Monday, December 14, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Witcher

Like most native English speakers, I've generally been quite ignorant of fantasy and science fiction outside of my own linguistic bubble. I've made efforts to correct this myopia, but I've been hampered by the fact that, outside of French, I've largely had to wait until translations into English become available and that's necessarily limited the scope of what I can read. However, a little over a decade ago, a friend of mine suggested I take a look at the work of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. I'd never heard of the man, but that's hardly surprising: despite my surname, I don't read Polish and no one in my family has done so in nearly a century. Even so, I'd come to trust my friend's recommendations and I sought out a copy of a newly translated volume of Sapkowski's short stories.  

The short stories in question concern a professional monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia, who made his first appearance in "The Witcher," published in the December 1986 issue of  the Polish magazine Fantastyka. Writing this in 2020, I almost feel as if there's little need to introduce Geralt and his world, since, in the years since I first read the story that introduced him, he's appeared in a series of successful video games, as well as a television series. A decade ago, this wasn't the case and I was, as I said, among the many people who was completely oblivious of the character or his author. At the same time, there's a very good chance that many people who are familiar with the character from spin-off media have never read the stories from which they are derived, which is why I though a post like this would be useful. 

The story begins as a stranger enters the city of Wyzim, looking for place to spend the night and encounters resistance from the locals.
The stranger was not old but his hair was almost entirely white. Beneath his coat he wore a worn leather jerkin laced up at the neck and shoulders.

As he took off his coat those around him noticed that he carried a sword – not something unusual in itself, nearly every man in Wyzim carried a weapon – but no one carried a sword strapped to his back as if it were a bow or a quiver.

The stranger did not sit at the table with the few other guests. He remained standing at the counter, piercing the innkeeper with his gaze. He drew from the tankard.

"I'm looking for a room for the night."

"There's none," grunted the innkeeper, looking at the guest's boots, dusty and dirty. "Ask at the Old Narakort."

"I would rather stay here." 

 As we soon learn, the innkeeper "recognized the stranger's accent" – a Rivian accent – and disliked him for it. "All Rivians are thieves," says one of the inn's patrons. Three men set upon the stranger, but he quickly dispatches them, showing himself to be an adept swordsman. Hearing the commotion, the city guard rush into the inn, overpower the stranger, and arrest him. The guards take him to Velerad, Wyzim's castellan, who declares himself "a just man" willing to listen to the stranger's explanation for his actions rather than simply ordering him impaled for murder.

The stranger, who introduces himself as Geralt, states that he is a witcher – a monster hunter – and he's come to Wyzim because of a proclamation by King Foltest, seeking aid in dealing with some sort of supernatural menace, the details of which are vague. Geralt presses the castellan to provide those details, which he does. Foltest, while still crown prince, got his sister, Adda, pregnant. Adda died in childbirth, as did their daughter, and both were buried in the royal crypt. Seven years later, the child had risen from the grave as a cursed monster called a striga and she set about killing the inhabitants of the palace and those who dwell nearby – several dozen a year, in fact.

Such has been the situation for another seven years – much to Geralt's surprise – and no one has found a way to resolve the matter, largely because King Foltest won't allow anyone to destroy the striga, whom he still, in some sense, considers his daughter. The king wants his daughter freed from the curse, not slain. This is why Geralt is met with suspicion both by Velerad and, later, the king himself: witchers aren't known for their compassion toward monsters. They have a well deserved reputation for success in slaying monsters, not saving them. Nevertheless, Geralt assures his skeptical would-be patrons that he knows a method of undoing the curse without killing the princess and sets out to do just that.

When I first read "The Witcher," what struck me immediately was how much it reminded me of a noir novel, with Geralt taking the place of the gruff but honorable private eye – a hallowed pulp archetype that's been reinvented numerous times. Like a lot of pulp fantasies, "The Witcher" isn't high art, let alone philosophically deep, but it's fun and I appreciated the way that Sapkowski made use of actual eastern European folklore in its plot, something he does in subsequent stories of Geralt's adventures. On the other hand, he also includes many clichéd fantasy elements, like elves and dwarves, that don't bring much to the table, though, in his defense, they might be less common in Polish fantasy than they are in English ones. Still, I enjoyed the first story enough that I eventually read several others and continue to think well of them. I believe the entire saga of Geralt is now available in English and, thanks to the success of the games and the TV series, are easy to come by should you wish to see for yourself.


  1. James: The cliche fantasy elements come into play much more interestingly in the novels, as opposed to short stories. The short stories are just twists on fairy tales (beauty and the beast, list mermaid, little red riding hood). The novels drop that approach and focus more on politics and relations between humans and elves/dwarves. The racial conflicts is one of the main themes of the story - some non-humans fighting for survival, some trying to assimilate.

    1. That's interesting. I've not read any of the novels, only short stories. I may have to look for the novels then, since I know they are available in English.

  2. I have Poliah friends who have zero interest in fantasy in general but are enthusiastic for the Witcher stories and spinoffs. I have no idea how accurate this is but I get the feeling that Sapkowski is seen as the "local boy done good" and that transcends any snobbery about genre.

    There is an earlier, Polish TV adaptation and a film which, depending on who you ask, was either made before the TV series with most of the same cast and crew, or was assembled afterwards from the TV series. The film certainly seems like the latter, as it's almost incomprehensible at times, and often feels like a two hour summary of a twelve hour series.

  3. I've read that Sapkowski wrote a Witcher rpg in the early 90s. It would be interesting to have a look at it, but I don't know a word of polish.