For the un-nitiated, The Witcher is not just the forthcoming fantasy web television series from Netflix. Positioned as a spiritual successor to the dark and mature world of Game of Thrones, The Witcher is in fact a long-running literary saga.
Starting in 1986 with a Polish short story, the world of the Witcher has grown to encompass eight books, two-failed screen adaptations, three video-games telling their own story and now a Netflix original, in that order. Since it is soon to enter popular culture worldwide, it is perhaps time to understand what kind of legacy the series carries, and what The Witcher truly is.
The treasure beneath the hearth
Andzrej Sapkowski first wrote about the world of the Witcher in 1986 in the form of a short story titled “Wiedzmin” or “Witcher” for the Polish fantasy magazine Fantastyka. He was 42 at the time, and the sales representative of a foreign trade company. When asked about his inspiration, Sapkowski put it down to his son, who had asked him to write down the stories he used to tell him. Little did he know that his creation was going to make him one of Poland’s most famous authors and would eventually lead him to worldwide recognition.
The Witcher Saga spans eight books – three collections of short stories and a pentalogy of novels. The Last Wish (1993), Season of Storms (2013) and The Sword of Destiny (1992) – the sequence is chronological in terms of the flow of events and not order of publishing – make up the short story collections. Following on from the events mentioned in these come the novels: The Blood of Elves (1994), The Time of Contempt (1995), The Baptism of Fire (1996), The Tower of Swallows (1997) and The Lady of the Lake (1999).
After a successful, but linguistically limited, publication run that ended in 1999, the books began to be translated into English in 2008. In 2003 Sapwkowski sold CD Projekt Red, a small Polish game development studio, the rights to make a game based on his work. He sold the rights for a lumpsum, having little to no faith that anyone could adapt his works successfully, let alone a fledgling game studio.
For a while he was proven right, as CDPR remained mostly unknown despite making two games based on the series: The Witcher (2007) and The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (2009). Even though the latter was eventually recognised as a cult hit, it was only in 2015, with the release of their Magnus Opus, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that the studio truly burst into the spotlight. The game was a critical and commercial success, the kind that becomes generation-defining, turning CDPR into one of the industry’s most respected developers. Even today, few would refute its claim as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – games of its kind: A sprawling role-playing game with a vast and beautiful open world, brimming with things to do and find, impactful choices to make, and some of the best quest and story-writing the industry has seen to date.
Whilst CDPR certainly made many additions to the source material, in order to make full use of the medium of video games, they stayed unerringly faithful to its tone, internal logic and pre-existing lore, thereby introducing Sapkowski’s fictional creation to a truly world-wide audience for the first time. The games, however, did not re-tell the story of the books, but took place five years after the end of the novels, which had left the fates of the main characters open to a degree of speculation. By doing so, the games essentially created their own alternative and far more definitive conclusion to the saga.
As a result of this relationship between the games and the source material, many chose to dive into the novels after completing the trilogy of games in order to truly understand the origins and development of the world and characters of the Witcher Saga.
And so to the books
The books can be split into two parts: the short stories and the novels. The short stories are essentially a prelude to the latter and establish much of the basic information regarding the world and its affairs, as well as the relations between many of the main characters. The novels are, naturally, more expansive and are far more focussed in their premise. They are also the site of some of Sapkowski’s best writing.
Sapkowski is a masterful storyteller. No other word can be used to describe the deftness with which he executes his experimental narrative structures, weaving together a host of characters and themes into a tapestry of rare beauty. It also helps that he has a penchant for witty sarcasm, humour and dialogue, resulting in many memorable exchanges and scenes.
The Saga essentially has two stories running parallel to one another, alongside a host of other smaller narratives that swoop in and out in their own trajectories. The first is about the protagonist of the series, Geralt of Rivia, and his race to rescue his adopted Ward, Cirilla of Cintra. Not only is she a princess and heir to a strategically important state, but she is also a source of magic and the carrier of the Elder Blood, a gene that conveys upon its recipient the power to control space and time.
