empress Catherine the Great. There are one or two textual areas that lack clarity, however.

Nevertheless it is a great piece of work.

It is a relatively short piece of work: the copy I am using has only twenty-two pages of text – many notes, invaluable footnotes and an excellent introduction (and translation by Robert C Howes).  All in included the Tale consists of 747 lines of verse.

There is a translation by Vladimir Nabokov also available.


Like many such campaigns it does not stand up as a particularly heroic one. But then, are not the majority of traditional songs of loss, upset, distress? The minor key, the lyricism of distress: these seem to be the memorable elements of western culture. I would extend that… but then, upon reconsideration what hasn’t western culture touched, affected, in some way? You have to look long and hard to find the unalloyed element in any cultural records.

Take the Tale of Igor – we have elements here from Byzantium, and, if certain studies prove correct, as they seem to be, also a healthy dose of Scandinavian influence.

Also, take the Polovetsians – who the campaign is against; they were Eurasian nomads, who influenced the cultures of Hungary, Bulgaria and the Balkans. They allied themselves at one point with the Kimchak, a Turkic people. The mix must have been quite potent: blue-eyed, blond haired nomads supposedly originating from southern Siberia/ east China areas. And smaller, dark-haired Turkic peoples.

The Tale is as follows:

Chapter 1 

                  – the narrator asks: should this be a song of sorrow?

He calls upon the traditional bard of the Russian Kiev peoples, Boyan, and asks how he would have done it in his songs of the early years of princely wars.

The Polovetsian wars had a long history.

Chapter 2 – Igor Prepares for the Campaign

The narrator continues his debate about how Boyan would have done it. There are two openings he thinks Boyan would have used:

It is a storm that carries the falcon across the broad plains;

Flocks of ravens flee to the Great Don


Horses neigh beyond the Sula;

Glory rings out in Kiev.

Trumpets blare in Novgorod:

Banners flutter in Putivl’.

And Igor waits his dear brother Vsevolod.

These are the old fashioned ways, he seems to say.

Chapter 3 The Campaign Begins

Igors’ younger brother Vsevolod, the Wild Ox, suggested the campaign to Igor. He responded affirmatively. Vsevolod’s own men, he said, were bristling and ready; Igor mustered his men; but celestial omens were bad, dark hid the sun.

He refused to heed them.

They approached the River Don, and Igor husbanded his troops like a mother bird. There are many animal similes, but, more touching, there is also wide use of the folk image of the helpful animals, of the rivers, and the earth, that help.

Chapter 4: First Day of Battle. A Night of Rest and Another Battle.

It was their fifth day out and then they encountered the enemy.

Igor’s men sowed the field… with their arrows.

This first encounter was a victory; they carried off slaves, and booty by the bucket full.

They captured all the symbols of honour, the horse-tail whisk etc etc

On the second engagement, though the Polovetians had martialled themselves better. Igor was surrounded. He saw his brother fighting valiantly.

And the narration breaks off.

Chapter 5: Memory of the Wars of Oleg Styatoslavich 

This is an important chapter: it gives the context for the Campaign. Oleg was an ancestor of Igor – and that is important. There were two cousins amongst the many local prices ruling the regions of Kiev Russia: Oleg, and Vladimir.

Oleg was a warrior, the instigator of the wars with the Polovetsians. Vladimir became the peacemaker; his reputation as the epitome of the Christian Prince held high for centuries.

Under Oleg and Boris, however, the stability of the region broke down, civil war became rife:

And then throughout the Russian Land,

Seldom did the plowmen

Shout to one another.

But often did the crows caw,

Dividing among themselves the corpses.

And the jackdaws would speak with their own tongue,

As they flew out after prey.

Chapter 6: The Defeat of the Russians and the Great Sorrow of the Russian Land

The battle lasted from morning to evening, from evening to morning.

On the third day the banners of Igor fell.

But this wasn’t just the loss of a fight, it was the loss of men whose place in the community was vital; and the ones left behind in the centres of Russia were too old to take up the burden of ruling again. In-fighting became common once more, brother trying to oust brother.

Obida (wrong, injustice, offence) has risen up

In the army of the grandson of Dazhbog(Polovetsian ancestor)

As a maiden she stepped forth

Into the Troyan land;

With her swan’s wings

She splashed the Blue Sea by the Don

….banished the times that were fat

Igor had awakened the evil that their father Svyatoslav

The awesome Grand Prince of Kiev,

Had lulled by his might

The tragedy was that Svyatoslav had won renown for himself and his people from the Greeks, Germans, Venetians, Moravians. And now all that was now in peril.

Chapter 7: Dream of Svyatoslav and his Talk with the Boyars

Igor’s father awoke from a dream, which he told to his Boyars: he was being dressed in his funeral robes by Polovetsians; he was placed in his tomb.

