By Ian Zimmermann
Schau der Bestie ins Gesicht,
benenne sie beim Namen.
Schöne Worte heilen nicht
die Wunden, die geschlagen.
Look the beast in the eyes,
call it by its name.
Words of beauty cannot heal
the wounds that cause the pain.
– Saltatio Mortis, Tief in mir. (The English translation is my own.)
It seems safe to say that The Witcher has become fairly popular. As Paul Tassi puts it on Forbes: “People are very, very into this world and these characters” (Tassi, 2019). Its breakthrough to international fame was probably significantly aided by the successful series of video games based on the original short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. More recently, the stories have been adapted to a TV show on Netflix. Personally, I first came in contact with the video games and later decided to read the short stories and novels. Reading these stories is something I quite enjoyed. In fact, I read one of the novels within what was essentially one long reading session. However, I found it hard to determine more concretely what exactly it was about the stories that I liked so much. My goal here is to work towards an answer to the following question: Who do we have to be – or become – to be able to thoroughly enjoy these stories? Or, to use the terms offered by Geralt’s friend Dandelion, who tells us that “[b]allads are not written to be believed. They are written to move their audience” (Sword of Destiny, 187): To what effect does The Witcher move us?
The aim here is to understand the real-life actions that our consumption of aesthetic objects such as novels, films, TV shows, or even watching a match of tennis can motivate us to perform. Our actions are inseparable from the beliefs that motivate them. That is to say, neither do we act independently of our beliefs nor do we have beliefs that are not “materialized” in some action. If we say, for example, that we think a better world is possible and desirable, but are not even looking for ways to work towards such an improvement, then we do not really believe this. The point is that we must study actions and beliefs in combination if we want to better understand what is going on in the world. This combination of belief and action is ideology in Louis Althusser’s sense: our imaginary relation to the real relations of production.
At first glance, it may seem like a hopeless prospect to figure out the ideology of an aesthetic object. Indeed, different people might enjoy different things about the same work and be motivated to do different things. Perhaps a bit like one person using a hammer for hitting nails while another uses their hammer only for cracking walnuts or scratching their back. But this analogy also suggests that our hopes may not be unfounded after all. First, there are limits to what we can do with a hammer, which are determined both by the properties of the hammer and our own physiology, needs and so on. Second, hammers have relatively clear primary purposes. They are not produced randomly, with no particular intended uses. There may always be some further idiosyncratic uses we cannot think of, but this does not mean we cannot understand what actions a hammer is primarily meant to enable. Furthermore, these intended uses are not necessarily the same as those thought of by the manufacturer of the hammer. We might even imagine (although, for this example, it is admittedly absurd) that a manufacturer does not even know what a hammer is typically used for. I hope it is clear what my corresponding suggestions regarding aesthetic objects and their authors are. Of course, this is just an analogy and not an argument, but I’ll leave it at that.
Note that I will not discuss the video games or the TV show in this text. I would consider these to be (relatively) separate objects of investigation, although I suspect that they are ideologically in many ways similar to the novels and short stories. However, I have never actually played more than a demo of the video games and I have not watched the TV show at all. In fact, I’m going to focus primarily on the two collections of short stories “The Last Wish” (henceforth abbreviated “LW”) and “Sword of Destiny” (“SD”), although I will also mention the novels here and there. For these reasons and others, I do not at all believe that this text is the only ideological analysis of “The Witcher” we will ever need. Yet, I do hope to uncover a few important aspects of the ideology being produced by these stories and especially some troubling ones.
With these preliminaries out of the way, let’s get started.
One of the first things we might notice about the professional monster hunter Geralt of Rivia is that he is, well, “cool” and a “good guy”. In all of his adventures, he never shows any intention of harming someone, unless they force his hand, possibly after ignoring his warnings not to pick a fight with him. For example, in “The Lesser Evil” we see him stay completely calm while being insulted in an inn by a group of dangerous thugs whose leader he wants to talk to. On the other hand, he never backs down when he is threatened, either. We can see this, for example, in the same scene and, perhaps even more strikingly, in “A Question of Price”, where he calmly returns veiled threats while talking to Queen Calanthe (see LW 127). There we also learn that he absolutely rejects killing people for money. In general, Geralt displays “a sense of responsibility”, “plain honesty” and “professional ethics” (LW 23) and “keeps to his principles” (LW 117).
