I love The Witcher! And, obviously, you do too or you wouldn’t be here.
So, welcome! Let’s get down and dirty with everyone’s favorite emotionally stunted monster-slaying machine. Geralt. Of. Rivia.
With the show on Netflix, The Witcher has been a huge success ever since it aired in 2019. It inspired a spin-off adult animated movie, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, and another movie that is still being made, The Witcher: Blood Origins.
Headlined by Henry Cavill as the lead (our aforementioned Witcher, Geralt), Freya Allan (as Ciri), and Anya Chalotra (as my future wife—I mean, as Yennifer of Vengerberg), this show was fantastic. It gave us epic fantasy with a dash of an almost hardboiled detective-like atmosphere. Monsters, armies, naked people, and a song that got stuck in all of our heads for about a month (personally I didn’t mind, that song still slaps).
Coming off of the success of the videogames, it was—in my own humble opinion, anyway—everything we could have wanted from such a rich world!
But if you’re like me then you also started wondering where this story came from? What inspired Andrzej Sapkowski when he created the world of the Witcher saga?
To do that, we need to travel far back in time!
The year was 1986.
Don’t worry, we’ll go further back in time than that. This is just a pit stop.
In 1986, a traveling fur trader in Poland decided to enter a writing competition, at the urging of his son, for the fantasy magazine Fantastyka. That man was Andrzej Sapkowski, and fifteen years later, he is the second most translated fantasy author in Poland. And the story he submitted (he got 3rd place, by the way) was “The Witcher,” the very first short story in the saga.
Going forward, I want you to remember one very important fact: Sapkowski is Polish.
Pretty obvious, I know, but remember that Poland is where Auschwitz is. It’s also the country that has been steamrolled by other, larger empires only to somehow miraculously survive and get back in the fight.
They have a complex history, full of heroes and villains, and Andrzej Sapkowski drew on all of them to tell his stories.
Let’s start off with some baddies! Because, why not?
In the books, show, and video games one of the main antagonists isn’t a monster, or sorcerer, or dimension-hopping elven warlord but a kingdom of regular human people. Of course monsters, sorcerers, and elves do fill out the roster of bad guys but at the top of the list is the empire of Nilfgaard.
Like most fantasy empires, Nilfgaard is based on the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, as I’m sure you all know, started from its humble beginnings as a single city-state and then rose to become a continent-spanning empire.
A lot of the words that the books, videogames, and show use to describe this nation have their roots in ancient Rome. The head of state is sometimes called imperator (the origin of the modern emperor), their armies are called legions, and there are vague references to a governing senate. All of these things take their inspiration from Rome.
But it also takes inspiration from Germany.
One of the interesting things that the show did that wasn’t in the books or videogames, was that they established that the army of Nilfgaard is composed of fanatics. Warriors obsessed with the glory of their leader, “The White Flame who dances on the graves of his enemies.”
Sound familiar to anyone? Anyone?
If you said, “Nazis,” then you are correct! And you can read the title of this section, good for you.
Per Hitler’s design, Nazi Germany was utterly devoted to him (at least at first). And many of the people serving in his army had a fanatical devotion to him personally. Not unlike Brandon Sanderson’s fans.
I joke, I joke (please don’t send someone to kill me, Mr. Sanderson) but the fact remains that Hitler, like most if not all dictators out there, used his cult of personality to whip his supporters into a militaristic frenzy.
And using that frenzy, he tried to conquer the world.
What’s in a name?
What about the name “Nilfgaard”?
Near as I can tell, it comes from Old Norse. There’s no word for “nilf,” but there is the word nifl, which means fog, darkness, and so on. You can find it in the name of the boring underworld of Norse mythology (as opposed to the cool ones with fire or all the dead people), Niflheim.
Gaard also comes from the Old Norse gard, where it means a central enclosure. This can be used poetically, as in the “world’s enclosure” (being enclosed by the sea, I guess), also known as Midgard, or as a “walled enclosure” like the city of Miklagard (Constantinople, literally “the great city”).
