Our Notes & References
The main national epic of Georgia in a very unusual, small-format production for the Third Reich’s “Georgian Legion” – extremely rare: one of 50 deluxe copies (this one num. 19) for a total printrun of 500 copies. We could not find any copy in Worldcat or at auctions, while the National Library of the Parliament of Georgia lists only two known copies: one of this tirage de tête at the Ioseb Grishashvili library-museum, and an ordinary copy at the Museum of Georgian Emigration.
The Georgian Legion was formed in 1941 from Georgian prisoners of war and émigrés with the ultimate goal to fight for the independence of Georgia from the Soviet Union. Classified as Aryans according to Nazi racial ideology, Georgians however had lost the Werhmacht’s trust due to defections and Hitler’s growing paranoia by the end of the war. The Legion’s met its fate with the Georgian uprising against the Nazis on Texel island in the Netherlands in Spring 1945 (5 April to 20 May). Sometimes described as the last battle in Europe, this fight marked the end of the Legion: from 800 Georgians in the battalion, almost 600 were killed by the nazis; the rest, prisoners of war of the allies, were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, as part of what has been described as ‘the great betrayal’ of the Western forces. Outcasts, many were sent to Gulag camps.
The specific situation of these Georgian readers, trapped between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes, may well explain the scarcity of this pocket edition of their national poem. Its publisher, Davit Keladze (1887-1957), was the founder of the Georgian Press in Paris, and was famous for having published, ten years earlier in 1933, the first complete Russian translation of Rustaveli’s masterpiece. His Georgian miniature edition saw the light in Berlin in 1943, while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. The émigré publisher and chairman of the French bureau of the Social-Democratic Party of Georgia, Pavle Sarjveladze, recalled: “I remember with what admiration [Keladze] brought me a small edition of the book and told me: ‘Put it in your pocket and carry it with you all the time'” (our translation here and below).
“The pride and beauty of Georgian writing” (Khakhanov), The Knight in the Panther’s Skin is regarded as the “coronation of thought, poetic and philosophical art of mediaeval Georgia” (Asatiani & Bendianashvili); it has been “one of the most read books in Georgia for centuries and has had a profound influence on the development of Georgian literature up to the present day” (Baramidze). Written in the 12th century by Georgia’s national poet Shota Rustaveli at the behest of Queen Tamar (both of whom are represented here on the frontispiece), the poem recounts a chivalrous story set in India and Arabia, allegorically describing the rule of the Queen and the glory of the Kingdom of Georgia in its Golden Age.
Remarkably, Rustaveli in his poem insists on freeing slaves, proclaims the equality between men and women and puts personal merit above noble descent.
Little is known about Rustaveli himself, the main credible source being his own poem. He was most likely the treasurer of Queen Tamar; “hopelessly in love with his mistress, he ended his life in a monastic cell” (Khakhanov). The earliest copies of the poem were not preserved because of persecution by the clergy and severe devastations by foreign invaders in the following centuries.
A remarkable example of this fascinating pocket edition, in a luxurious binding and complete with the double portrait of the poet and his queen.
C.S. (gilt lettering on upper board).
Nodar Asatiani & Alexandre Bendianashvili, Histoire de la Géorgie, Paris, l’Harmattan, 1997, p. 151.
Aleksandr Baramidze, Shota Rustaveli // Issledovaniia po istorii gruzinskoi literatury, Tiflis, 1932.
Davit Keladze. Biographical Dictionary of Georgia, National Library of the Parliament of Georgia.
A.Khakhanov. Ocherki po istorii gruzinskoi slovesnosti, vyp. II, pp. 243-298 // Entsiklopedicheskii slovar Brokgauza i Efrona, T. XXVII, 1899.