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Henry(k) Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) - psydonym Litwos


Polish novelist, a storyteller, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Henryk Sienkiewicz's most famous novels include the widely translated and several times filmed Quo Vadis? (1896). His strongly Catholic worldview deeply marked his writing. Sienkiewicz's works have been published in 50 languages.

"And Peter understood that neither Caesar nor all his legions could overcome the living truth, -- that they could not overwhelm it with tears or blood, and that now its victory was beginning. He understood with equal force why the Lord had turned him back on the road. That city of pride, crime, wickedness, and power was beginning to be His city, and the double capital, from which would flow out upon the world government of souls and bodies." (from Quo Vadis?)

Henryk Sienkiewicz was born to a well-to-do family in Wola Okrzejska, a town in Russian-ruled Poland. Because of economic difficulties, the family sold their rural property and moved to Warsaw. At the age of 12, Sienkiewicz entered Warsaw Gymnasium. While a student he started to write newspaper columns under the pseudonym Litwos. Inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, Sienkiewicz composed his first historical story, Ofiara (The Sacrifice), of which no manuscript is known to survive.

Finding himself penniless, Sienkiewicz left the city without receiving a degree, and moved to the countryside, earning his living as a private teacher. Upon returnin to Warsaw,  he attended the Polish University (Szkola Glowna), where studied law and medicine, and later history and literature. In the 1870s, he worked as a freelance journalist, and wrote short stories and novels.For a time he was a coeditor of the biweekly Niwa. Sienkiewicz's debut novel, Ma marne (1872), was set in the ancient city of Kieff and depicted student life. First printed in the magazine Wieniec, its publication in book form (1876) was delayed due to the failure of the Kraszewski publishing house. 

In 1876, Sienkiewicz went to the United States with the actress Helena Mofjeska, who planned to establish in California a settlement with his friends. This journey lasted three years. Sienkiewicz published enthusiastic letters about American technical achievements, society and the natural beauty of California in the newspaper Gazeta Polska. His stay in the USA also inspired several short stories, among them 'Latarnik' (1882).

At the end of 1879, Sienkiewicz returned to Warsaw. He became co-editor of the conservative newspaper Slowo (1882-87), where he published his early novels. He was a founding member of the Mianowski Foundation and a co-founder and president of Literary Foundation (1899). In 1881 he married Maria Szetkiewicz; she died in 1885 of tuberculosis after delivering two children, Henryk Józef and Jadwiga.

Inspired by Walter Scott and French historical novels Sienkiewicz started to work in 1882 on his own trilogy of historical novels. Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword) was published in 1884. It was followed by sequels Potop (1886, The Deluge) and Pan Michael (1888). All these works were carefully researched and written in an exciting, fast-paced style. Sienkiewicz showed his skills in creating colorful characters, which also fascinated readers outside Poland. Speaking of his work, Sienkiewicz said that he wrote most of his novels day by day, sending off the newly-written pages to the printer. "But, in general, this method, which requires great vigilance, is inconvenial and dangerous." Sienkiewicz's indifference to the ideological debate of the time angered some critics. The poet and dramatist Adam Asnyk (1838-1897) said he was "just an artist without any convictions."

Ogniem i mieczem was Sienkiewicz's first novel in a historical trilogy dealing with the period from 1648 to the time of King John III (John Sobieski) at the end of the 17th century. Following the example of Alexander Dumas père, Sienkiewicz added in the colorful narrative a patriotic message. The novel describes a series of wars Poland conducted in its defence over the course of the 17th century. The first part takes its subject from the war between Poland and the Ukraine, while its sequel, Potop deals with the Swedish invasion of the country. Pan Wołodyjowski concludes the story with the theme of a Polish-Turkish war. On the surface the work is an almost classical type of adventure novel, with an uplifting effect. There are invincible heroes, spectacular duels, everlasting friendships, and heroic deaths. Sienkiewicz tells about the nation's past glories and defeats in such manner that people can identify with the fictitious heroes, and believe in the resurrection of Poland. During World War II, when Germany was occupying Poland, a number of members of the resistance assumed their code names from the trilogy. 

Sienkiewicz traveled widely, spending time in Africa in 1891, where he contracted malaria, and visiting Italy for his novel Quo Vadis? His marriage to Maria Romanowska-Wołodkiewich in 1893 was annulled on technical ground in 1896; she was 28 years his junior and left him soon after the wedding. Later Sienkiewicz admitted his error in judgment.

