Henry Sienkiewicz’s “Quo Vadis”

BLOG #5, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #26
HENRYK SIENKIEWICZ’S QUO VADIS
January 29, 2014

Some time ago, our daughter Michelle suggested we pose one question to our Book Club members each month. By responding (on Facebook), they could thereby get book discussions in motion that we have lacked up to now. With this in mind, here is Question #1: Generally speaking, or specifically, of what value are our book selections so far? In other words, how do they enrich your life? Change it?

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One of the requests from those who love books that came in during the last month was this one: Feature more of those classic books you edited for Focus on the Family and Tyndale House. Altogether, there were twelve. Four have already been Book Club selections: Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol (Nov. 23, 2011); Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel (Nov. 23, 2011); Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-Fourth of June (May 23, 2012); and Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles (July 17, 2013). Some of you may wish to go back in time and retrieve those four if you haven’t done so already. The other eight are: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield; Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur; and this month’s selection: Quo Vadis.

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Wheeler edition (2000) 663 pages

Scan_Pic0069Pocket Book movie abridged version (1952) 181 oages

I would welcome your e-mailing or writing me with your suggestions: which of these would you like me to feature in this year’s Book of the Month selections?

For each of the twelve books, I wrote an introduction to the book, a modest biography of the author (averaging about 40 – 60 pages); and discussion questions for teachers, parents, homeschoolers, individuals of all ages, at the back. And I did my best to feature the earliest illustrations used for that book, a list of that author’s writings, and movie history. Needless to say, all this was extremely time-consuming (some books taking a year to complete). Also each book was unabridged. It might surprise you to learn that a good share of the classic books sold today are abridged, but don’t so indicate! I consider that a betrayal!

So, with that preamble, let’s move on to 2014’s first Book of the Month.

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Street and Smith  paperback. (1900) 246 pages – abridged

Scan_Pic0072Hippocrene trade paper (1992) – 494 pages, Stanley F. Conrad translation

My own introduction begins with these words:

Most books that we read barely register in our memory bank–they are there, but only dimly. Rarely does a book dig in its heels and demand that it be taken seriously and that it not be forgotten after you finish it and put it down. Quo Vadis is that kind of book.

I first read it many years ago when I was young, and loved it for its excitement and panoramic windows into that long-ago world of the Praetorian Guard; the pomp and opulence of the Roman imperial court; the ludicrous yet malevolent Nero; the fascinating arbiter of elegance, Petronius; the opportunistic and amoral Chilo; the vindictive Tigellilnus; the slave girl with a secret love, Eunice; the forgiving physician, Glaucus; the Christian mother-mentor, Pomponia; the evil virago of an empress, Poppaea; the faithful courtesan, Acte; the apostle of love, Paul; the quo vadis apostle, Peter; the disillusioned old general, Aulus; the faithful Hercules, Ursus; the ruthless young tribune, Vinitius, and the great love of his life, the beautiful princess, Lygia–this incredibly real cast of characters comes to life as you read, and it never leaves you. In addition there is the kaleidoscopic imagery of racing chariots; decadent imperial banquets; the burning of Rome; torchlight processions into old graveyards; candlelit glimpses into foul, plague-ridden prison cells; Christians burning as living torches in Caesar’s gardens, crucified on crosses like their Master, beheaded like Paul, speared by gladiators, pulled apart by horses, gored by bulls and bisons, or savagely attacked by wild dogs, lions, panthers, tigers, and bears. It’s almost mind-boggling that Sienkiewicz managed to cram all this between two covers!

It is not a book for small children, for it is powerful fare filled with violence. But for the rest of us, it serves as a reality check. Our society has so sanitized events like the bloody lashing of Christ. His falling to the ground under the weight of the cross, His humiliating stripping and public nakedness; the agony resulting from having a crown of thorns driven into His scalp, the nailing of His hands and feet to the cross, the ripping of His muscles as the cross is dropped into the hole, the public taunting, the terrible thirst, the brokenhearted death–yes, we have so sanitized all this that we completely miss the agonizing reality of Christ’s sacrifice for mankind.

The same is true of the terrible period of Christian persecution unleashed by Nero, which we quaintly reduce to “the Christians and the lions.” Only as we read a realistic book like Quo Vadis can we genuinely conceptualize what it was like to be a Christian during those days when death was the probable price you would pay for your convictions. It is a sobering book. It is also about as historically accurate as Sienkiewicz could make it (exceptions noted in the Discussion Questions).

So powerful was this 1896 book that in 1900, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Today, he is considered to be Poland’s greatest author.

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) was born near Lukow in what was then Russian-occupied Poland. Few nations have had a more tragic history than Poland, plagued by having no natural borders. After studying philosophy at Warsaw University, he began his illustrious literary career. He dedicated his life to the celebration of the history of the Polish people. Greatest of these fictional novels was his trilogy: With Fire and Sword (1890, 1892, 1895), The Deluge (1891), and Pan Michael (1893). As for Quo Vadis? it has been translated into over 40 languages, and, according to Stanley F. Conrad, is “the greatest best-selling novel in the history of literature.”

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The message of Quo Vadis? is universal. Contrasting as it does the early Christian message of love and reconciliation with the debauchery of a corrupt Roman empire that caused its own demise, it speaks to the present as it once did to the tumultuous years that opened the 20th century.”

The title comes from a famous moment in the Apostle Peter’s life, when, as he was fleeing Rome and the wrath of Nero, God stopped him (at a still-pointed-out location in the then outskirts of Rome) with this question, “Quo Vadis?” [“Where are you going?”] After communing with his Lord, Peter returned to Rome, knowing that by so doing, he would die there a martyr to his faith.