The Siege of Sziget
The Siege of Sziget or The Peril of Sziget (Hungarian: Szigeti veszedelem, Latin: Obsidionis Szigetianae, Croatian: Opsada Sigeta) is a Hungarian epic poem in fifteen parts, written by Miklós Zrínyi in 1647 and published in 1651, about the final battle of his great-grandfather Miklós Zrínyi against the Ottomans in 1566.
The poem recounts in epic fashion the Battle of Szigetvár, in which a vastly outnumbered Croatian-Hungarian army tried to resist a Turkish invasion. The battle concluded when Captain Zrínyi's forces, having been greatly depleted, left the fortress walls in a famous onslaught. Approximately four hundred troops forayed into the Turkish camp. The epic concludes with Zrínyi killing Sultan Suleiman I, before being gunned down by janissaries. Being in the epic tradition, specifically modeled on the Iliad and the Gerusalemme Liberata, it opens with an invocation of a muse (in this case, the Virgin Mary), and often features supernatural elements; Cupid even appears in Part XII. Zrínyi is several times compared to Hector in the text.
Kenneth Clark's renowned history Civilisation lists the Szigeti veszedelem as one of the major literary achievements of the 17th century. While John Milton's Paradise Lost is often credited as resurrecting the classical epic, it was published in 1667, a full sixteen years after the Veszedelem. Petar Zrinski, the author's brother, published a Croatian version of the epic in 1652. This version, however, has never been reprinted, and is accessible today only in the national library at Zagreb. The first English translation was published in 2011.
The book begins with a short introduction in prose. The author first sets out to place his text in the tradition of Homer and Virgil. Though he declares that his work is not comparable to theirs, they were poets first and foremost, and he is a warrior who only has a little spare time to devote to literature. He also states that he has not once proofread the epic. He then goes on to make a short explanation of the work, stating first that he has mixed legend and history, and that the distinction should be obvious to the discerning reader. He recounts how he researched the death of Sultan Suleiman, and that it is his considered opinion, based on historical consensus, that the Sultan died at Zrínyi's hand. Furthermore, he defends his use of romance as a theme, saying that he himself has been afflicted by love in the past, and that even Mars pined for Venus.
The story is framed by God's anger at the Hungarians for having abandoned their faith, and his decision to send Archangel Michael into hell to awaken a fury to be sent into the heart of Sultan Suleiman. Suleiman, enraged at the Hungarians, assembles his armies and best soldiers from far and wide, including the sorcerer Alderan and the famed Saracen Deliman, who is in love with the sultan's daughter Cumilla, who has been promised to another. Simultaneously, Captain Zrínyi Miklós implores God to take his life before he grows old and feeble. God hears his prayer and sees his piety, and promises him that he will not only fulfill his wish, but also give him the ultimate reward of martyrdom. In a major act of foreshadowing, God decrees that Zrínyi will be rewarded for his devotion by dying in the upcoming battle, but not before taking the life of the sultan.
As the Turkish invasion force marches towards their destination of Eger, Suleiman dispatches a basha to Bosnia. He is ambushed on the way and utterly defeated by Zrínyi's men, convincing the sultan to divert towards Szigetvár instead. This is primarily an illustration of God's will, as he moves Suleiman to change his original plans to fulfill God's greater plan. In Part IV, there is some commotion in the Turkish camp during the night, leading to the misapprehension that Zrínyi has attacked. Two scrambled armies do battle against each other, leading to major Turkish losses. Zrínyi meanwhile assembles his forces, leading to another litany of heroes. The chief protagonist amongst these is Deli Vid, an apparent Turkish convert who fights alongside the Hungarians. Zrínyi sends off his young son, the poet's grandfather, to the emperor's court, acknowledging that he will die in the upcoming battle.
The battle of Szigetvár begins in earnest. A Turkish expeditionary force is brutally crushed by Zrínyi and his men, most notably Deli Vid. On the next day of the battle, with the arrival of the Sultan's army, Deliman and Deli Vid do battle, but neither is able to gain the upper hand. They agree to meet the next day, which again leads to a stalemate.
In one sub-plot, two Croatian soldiers try to covertly break through the enemy lines by night to deliver a message to the emperor. They inflict grievous casualties on the Turkish forces, including killing the sultan's high priest, Kadilsker. They are eventually discovered and killed.