Quo Vadis? depicts the persecution of the Christians in first-century Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero, but it can be read as Sienkiewicz’s contribution to the struggle of the Polish people against repression. The main plot is a love story of a Roman patrician, Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia, who is of royal descent. Nero plays the role of sinister tyrant, personifying the decadence of the Empire. Among the other real historical characters are the writers Petronius (d. 66), a rich aesthetician, and Seneca (d. 65), who opposes Nero. Petronius meets Paul who tells him: "The whole world is trembling before you, and ye are trembling before your own slaves, for ye know that any hour may raise an awful war against your oppression, such a war as has been raised more than once. Though rich, thou art not sure that the command may not come to thee to-morrow to leave thy wealth; thou art young, but to-morrow it may be necessary for thee to die." Quo Vadis? conveys the message of faith and hope and was a huge success. It was one of the first novels adapted for the screen. In the early 1900s two versions were made, one French and one Italian. Jerzy Kawalerowicz's adaptation of 2001, supported by Pope John Paul II, was filmed in Tunisia, Poland and France.

Sienkiewicz was married three times. Already in 1888, he had promised to marry Maria Babska, his niece, who was 14 years younger than he. She spent years in a monastery, but eventually the married in 1904. Maria became his partner for the rest of his life.

Krzyzacy (1900, The Teutonic Knights), Sienkiewicz's last important novel, was set in medieval Poland at the time of its conflict with the Teutonic Order. This work, which culminated in the Battle of Grunwald, where the Teutonic knights were defeated by the Polish-Lithuanian coalition, clearly referred to the policy of the then German state towards the Poles. While Sienkiewicz's heroes in Ogniem i mieczem affected the course of history, now the comradeship of the Poles play a major role. The protagonist is a young nobleman, Zbysko of Bogdaniec, who fights against the Order. Since 1918, the novel has been on the compulsory reading list of the elementary school curriculum. W pustyni i w puszczy (1911, In Desert and Wilderness), written for teenagers, was located in the deserts and savannas of Africa in the year of Mahdi's rebellion and the capture of Khartoum. Its lively details were partly based on the author's travels in Africa. Prusse et Pologne (1907) attacked the Prussian government's land policy in Prussian-occupied Poland.

In 1900, Sienkiewicz was given  an estate by the Polish government at Oblegorek, near Kielce. With the outbreak of WW I, Sienkiewicz fled to Switzerland and settled in Vevey. He was a member of the Swiss Relief Committee for the War Victims in Poland. Sienkiewicz died of heart failure in Vevey on November 15, 1916. His body was returned to Poland eight years later. "To appraise him objectively is quite a task," wrote the Polish Nobel writer Czeslav Miloz in The History of Polish Literature ( 1983), "for he combined a rare narrative gift with shortcomings that are serious enough to disqualify him from the title of a truly great writer." In his statement about the Nobel prize Sienkiewicz stated that "it has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved; but here is the proof of her life and triumph."

Although Sienkiewicz has been criticized for lack of philosophical depth, he is generally regarded as a serious and important novelist. However, Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878-1911), the leading critic of early modernism, attacked him fiercely; his treatise on the author appeared in 1903. The best-known pioneer of modernist Polish fiction, Witold Gombrowicz, called Sienkiewicz "the first-rate secondary writer" but nevertheless recognized the magic of his narrative skill. Films and TV serials based on Sienkiewicz's books have been very popular in Poland.

For further reading: The Patriot Novelist of Poland Henryk Sienkiewicz by Monica Gardner (1926); Henryk Sienkiewicz. Kalendarz zycia i tworczoski by J. Krzyzanowski (1956); Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis by Waclaw Lednicki (1960); Un "best-seller" 1900: "Quo Vadis?" by Marja Kosko (1960); Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Biography by Mieczyslaw Giergielewicz (1968); Henryk Sienkiewicz, ed. by K. Wyka and A Piorunova (1968); Trylogia Sienkiewicza by Z. Szweykowski (1973); Twórczosc Henryka Sienkiewicza by J. Krzyzanowski (1976); The History of Polish Literature by Czeslaw Milosz (1969, 2nd edition 1983); A History of Polish Literature by Julian Krzyzanowski (1978); The Trilogy Companion by Jerzy Krzyzanowski (1991); Sienkiewicza "Powiesci z lat dawnych by Tadeusz Bujnicki (1996); Sienkiewicz's Bodies: Studies of Gender and Violence by Ryszard Koziołek (2014) - See also: Wladyslaw Reymont, Polish writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924; Ben-Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace.