This makes sense since Nilfgaard is described as being a city-state. Much like Rome.
What d’ya know? All roads do lead to Rome.
Toss a coin to your witcher…
You’re welcome. And I hope that song gets stuck in your head, too.
Now it’s time to talk about the man, the myth, and the legend: Geralt of Rivia. More specifically, let’s talk about witchers. Were they real? Who hunted down the monsters in medieval Europe? And did they carry silver swords?
So… yeah, monster hunters were never real. You know, because monsters aren’t real. Sorry to be the one to break the news.
The Easter Bunny’s pretty suspect, too.
That said, people believed in monsters. Wholeheartedly. Usually this was because people didn’t understand medicine and diseases.
Your nephew starts wasting away and vomiting blood? He’s being attacked by a vampire. Your neighbor suddenly starts drooling and trying to bite people after he was bitten by a wild dog? She’s been turned into a werewolf. Your healthy looking newborn baby suddenly dies? It’s a witch (or possibly fairies).
While nowadays we might be able to easily identify these suspicious goings-on as tuberculosis, rabies, and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), at the time they had no earthly idea what was going on. And, if your loved ones are dying, it’s easy to see that you’d want revenge.
All of these things produced Salem-like persecutions at various times in history, usually targeting minority groups, the poor, and the mentally disabled. But sometimes there were people that you might call on if you had a particularly nasty problem.
But who were these people?
Who ya gonna call?
That’s right, the power of Christ (and the deep pockets of the Church) was often called upon to do battle with the forces of evil.
You’ve seen The Exorcist, right? Yeah, neither have I, but it does show that, lacking any other explanation, people turned to churchmen to do the dirty work of fighting off monsters. They may not have had cool potions that turn their eyes black or silver swords, but they did have bottles of water that they mumbled over and a really heavy book. And a stick shaped like a “t.”
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.
Ok, so I’m being mean, but you get the point. The real monster slayers were priests and abbots.
Want some real-world examples? Saint Columba, the patron saint of Scotland, supposedly banished the Loch Ness Monster (yes, the legend of Loch Ness really does go back that far) after it had killed some people. Priests were also the ones who led the charge in the Salem witch trials and the various vampire scares throughout history. And yes, priests were regularly called in if they thought you were possessed by the devil. Or if you had ADHD.
That said, there are stories of real monsters (ie. not in your Greek Mythology book) that were slain by real people.
The Beast of Gévaudan
So, remember that monsters aren’t real. That said, this is a real story about a monster.
From 1764 to 1767, as many as 300 people were brutally attacked (accounts differ wildly, but a conservative estimate of the deaths puts it at 100) by a monster in Gévaudan, a small province in southern France.
Hysteria, along with a press that was starved for gory details, fueled the action of King Louis XV, who sent in the army to kill the beast. Accounts varied, but people claimed it was “like a wolf, but not.” Some thought it might be a lion or a hyena or some weird hybrid. Either way it always attacked the neck, sometimes so viciously that the head was completely removed.
The army that the king sent… completely failed. They botched it badly and angered many of the local peasants (also known as the victims and their families), who eventually refused to work with them. Then the king sent a professional hunter (the regular kind who hunts like bears and shit) who ended up succeeding.
The beast they killed… was actually just a big wolf. The press was disinterested and gave up and the king declared victory and the whole matter was put to rest. Everyone settled down, secure knowing that the danger was gone.
Four months later the killings started up again.
The king refused to act, saying that his men had already done the deed. Left to their own devices the peasants, many of them too poor to own a rifle, tried to defend themselves. Finally, in 1767, after three terrifying years, the beast was finally shot and killed by a local hunter named Jean Chastel.
Legend (aka, gossip of the time) had it that Jean Chastel had shot the beast with a bullet made of silver… which is the origin of using silver on monsters. Just like our Geralt.
