The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly
Classic Newbery Medal Winner, 1929
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric Philbrook Kelly is a significant historical novel focusing on fifteenth-century Poland.
The non-fictional part of this book is in the first chapter, wherein the story of a thirteenth-century trumpeter is told. The rest of the book is pure fiction, even, sadly, the Great Tarnov Crystal. However it takes place in historic Krakow, a beautiful city in southern Poland. Some of Krakow's landmarks are featured in this book.
The Trumpeter of Krakow was honored with the Newbery Medal in 1929. The book was so popular that the author made coast-to-coast tours in the United States that included a silver trumpet on loan from Krakow's Church of Our Lady Mary (St. Mary's Basilica.)
[The image above is from the book cover.]
First, a question...
Have you read this book?
Inexpensive Paperback Version of the Book
This is the paperback version of the novel ... exactly the same as the copy I read. I liked the novel because it focused on Polish culture, centuries ago, showing the mysticism that was common in that culture, and the treachery of invasions they dealt with.
The First Line
...I collect first lines.
"It was in the spring of the year 1241 that rumors began to travel along the highroad from Kiev in the land of Rus that the Tartars of the East were again upon the march."
This sets date and place for the first chapter's conflict between the Poles and invading Tartars.
I will now tell the true story of the trumpeter who faced the Tartars in Krakow that year. He was a young man, only about twenty, who had taken the oath to play the trumpet in the tower at the Church of Our Lady Mary every hour on the hour.
When the people of Krakow fled, he stayed to fulfill his oath, and even when Tartars filled the square below he took up the trumpet to play the Heynal on the hour. Before he finished, he was shot by an arrow.
In his honor the trumpeters from that time to this have broken off the Heynal on the note he broke off from at the moment of his death.
St. Marys Church, Rynek Glowny Town Square, Krakow
Photo by Walter Bibikow - Buy at AllPosters.com
St. Mary's Basilica
This is the church where the Heynal is played.
St. Mary's Basilica Altar
The interior of St. Mary's Basilica isn't mentioned in the book, but it is pretty amazing.
Even now the firemen of Krakow play the Heynal every hour on the hour.
Cast of Characters
...just a few of the main characters.
Joseph Charnetski is the main character. He's young - age 15 when the novel starts, and a refugee from an invasion of his home in the Ukraine.
Pan Andrew Charnetski - Josephs' father; high-born, and guardian of the Great Tarnov Crystal which he intends to give to the king of Poland.
Mrs. Charnetski - Joseph's mother / Andrew's wife.
Peter the Button Face - a Tartar rogue masquerading ad Stefan Ostrovski. Don't trust him!
Nicholas Kreutz - a scholar and alchemist.
Elzbietka - a lovely young Polish girl who becomes a close friend to Joseph. She is the niece of Kreutz.
Jan Kanty - a respected scholar and priest who befriends the refugee family.
Johann Tring - an odd student with a demented countenance.
Kazimir Jagiello - the king of Poland.
The Themes of The Trumpeter of Krakow
...in my opinion.
Good vs. Evil: Charnetskys good, Peter the Button Face bad. Poles good, Tartars bad. etc.
The Inadvisability of Greed: A ravenous desire to possess the Great Tarnov Crystal leads to insanity and destruction.
Integrity and Honor: Joseph, his father, and all other trumpeters in the Church of Our Lady Mary are bound by oath to play that trumpet hourly come hell, high water, or Tartar invasions.
A translation of the oath:
"I swear to Almighty God that I will be obedient to their honors the gentlemen of the Krakovian council, and faithful to the whole city in the service which I render with the trumpet, also that I will be diligent scrupulously in keeping watch, to the extent of my duties, to wit: the sounding of the alarm of fire whenever and wherever it appears, in the city, or behind the city, likewise to sound upon the trumpet the hours of the night and day [appointed], and without the permission of his honor the burgomaster I will sound the trumpet at no man's request. I will be clean in all things and watch the fires in the tower. And all this observe which belongs to my duties, so help me God."
My Opinion of This Book
This is a fascinating look at medieval Polish history - something I found especially interesting because I live with a Polish man. Anything about his country of heredity is bound to interest me. I found it fascinating to learn about Polish alchemists, the university scene, and the living conditions.
As I'm a writer I had to shake my head a few times thinking, "If that was done in a novel today it wouldn't get published." And here the book received the most prestigious award for a children's novel published in the USA! But... that publication took place many years ago in 1928, before rules for writing became the stringent noose that they are today. In particular I found some point-of-view shifts and some author intrusions. Not something that would bother a non-author, I hope!
Wawel Castle, Krakow, Makopolska, Poland, by Ken Gillham - Buy at AllPosters.com
Wawel Castle and the Vistula River
The final scenes of the book take place here - in Wawel Castle and on the bank of the Vistula River.
A Book Worth Reading
I'm a writer so I have a commitment to read quality children's literature. That includes everything on the Newbery Medal list.
In general, recent Newbery Medal winners are better examples of the types of books we're trying to produce. Rules for writing have changed a lot since the twenties! Some of the older Newbery Medal winners break our more modern rules a lot, and this was one of them. In particular, the author shifted point-of-view much more than a present day novelist would, and he also inserted himself into the story occasionally. However, this was state-of-the-art in 1928 when the book was published, and it turned out to be a very popular book at that time.
I'd consider this worthwhile reading for anyone interested in Polish culture, for those interested in alchemy and European history, for teachers and librarians. Most children could probably live without it unless they are Polish or have Polish friends, and in fact, might be much happier reading a book published more recently. Maybe it is time for a new children's book based in Poland to be published here in the USA.