The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and the Works It Has Inspired
By Katherine Owens
Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies, Vol.3 (2005)
Introduction: In A.D. 1185, as the Kievan Rus Empire was starting to deteriorate, a little known prince on the eastern Russian borders led his outnumbered men into battle against Mongolian invaders, the Polovtsians (Kumans). This battle and its aftermath would become the topic of the Russian literary epic, “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign.” Its conclusion was not what one would expect; the hero was not a fearless Beowulf, a mighty Roland, nor even a betrayed Siegfried. Igor Sviatoshlavich’s only claim to fame resulted from a bad military decision stemming perhaps from cockiness, pride or stupidity. Yet, its outcome remained true to the great epic form; the ending was not an overwhelmingly happy victory or love affair. Rather, it was subdued with a ray of hope that things would be better in the future.
As a frontier prince, it was Igor Sviatoshlavich’s job to protect his domains (Novgorod-Seversk) and consequently the rest of Russia from invasion. Igor’s defeat and capture in 1185 (he eventually escaped) was not a major military set-back, but for the literary world it would constitute a small but persistent thematic thread in musical presentation after Musin Puskin rediscovered the lost lay in 1792.
The three works inspired by the lay were all named Prince Igor: Borodin’s opera, Serge de Diaghilev’s ballet, and the Soviet musical movie that combined and elaborated upon both the opera and ballet, creating one huge cinematic feat. This paper will examine the changes “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” has undergone both in the narrative of events and the development of the persona over the last 200 years. Part I, the larger part of this paper, will provide a historical background (on the authors and the works) as well as synopses of all four versions to show the evolution of Igor’s narrative. Part II will provide a brief discussion of seven characters that reflect the traditional “Russian soul:” endurance, composure, pride and determination.