What is described as "fantasy" in Poland – the word has been borrowed directly from English – is a literature closely akin to the West's Genre Fantasy: it is regarded as an offshoot of Science Fiction, differing mainly in that Magic rather than science is used in the writer's world-creation. Moreover, almost all Polish critics and writers have agreed that "fantasy" must be based on the Arthurian archetype – the Matter of Britain – and this further divorces writers from the field, for such material is quite alien to Polish literature in general. In these terms, Polish 20th-century fantasy is really just an imitation of English-language fantasy, and there is very little of it. Outside this narrow definition, however – using the word Fantasy in the way it is generally used in this book – there is much of interest.
Polish fantasy was born in the early part of the 19th century as part of the Europe-wide surge in Romanticism. Through the late 18th century the country had been progressively partitioned among Russia, Austria and Prussia, and an uprising had been crushed in 1794. (Further uprisings would be likewise put down in 1831 and 1863.) Works of Polish Romanticism – the popular literature of their day – usually had to be smuggled from abroad into a country that currently did not exist as such; there they were copied – usually by hand – and distributed under the shadow of severe penalties. Effectively, these were the first samizdats in modern literature.
Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is a case in point. He was banished to Russia in 1824, and thereafter had a brilliant career in various parts of Europe. His first work of fantasy interest was a collection of poetry, Ballady i romanse ["Ballads and Romances"] (coll 1822); it can be regarded as the wellspring of Polish Romanticism. The poems as a whole display quite elaborate folk stylistics, but are of interest primarily because they accept a complete coexistence of "this world" and "the other" – i.e., that Reality has more than one level. Thus Ghosts can return to give moral lessons to the living, people can undergo strange transformations, justice can be directly administered by the Gods, etc.
More important in the fantasy context is Mickiewicz's three-part verse drama Dziady ["Forefathers" or "Forefathers' Eve" – Dziady is a Byelorussian rite of ancestral-spirit worship] (Parts 2 and 4 1823 Vilnius; Part 3 1832 Paris; Part 1 [unfinished] posthumously in Dziela tom 3 ["Works, Volume 3"] 1860 Paris). In Part 2 Guślarz – who is a hybrid of priest, seer and witch-doctor – calls up ghosts for a group of peasants. The ghosts bemoan their sins and the peasants offer help. At last the ghosts vanish – except one, the Spectre, who refuses to listen to Guślarz. In Part 4, on the night of Zaduszki (Samhain), a hermit, Gustaw, suddenly appears in the parish house to tell the priest the story of his unhappy love. He stabs himself with a dagger, but is not hurt; then passionately defends the pagan folk-rites of Dziady against the Church. He then vanishes, leaving us with the enigma of whether he was alive or a ghost. Part 3, written after the suppression of the November Uprising of 1830-1831, was a patriotic piece, but does contain some fantasticated material. In its prologue Gustaw is spoken to in Dreams by satanic and angelic voices, which tell him of the future; he becomes a freedom-fighter, changing his name to Konrad. Later Konrad talks to God, trying to usurp part of God's power. In a final section, "The Vision of Father Peter" – heavily influenced by the Apocalypse – Konrad is absolved of his crime against God by a low priest, who goes on to formulate the "Messianic Theory": Poland is the "Christ of Nations" and, like Christ, must be tortured and murdered before rising to redeem the world.
Roughly contemporary with Mickiewicz was Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849). His Balladyna (1839), a tragedy in five parts, is far from his best work but contains a veritable library of fantasy themes. The story is set in Poland's Golden Age, and has two strands, in both of which supernatural powers intervene. The first tells of the mythical King Popiel III, overthrown by a usurper, and of his crown, which is the Talisman guaranteeing his country's strength, the Fertility of its fields, etc. The second strand describes the fate of a nobleman, Kirkor, who is intent on Popiel's reinstatement.
A further contemporary was Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859). His works were extremely important in the political debates of the time; they also represent wonderful examples of the unrestricted imagination at work. In his drama Irydion ["Iridion"] (1836), for example, a Greek, Iridion, aided by the demonic Massynissa, mounts a bloody revolution against a decadent Ancient Rome. A Christian bishop thwarts his plans, persuading the Christians in Iridion's army to withdraw because the way to conquer is not through violence but through benign martyrdom. Iridion is sentenced to centuries of sleep, after which, by direct order from God, he rises and goes to Poland to resurrect the country through martyrdom.
The brutal crushing of the January Uprising of 1863 marked the end of Polish Romanticism; writers turned instead to Realism. Even so, succeeding decades saw the appearance of at least one major fantasy novel, Ogniem i mieczem (1884; trans as With Fire and Sword 1991 US) by the Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916). Superficially this is a realistic account of part of Poland's history; Sienkiewicz uses genuine 17th-century characters, settings, events and even language to reinforce that realism, and yet the heart of the book is fantasy. Sienkiewicz created a set of Heroes each highly specialized in his field – not unlike characters in a role-playing Game. One is pure of heart and a superhumanly strong fighter; another has exquisite skill with the sabre; a third is wise beyond measure. These heroes, each the core of a set of Companions, engage in various Quests, both patriotic and private.
