Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Genius of Historical Novels - Henryk Sienkiewicz

If you are looking for a historical novel, probably the best choice is the Polish journalist and Noble-prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Born in the Russian-ruled Poland in the middle of the 19th century, Sienkiewicz wrote most of his historical novels set during the Polish Republic or Commonwealth. What can be noted about him is his negative portrayal of the German knights of the cross. This idea is most evident in the historical novel The Knights of the Cross.

The Knights of the Cross is set in the 14th century and it depicts the clash between the Poland kingdom, one of the most powerful kingdoms at that time, and the German knights of the cross. The conversion to Christianity is at its peak and most of the nations in Europe are already baptized. The German knights of the cross and the Polish kingdom struggle for influence in the Christian world. Through the story of a common knight, the Polish Zbishko and his uncle Machko, Sienkiewicz condemns the avarice, hypocrisy, and corruption of the German monks. The latter use God to justify their cruel and selfish actions, aimed not to baptize the European nations, but to increase their power and influence. Hidden behind Christianity as an excuse, the German knights of the cross subordinate the nations through murders, executions, and wars. Sienkiewicz, as a Polish citizen, is of course subjective, but he amazes the reader with his extensive historical knowledge and understanding.

Personally, I enjoyed the novel, although I found it a little bit too long. Of course, it didn't lack long and boring descriptions, which are actually typical for a historical novel. Still, Sienkiewicz manages to turn even the driest historical event into an exciting and compelling work of art. What is more, he uses authentic Polish language, the way he believed the Polish spoke during the 14th century.

Still, Quo Vadis, the historical novel dedicated to the time of Nero and the burning of Rome is better and more obsessive. I remember I read it at the seaside last year and I just couldn't take my hands off it. On the other hand, The Knights of the Cross, even though a masterpiece, is a more difficult reading. I wouldn't suggest it for the warm and sunny summer days.

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