In the back of a Polish parish, an elderly woman whispers a prayer: “Lord, please help Jan, that he may be safe in battle and route our enemies.” She lights a candle and leaves. It is 1885 and the Jan she is praying for lived centuries before. His story, however, has been told afresh in the local papers with the characters painted so lifelike that many a Pole tucks them into their prayers.

The author, Henryk Sienkiewicz, is best known for his novel Quo Vadis: A Narrative at the Time of Nero. When it came out in the 1896, it sold 800,000 copies in the United States in just 18 months and 2 million copies in Poland and Germany alone. It has since been printed into 50+ languages, and was made into a film of the same name by Hollywood in 1951. 

The story, set in AD 64 Rome under the reign of Nero, is about a Roman soldier, Marcus Vinicius, who falls desperately in love with a young woman, Ligia. His discovery that Ligia is a member of the strange new sect (Christianity) threatening the state religion endangered both his life and everything he ever believed in. The characters of Peter and Paul are also vividly and compellingly woven into the story in ways that go beyond their mention in scripture.

Sienkiewicz believed literature was meant to “uplift the human soul,” and he was very effective at it. When speaking of struggle of the characters in Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz explained his inspiration. “I was most drawn to Tacitus as a historian. Dwelling on his Annals I was frequently tempted by the idea of presenting, in a literary form, these two worlds in which one was the all powerful governing machine of the ruling power and the other represented only a moral force. The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole.”

Quo Vadis gave Sienkiewicz international fame, but prior to it, he was already hugely famous in his native Poland for his work the Trilogy.

The Trilogy, published between 1884-1888, comprises three books: With Fire and Sword, which describes the Polish battle against the Cossacks, The Deluge about the Swedish Invasion of Poland that came to a head at Częstochowa and Fire in the Steppe (also known as Sir Michael) about Polish battles with the Muslim Ottomans. These books have remained popular for over 100 years and today are compulsory reading for all Polish youth. Even during the dark days of Communism, fresh copies would sell out the first day they were available. 

Of Sienkiewicz’s work, American historical novelist James Michener wrote, “The Trilogy is a sacred book…Sienkiewicz wrote Quo Vadis for the entire world and the world took it to its heart. He wrote the Trilogy for the people of Poland and they absorbed it into their souls.”

Sienkiewicz was born in 1846 in Wola Okrzejska, in the Russian-occupied part of Poland a half-century into the partitioning of Poland. His father’s side of the family was active in the fight for Polish independence, while his mother’s family emphasized historical scholarship. Both threads were critical to his work. His historical novels reminded Poles — through the lives of great men and their courageous deeds — what it means to be Polish. "Any Pole, Sienkiewicz said, “who does not carry in his soul the ideal of independence, is, in some measure, a renegade." Some Poles went so far as to pin pages of his books on their clothing to remind them of the struggle for independence.

In 1905, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The award was given not for a single work but for his lifetime achievement. In his acceptance speech Sienkiewicz said the award was a particular honor because he was a son of Poland:"She [Poland] was pronounced dead — yet here is proof that she lives on.... She was pronounced defeated — and here is proof that she is victorious."

Sienkiewicz died on November 15, 1916, in Vevey, Switzerland, of heart disease. When Poland became independent two years later, his body was repatriated to Warsaw and buried in the crypt of St. John’s Cathedral. There are streets, squares, parks, and schools named for him all over Poland. And in Rome, there is a bronze bust of him at the little church of Domine Quo Vadis, the same church where Sienkiewicz got the inspiration to write his most famous novel.

There are many writers who capture the heart of their nation, such a Shakespeare for England or Mark Twain for America. For Poland, without doubt, it is Sienkiewicz. For anyone who wants to understand the heart of Poland, he is a must-read.