Composed: ca. 1188-1200 CE
Earliest manuscript: ca. 15th century CE
First published in 1800
The Tale of Igor
The Tale of Igor, also called The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, of Igor, Son of Svyatoslav, Grandson of Oleg, describes the unsuccessful campaign of Igor Svyatoslavich, prince of Novgorod-Seversky, against his old enemies the Polovetsians, which took place in 1185. The exact date is easily determined because the army witnessed the solar eclipse of May 5th and interpreted it as a bad omen. The other participants in the raid were Igor’s relatives—his son Vladimir; his brother Vsevolod Svyatoslavovich, Prince of Kursk and Trubchevsk; his nephew Svyatoslav Olgovich—as well as various groups of warriors from other cities.
Prince Igor’s army was defeated on May 12, 1185, and he and his son were taken prisoner. The Prince managed to escape and return home to his wife Yaroslavna, and his son Vladimir returned home later with a new wife, Khan Konchak’s daughter with whom he fell in love.
The Tale is considered anonymous, and numerous attempts to attribute it to a certain person have not been convincing. Historians consider a few possible authors, but the most popular guess is a legendary poet Boyan mentioned in the text as a famous creator of songs glorifying Kievan princes. If one takes this version as the most likely, Boyan was an educated person because the text shows his familiarity with monk Nestor’s Primary Chronicle, G. Hamartolos’ Chronicles, and Icelandic sagas. Some historians think that the author of the Tale could have been a veteran-warrior of Igor’s army who later became a monk; others suppose that it was Hegumen Moses, author of the Kievan Chronicles. Among the most unusual speculations is that the writer was a woman, Princess Maria Mikhailovna, a widow of Prince Vasilko of Rostov. The princess became a nun under the name Euphrosyne and contributed to the writing of contemporary chronicles and, perhaps, the Tale.
Not only has the identity of the author been a source of contention, but the entire story of the manuscript discovery is a full-blown mystery akin to a detective story. The text was found by a collector, Prince A. I. Musin-Pushkin, in the Spassky (St Savior) Monastery in Yaroslavl in the 1790s, and it was translated into contemporary Russian and published in 1800. Unfortunately, the original manuscript was lost in a devastating fire during the 1812 occupation of Moscow by Napoleon’s army.
The detective style of the Tale’s discovery and the disappearance of the original manuscript elicited a number of discussions about its authenticity. A majority of researchers, however, agree that the Tale is not a skillful later imitation, but an authentic epic poem of the 12th century.
The Tale is written in Old Slavonic, which explains why many poets (V. Zhukovsky, the 19th century; N. Zabolotsky, the 20th century), literary critics and historians like D. Likhachev, as well as an army of amateurs, have tried to offer contemporary readers another version of the Tale’s translation. There are to date about a hundred translations. For an English-speaking reader, this picturesque description of the raid against the Polovetsians is available both online and in print in a variety of English translations, including V. Nabokov’s.
The Tale, written in emotional flowery language, shows the influence of such genres as political essays, religious texts, folklore, lyric poetry, laments, charms, magic tales with shape-shifting episodes, and epic poetry glorifying mighty heroes. The combination of these components makes the Tale a “medieval masterpiece” (V. Nabokov). Moreover, a close reading of the epic’s vocabulary reveals traces of pagan beliefs representing a mostly lost Eastern Slavic Pantheon and mythology still not fully reconstructed. For example, the author mentions such deities as Dazhdbog, Veles, Stribog, and Div. In addition, the Tale can be characterized as a dual faith phenomenon given its inclusion of Christian motifs such as references to God as the Prince’s savior and to various Kievan Rus churches.
