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The Story of Igor's Campaign

Information and Questions for Reading

Слово о полку игореве (variously translated as The Story/Lay/Song of Igor's Campaign) is an unusual work for its period: where most monuments of literacy that survive are connected with the church (sermons and other such texts), or else are historical chronicles that (as we have seen) are strongly marked by the fact that literacy was in the hands of churchmen, the Slovo (as we fondly call it!) clearly comes from another kind of discourse. It has the texture of a folk narrative, part of a traaditional of epic song that has otherwise been lost, though we might speculate that the person who wrote it down or copied it from another manuscript was a churchman. Who knows how many things like this were never written down, or burned along with everything else in a pillaged town or monastery. Not for nothing has our translator, who knows a thing or two about Russian poetry, translated it in verse form. It has been translated many times, including some verse translations into modern Russian.

The antiquity of this work, the beauty of its language, the fact that it is a largely secular work that includes tantalizing references to pre-Christian Rusian religion, and the curious history of its recovery (and then the loss of the manuscript in the great Moscow fire of 1812) -- all these give it special prominence for Russian readers. I think that many modern Russian readers just presume that the Kumans (also known in Russian as Polovtsy, hence the "Polovtsian" or "Polovetsian" Dances in Borodin) were Muslims; productions and the film version of Borodin's opera Prince Igor certainly fit with that assumption, and thus we are reading it for our class. (The best-known part of Borodin's opera is the suite of Polovetsian Dances.) In fact, the Kumans were a literate and pretty sophisticated people, with a written code of laws and an interesting culture that was swept aside by the Mongol invasion like everyone else's. Over the centuries many peoples crossed the steppes, which had no mountains to obstruct them. (The Russian word for "city," indeed the word in several Slavic languages (город, or grad in South Slavic languages) comes from the same root as the English word "garden" - meaning that it is walled around, to protect it against the people (or veggie-devouring rabbits) outside.)

If you know Nabokov from his other writings, then you know that it's worth reading the notes at the end of the work. (The illustration on the front of the book actually comes from a folktale, but it fits well with the Slovo - perhaps the painter, Victor Vasnetsov, was inspired by the descriptions of battle in the Slovo as well as by Russian folktales.)


1. What might tempt you, or a contemporary Russian, to read the Kumans as Muslim?

2. How do the Rusian princes, Igor and Vsevolod, compare in words and behavior to the Kumans we see in the work?

3. What is the geography described in the work?

4. Besides war, politics and religion, what does the Slovo reveal about gender relations at this time?

5. What message would a listener (since we presume this was originally a sung or recited piece, which someone happened to like well enough to write down) draw from the work?


Nabokov's other translations include Mikhail Lermontov's Hero of Our Time, Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (an unrhymed version with copious notes that has attracted a great deal of criticism), and, from English into Russian, Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland (Аня в стране чудес).