One of these principles can be seen in Geralt’s consistent refusal to hunt intelligent creatures such as dragons, even though they are considered monsters by most people. The perpetual object of prejudice, intolerance and hatred himself, Geralt is quite clearly unlike so many of the people in his world, who “hate anything that differs from [them]” (LW 196). Instead, he only kills beings – human or otherwise – who live “to kill, out of hunger, for pleasure, or invoked by some sick will” (LW, 116).
Furthermore, we often find Geralt helping people in need. On the surface, he is not really a pure knight in shining armor, as my section heading suggests. For starters, he is contrasted, in “The Bounds of Reason”, with the somewhat ridiculous character of the fanatically religious knight Eyck of Denesle. And in “The Voice of Reason 4”, Geralt explains to the priestess Iola that he does not really want to get involved in issues that do not concern him as a witcher, saying that doing so is unreasonable (see LW 117). But, apparently, he often simply cannot help himself: He is such a good person that – driven by some moral impulse he cannot control – he risks his life to protect other people from evil even without expecting to get anything in return (e.g. in “The Lesser Evil” or “Something More”).
Recurring themes in The Witcher are tolerance and respect for nature. Repeatedly, we get a critical presentation of humanly caused environmental destruction or discrimination targeting non-humans such as elves, dryads, or dwarves, which, regardless of the fictional setting, must surely remind us of our real-life world and our history. The perspective of these fictional oppressed people is frequently given space. In addition, one might argue that several of the female characters are strong women and there is a passage clearly affirming a woman’s right to choose in the case of an unwanted pregnancy (see SD 345). Thus, The Witcher seems to support some progressive values quite explicitly.
We might say at this point that it isn’t such a bad thing to admire Geralt’s scrupulous character and enjoy his adventures. But let’s look deeper than that. Remember that the guiding question for this investigation is the following: What can reading these stories motivate us to actually do in the world? The answer to this question, I’m afraid, is much less rosy than the preceding paragraphs may suggest – at least from a progressive point of view.
Let’s be honest, the fictional world of The Witcher is a pretty terrifying one. It is, as we learn throughout the stories, full of monsters, bandits, thugs, unfulfilled love, prejudice, lynch mobs, genocide, environmental destruction, political intrigue, war, disease, misogyny, and so on. Of course, with the exception of supernatural monsters, this list also applies to the real world we live in. In other words, The Witcher does not present us with some pleasant fantasy of a world filled with peace and harmony, but regularly reminds us of many of the more horrible things we find in our history books or hear about on the news. While many of Geralt’s adventures are clearly based on traditional fairy tales, we don’t get any “happily ever afters” in The Witcher. Indeed, this aspect of the stories is made rather explicit in some places. For example, when a magically created kestrel (who must know such things for obvious reasons) tells us that “truth is a shard of ice” (SD 115). Or when, in “A Little Sacrifice”, we, the readers, learn about how different Essi Daven’s “actual” sad fate was from the contents of Dandelion’s ballad about her and Geralt, which features an exaggerated tale of romantic love (see SD 246).
I think that this portrayal of darkness, evil, and suffering in the world is one reason for the appeal these stories have for us. After all, we are adults who can handle the truth, right? But my claim here is that a central ideological effect of The Witcher is to naturalize this depressing state of affairs. Instead of motivating us to collectively improve our predicament, it teaches us to find enjoyment in the idea that we simply live in “a base world” (SD 334), as the kind merchant Yurga puts it. Now, I’m not saying, of course, that The Witcher will turn us all into sadists who actively enjoy other people’s suffering. My suggestion is rather that we are encouraged to accept suffering in the world as a background to our lives which we must simply take as given and adapt to. Don’t believe me? Let’s see if I can make this more plausible.
