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The Witcher: Magic and Realpolitik

  • The cult fantasy series The Witcher is part of a new trend of mixing swords and sorcery with subjects like racism and political intrigue
  • The books have been turned into a TV series, starring Henry Cavill, by Netflix, which will premiere later in December

A still from‘The Witcher’.
A still from‘The Witcher’.

If you haven’t heard of Andrzej Sapkowski, it’s okay. Polish fantasy writers aren’t exactly the best known people on the planet. I bet many Game Of Thrones (GOT) fans had never heard of George R.R. Martin until the TV show. Anyway, around the time Martin started writing his A Song Of Ice And Fire (Asoiaf) fantasy saga in the mid-1990s, Sapkowski began work on his own cycle of books: The Witcher saga (1993-99) and a stand-alone novel in 2013. Set in a fascinating medieval world—on a planet that’s most certainly not Earth, as the plot eventually makes clear—the books consists of two collections of short stories and six novels that follow the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher.

But like a lot of modern fantasy, the books don’t follow the standard format of squaring up the human (or humanoid) heroes against monsters. In fact, the subversion is even more impressive given that a Witcher’s job is to eliminate monsters to ensure that humans, elves, dwarves and other humanoid beings thrive. Geralt is built like He-Man, adept at the use of elixirs that give him supernatural powers, is a supreme fighter and a dab hand at magic. Yet, throughout the series, he comes across more like a fantasy Philip Marlowe, a laconic, cynical and yet extremely idealistic person trying to do his bit in a morally warped universe.

Much has been written about the realism that Martin infuses his Asoiaf books with. In fact, writing about GOT in Lounge four years ago, I had noted that the realism of the show “…is centered around war, which is every bit as nasty and remorseless in the fantasy world of GOT as it is in real life". The same is true of TheWitcher, which sets up heroes and villains only to confound readers with ambiguities that seem extremely plausible. Much as I adore J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR), it is the benchmark for a type of fantasy which is impossible to recreate these days. As TheWitcher makes amply clear, although the monsters kill and harass human beings, they are acting entirely within their nature. They don’t dissemble and stab you in the back like a human would, and anyway, what if it’s the humans who are encroaching on the world that the monsters had occupied before their advent? Geralt kills because it’s his profession, but wherever possible he spares the monsters’ lives.

In this regard, some of the most enjoyable parts of the entire saga can be found in two short story collections: The Last Wish and Sword Of Destiny. These books do the bulk of world-building before the novels begin. They are made up of some of the oldest stories in the series, which showcase the sources Sapkowski taps into. The biggest of these are mythical creatures from European folk and fairy stories—like unicorns, strygas, bruxas, dryads—and the great thing Sapkowski does is to integrate them into the world of The Witcher. In fact, not only does he integrate them, he also gives them political agency. This is then carried through to its logical conclusion. If dwarves, halflings, elves and others have agency, in a world dominated by men, they would contest for rights and livelihood. This would in turn lead to racist, majoritarian impulses among the humans.

This is where The Witcher’s brilliance lies. All the wars and magic and political machinations, although fascinating and transporting in their own way, exist to help tell a story of ethical, self-abnegating heroism in the face of humanity’s worst impulses. In a way, the monsters that Geralt hunts reside in the human heart.

It’s interesting to note that just as in Asoiaf, The Witcher’s great looming catastrophe is a climate crisis. In the books, one of the main prophecies that Geralt and his magical ward, the young princess Ciri, seek to overturn is one where the creeping ice from the poles grinds out over the rest of the continent and ends all life once and for all.

The Witcher contains such visual delights that I, for one, can’t wait to see what Netflix does with the adaptation. Sapkowski’s is a richly-imagined world which rewards close readings. I feel thrilled just thinking about the spectral Wild Hunt, or Ciri’s journeys through space and time, the totalitarian empire of Nilfgaard or the magical forest of Brokilon. However the show turns out, the books will remain, and for that we should give thanks.


A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (1995-) by George R.R. Martin

Like all writers of fantasy, Martin is indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien, but in the books that birthed the Game Of Thrones, he rejects the good versus evil duality of Tolkien’s works to show us that evil lurks in every human heart, and that heroes can be stupid people who get others killed.

THE EARTHSEA CYCLE (1968-2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is the original anti-Tolkien, not because she hated the venerable master, but because she brought an anthropological insight into the fantasy world of Earthsea: a planet that’s an archipelago, where people are people, not heroes and villains.

GRUNTS! (1992) by Mary Gentle

An outrageous work of satire, in Grunts! Gentle reimagines the orcs that are the faceless footsoldiers of evil in many a high fantasy story, including Lord Of The Ring. Facing defeat in an “ultimate" fight between the forces of good and evil, a group of orcs decides to cooperate and fight their bleak fate.

MEMORY, SORROW AND THORN TRILOGY (1988-93) by Tad Williams

This series is considered one of the best examples of an adult take on the tropes of epic fantasy. What if your heroes age, become infirm, and are unable to rally people in the face of danger? Martin was so impressed that he felt inspired to write a fantasy series of his own (Asoiaf).

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