Three hundred and seventy verses with 1480 lines make for one hell of a long poem. But I read them all, cover to cover, the first time I picked up a copy of Petőfi Sándor’s book János Vitéz (John the Valiant). I did the same the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. What’s more, remembering back to 2007, I think everyone on my Christmas list got a copy of John Ridland’s 1999 translation.
It’s a marvelous tale of love and loss, of bravery and courage, of tenacity and faith, of loyalty and belief. A tale where the shepherd boy turns down a French throne and instead returns to his sweetheart. ‘Tis the stuff that magic is made of. And it simply goes on and on and on. In his foreword to the 2004 edition, George Szirtes says:
As children, we raced through Petőfi’s poem, exhilarated by its pace, enraptured by its heroism, sharing its jokes, scarcely believing its tragedies.
The first Hungarian animated feature film was based on this poem. Check out Johnny Corncob. And it’s also an operetta.
Although nature’s current depiction of me is hardly childlike, once I picked up this poem, I was twelve again. Catapulted back in time, I was just beginning to notice boys and lose myself in the innocent romance between Laura and Almonzo (Manley) on the Little House of the Prairie.
To discover as I walked the cemetery of Ráckeve, that Petőfi had based my Johnny Valiant on a real person, came as quite a surprise. If Hórvath János (1774-1848) was even half the man that my Johnny was, he’d win a place on the list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. Judging by the medals and honors cited on his gravestone, Hórvath was no coward. I wonder though if he had a sweetheart …
Beautifully in keeping with Petőfi’s folksy style, the sign pointing the way to Hórvath’s grave deserves a place in the Tate Modern. A broom handle, topped with a radiator cap, holds tight to a simple board with a strip of metal edging held together with four nails, each painted in white, tied off with the requisite red, white and green ribbon. A lovely touch.
Each year, in the town of Ráckeve, on János Viték Napok, locals commemorate this great work by acting out selected parts. It will hardly go ahead this year, given the social distancing we’re enjoying, but next year, it’s a possibility.
This poem begs to be read aloud. If you have kids, so much the better. But if not, while sitting at home one evening with a postprandial digestif of your choice, I challenge you to pick it up and keep silent. It’s impossible.