Consider, for instance, the story “The Edge of the World”. In it, Geralt and Dandelion are captured by a group of elves who have been driven from the fertile lands where they used to live in harmony with nature. Now, living miserably in the barren mountains, they try to steal seeds and knowledge about agriculture in order to be able to survive without having to enter into trade relations with humans. Central to the story is a discussion between Geralt and Filavandrel, the leader of the elves who are about to kill their two prisoners. In spite of the circumstances, Filavandrel is not depicted as an evil person. We may even believe that he is being sincere when he says “I’m sorry we’ve got to kill you. Revenge has nothing to do with it, it’s purely practical” (LW 198). Surely, we are meant to find his absolute rejection of the idea of “cohabiting” with humans and his comparison of our species with lice too extreme. At the same time, it seems clear that he has a point when he harshly criticizes the human “domination of the world” (LW 198), the violence humans have perpetrated against the elves and many other species in the world of The Witcher. We are thus presented with a dilemma, torn between empathy with the position of the elves as a brutally oppressed group and rejecting the hatred that they respond with in turn, which may make them seem no better than their oppressors. In fact, this latter idea is prominently suggested again much later in the novels, when Ciri discovers proof of a genocide against humans perpetrated by the elves living in the mysterious world beyond the Tower of the Swallow. Now, I completely agree that brutal violence and oppression is a horror regardless of which group is the aggressor and that we should avoid simplistic thinking along the lines of “humans bad, elves good”. However, the question I am interested in here is whether the stories can somehow contribute to preventing such violence. But let’s get back to “The Edge of the World”.
The situation is resolved – and Geralt and Dandelion saved – by the appearance of some kind of natural spirit or goddess of fertility. After she telepathically communicates with Filavandrel, telling him about “Hope. That things renew themselves and won’t stop doing so” (LW 206), the elves make peace with Geralt and Dandelion before retreating in resignation. At this point, their slow demise in the mountains seems inevitable due to their refusal to cooperate with humans. When Dandelion mentions this, Geralt’s response is telling: “Let’s not talk about it […] Why talk about it? Words aren’t necessary” (LW 205). All we get is an opportunity to mourn the fate of the elves and the vague admonition that “we” ought to “respect the boundaries” (LW 206). Hence, the only solution to the antinomy I described above that the story offers us is to leave things to their “natural” course, or, as Geralt puts it, “accept facts” (LW 197).
The Witcher seems to be advocating tolerance and condemning all kinds of hatred, but can it really help us promote tolerance in the world? I would suggest that it fails to do so on two counts. First, it cannot help us overcome prejudice in ourselves that we might not even be aware of. Basically, I think that it cannot do so because Geralt – in sharp contrast to the often anonymous masses of bigots in the stories – already is a model of tolerance, without any apparent effort on his part. Thus, identifying with Geralt or his friends rather gives us a chance to feel like we are part of an “elite moral minority” (Segelken, 2001). (If you’re wondering how any aesthetic object could possibly help us in this regard, I highly recommend watching the excellent short film “A Phone Call from My Best Friend” by Alex Christenson.)
Second, I believe that the story cannot motivate us to work towards a more tolerant world. To argue for this, I want to consider the kind of subject that Geralt is: the epitome of the atomized, self-sufficient individual. Apart from a few friends he exists virtually without social context and just roams the land, looking for work. Even though he is said to be part of the “guild of witchers” (SD 195), other members of his profession are almost entirely absent from the stories. Geralt seems to only meet his colleagues every couple of years in their reclusive fortress in the mountains. Additionally, his financial situation is somewhat precarious; we learn, for example, in “The Voice of Reason 5” that Geralt has more and more difficulty finding work and in “A Little Sacrifice” he and Dandelion lack the money to even pay for food. (On a side note: Isn’t it a bit odd that a task so vital to life and limb of many ordinary people as that of killing dangerous monsters is organized through the market in the first place? Especially in this quasi-medieval setting, where the market shouldn’t be as universal as it is in the capitalist mode of production.) All of these things are clearly “facts” Geralt has learned to accept. He is also profoundly apolitical: Indeed, in the very first short story he emphatically affirms that he “do[es] not care about politics” (LW 23) and we usually see him remain neutral in political matters.
A perhaps even more striking example of passive acquiescence to the social formation can be found in the short story “Eternal Flame”, which features shapeshifters who have been hunted almost to extinction by humans. Insisting – understandably! – that they “also deserve something from life” (SD 180), they adapt to life in a human city. Notably, this is likened to an earlier situation endured by one of the shapeshifters in which he was hunted by a pack of wolves and saved himself by turning into a wolf and joining their pack (see SD 176). My point is the picture of human society that is painted here, namely that of a quasi-natural structure that the individual can only adapt to, never work to change. This seems a little ironic considering the setting of The Witcher, which resembles the feudal system of medieval Europe, thus reminding us of our not so distant past and pointing to the fact that social formations do change. Although, perhaps, the setting rather serves to reinforce the impression that Geralt’s subjectivity is just timeless human nature.