Selected works:

  • Humoreski z teki Worszyłły, 1872
  • Na marne, 1872
    - In Vain (tr. 1899)
    - Kunniansa vankina: romaani ylioppilaselämästä (suom. Annie ja Felix Borg, 1923)
  • Stary sługa, 1875
  • Hania, 1876
    - Hania (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1897; Casimir Gonski, 1898)
  • Listy z podrózy do Ameryki, 1876-78
    - Portrait of America: Letters (tr. Charles Morley, 1959)
  • Selim Mirza, 1877
    - Sissipäällikkö: kohtauksia ranskalais-saksalaisesta sodasta (suom. Felix Borg, 1912)
  • Szkice węglem, 1877
    - Charcoal Sketches (tr. Adam Zamoyski, 1990)
    - Hiilipiirroksia (suom. Maila Talvio, 1901)
    - Films: 1912, dir. Wladyslaw Palinski, starring Maria Mirska; 1957, dir. Antoni Bohdziewicz. adaptation by Ariadna Demkowska, starring Wieslaw Golas, prod. P.P. Film Polski
  • Janko muzykant, 1879
    - Yanko, the Musician and Other Stories (tr. 1893)
    - Janko soittelija (suom. 1951)
    - Film 1930, dir. Roman Zelazowski, adaptation Ferdynand Goetels, starring Stefan Rogulski, Witold Conti, Maria Malicka
  • Z pamiętnika poznańskiego nauczyciela, 1880
  • Niewola tatarska, 1880
  • Pisma, 1880-1917 (38 vols.)
  • Za chlebem, 1880
    - After Bread (tr. 1897) / Peasants in Exile (tr. C. O’Conor-Eccles, 1898)
    - Leivän haussa (suom. Maila Talvio, 1901)
  • Na jedną kartę, 1881
    - On a Single Card (tr. 1898)
  • Jamioł, 1882
  • Bartek Zwycięzca, 1882
    - The Fate of a Soldier (tr. 1898)
    - Bartek sankari (suom. Eemil Forsgren, 1889)
    - Film 1923, dir. by Edward Puchalski. starring Wladyslaw Pytlasinski, Eugenia Zasempianka, Roman Zelazowski
  • Latarnik, 1882
    - The Lighthouse Keeper (tr. 1893)
    - Majakanvartija y. m. kertomuksia (suom. Maila Talvio, 1903)
  • Ogniem i mieczem, 1884 (Trylogia, 4 vols.)
    - With Fire and Sword (tr. Samuel A. Binion, 1898; Jeremiah Curtin, 1898; W.S. Kuniczak, 1991)
    - Tulella ja miekalla (suom. Maila Talvio, 1916-1920)
    - Films: 1963, Col ferro e col fuoco, dir. Fernando Cerchio, adaptation Ugo Liberatore, prod. Avala Film; 1999, dir. Jerzy Hoffman, starring Izabella Scorupco, Michal Zebrowski, Aleksandr Domogarov, Krzysztof Kowalewski, Zbigniew Zamachowski
  • Potop, 1886 (Ogniem i mieczem; 6 vols.)
    - The Deluge (translators: Jeremiah Curtin, 1891; W.S. Kuniczak, 1991)
    - Vedenpaisumus: historiallinen romaani (suom.: 1909; Reijo Silvanto, 1926)
    - Films: 1915, dir. Pyotr Chardynin; 1974, dir. by Jerzy Hoffman, adaptation by Adam Kersten, starring Daniel Olbrychski, Malgorzata Braunek, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Kazimierz Wichniarz
  • Pan Wołodyjowski, 1887-1888 (Ogniem i mieczem, 3 vols.)
    - Pan Michael (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1893; Samuel A. Binion, 1898) / Fire in the Steppe (tr. W.S. Kuniczak, 1991)
    - Herra Wolodyjowski (suom. V. K. Trast, 1930)
    - Film 1969, dir. by Jerzy Hoffman, adaptation by Jerzy Lutowski, starring Tadeusz Lomnicki, Magdalena Zawadzka, Mieczyslaw Pawlikowski
  • For Daily Bread and Other Stories, 1898 (tr. Iza Young)
  • Bez dogmatu, 1891
    - Without Dogma: A Novel of Modern Poland (tr. Iza Young, 1893)
    - Anielka (suom. Maila Talvio, 1913)
  • Listy z Afryki, 1892 (2 vols.)
  • Pójdzmy za nim!, 1893
    - Let Us Follow Him, and Other Stories, 1897 (translators: Jeremiah Curtin, 1897, Vatslaf A. Hlasko & Thos. H. Bullick, 1897; Sigmund C. Slupski and Iza Young, 1898)
    - Seuratkaamme häntä! (suom. M. L., 1902)
  • Lillian Morris and Other Stories, 1894 (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, illustrations by Edmund H. Garrett)
  • Rodzina Połanieckich, 1895
    - Children of the Soil (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1895) / The Irony of Life (tr. Nathan M. Babad, 1900)