Naturally, owing to her importance, many are the people who seek to use her ancestry for their own advantage, not caring if harm befalls her along the way. Drawn into this pursuit are a host of primary, secondary and tertiary characters with their own narratives trajectories and motivations. Some are antagonistic, some join Geralt in his quest or give aid when they can. Very few of them can be regarded as being unidimensional.
The second story is about the world itself. The Saga takes place in the Continent, a land marked by great rivers, mountain chains, plains and all the geographical features that lie in the confluence. Apart from humans, the Continent is populated by elves, dwarves, gnomes and dryads as well, alongside a variety of other magical taxa. There is a great deal of animosity between the various races, each of which can be accused of Xenophobia. However, none of them is at as much fault as the Humans, who were the last to arrive on the Continent but were the quickest to spread, displacing the former inhabitants from their homes.
The Elves and the Dryads took this the hardest and were driven to near extinction fighting futile battles against them. The Gnomes and Dwarves, on the other hand, quickly adapted and began to utilise their skills in ironmongery, craftsmanship and finances to provide necessary services to Humans.
Most of the story takes place in the North, in a land bursting with kingdoms and vassal states, and whilst there is a great deal more of history and lore that one can go into, what is of immediate concern is the martial and economic invasion of the Northern Kingdoms by the imperialist Empire of Nilfgaard. Everything leads up to or follows this one great event, which acts as a trigger for all other subsequent ones.
Thus, the story of the World is a story of rulers, of the nature of power, authority and war, and how they shape the lives of people. It is a story about the inevitability of change, of the march of civilisation and the destruction that comes with it. It is a story of patriotism – misguided or otherwise – xenophobia, hatred, fear, greed and all the other darker aspects of life, and yet, it is also a story replete with moments of great joy and hope.
The two stories are not separate from one another, although at certain points it may feel that way. The characters play critical roles in each, and it’s really in the interactions between the two stories – one intensely personal and other grandiose and far-reaching – that the Witcher saga brings its story to life.
Aside from the story, which is invariably complex, there are three things that really stand out when reading The Witcher, giving it a uniqueness not only in its tone, but also in the way Sapkowski writes his fiction.
The experienced protagonist
Geralt of Rivia is one of the last remaining Witchers, a dying breed of genetically enhanced humans, created in order to protect humanity against the monstrous evils that threaten them. He is a consummate professional, doing his best to act in accordance with his creed, one which places emphasis on neutrality above all else. However, circumstances ensure that he fails constantly, and as the saga progresses, he finds himself drawing further and further away from what has defined him for so long.
Unlike the protagonists of most fantasy and science-fiction stories, Geralt is not a novice in this world; if anything, he is an almost legendary figure, well-entrenched in the politics and myths of the land. What such a character does for a story is to ensure that the reader is always in the dark to some degree, as the protagonist has more information about the world than the reader does. Indeed, at many points, Geralt himself is the source of new knowledge for the reader, and even goes so far as to keep things from the reader, revealing only later that he already knew about some things.
This is in stark contrast to a series like Harry Potter or even Lord of the Rings, where the main characters, Harry and Frodo, respectively, are introduced to their respective worlds at the same time as the reader. Jon, Arya and Sansa from Game of Thrones are also protagonists of this kind as, upon their departure from Winterfell, they are as uninitiated into the intricacies of Westeros and the lands beyond it as the reader is.
As a result, the most compelling narrative moments are the ones in which both Geralt and the reader find out something new, because those moments are truly unexpected. A simple example of this is when Geralt insists that Golden Dragons – unlike other rare but very much real breeds of the same species – are only myths and is subsequently proven wrong in a wonderfully clever manner. In other stories, surprise is not uncommon because the protagonist knows only as much as the reader does. However, in this case, Geralt, as a specialist in magical creatures and monsters, surprises the reader by proving to be ignorant.
This is not just applicable to Geralt, however. There is a very real sense of ignorance, despite their experience, replete amongst all the characters. They hold steady beliefs and opinions, and many of their characteristics were formed prior to their introduction to the saga. This makes sense because, other than Ciri and a handful of secondary characters, none of the characters is a child. It’s a great way to explore character development in a period of such chaos. Watching an old dog trying to learn new tricks is always interesting.