Admittedly, Geralt does at times attempt to intervene in sociopolitical matters. For instance, in the short story “The Sword of Destiny” he attempts to convince the dryads to accept a proposal from a king they are at war with, hoping to prevent further bloodshed. But he does so purely as an individual and the conversation quickly turns to Geralt’s personal life. It is perhaps the pinnacle of this logic of the atomistic individual when, at the end of the novel “The Lady of the Lake” Geralt intervenes in a pogrom against non-humans and fights against a lynch mob all on his own. In the world of The Witcher, we can only ever respond to evil as it appears, but not understand and act upon the social structures that produce the evil. Thus, all we can do is throw up our hands at all the terrible events in the world and insist, with Yurga, that “What we need is kindness” (SD 334).
To sum up: The idea of actively transforming society from within with the goal of reducing suffering in the world is totally absent from The Witcher. So, what is our attention directed to instead?
Something that is never portrayed as enjoyable in The Witcher is the daily effort we need to make to reproduce our living conditions. One glaring example of this is the fact that, although Geralt says he “train[s] in every spare moment” (LW 114), we never, not even once in several thousand pages if memory serves, catch him practicing the sword skills which are the most important tool for his work as a “witcher”. Productive physical labor in general remains mostly invisible throughout the stories, as the main characters tend to be either – if you’ll permit the phrase – swordslingers, sorcerers who can use magic to perform tedious tasks, rulers or other people in positions of political power, merchants, knights, or bards. Peasants and craftsmen rarely make an explicit appearance and when they do, they are typically portrayed as very slow-witted, very ignorant, very intolerant, or some combination of the three (see, for example, the peasants in “The Edge of the World” and the townspeople in “The Bounds of Reason”).
Instead, a prominent source of enjoyment in the novels involves sexualizing women. The objectifying gaze of the narrative targets almost all women in the stories: be it the dangerous, yet seductive rogue Renfri in “The Lesser Evil”; the anonymous women whose butts are pinched here and there (e.g. in “The Lesser Evil” or “The Voice of Reason 5”); the priestess Iola in “The Voice of Reason”; the muscular and deadly, yet almost exaggeratedly playful Zerrikanian warriors in “The Bounds of Reason”; the cold and domineering sorceress Yennefer; the mermaid in “A Little Sacrifice”… and the list goes on. Basically, all the men in the stories casually objectify women all the time. Boys will be boys, right?
To elaborate a bit on just one example: the case of the mermaid Sh’eenaz in the short story “A Little Sacrifice”. Whenever she appears, we are invariably told about the sexual appeal of her “gorgeous, utterly perfect breasts” (SD 183) (and later of her freshly obtained pair of legs). This is, in fact, the very first thing we are told about in the story. While we might be tempted to say “it’s just natural that they would make such an impression on Geralt”, this is highly problematic. It is not the case that sexualizing breasts is “natural”. As anthropological evidence shows, this is very much a culturally specific practice, although it is so deeply ingrained in so many modern cultures that it may appear to us like the most natural thing in the world. Nonetheless, there are still many cultures in which women do not cover their breasts and, as Carolyn Latteier has claimed, at least one where the very idea that female breasts could sexually arouse men is perceived as laughable:
I interviewed a young anthropologist working with women in Mali, in a country in Africa where women go around with bare breasts. They’re always feeding their babies. And when she told them that in our culture men are fascinated with breasts there was an instant of shock. The women burst out laughing. They laughed so hard, they fell on the floor. They said, ‘You mean, men act like babies?’ (Discovery Health Channel, 2002)
Now, I am not trying to argue that we must never talk about breasts or that stories must not contain sexual elements. The basic point is rather that “The Witcher” reinforces and naturalizes a socially constructed tendency to objectify women’s bodies. In other words, the problem isn’t just that Geralt ogles Sh’eenaz’s body. This could perhaps be described in a way that helps us gain distance from the sexualization of the female breast. But the narrative offers no such distance. That is to say, if we let the text do its work on us, we are right there with Geralt, stupidly staring alongside him.