Part XII is an illicit romance between Deliman and Cumilla. This part combines themes of romance, eroticism, and morbidity. They have several liaisons, and both are presented in a negative light. In the end, Cumilla is accidentally poisoned and Deliman goes mad for several days, killing hundreds of Turks.
In contrast to this is Deli Vid and his bedouin wife Barbala. In Part XIII, after Vid has been captured by the Turks during a battle, his wife, who does not even speak Hungarian, dons his armor and rides into the camp to effect his (successful) rescue.
The Turks suffer grievous losses the entire time, and finally the sultan decides to decamp. In Part XIV, Zrínyi, having nearly exhausted his own men, sends a final letter of farewell to his son and to the emperor. In another act of divine intervention, the carrier pigeon bearing the letter is intercepted by a hawk, and the letter falls into the camp. The sultan decides to finish the battle instead of executing his earlier plan. This is again an illustration of God's will, as He desires both the Sultan to die and for Zrínyi to have his promised martyrdom.
The seer Alderan is entrusted with planning the final assault. He takes several captive Hungarian youths into a forest clearing, where he slaughters them and paints arcane circles with their blood. Opening a portal to hell, he summons forth a demonic army (interestingly, commanding them on pain of invoking Christ) to attack Szigetvár. Last to arrive is Ali, who informs Alderan that Muhammad's sword has been broken, and that they both now are eternally tormented in hell. Finally, he drags Alderan down to hell in exchange for the help he has received. In heaven, God sees the progression of the battle, and sends Archangel Gabriel with an angelic host to fight the demonic onslaught. With the supernatural battle swirling around him, Zrínyi instructs his men to take one final charge out of the fortress. Not needing to protect a path of retreat, the small battalion does massive damage to the Turkish forces. In the fracas, Zrínyi spots Suleiman and beheads him. Deliman and Deli Vid finally kill each other.
Not daring to approach the Hungarians, janissaries open fire, and Zrínyi with his band of heroes is gunned down, completing the prophecy. Each soul is taken up by an angel to heaven, with Gabriel escorting Zrínyi personally.
There is a five-line epilogue, which is the only section of the work which breaks the quatrain mold. It is a short prayer to God, recapping Zrínyi's devotion and martyrdom, and asking for favor on behalf of the poet himself by virtue of the elder Zrínyi's merits.
Influences and translations
Zrínyi acknowledged, in his prologue, emulating Homer, specifically the Iliad. Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata was also clearly a great source of inspiration, especially as is evidenced in the first canto.
The poet Brne Karnarutić of Zadar wrote Vazetje Sigeta grada (The Conquest of the City of Sziget) sometime before 1573 (it was posthumously published in 1584). This first Croatian epic dealing with national history, itself inspired by Marulić's Judita, was used by Miklós Zrínyi in his epic.
Siege of Sziget was immediately translated into Croatian by Miklós's brother Petar Zrinski, who is mentioned in the fourteenth chapter of the epic, under the title of Opsida Sigecka. This version's first 1652 printing also proved to be its last, and the only known extant copy is in the Croatian central library in Zagreb.
Four translations are known to have been completed since then. German and Italian translations were produced in the late 1800s and 1908 respectively. A new German translation was published in Budapest in 1944; the translator, Árpád Guilleaume, was an officer in the Hungarian military, and his work was suppressed by the subsequent Communist regime. An English translation was published in Washington, DC in 2011 by László Kőrössy, and is still currently in print.
The book is today best known under its long-standing Hungarian title, "Szigeti veszedelem," literally "The Peril of Sziget." Zrínyi's original Latin title, however, was "Obsidionis Szigetianae," literally "The Siege of Sziget." This discrepancy is explained by the fact that 17th-century Hungarian had no distinct word for "siege:" (the paucity of contemporary Hungarian vocabulary is, in fact, lamented by Zrínyi in the epic's foreword) the modern-day "ostrom" ("siege") was taken from the German sturm at some later date, at which point "veszedelem" took on the exclusive meaning of "peril," thereby changing the apparent meaning of the title. The English translation was released as "The Siege of Sziget," from the original Latin rather than the later Hungarian.