The cleverness of Sapkowski’s world-building
Sapkowski is an intelligent writer and presumes intelligence on the part of the reader. Scientific, historical and philosophical inquiry are all big parts of his world. He uses his characters, and the situations they find themselves in, to comment on many subjects with definitive authority, one informed not only by his own views but by the ones that his characters hold.
The internal logic of his world is surprisingly robust at holding up under scrutiny, as it isn’t afraid to draw from contemporary philosophies and scientific discussions to bolster its veracity. For example, the so called “Elder Blood” which lies at the heart of the novels manifests itself through genetics and heredity, a paradigm only truly accepted in the late 19th century. Another example could be the Druids, nature-loving wizards and sorceresses who petition kings about the protection of nature and advocate for environmental stewardship in much the same way that naturalists and environmentalists do today.
Commonly accepted ideas such as heliocentrism, climate change and ecology, evolution, the use of anaesthesia, and the structure of the university, among others, also find their place amongst familiar tropes of medieval fantasy. Underlying it all is a deliberate attention to the fiscal workings of the world and its role in shaping the interests of nations and its rulers.
Magic, Wizards and other supernatural arcana also have a clear explanation as to their origins and functions. Whilst it isn’t so thorough as to render the fantastical mundane, it is certainly treated with a great deal more objectivity than other fantasy works. Sorcerers, though largely powerful political actors, are scholars as well, and are known for experimentation and research, opening up many avenues of knowledge regarding the workings of their own abilities and those of the world around them. Thus they know where both magic and monsters come from, and have also conducted studies into the heredity of magical traits and other such phenomenon.
Feminism has a great part to play in the books, but Sapkowski’s female characters, of whom there are many, are human before they are women. Thus, they are not above acts of dubious ethicality, cruelty, chauvinism or rampant promiscuity, nor are any of them perfect models of emancipation. Just like the male characters, they have their own strengths, desires and flaws, some more than others. Does this mean that this world is without any sexism or atrocities? No, sexism is very much present and during times of war, rape and mutilation are common sights. However, it is not a black and white portrayal of a complex business, and the opinions of different sides, even if distasteful, are almost always presented to the reader.
The story-telling of time
By utilising eclectic narrative styles that jump between time, places and characters, Sapkowski calls forth the endless cycle of history and time, one in which stories are constantly forged and forgotten, and in which eternity is held in a single moment.
There are chapters written from the perspective of a character a hundred or so years into the future. In that future, Geralt, Ciri and the other characters we know of are almost mythical and are from a world that few would recognise anymore. Their lives have become storied – at the same time we the readers are still waiting to see what will happen. What makes this even more interesting is that the myths are usually incomplete or slightly altered by the passage of time and human error. Thus, two narratives begin to emerge. One which we know to be the truth, and the other, which those in the future think to be the truth. It’s a fascinating way of writing, one that I haven’t encountered before.
One of the finest examples of this kind of simultaneous myth creation is the chapter that details the concluding battle between the Empire of Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms. It takes place in the final book and is unique in that it doesn’t feature even a single main character. In fact, they are so far removed from the site of the battle that one has to wonder why we are even being told about it.
Why the chapter matters is a topic for another discussion. What is important here is to note how Sapkowski relates it. The battle is told not from one character’s perspective, nor by an omniscient narrator, but from the points of view of multiple secondary characters who – introduced earlier in the series or during the battle – are now at the site of their final performance. Not only does the narration jump from place to place, but it also jumps forward and back in time. Every paragraph is either a different character or place on the battlefield, or it’s a different time, such as the perspective of a Northern historian, writing about the battle fifty years later, or that of a cowardly Nilfgaardian scout prior to the battle. This constant shifting eventually results in a narrative unlike any other.
The Witcher is a unique contribution to the halls of speculative fiction. It is very much a serious work of fantasy, but is one that is not afraid of subverting the tropes of its own genre. This world has a very specific tone – humorous and tragic in equal parts – which is very hard to replicate or adapt properly. Even the video games, for all that they achieved, could not do this perfectly.
The saga has a timeless quality, as though it exists without the reader and continues to do so long after the story has ended. Each time you return, you feel as though the story has continued to take place without your presence. It’s uncanny, but infinitely rewarding.