But let’s move on from sex and discuss love. Besides many temporary or casual encounters with women, Geralt’s on and off romantic relationship with Yennefer plays a central role in “The Witcher”. We learn very early that Geralt’s infatuation with her is a key factor in his life (see LW 34) and this remains true throughout the stories, even though they are separated most of the time – or, perhaps, precisely because of this separation. Yet, his unstable relationship with Yennefer cannot fill his life with meaning. Thus, we find Geralt saying things like “Because it’s all the same to me. I don’t have a goal to head towards” (SD 45) or “But it’s senseless. Nothing has any point” (SD 344). Geralt and Yennefer are “destined for each other”, but “[s]omething more is needed” (SD 333). This “something more” turns out to be Ciri who becomes the daughter that Geralt and Yennefer, both being infertile, cannot have. Ciri is supposed to be able to “save” Geralt from “the nothingness which he has come to love” (SD 298). Thus, an important part of the answer to the question I posed above is that our attention is directed to the curative fantasy represented by Ciri. The final short story “Something More” ends with the powerfully emotional scene of Geralt and Ciri’s reunion after we have been led to believe that Ciri was killed in the war that just erupted. I put it to you that this scene primarily has the power to move us to want to hear more stories about Geralt and Ciri, hoping that they can save us from our sense of meaninglessness in the same way that Ciri is supposed to make Geralt’s life meaningful.
Ciri is at the heart of the plot of the five subsequent novels in which she is searched for by just about every faction in the story for a variety of reasons. As she suffers through one hardship after another, stranded alone in a desert, becoming a bandit, a captive of the sadistic Leo Bonhart, hunted by Eredin, I cannot help but think of the phrase “Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.” In a world in which so many horrible things happen, we keep waiting for that next moment filled with intense emotion in the story of “the witcher and the witcher-girl”. Then, at the end of “The Lady of the Lake”, Ciri uses her weird magical powers to travel through time and space, leaves behind the world she grew up in and in which she had to endure so much, and sets out with Galahad, presumably toward new adventures in the world of Arthurian legend. In other words, due to her innate specialness, she doesn’t even have to adapt to society, but can just move freely between worlds, thereby becoming even more thoroughly disembedded from social context than Geralt. It is with this bizarre fantasy that the saga ends.
There is, no doubt, much more to be said about The Witcher. For example, we might critically examine what it means to enjoy the frequent and usually brutal fight scenes. Or we might question the intentional ambiguity surrounding the concept of “destiny” in the stories. Sometimes all of the characters seem to firmly believe in it and the events appear to confirm its reality, sometimes it is made to appear like a mere superstition. Thus, we as readers don’t have to believe in destiny even as part of the fictional setting, but can let ourselves be moved by it anyway, to use Dandelion’s terms once more. That is to say, we can, for instance, enjoy the idea that Geralt and Ciri are tied by “destiny” while at the same time keeping our ironic distance to this belief. As a final example, another issue that may be worth exploring is the portrayal of politics in the novels, where we are shown that it is a struggle for power between the rulers and not really concerned with the welfare of the people. Briefly, I would suggest that this is presented as just another “fact” we should accept.
To conclude, I would like to suggest an alternative both to simply “accepting facts” and to indulging in escapist fantasies. If we learn to better understand the origins and nature of racism and intolerance, of the causes of human environmental destruction, or even of the dissatisfactions caused by romantic love, including the role our mode of production plays in all these things among other factors, then maybe we can actually change the world for the better and make it less dark and less scary. Perhaps thinking about the effects that reading stories like “The Witcher” has on us can contribute to such change.
Discovery Health Channel. (2002). All about breasts [TV series episode]. Berman and Berman: For Women Only.Transcript. Retrieved October 3, 2020, from https://bermansexualhealth.com/all-about-breasts/
Sapkowski, A. (2012). The Last Wish (D. Stok, Trans.). London, Great Britain: Gollancz.
Sapkowski, A. (2016). Sword of Destiny (D. French, Trans.). London, Great Britain: Gollancz.
Segelken, H. R. (2001, March 1). ‘Holier than thou’ morality study by Cornell psychologists shows why Americans aren’t as nice as they think they are. Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2001/03/americans-are-not-nice-they-think-they-are
Tassi, P. (2019, December 31). ‘The Witcher’ Is Netflix’s Second Most Popular Original Show Of 2019, Ten Days In. Forbes. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2020/12/31/the-witcher-is-netflixs-second-most-popular-original-show-of-2019-ten-days-in/