Poland – The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy

Poland was officially baptised into Christianity in 966 A. D, right before the first millennium and the anticipated arrival of the Antichrist, and his father the Devil. Fortunately, the son of Satan, turned out to be a disappointment, and Satan was forced to become a part of Polish Catholic dogma without the usual fanfare of an end of the world Apocalypse.

The Devil, AKA Satan, is a core part of the Polish tradition, and there are many stories of all types detailing the Prince of Darkness’ exploits there throughout the centuries. Each story is different, depending on time period, social status of the writer, and the role the Devil is expected to play, and these roles have evolved together with the country. 

In the twentieth century, Poland experienced a lot of changes: independence, Nazi occupation, Soviet annexation, Post-communism, and then Capitalism. With each change, different authors wrote more stories about the Devil, and these are the stories Wiesiek Powaga chose to collect in The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy, an anthology that is part of a series collecting relatively modern fantasy stories written in different European countries.

A Lot of Stories About The Devil

For You Lesser Punishment means humiliation; Greater Punishment pain. You can’t go on forever with Greater Punishment or you’d get used to it, and that’s not the point. That’s why the periods of Greater Punishment have to be broken up with periods of relief – the Lesser Punishment – so that you don’t lose the scale of suffering.” (“The Greater Punishment” by Marek S. Huberath)

There are fourteen stories in this anthology and five extracts from larger books. I didn’t particularly enjoy the extracts, and most of the stories weren’t to my personal taste. However, a handful did stand out, and these are the ones I want to mention.

  • “The Greater Punishment” by Marek S. Huberath envisions hell as type of work camp, reminiscent of Nazi Europe or the Soviet Gulag system. Rud is a soul being very graphically tortured in Greater Punishment when he is suddenly told that he is going to be released early and transferred to Lesser Punishment. A medical committee evaluates his condition and then puts his body back together in the most humiliating way possible. Just enough for him to be able to perform his duties in the work camp, which include greeting prisoners coming in on trains, many of whom are unborn fetuses – aborted before they ever got a chance at life. It’s a prison story, except the prison is a version of hell.
  • “The Shadow of Queen Barbara” by Lucjan Siemenski retells the story in which the Polish Faust, Pan Twardoski, reunites king Sigismund Augustus with the shadow of his dead wife, Barbara.
  • “The Gentleman with a Goatee” by Karol Makuzynski tells of a wealthy heir who meets an exiled alcoholic devil working as a cabaret director and married to a short-tempered actress out of convenience. Humanity is sufficiently evil in its own right, hell is experiencing a recession, and many devils have been downsized.
  • “Dinner at Countess Kotlubay’s” by Witold Gombrowicz exposes the hypocrisy of aristocratic vegans whose ideals and actions are two very different things. Reminded me a lot of Rav Kook’s Vision of Vegetarianism and his arguments against adopting that lifestyle.
  • “The Golden Galley” By Jacek Dukaj in the future kingdom of Christ on earth a special agent in an Angelic task force is tasked with investigating a golden galley bearing down on earth. This was the only science fiction story in the book, and one of the ones I enjoyed the most. Strongly recommended.

Not What I Expected

“The devil who swallowed cyanide like aspiring could not swallow what was written about him.” (“The Gentleman with a Goatee” by Karol Makuzynski”)

This book was not at all what I expected. Initially, from the title I thought I was going to be getting a collection of either Polish legends, or modern fantasy stories, the type I would expect to be published in Tor, Strange Horizons, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I wasn’t expecting an anthology about the Devil, and I definitely wasn’t expecting such a literary selection of authors.

There is not a single author in this collection who defines himself as a fantasy author (Jacek Dukaj is science fiction). These stories were written by journalists, playwrights, a Nobel prize winner, literary critics and translators; most of whom were writing in a period before fantasy became a well respected genre for adults. It wasn’t exactly a disappointment, but my expectations were not met.

I approached this book from an anthropological perspective. I wanted to see what type of fantasy stories were being written by Polish authors, and that is what I got to experience. These stories were literary stories, the type of story I’d expect Amos Oz, David Grossman or Meir Shalev to write, and they were mostly written during the first half of the twentieth-century. It gave me a sense of what fantasy existed in Poland back then, which is not at all the fantasy I am used to.

The stories in this volume are very heavy, full of metaphors, symbols and layers of meaning. Several of them offer various forms of social and religious critique. Most are oppressive, some are light and satirical, and “The Golden Galley” was a genuinely fun science fiction experience I recommend looking up. If you’re looking to see how this selection of authors writes stories about hell and the Devil, I recommend looking this book up. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.

The Omer today is courage in kingship. This is a book about the Devil and hell. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on the type of kingship you’re going to find in this novel. It’s the courage that is interesting, and in this case I think the courage is found with all those who conquer temptation and tell the devil no. Not at all an easy task considering all the guises he can take, and how miserable he can make your life. Succeed at that and you’ll be a true hero to the only person who matters – yourself.


About The Author

Wiesiwk Powaga was born in Poland in 1958 where he trained as a film and make up artist and studied psychology. In 1981 after martial law was declared he settled in London. He had a great variety of jobs, including working in restaurants, in building sites and as a carpenter before reading philosophy at London University.

For the past few years he has worked as a commercial and literary translator from English into Polish and Polish into English, as well as being the London correspondent for several Polish music magazines.

The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy

Authors: Various

Editor: Wiesiek Powaga

Publisher: Dedalus

Published: 1997

Pages: 378

Format reviewed: Physical