". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Historical Novels, Sienkiewicz, Tolkien, Movies, Jackson

Did Tolkien read HenryK Sienkiewicz's trilogy of historical novels -- Ogniem i mieczem (1884 Eng. trans. as With Fire and Sword); Potop (1886, Eng. trans. as The Deluge); Pan Michael (1888, Eng. trans. as Colonel Wolodyjowski)? Sienkiewicz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, so it is reasonable to think that Tolkien did read these books.*

I began to think of this when learning that Richard Morgan wrote an article lamenting that Tolkien hadn't written the realistic kind of warfare that Morgan believes Tolkien certainly was capable of writing, if Tolkien had so chosen. Morgan picked a scene in which orcs are talking about 'the Great War,' as emblematic of the realism of an army's grunts, who are not privy to the leaders' lofty planning and strategy, the goals and objectives for which their lives are cannon fodder counters.

I'm currently reading the trilogy for only the second time, many years post the first reading. I'm re-watching for the second time since last winter the trilogy of films made of these novels by noted director Jerzy Hoffman.

There are scenes in the With Fire and Sword volume in which the cossacks speak and behave like orcs in Tolkien -- senseless, meaningless cruelty and destruction, vast blood thirstyness. Then, in Hoffman's film of With Fire And Sword released in 1999 to great attention, there are these same scenes in which the cossacks with speaking parts closely resemble the appearances of some of the speaking part orcs in Jackson's LOTR films. There are other scenes too, that recall Hoffman's film. But the most striking one is that the warrior Longinus, eventually succumbing to the vast number of the enemies he's fighting singlehandedly with a sword against their bows, and as this is also a warrior hero trope, it may not be a fair comparison.

The music score of the Hoffman 1999 film sounds very similar to the score for the opening theme music of Jackson's LOTR. However, both composers likely licked off from Wagner, so this may not be significant in terms of influence.

With Fire and Sword's period detail, like the other films Hoffman made from the Sienkiewicz trilogy, is impeccable. There are no special effects or CGI. There is comedy, as well as magic. It's a thrilling, marvelous movie experience made from an unwieldy novel that few of us, at least, will be able to find our way around in, these days when neither geography or history is anything considered necessary for a USian to know.** Hoffman's With Fire and Sword is the superior film by far (and now I'll just resign myself to be at least metaphorically killed for saying so).

But if Tolkien had indeed read this Sienkiewicz trilogy, and if Jackson was influenced by Hoffman's directorial choices, that would be a set of interlocking circles worthy, again, of the Victorian era's Big Novels.

*It's gratifying to know that Sienkiewicz, like Lew Wallace, who wrote Ben-Hur (another of my favorite books in my youth), was inspired and influenced deeply by Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas, and that he also spent time in the U.S.

** The histories I've ordered of Poland and of the Lithuanian states and Muscovy, etc. are arriving tomorrow.


Foxessa said...

I did some research. Though there isn't hard evidence that Tolkien read Sienkiewicz, many people have read both authors and put them in the same category, particularly Catholic readers around the world, because both authors were Catholic.

Evidently Tolkien's grave is in a cemetery, surrounded by graves of many Polish exiles out WWII.

I even found someone who thought Tolkien had read With Fire and Sword since in LOTR Aragorn uses the expression "with fire and sword" when talking to Merry in the Houses of Healing:

"Master Meriadoc" said Aragorn "If you think that I have passed through the mountains and the realm of Gondor with fire and sword to bring herbs to a careless soldier who throws away his gear, you are mistaken."

Love, C.

K. said...

I'll have to watch the Hoffman film -- it sounds excellent.

I think it was Lew Wallace -- not Edgar -- who wrote Ben-Hur.

Did you mean that the Hoffman film is better than LOTR or that it's better than the novel? There are plenty of instances where the film tops the book, The Godfather and Gone With The Wind, to name two.

Foxessa said...

Yes, I did mean Lew Wallace.

I did mean that the Hoffman With Fire and Sword is superior to Jackson's LOTR films.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

You will want to watch all three.

The Deluge, the first of the Hoffman films, is maybe the best of the three.

It's the middle of the trilogy though.

Love, C.