Poland was independent during the interbellum. Two authors of note emerged. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939; >>> SFE), with his philosophical and artistic theory of "pure form" and completely accidental action in the theatre, was the purest of Absurdist playwrights (> Absurdist Fantasy). Between 1893 (when he was aged 8) and 1934 he wrote over 30 plays; these, with their crashing mountains of carefully staged nonsense, are both tragic and refreshing. The other significant (in our context) writer of the period was Zofia Kossak-Szcczucka (1890-1968), author of the large novel Krzy zowcy ["The Crusaders"] (1935). The power of this novel lies in Kossak-Szcczucka's ability to capture the sense of wonder with which the medieval Knights at the centre of the story perceive the exotic civilization of Islam: ignorant of it, hating it, fighting it – the Crusaders are nevertheless captivated by it. The superior Arab civilization and science are, to them, indistinguishable from Magic. And magic of all kinds, both Christian and pagan, plays its part in the conquest of Jerusalem. At last, on the battlefield, the Polish knights are able to call up the Slavic Spectre to save the day. In return, she demands her usual fee: the life of the caller. If any indigenous novel could be said to have influenced modern Polish fantasy, this is it.
After WWII Polish literature was for decades devoid of fantasy, with sf being encouraged in its place – partly for political reasons, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The great tradition of Polish fantastication was forgotten. J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) was translated with much success, but had little effect on Polish writers. Then, in the early 1980s, fantasy resurfaced – partly through young writers rebelling against the established sf "masters". The first hit was probably "Twierdza trzech studni" ["The Keep of Three Wells"] (1982) by Jarosław Grzedowicz (1965- ). That same year saw the first of a flood of short stories from the prolific Jacek Piekara (1965- ), followed by what was planned as a trilogy, Imperium ["Empire"], but of which only parts appeared: Smoki Haldoru ["The Dragons of Haldor"] (1987), the first volume, was followed by an omnibus containing this and Przeklety tron ["The Cursed Throne"] (omni 1989). The collection Stolin's Treasures (coll 1990) by Rafał A Ziemkiewicz (1964- ), containing two fantasy stories – "Hrebor Cudak" ["Hrebor the Odd"] and "Skarby Stolinów" ["Stolin's Treasure"] – was something of a cause célèbre. A fine sf writer, as evidenced by his highly emotional, fast-paced, politically based short stories, Ziemkiewicz was for a long while the voice of his generation; but his excursion into fantasy was less successful. His aim was to create fantasy based on the "Slavic archetype", but the result was a lame cross between The Lord of the Rings and Krzy zowcy.
The following year Zbigniew Nienacki (real name Zbigniew Nowicki; 1929-1994), an unsuccessful mainstream writer and very successful writer for YA, produced the trilogy Dagome Iudex – Ja, Dago ["I, Dago"] (1989), Ja, Dago Piastun ["I, Dago the Guardian"] (1989) and Ja, Dago Wladca ["I, Dago the Ruler"] (1989) – based fairly closely on Slavic Myths and Religion. Despite a plethora of Sex, the trilogy was a flop, and has had little influence on other writers.
The Polish fantasy scene today might, then, seem rather dismal, but two recently emergent young writers may change that. Feliks W Kres (real name Witold Chmielecki; 1966- ) – has published two collections and two novels – Prawo sepów ["The Rule of Vultures"] (linked coll 1991), Król bezmiarów ["The King of the Endless Ocean"] (1992), Stra zniczka istnień ["The Guardian of All Life"] (1993) and Serce Gór ["The Heart of the Mountains"] (linked coll 1994) – as well as short stories in both the Polish sf/fantasy Magazines, Fantastyka and Fenix. The typical hero of his well written, moody, broad-scope fantasies is hesitant and unsure, burdened by his past, and fighting not only with the outside world and magic but also with himself. Kres is not much interested in foreign fantasy, so his work may be expected to remain clear of cliché for a long while yet.
Andrzej Sapkowski (1948- ) was so hugely successful with his first short story, "Wiedžmin" ["He-Witch" or "Witchkiller" – a punning title] (1986), which won a story contest mounted by Fantastyka, that he decided to stick with its hero: a post-apocalypse, genetically altered supernatural killer of supernatural creatures – a kind of Conan with a bad conscience. Sapkowski has now produced many stories as well as several books, often in his Wiedžmin series; his books are Wiedžmin (coll 1990), Miecz przesnaczenia ["The Sword of Destiny"] (coll 1992), Ostatnie życzenie ["The Last Wish of the Dying"] (coll 1993), Krew elfów ["The Blood of Elves"] (1994), Świat Króla Artura/Maladie ["The World of King Arthur/Maladie"] (coll of 1 essay and 1 story 1995) and Oko Yrrhedesa ["The Eyes of Yrrhedes"] (gamebook 1995). The Wiedžnin stories are well told but poorly realized and derivative from foreign fantasy; Sapkowski's non-Wiedžnin material is, however, far more interesting and inventive, as exemplified by "Maladie", a beautiful variation on the Tristan and Isolde Legend.
As far as Polish movies are concerned, there is some animation but otherwise no fantasy-movie production to speak of. [KS]
further reading: The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy (trans coll 1996 UK) ed Wiesiek Powaga (1958- ) features a very different range of Polish fantasy writers.