'TO catch hold of and encompass in words - to describe exactly - the life of a single people, much less humanity would appear impossible," wrote Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace." Despite Count Tolstoy's gloomy pronouncement, 17 years later Henryk Sienkiewicz challenged these words when the Polish novelist began to write the first volume of his epic, "Trilogy."Not only did Sienkiewicz describe the very heart and soul of the Poles, he went a step further. He captured the national character of Poland. The book's impact on Polish national consciousness is almost impossible to overestimate. In the foreword of this new English translation by W. S. Kuniczak, James A. Michener writes: "The Sienkiewicz 'Trilogy' stands with that handful of novels which not only depict but also help to determine the soul and character of the nation they describe.... The 'Trilogy' is a sacred book." The "Trilogy" is not only a mirror of a nation's soul, as so many critics recognize today, but also a compendium of all those racial memories and feelings that make history a living entity rather than just a listing of facts, dates, and figures. National epics are rare indeed; perhaps a handful exist in the great literatures of the world. These sagas with their heroes emerge as a byproduct of a long history - of wars and the struggle for nationhood. Volume I of the "Trilogy,With Fire and Sword," opens in 1647 with the Cossack rebellions, which broke the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's hold on its Eastern territories. The second volume, "The Deluge," revolves around the dynastic wars with the Swedes, and the third, "Fire in the Steppe," concludes the epic with the Tartar and Turkish invasions that precipitated the formation of the Russian Empire. The first book is now available in translation; the others will be published in 1992. When Sienkiewicz wrote his epic (1882-86), Poland had been wiped off the map. It was shrouded in oblivion. Therefore, it is understandable that Sienkiewicz harbored strong nationalistic feelings. Like his Romantic predecessors, he was consumed by the nation's tragedy and yet passionately enamored of its past. While others went on to search for mystical explorations, he went back to history. In his view, the Commonwealth (which included Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine) was in its Golden Age in the 17th century. Sienkiewicz's vision was clear. He would forge his "Trilogy" in the shadow of war while resurrecting the Commonwealth's glorious heroes in Homeric splendor. In turn, he expected that his writing would revive nationalistic pride and thus renew a spirit of patriotism in his countrymen. Unlike Alexander Dumas, Sienkiewicz thought that the novelist did not have to distort historical facts to fit the story. He filled gaps in the history with his intuition and imagination. He was not writing history, but an adventurous historical epic, as he once said, "that would uplift the hearts of his countrymen." The framework of the main plot is built around a class rebellion among the Cossacks, who bring into the picture their Tartar allies. The Cossacks lived in the Steppes along the Dnieper River - the Wild Lands of the Ukraine. Outsiders of society and its classes, the Cossacks were rebels to all authority and made their livelihood by raiding and plundering their Mongolian neighbors. The Commonwealth sought to convert them into a class of serfs. As a result, tensions began to rise. Soon these savage uprisings gained momentum. In 1648, a war broke out in the Ukraine. A separatist movement erupted when the Cossacks found a first-rank leader in Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, a member of the gentry who had a petty grievance with Yermi Vishnovyetzki, prince of the Ukraine. The neighborhood grievance exploded into a battle with fire and sword against the Commonwealth. At times the dynamics of Sienkiewicz's narrative appear to defy all laws. There are heroic knights, bad guys (who are really bad), witches and soothsayers (used by the villains), kings, serfs, damsels in distress, love affairs, kidnappings, incredible pursuits, narrow escapes, disguises, and convincing battles. The knights resort to prayer, and faith in God and country. Curiosity and interest never subside despite the length of the novel. The tension lasts until the final episode. Pan Yan Zagloba, the supreme character in the book, derives from the stock character Miles Gloriosus of Greek and Roman comedy. But there is only one Zagloba - a braggart and a soldier timid in battle. However, he is not a coward in the ordinary sense of the word. As Huckleberry Finn would remark, Zagloba "tells a few stretchers." He is an extraordinary bundle of incongruities. Old, fat, bibulous, one-eyed, a gap in his skull; he is a gentleman by birth, a knight, and an intimate of noblemen. Although he is a lovable rogue, he is a loyal friend, patriot, and hero. What endears Zagloba is his quenchless and inexhaustible good humor, which radiates to his colleagues; his anecdotes, witticisms, proverbs, prayers, pleadings, and choice curse words are magical. In "With Fire and Sword," Sienkiewicz gives him about 200 memorable quotes, and he is at center stage throughout the book. Pan Michal is the diminutive dragoon officer and deft swordsman who is never happy unless he is unhappy in love. On the other extreme is Pan Longinus, the seven-foot Lithuanian beanpole who takes a vow to the Holy Mother to remain chaste until he has cut off three Tartar heads with a single blow. Pan Yanskshetuski is a faultless and monumental knight who is one of Poland's most promising officers. When not engaged in warfare to save the Commonwealth, he is on an adventurous odyssey in search of his kidnapped Helen, who is in the hands of the Cossack Hetman, or leader, Bohun. This passage captures the spirit of the epic: "These were excessive times, when people loved and hated to the limits of their passion, as everyone there knew by his own experience. Polite conventions hadn't yet corrupted the honesty of feeling. No one felt shamed by tears. Everyone was weeping. Their clenched fists thundered on their armored breasts and their huge bowed shoulders shook in paroxysms of sobbing as they absorbed the great loss to them and to their country this death [a famous knight] represented. Their time was passing. A storm of chan ges was sweeping through their world. The qualities of knighthood would soon have no meaning. And many of them knew as they mourned Longinus Podbipyenta that they were also weeping for their nation and themselves." Anticipation and suspense race through the long narrative. Sienkiewicz overwhelms with exploits and conquests - duels and battles full of convincing sword thrusts and cannon shots, strategic maneuvers of heroes on heroic battlefields. Sienkiewicz's "Trilogy," which won the Nobel Prize in 1905, is one of the great affirmations in literature. In "With Fire and Sword," there is something for everyone. While the tale deals with heroic adventure, Sienkiewicz is ultimately interested in the problems that trouble us all: the nature of success, true friendship, the final value to be found in life and death. Kuniczak's modern translation is brilliant and timely, for it will add immeasurably to a reader's grasp of the heart and soul of Poland, while providing the historical background of a nation that withstood oppression for nearly 200 years, only to resurrect itself and emerge in Solidarity as a free people again. If you are going to read only one literary work about Poland, read this one.