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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portugal, Hollywood and Tolstoy’s Comets Collide


A stunning comet zoomed across the skies of parts of Portugal and Spain at 45 kilometers (28 miles) per second before burning up over the Atlantic Ocean.


Videos went viral on social media, showing the comet illuminating the night sky in bright tones of blue and green on May 18, reported Reuters (May 19).


Along with the pictures came speculations about the celestial body’s hidden meaning. Throughout history, comets have been considered signs of future events.


I encountered two interpretations: the first in my re-reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1868) and the second in my first viewing of the film Greenland (2020) with Gerard Butler.


Both riveted me. But I am biased toward the genius of Leo Tolstoy, who makes each character whole, and toward Gerard Butler, 54, a Scottish actor, who began treading the boards after law school.

In Greenland, John Garrity (Gerard Butler), his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), who live in Atlanta, Georgia, fight for survival as a planet-killing comet races toward earth.


Against the backdrop of a countdown and news accounts of the leveling of cities worldwide, the family attempts to make a perilous journey to their only hope of sanctuary. Along the way, they encounter the best and the worst in people as panic and lawlessness increases around them.



Tecumseh, Qing Dynasty, Napoleon’s Russian Invasion

In War and Peace, Count Pierre Bezúkhov encounters the Great Comet of 1811, which was visible to the naked eye for about 260 days, the longest recorded period of visibility until Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.


The Great Comet of 1811 inspired many interpretations around the world.


In North America, Tecumseh, the Shawnee military leader, who was named “shooting star” for a meteor seen at his birth, took the comet as a favorable omen during his efforts to draw southern tribes together into his pan-Native American alliance, according to the National Park Service.


In China, some took the comet to be a blessing for their overthrow of the Qing dynasty, the last of the imperial dynasties.


In Europe, many believed that the comet portended the French invasion of Russia by Napoleon, who wanted compliance with his trade embargo, the Continental Blockade (1806-1814), against the British Empire.


Indeed, after the auspicious comet overcomes Pierre in Moscow, Tolstoy returns to chronicling war against Napoleon, who Pierre believes he must assassinate for the good of Russia.

Pierre’s Story


Who is Pierre?

Pierre “was ungainly, stout, quite tall and possessed of huge red hands. It was said of him that he had no idea how to enter a drawing-room and was worse still at withdrawing from one."


So, Pierre is devoid of social graces. However, his father, one of the richest people in the Russian Empire, leaves his illegitimate son his fortune and, suddenly, Pierre becomes highly desirable to society.


Pierre, who was educated in France, does not quite fit into the Russian milieu. His lack of direction leads him to fall in with a group of wild young men, including Prince Anatole Kurágin and Fédya Dólokhov, whose heavy drinking, card gambling and pranks cause mild scandals. In one escapade, a police officer is strapped to the back of a bear and thrown into a river in St. Petersburg.


After his inheritance, Pierre is quickly married off through the manipulation of others to Princess Hélene Kurágin, a beautiful but vapid woman who has sexual affairs with others, perhaps even her own brother, Anatole Kurágin.


Because of jealousy, the hot-blooded count shoots and wounds Dólokhov, his wife’s suspected lover, in a duel. He is distraught with himself for having committed such a crime. He separates from Hélene, eventually accepting an invitation to become a Freemason in his constant search for meaning in his life.


In Moscow, he visits his friend, Countess Natásha Rostóv, after the collapse of her engagement to Prince Andréy Bolkónsky, Pierre’s best friend. Andréy's father had objected to the match and forced a one-year postponement of their marriage. Andréy goes on a tour of Europe and finds a tutor for his son, whose mother died in childbirth.


During Andréy's absence, Anatole Kurágin takes advantage of Natásha's innocence and courts her. Although he already is married secretly to a woman in Poland, the scoundrel arranges an elopement, which is thwarted by Natásha cousin, Sonya. The deceived woman takes arsenic in an attempted suicide.


“And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth . . . shone the the huge brilliant comet of 1812 . . ." (Photo by Panther, 2008)


During his visit with Natásha, new feelings of intensity well up in Pierre. On his departure, Tolstoy writes:


“And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world.


“But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre’s eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars.


“This heavenly body seemed perfectly attuned to Pierre’s newly melted heart, as it gathered reassurance and blossomed into new life.”


New life.

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