The Trumpeter of Krakow, a Historical Adventure of Medieval Poland for Middle-Grade Readers
The Newberry Medal winning middle-grade adventure novel The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P.Kelly was published in 1928. This adventure steeped in Polish legend and history was an immediate success at publication. Today, almost one hundred years later, this tale still retains its magic.
Journalist Eric P. Kelly came to love Poland during his three-year stay in Krakow after the first World War. He learned about the tradition of the Heynal, a melody played by a trumpeter on each hour from the tower of the medieval Church of Our Lady. Kelly was told the 13th century story of a heroic young boy who had the sworn duty to play the hourly Heynal. His sense of duty was so strong that he continued to play his trumpet during a Tartar attack on the city of Krakow and was killed by an enemy arrow before he could complete the last notes of the tune. Greatly moved by the story and the tradition commemorating it, Kelly wrote a fictional story of another heroic trumpeter boy set in the 15th century.
The Trumpeter of Krakow is the story of an evil treasure, the Tarnov Crystal, desired by men for its legendary powers. The gem closely resembles Tolkien’s ring of power, tempting the good and the bad to use it for their purposes, but causing only destruction and ruin.
At the time of the book’s publication, the history of Poland and particularly of the City of Krakow was a novel element in American literature. The book opens a window into Polish history which invites further exploration. Kids will read about the golden age of learning and the lively international trade in 15th century Krakow, about the fear of the Tartars still lingering among the people of the Ukraine and of Poland, about King Kasimir Jagiello seeking to protect his people from the threat of Ivan the Terrible of Moscow. The reader sees the marvels of Krakow through the eyes of Joseph Charnetsky, a fifteen-year-old country boy: the bustling city with its university, the Street of the Pigeons famed throughout Europe as a dwelling place of scholars, the beautiful churches, and the marketplace crowded with visitors from foreign countries. All of this history comes wrapped in an exciting plot.
Joseph’s father, Andrew Charnetsky, is in custody of a famed crystal that has been in his family for generations. Like his ancestors, he has sworn to give up the Tarnov Crystal to none other than the King of Poland. Pan Andrew is a country gentleman, working his father’s estate in Ukraine. When he hears about a plot to rob him of the crystal, he moves his family to Krakow. However, the Tartar enemy is on their trail.
The actors in this story are simple fairy tale characters. They convey values and ideas rather than psychological complexity. Joseph Charnetsky is the brave and resourceful teen hero of the story. His father, Pan Andrew is a responsible and loving father who protects the Tarnov Crystal with fierce loyalty to his King. His wife is a woman full of faith and courage whose first concern is always for her husband and son. She opens her home and heart to orphan Elzbietka, a loving and innocent girl devoted to her guardian and uncle, Nicholas Kreutz. This kind scholar is the most famous alchemist in Krakow, struggling with Faustian temptations. The ruthless Tartar-Kossack Button-Face Peter is not the only one trying to steal the Tarnov Crystal. An evil student of alchemy, Nicholas Tring, who dabbles in black magic, hopes the crystal will help him create gold. The feeble-minded and grotesque servant Stas is paid by Button-Face Peter to spy on the Charnovsky family. The saintly Jan Kanty, historical priest scholar of Krakow , is always ready to help when help is needed.
At the conclusion of the breathtaking plot, a new trumpeter of Krakow saves the day. The Tarnov Crystal is presented to King Kasimir. The book ends with an unexpected plot twist which greatly resembles a scene in the Lord of the Rings. I wonder if it inspired J.R.R. Tolkien.
A final reflection: I imagine politically correct critics would point out the sexist portrayal of women in stereotypical role patterns in this book, as well as the ableist description of Stas, the spy. The author could be accused of racism in his portrayal of the tartars. These characters would be presented differently today. I still strongly recommend this book because it is a beautiful work of literature describing a time in history with values different from ours (not necessarily worse!) from a point of view different from ours. In the name of diversity, our children need to read about how people in other times and places thought and saw the world. Restricting our children’s reading to books written in the last ten years will create narrow, ignorant, and fearful minds.