The Deluge – the second part of The Trilogy – surprised neither readers nor critics. It is a mature continuation of Sienkiewicz's already established ideas, equally gripping and reassuring.
After the story of a Polish-Cossack battle set against a background of love (or perhaps the other way around) Henryk Sienkiewicz decided to further support the patriotic spirit by reminding the public of the Swedish invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1655. In contrast to With Fire and Sword, which the author started with a great historical introduction, The Deluge begins as the family archive of the Billewicz family, a family which has greatly contributed to the motherland, and circles around a testament which holds the earlier plans for a marriage between Aleksandra Billewicz and Andrzej Kmicic. Despite the fact that as the narrative advances a shift in points of view occurs (the history of Poland becomes more important), from the very first words a different novel emerges.
The transformation of the main protagonist has a scheme known from antiquity and hagiographies: from the combative ruffian Kmicic (who unconsciously betrays his country), through Babinicz seeking redemption, up to his loyalty to King Andrzej. Somewhere along the way he loses the affection of his beloved and has to struggle with humiliation after losing a duel to Wołodyjowski. The pain he experiences, together with the delayed satisfaction, brought the desired effect: King Jan Kazimierz’s laudation and Aleksandra’s favour. A parallel between the fight over a woman and the fight over the state was noticed by Ryszard Koziołek when he stated that The Trilogy talks about what was given, then taken away and only later nullified. He finds confirmation of this idea within The Deluge: ‘Kmicic thought that Aleksandra and the state were the same and that he lost both to the Swedes’. The protagonist has to constantly choose between his own happiness and his patriotic duty.
The story, full of tension and unpredictable shifts, is not as replete with national watershed moments as the first part of The Trilogy. This time Sienkiewicz portrayed the reality of war and the adventures of particular knights. The romantic thread – which is according to Jan Trzynadlowski based on the adventure romance scheme – is naturally joined with historical occurrences. It is clearly visible in the culminating point of the novel: the defence of Jasna Góra not only changes the course of history but is also witness to the full metamorphosis of the protagonist.
As Szweykowski pointed out, the description of the Siege of Jasna Góra bears the stamp of legend and Apocrypha which we also find in Augustyn Kordecki’s Nowa Gigantomachia and Wespazjan Kochowski’s Klimakter. The historical truth is not as sublime as Sienkiewicz described it (the disproportion in forces was not as huge as the writer described), though the idealization serves the higher cause of warming the hearts of the nation. Tadeusz Bujnicki emphasized that when social and political bonds disintegrate, what remains is religion, which in The Deluge – as in the whole The Trilogy – has national functions which lack metaphysical and mystical peculiarities.
Showing the Swedish invasion from a dual perspective (an external threat and an internal decline) has been often interpreted as a parallel of the future history of Poland. Sienkiewicz wrote The Trilogy when the denationalizing politics of the intruders was becoming more and more aggressive. It should not surprise us that The Deluge was seen in the context of contemporary events and that readers held their breaths when something bad happened to the protagonists. The analogy was analysed closely by Koziołek. In his study of Sienkiewicz’s works he argue that the idea of the writer was not to hold the memory of the contemporary history of Poland but to remove it from the side track. This story about the past was not meant to serve only cognitive aims and raise hopes in the readers but to push them to action and ’stimulate their will to live’.
Paradoxically writer’s most dynamic and lively novel was written in the most dramatic period of his life – the illness and death of his beloved wife. Taking into consideration the harsh reviews for With Fire and Sword Sienkiewicz was curious about the opinions about his next novel. ‘You will see they will attack me as if I have caused harm to the state and literature’, wrote the writer to his sister-in-law Jadwiga Janczewska. He was positively surprised, as the greatest part of the reception was affirmative. However, there were some negative responses too: ‘The inspiration and fulfilment of The Deluge is not as good as in the case of With Fire and Sword’ (Stanisław Tarnowski), which may result from the fact that the aristocracy (to which Tarnowski belonged) was presented in a more negative way. The motives of the magnates’ betrayals accented by the artist was not accepted by conservatives (a different reaction than in the case of the first part of The Trilogy). It was hard to criticize the historical layer, so the artistic one was negated and mistakes in the story were emphasized.
Eventually, The Deluge was welcomed warmly. Piotr Chmielowski compared the novel to a fully developed flower (‘in With Fire and Sword we only see the blooming buds’). Juliusz Kleiner was far from naming it a masterpiece but admitted that is ’one of the greatest historical novels’. Samuel Sandler pointed out the great power of the ideas in the story, and similarly to Stefan Żeromski claimed that: ‘(…) it is a great song of our past and a reservoir of the content of our political existence; it is a photograph of the national spirit not within this époque but within the whole period of our existence’. This substantial role of Sienkiewicz and his works is acknowledged by contemporary researchers as well.
As to whether it raised patriotic spirits, everybody agreed that it did. The next was to come in the form of Sir Michael nine months later.
Published in instalments between 23rd
December 1884 and 2nd
The first book edition: 1886
Translated by: Jeremiah Curtin (1897)
Author: Agnieszka Warnke, January 2016, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, April 2016