The Boyars passed it off as a dream of grief at the loss of Igor.

But now shame has replaced glory

And thundering violence has stunned freedom


On the River Kayala

Darkness shrouded the light.

And the Polovetsians spread

   Across the Russian Land

Like a brood of leopards

Chapter 8: The Golden Word of Syvatoslav and His Appeals for Princely Unity

It begins with a lament for Igor and Vsevolod.

What follows this, however, are reprimands for the neighbour princes who did not respond to the call, did nothing to help the campaign: fourteen princes are chided in turn by the Grand Prince Syvaloslav.

This leads directly into

Chapter 9: The Song of Vselav

Vselov was a hero of old who stirred up the country in his attempts to seize Kiev and Novgorod for himself. His campaigns were many, and chequered. This chapter balances the previous chapter with war campaign against wise ruling throughout each these periods.

Chapter 10: The Lament of Yaroslavna

This is a thoroughly delightful piece – apart from the subject matter. Yaroslavna was Igor’s (second) wife. The Lament takes the form of four apostrophes of natural elements, the ‘mightiest natural forces of the Russian Land’.

At dawn she calls on the cuckoo in flight to help her

                  she calls on the wind

                  she calls on the river Dneiper

                  she calls on the sun

Chapter 11: Igor’s Escape

A Polovetsian, Ovlar, helped Igor escape his capture. Once again there is a call on the animals and elements to help: the ermine of the rushes to hide him; the white duck of the water; the grey wolf; the falcon. He is hidden by the mist.

But Gzak and Konchak pursue him. The river Donets addresses Igor, helps him as a golden-eye duck on the water, as a seagull on the waves, as a black duck in the winds.

Where, in history of these campaigns the border river Stugna had drowned Prince Rostislav, it helped Igor.

Although Igor got away they still had his son captive. What should they do with him? They resolve to marry him to one of theirs, thereby bridging their conflicts.

Chapter 12: Final Praise for Igor and his Men

Here all shame at their stirring up terrible times for Russia are forgotten as Igor is welcomed home – not as a conquering hero so much, but as a true prince of Russia, bringing peace again. For, the bards of old said: what is the head without the body; or the body without its head? 

One important sub-theme in the Tale is that of the narrator. He starts off very much to the fore telling us what he intends for the telling of the tale. Similarly he ends up in the last chapter telling us about the old bards again, how they would have handled the Tale, and by implication connecting himself to their tradition.

The question he is putting us is: how is he going to do it differently from the old bards? And the answer is crucial: with the impartiality of his position – he can extol the deeds of the warriors, but he can also, through the Grand Prince, bring out the shame over glory of their deeds, the dangers to the community of their deeds. This is the central chapter, the turn in the tale. It is crucial because it ties in both ends, as well as the reason of the change of mood of the piece.

The narrator gives us the Tale, but also deconstructs the tale.

Put like that it makes this sound like a modern forgery, at the least. But no, many narrators of tales draw attention to themselves; writers of epics include themselves and their (mostly pecuniary) plight within the text. We see this in Chaucer, the poems of Dunbar; it is subtly done in Beowulf where the very artificial structuring of the story is his usp, unique selling point. Because all these are the bard’s/narrator’s selling points to their patrons, or future patrons.


There is a part in the early chapter where, when talking of the old bard Boyan, the narrator says he would be, darting as a nightingale about the tree of thought/ flying in your mind against the clouds,/ as you wove a song of glory….(ll 40-42).

This had me wondering – there is a great deal of bird imagery in the piece, but, this one: darting as a nightingale about the tree of thought –could this be an equivalent of a memory system in use? 

This tree of thoughthas all its connotations with Yggdrasil. The identity of Boyans and his bard companion Khodyna, have been speculated upon, and it is suggested that there could well be old Viking roots here. These rivers were their trade roots. But also the Lament of Yaroslavnahas a close resemblance to a piece composed by a Viking bard in Byzantium previously to this. Whether this Lament is based on that, or by the same person…..

The squirrel that runs up and down Yddrasil, between Hel, and Asgard – could this be an ancestor?

This tree of thought, though: we know old shamanic practices amongst the nomadic tribes, the central Siberian hunters, used the tree as the path into the other world, to be climbed to find answers and visions for their people. 

Could this tree be the repository of all the knowledge: memories, songs, tales etc etc, of one’s people? That the tree mirrors the growth and strength and health of a people; it also shows which offshoots are healthy, and which have failed. To look at a tree, assess a tree, would be to ‘read’ it, to be able to discern the environmental impact on it. 

A tree as a body of remembered, cultural, icons.

The rags on the wishing tree; the votives on the healing tree.

From the garden of Eden, to Golgotha.