Using Occam’s Razor (ie., the simplest answer is usually correct), the Beast of Gévaudan was actually a wolf. Undoubtedly a large wolf, possibly even a gigantic wolf with a genetic mutation, but still just a wolf. Wolf attacks back in the day were not that uncommon. In fact, just like in fairy tales, wolves did make off with children from time to time.
So, again, not a real monster, but the Beast was thought to be one, and he was killed by none other than an ordinary man.
With a silver bullet just in case.
Unless you’re Mel Brooks, this is the only time that you’ll see a mention of Jewish history in regards to monster hunting.
Because the witchers are a lot like medieval Jews.
Shunned and misunderstood, they performed necessary functions for a society that occasionally made them rich, but as soon as it did almost immediately sealed their doom. The Jews may not have been hunting monsters, but they were lending money, something forbidden by the Medieval Church, frowned on by society, and indispensable for a growing economy.
The Jews walked a razor’s edge, trying to fit into and work with a society that hated and feared them, not unlike Sapkowski’s witchers. And, just like witchers, Jews faced the threat of a pogrom on a daily basis.
No, I didn’t misspell “program.” Pogrom. Organized and systemic violence. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Think Kristallnacht. Think of Tulsa.
But, just like with Jews, it’s not just witchers. Elves and dwarves are also subject to pogroms in the Witcher universe. We saw that a lot in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt videogame with lynch mobs hunting down witches and other non-humans.
In our world, Jews in Europe were lumped together with Romani (Gypsies), Muslims, lepers, and various other “undesirables” whenever the local populace started getting violent.
Monster hunter noir
To change things to a happier note, I’d like to talk about murder.
Or rather murders, and the people who solve them.
In an interview, Andrzej Sapkowski admitted that, among other noteworthy and famous authors, one of his biggest influences was Raymond Chandler.
Raymond Chandler wrote several detective stories and novels in the 30s, 40s, and 50s before he died, and in that time he became one of America’s greatest writers.
Steering away from the British parlor-room mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Chandler’s hero, Phillip Marlowe, was brash, stubborn, a ladies’ man (kind of, he never does seem to actually get laid), and was constantly getting the shit kicked out of him before he ended up solving the mystery.
But here’s the real kicker: in the Marlowe stories, the detective will go through a series of mysteries as he tries to find out what’s going on, with the real mystery often not being the one he was hired to solve. In the end, he finds out who killed who, where the gold coin is, who is actually dead and who just faked it really well… but it doesn’t matter.
None of it matters. They’re still dead, and people’s lives have already been irreparably broken. He figured out who did it, but they’re usually going to escape justice because they’re well connected or wealthy or dead.
It’s a stark reality, and it is why he’s one of my favorite writers.
Now compare Marlowe’s “I solved the case but it doesn’t matter” to Geralt.
By the way, I’m going to spoil the shit out of this, so be forewarned.
In the very first episode of season one, The End is the Beginning, Geralt realizes that Stregobor lied to him and that Renfri is the victim of rape and attempted murder and is fully justified in trying to kill the sorcerer. Then he learns that Renfri is planning to kidnap and kill innocent people in order to get to Stregobor, who couldn’t give a damn about any person other than himself. Geralt saves the town by killing Renfri, a woman he was genuinely fond of, and then “saves” her by forbidding Stregobor from cutting her open.
And then people throw rocks at him. They call him the Butcher of Blavikin, a moniker that stays with him decades later, after the town that he saved.
Geralt hunts down leshens and other beasts, but the real monsters—the ones he started to face at the end of the season—are people. Their hatred, their prejudice, their senseless violence.
Geralt can do his job, but the real monsters are still out there.
What about Yennifer and Ciri and all the rest?
What a great question?
Who the hell knows how Sapkowski created them, but I will say that the man is a first-rate feminist. They’re the reasons why the show works as well as it does (and Jaskier, don’t forget Jaskier).
Both of them feel incredibly real and deep. They’re full of contradictions and they’re just interesting as hell.
All of the characters in The Witcher feel incredibly real and grounded in reality. They do stupid, weird, and funny things and it’s a pleasure to watch.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see how they handle next season!
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