  • Quo Vadis, 1896 (3 vols.)
    - Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1897; Samuel A. Binion and S. Malevsky, 1897; William E. Smith, 1898; C.J. Hogarth, 1914; Stanley F. Conrad, 1992; W.S. Kuniczak, 1997) / Quo Vadis; a Play in Five Acts and Seven Scenes (adapted by Marie Doran, 1928)
    - Quo vadis: kertomus Neron ajoilta (suom. Maila Talvio, 1901)
    - Films: 1902, dir. Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca, prod. Pathé Frères; 1912, dir. by Enrico Guazzoni; 1925, dir. by Gabriellino D'Annunzio, Georg Jacoby, prod. U.C.I.; 1932, The Sign of the Cross, dir. by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton; 1951, dir. by Mervyn Le Roi, starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn; 1985 TV mini-series, dir. Franco Rossi, starring Francesco Quinn, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Frederic Forrest, Cristina Raines, Barbara De Rossi, Marie-Theres Relin; 2001, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, starring Pawel Delag, Magdalena Mielcarz, Michal Bajor, Boguslaw Linda
  • Na jasnym brzegu, 1897
    - On the Bright Shore (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1898)
    - Film 1921, dir. by Edward Puchalski, adaptation by Adam Zagórski, starring Maria Korska, Aleksandra Cwikiewicz, Józef Sliwicki, Karol Karlinski, Antonina Kaminska
  • Sielanka: a Forest Picture, and Other Stories, 1898 (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1898)
  • So Runs the World, 1898 (tr. S. C. de Soissons, 1898)
  • Pisma, 1899-1906 (81 vols.)
  • The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus, 1900 (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1900)
  • Krzyżacy, 1900 (4 vols.)
    - The Kights of the Cross (tr. S.C. de Soissons, 1897; Samuel A. Binion, 1899; B. Dahl, 1900; Jeremiah Curtin, 1900) / Danusia (tr.1900) / The Teutonic Knights (tr. Alicia Tyszkiewicz, 1943, rev. ed. Miroslav Lipinski, 1993)
    - Ristiritarit:  yhdeksänosainen historiallinen romaani (suom. Reijo Silvanto, 1936)
    - Film 1960, dir. by Aleksander Ford, starring Urszula Modrzynska, Grazyna Staniszewska, Andrzej Szalawski, Henryk Borowski, Aleksander Fogiel
  • Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories, 1904
  • Na polu chwały, 1906
    - On the Field of Glory; an Historical Novel of the Time of King John Sobieski (tr. Jeremiah Curtin, 1906) / On the Field of Glory (tr. Miroslaw Lipinski) / The Field of Glory (tr. Henry Britoff, 1906)
    - Kunnian kentällä: historiallinen kertomus Juhana Sobieskin ajoilta (suom. Maila Talvio, 1907)
  • Wiry, 1911
    - Whirlpools: a Novel of Modern Poland (tr. Max A. Drezmal, 1910)
  • W pustyni i w puszczy, 1911
    - In Desert and Wilderness (tr. Max A. Drezmal, 1912; Miroslaw Lipinski, 1994) / Through the Desert (tr. Mary Webb Artois, 1912)
    - Erämaan halki (suom. Reino Silvanto, 1914)
    - Films: 1973, dir. Wladyslaw Slesicki, starring Monika Rosca, Tomasz Medrzak, Edmund Fetting, Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz, 1974 TV mini-series, dir. Wladyslaw Slesicki; 2001, dir.Gavin Hood, starring Adam Fidusiewicz, Karolina Sawka, Artur Zmijewski, Andrzej Strzelecki; 2002 TV mini-series, dir. Gavin Hood, prod. Telewizja Polska (TVP)
  • Legiony, 1914 (unfinished)
  • Pisma, 1929-1939 (46 vols.)
  • Dzieła, 1948-55 (vols. 1-60, ed. J. Krzyzanowski)
  • Western Septet: Seven Stories of the American West, 1973 (ed. and tr. Marion Moore Coleman)
  • Listy, 1977 (ed. Julian Krzyzanowski and others)
  • The Little Trilogy, 1995 (tr. Miroslaw Lipinski)
  • Felietony warszawskie, 1873-1882, 2002 (ed. by Stanisław Fita)
  • "Chcecie wieści z życia codziennego ...": felietony i recenzje 1873-1875, 2016 (ed. by  Grzegorz P. Bąbiak) 

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