Picking truth from a harvest of bones

Josef Dobrovský and the Origins of the Igor Tale
February 11, 2005

Did an 18th-century Czech scholar write Eastern Slavs' 'medieval' epic? Simon Franklin inspects the claim

Every self-respecting European nation with pretensions to a cultural history needs its medieval literary masterpiece. For the East Slav nations (Russian, Ukrainians, Belarussians) this need is met by The Igor Tale (aka The Tale of Igor's Campaign ).

The Igor Tale is short, fewer than a dozen pages in most modern editions.

The narrative core relates to an unsuccessful foray against the Polovtsians (the Cumans or Qipchaks tribe) of the southern steppe by a junior prince of the ruling dynasty, Igor Sviatoslavich of Novgorod-Seversk, in 1185.

However, the power of the work derives not from the scale or drama of its narrative but from the remarkable intensity of its poetic imagery, through which the events of this minor campaign fuse with the motions of the natural and supernatural world. Falcons descending on a flock of swans turn out to be a bard's fingers descending on the strings. Armies swoop as black ravens, princes prowl as grey wolves. Personified Disgrace arises as a maiden and splashes the sea by the Don with swan wings. A battle is a wedding feast with wine of blood; the battlefield a harvest of bones. Wind, sun and river are invoked as participants. Trees bend to the ground in sorrow; rivers speak; lances sing; the earth groans. Thus the land itself aches for the fate of its people.

Since its first publication in 1800, The Igor Tale has become firmly established among the canonical monuments of Russian (and Ukrainian and Belarussian) national culture: this was the Russians' Beowulf , their Chanson de Roland , their Nibelungenlied .

Or perhaps not. Adulation has been punctuated by outbreaks of scepticism, by suspicion that The Igor Tale may not be what it purports to be, that it may be too good to be true, too unique to be plausible. The circumstances of its survival look decidedly fishy. No medieval manuscript exists. The usual story is that a single, later (16th-century) manuscript was discovered in the early 1790s, served as the basis for a few copies and for the 1800 printed edition, and was then destroyed in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. Was the loss suspiciously convenient? Had the manuscript ever existed at all? This was an age of notorious forgeries. Is the proper place of The Igor Tale in fact alongside pseudo-medieval fakes such as the poems of "Ossian"?

Edward L. Keenan, director of Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, has form as a would-be unmasker of fakes, having made his reputation more than 30 years ago with a book attacking the authenticity of correspondence attributed to Ivan the Terrible. Keenan is by no means the first to argue that The Igor Tale was composed in the 18th century rather than in the 12th. Acknowledging the arguments developed by the major 20th-century sceptics, Andre Mazon in France and the much-harassed Aleksandr Zimin in the Soviet Union, he more or less accepts The Igor Tale 's late provenance as a given. His innovation lies in the actual origins of the text.

In Keenan's view, The Igor Tale is not authentic, but it was not a deliberate falsification, either. It began life as a set of erudite fragmentary jottings, in an imaginary ancient manner, by the brilliant Czech scholar Josef Dobrovský , who spent some months in the manuscript repositories of Moscow and St Petersburg in 1792-93.

Dobrovský's jottings were sent to a Russian acquaintance, Ivan Elagin, who made the first recorded reference to the work. After Elagin's death in 1793, his papers passed into the collection of Count Aleksei Musin-Pushkin and hence into the purview of the archivist Aleksei Malinovskii.

Malinovskii may or may not have known the true origin of the fragments, but it was he who prepared the 1800 edition and - in perhaps the first act of deliberate deception - invented the story of an ancient manuscript.

Dobrovský heard of the publication but (for whatever reason) chose to say nothing.

Besides the circumstantial evidence implying scholarly skullduggery, and some textual observations on the various copies from the 1790s, Keenan's main argument, taking up fully half the book, is linguistic: through close reading of what all acknowledge to be a difficult and obscure text, he claims to identify large numbers of "Bohemisms" - traces of Czech linguistic features, which betray the background and competence of the work's author, Dobrovský.

Keenan's book will irritate a lot of people. Some, as he implies, will be irked merely by the disturbance to comfortably held beliefs. Others, however, will be open-minded yet still unmoved because much of the detailed argumentation is far weaker than its upbeat presentation. Still, a new, lively, large-scale study of The Igor Tale in English must in principle be welcome; and, among irritants, Keenan's book is of the stimulating, rather than the noxious, variety.

Simon Franklin is professor of Slavonic studies, Cambridge University.

Josef Dobrovský and the Origins of the Igor Tale

Author - By Edward L. Keenan
Publisher - Harvard University
Pages - 541
Price - £32.95
ISBN - 0 916458 96 2

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