The Tale of Igor is also a unique literary piece because of such features as the author’s uncertain attitude towards the main character. On the one hand, the author criticizes Igor for his adventurous and risky campaign initiated without the approval of the Kievan Prince. In this respect, the content emphasizes the importance of unity among the rulers, and the call to unite is one of the most powerful themes of the Tale. On the other hand, the Prince’s raid is also seen as an inevitable war of Christians against the Pagans-Polovetsians. Undoubtedly, the figure of Prince Igor is fascinating due to the complexity of his character. His weaknesses include his light-mindedness, irresponsibility, selfishness, greed, and personal impulsiveness that lead to the tragedy of defeat and to the death of the people dependent upon him. At the same time, Igor has undeniably attractive features, such as devotion to and love for his family, piousness, personal courage, and patriotism. In this respect, the Tale appeals to readers through its universal love motifs, including Igor’s wife Yaroslavna lamenting the possible death of her husband. Indeed, that segment is considered one of the most lyrical insertions of the epic. As a parallel to the protagonist’s love story, the Tale’s author also gives us an outlook on the romantic affair of Igor’s son, who falls in love with the enemy’s daughter.
The Tale of Igor was an inspiration for works by various Russian composers from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, including A. Borodin’s opera Prince Igor (1890) with its famous “Polovetsian Dances”; B. Tishchenko’s ballet Yaroslavna (1974); K. Volkov’s Choir Cantata Tale (1985); O. Yanchenko’s 4th Symphony (1985); and the Oratorio The Tale of Igor’s Campaign (2018) by A. Chaikovsky. There is also a film-opera Prince Igor (1969, R. Tikhomirov) and an animated version, Tale of Igor’s Campaign (1972, N. Vasilenko, composer V. Guba).
In visual art, the Tale of Igor is imagined in numerous paintings and prints by V. Vasnetsov, V. Perov, I. Bilibin, I. Golikov, N. Goncharova, N. Roerich, M. Dobuzhinsky, V. Favorsky, I. Glazunov, and many others. There are also monuments erected to the poet Boyan, Prince Igor, and Yaroslavna.
Yelena P. Francis
Columbia College (MO)
Translations of the text:
- The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, of Igor, Son of Sviatoslav, Grandson of Oleg. Translated by Rzhevsky’s Nicholas and Shamkovich, Tatiana. An Anthology of Russian Literature from Earliest Writings to Modern Fiction. Introduction to a Culture. Edited by Nicholas Rzhevsky. M.E.Sharpe, Armond, NY, 2005, pp. 11-19.
- The Lay of Igor’s Campaign. Medieval Russian Epics, Chronicles and Tales. Edited, translated, and with an Introduction by Zenkovsky, Serge. E.P. Dutton & Co, NY, 1974, pp. 169-190
- The Song of Igor’s Campaign, the epic of the Twelfth Century. Overlook TP, 2009. Translated by Nabokov, V.
- The Song of Prince Igor. The Russian Epic Song of the Twelfth Century. Translation and Commentary by Mann, Robert. The Birchbark Press of Karacharovo. 2005 (Kindle edition)
- The Tale of the Campaign of Igor: A Russian epic poem of the Twelfth Century. Translated by Robert C. Howes. W.W.Norton, 1973.
The above bibliography was supplied by Yelena P. Francis, Columbia College (MO).
“After the Battle of Igor Svyatoslavovich with the Polovtsy” by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880). Description.
“Yaroslavna’s Lament” by Vasily Perov (1881).
From a series of costume sketches by Ivan Bilibin for Alexander Borodin’s opera (1929-1930):
Vladimir Igorevich (Prince Igor’s son)
Possibly Igor’s enemy Khan Konchak
Yaroslavna (different costume)
Additional illustrations of the “Tale” (from the Russian Internet)
The above images were selected by Yelena P. Francis, Columbia College (MO).
Igor Svyatoslavich, Wikiwand
“Prince Igor” opera by Alexander Borodin. Performed by Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg.
Alexander Chaikovsky’s “Tale of Igor’s Campaign”, fragment.
Boris Tishchenko. “Yaroslavna”:
- “Prince Igor”, film-opera. Lenfilm movie studio. Director: R. Tikhomirov (1969)
- Cartoon “Tale of Igor’s Campaign”, in Russian. The director: N. Vasilenko; Music: V. Guba (1972)
The above selection of performances was compiled by Yelena P. Francis, Columbia College (MO).
The above list of monuments was compiled by Yelena P. Francis, Columbia College (MO).