Lay of Igor's Campaign

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A twelfth-century literary masterpiece, the Lay of Igor's Campaign was probably composed soon after the unsuccessful 1185 campaign of Prince Igor of NovgorodSeversk and his brother Vsevolod of Kursk against the Cumans (Polovtsians) of the steppe. The Lay (Slovo o polku Igoreve ), by an anonymous author, minimizes narrative of facts (which were presumably fresh in the minds of the audience, and which are known to scholars from the Hypatian Chronicle and others) and instead evokes the heroic spirit of the time and the need for unity among the princes. Hence its title, Slovo, meaning a speech or discourse, not a story and not verse (the English translation "Lay" is misleading).

Though the text was heavily influenced by East Slavic folklore, it is nonetheless a sophisticated literary work. Its rhythmical prose approaches poetry in the density of its imagery and the beauty of its sound patterns. The images are taken mainly from nature and Slavic mythology. A solar eclipse, the calls of birds of omen, and creatures of myth (the Div) foreshadow Igor's defeat on the third day of battle. Trees and grass droop in sorrow for human disaster.

The technique is that of mosaic, of sparkling pieces juxtaposed to create a brilliant whole. Scenes and speeches shift with hardly any explicit transitions. To understand the message requires paying strict attention to juxtaposition. For example, the magic of Vseslav followed immediately by the magic of Yaroslavna and the apparent sorcery of Igor.

Very few Christian motifs appear; those that do are primarily toward the close. Instead, there are the frequent mentions of pagan gods and preChristian mythology. Even so, the Lay should not be considered a neopagan work; rather its bard seems to use this imagery to create an aura of olden times, the time of the grandfathers and their bard, Boyan. The principle of two historical levels, repeatedly invoked, serve the purpose of creating the necessary epic distance impossible for recent events by themselves, and also sets up a central theme: The princes of today should emulate the great deeds of their forefathers while avoiding the mistakes. Extolling Igor and his companions as heroes, the bard, mostly through the central speech of Grand Prince Svyatoslav, also calls for replacing their drive for personal glory with a new ethic of common defense.

The Lay was first published in 1800, reportedly from a sole surviving North Russian copy of the fifteenth or sixteenth century acquired by Count Alexei MusinPushkin. The supposed loss of the manuscript in the fire of Moscow in 1812 has made it possible for some skeptics over the years to challenge the work's authenticity, speculating that it was a fabrication of the sixteenth century (Alexander Zimin) or even the 1790s (Andrÿea Mazon). Up to a point, this has been a classic confrontation of historians and philologists, each group claiming priority for its own method and viewpoint. Much depends on how one views its relationship with Zadonshchina, which clearly bears some genetic connection to it, almost certainly as a later imitation of the Lay.

Despite the unproven doubts and suspicions of a few, the Slovo o polku Igoreve, in its language, imagery, style, and themes, is perfectly compatible with the late twelfth century, as was demonstrated by leading scholars such as Roman Jakobson, Dmitry Likhachev, Varvara AdrianovaPeretts, and many others. It remains one of the masterpieces of all East Slavic literature.

See also: folklore; zadonshchina


Zenkovsky, Serge A., tr. and ed. (1974). Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, 2nd ed. rev. New York: Dutton.

Norman W. Ingham