The history of the text as we know it begins in the 18th century under the reign of Catherine the Great. It seems even then we didn’t have an original, but only an error-filled copy. It was hidden among other documents purchased from a monastery, and since its appearance it has generated a good amount of argument and controversy.
And no wonder.
It’s a unique text, unlike any other in the history of Russian literature. The copy found in the 18th century was lost, burned in the great Moscow fire during Napoleon’s campaign. The multitude of translations, into Russian and into other languages, are inconsistent, as much because of the translators’ choices in interpretation, as because of the difficulty to fully grasp the language of the work – a medieval Russian that is neither like that of the Chronicles, nor like any other text, including the Birch Barck Letters.
There is a reason for that. The Chronicles’ goal was to record known history. The Birch-Bark letters were by necessity terse and to the point, and all about business and daily life. The Song, on the other hand, is a work of literature, significantly fictionalized, and definitely poeticized.
Fictionalized, but not fictional.
Kniaz Igor of Novogord-Seversk did exist. He ruled this small principality in the late 12th century. He had three children, including a son named Vladimir, his oldest, who ruled in Putivl’. He did wage in 1185 an ill-fated campaign against the nomadic Polovetsians (or Kumans).
However, he didn’t have the heroic stature that either the Song or any of the works derived from it give him. The Chronicles recall him as willful and greedy, and as the author of the song bemoans, had he not been led so much by a desire to raid the Kumans and acquire wealth, he might not have suffered this defeat.
Nevertheless, the Song has had a tremendous impact on Russian culture since its discovery. Musical pieces were inspired by it, in particular Borodin’s opera, and the amount of scholarship devoted to it almost rivals the quantity of work dedicated to writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Not only has the Song been studied for its literary merits, its composition and imagery, but it has also been dissected by linguists and historians, both inside and outside Russia.
Scholars have been trying to prove both that it is indeed a genuine 12th century masterpiece, and an 18th century clever forgery.
The arguments in favor of the forgery tend to concentrate precisely on the uniqueness of the work and on the difficulty the text represents. And especially on the fact that all scholars agree that the copy discovered in the 18th century is not the original, but a copy of a copy several times over.
The defendants of the Song argue that no one in the 18th century could have created such a work, with such a consistent use of Old Russian and such a creative use of metaphors and poetic devices. Even the uniqueness of the Song doesn’t deter them, for after all, only a very few literary works survive at all, and some of the most remarkable testaments of writing were only discovered in the 20th century (namely the Birch Bark letters). The same birch-bark letters proved that literacy was widespread in medieval Russia and that writing was a common and direct tool for communication, not a specialized one that required the intermediary of scribes.
It’s not impossible, then, that someone with more wealth and access to the more expensive parchment, might have recorded his composition of the Song, and that some scribes might have copied it subsequently.
Who could have been the author? The familiarity he expresses with the events and the court of the Kniaz suggests a participant of the battles, or at least a contemporary of the Prince, maybe of his son Vladimir, certainly a member of a princely retinue. He is not anonymous in the way the creators of the folk epics are anonymous, but he remains unknown.