Something Ends, Something Begins: A Retrospective on The Witcher Saga (Part 1)

Welcome to The Daily Fandom’s retrospective series on Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher Saga. For the next year, we will be putting two articles a month covering all eight books and four games by CD Projekt Red. The books will be covered in the correct reading order, so while Season of Storms is technically a prequel, it has to be read after The Lady of the Lake, due to several chapters dealing with Nimue. The games will be covered in release order, so while Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales takes place during the books, it will be covered last. Stay tuned for additional material covered at the end, including the 2002 Polish TV series and the Netflix series.

This retrospective will be different than other retrospectives done on The Daily Fandom. This is a collaboration series, so you will have two distinct opinions about the series as we go along. Kyle Scher is a fan of the franchise, having read all the books and played all the games. Claudia O’Flaherty is a newcomer to the franchise, so will come to this retrospective with a fresh and interesting take. As Geralt himself finds out, the Sword of Destiny has two edges.

Kyle’s Background With The Witcher

I found The Witcher Saga the way most people in the western world did, through the games. One of my closest friends recommended The Witcher, as he thought I might like it. He encouraged me to start with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as it was a good jumping on point. I’m a stickler for experiencing a story from the beginning so I bought The Witcher and started playing.

I just got past Chapter One before I stopped playing. Yes, the graphics were outdated and the controls made no sense, but that was not what was bothering me. I felt lost and uninterested because I didn’t have a character that really resonated with me, which is how I enjoy stories. A year later, after reaching a rough patch in my life, the same friend recommended I get a game to cheer me up. I took his advice and started with Witcher 3.

Geralt by Michał Rychtyk

This game spoke to me because I finally had a character that resonated with me. Yennefer of Vengerberg was what was missing. She had so much life and energy, and was confident as hell. I grew attached to this world and needed to know more. I devoured the books in a matter of months and began to realize that the books told a far more complex tale than the games and fell in love with them, though I had always enjoyed sci-fi more than fantasy. Not that I didn’t enjoy fantasy, but often I found they lost sight of their characters.

How I start experiencing a story whether I’m reading or writing is with the characters. The Witcher Saga when broken down to its basics is about one thing: family. The love Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri have for each other. That spoke to me on a deeply personal level.

Claudia’s Background With The Witcher

I’m a long-time fan of fantasy and sci-fi, particularly cRPGs. The Witcher has always been on my radar because it falls neatly within the category of games I already enjoy, such as Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, and Pillars of Eternity. However, the first time I mentioned the fact I wanted to pick it up (I was a wee high schooler at the time), a very obnoxious friend of mine piped up to explain to me that I probably wouldn’t like the game. It was too explicit and obviously made for guys (*intense eyerolls*). My interest faded after that, sadly.

I’m an art student, an avid reader of both comics and novels, and spend a lot of time in front of my computer making bad video games. I’m excited to read and talk about the books and to get a chance to play all three games, as they both fall within genres I adore. I do think it bears noting that my primary point of comparison for the Witcher Series (games and books) is definitely going to be A Song of Ice and Fire, Dragon Age, and Lord of the Rings. Much like Kyle, while I love fantasy, I trend towards sci-fi.

It’s interesting just how much Witcher content I’m aware of even though I’ve never picked up a book or game. I know Yennefer, and that the games changed some things about the romance, that the series itself is dark and “edgy,” and that apparently every woman throws herself at Geralt. I’m certain the fans being quite vocal has a lot to do with this.

The Witcher

Claudia’s Analysis

This story, being the first, is interesting but I think it does nothing of particular note for me. If I only had this story to make my call on whether or not I would continue, I’d have probably put the book down. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there is also nothing that jumps out. It’s alright, with a neat and tightly wound political backstory and solid action. But it also doesn’t bring anything uniquely “Witcher” to the table. At least not without the context of the other stories.

At this point I know nothing about Geralt. I do not know what about him should make me care, either about his opinions or his mission, and so I follow him on his little journey not actually invested in whether or not he succeeds. The political characters, mainly Ostrit and the King, are interesting enough but their conflict is not unusual. It is hard to feel for any character in this story but the daughter, which results in the story feeling underwhelming.

The Witcher (CD Projekt Red 2007)
The Witcher (CD Projekt Red 2007)

I will say I enjoyed Geralt’s confrontation with the Strigga and watching Ostrit eat it. I like watching terrible things happen to terrible people. However, this story being an early work really shows. Geralt feels crueler and less snarky, the side characters less quirky. This reads more like a straight fantasy than any of the other stories in the book, which is likely why it’s my least favorite. I do think this story begins with the establishment of The Witcher Saga’s magical system in a very strong way, and frankly magic and how it interacts with people is one of the strongest parts of this book.

Kyle’s Analysis

What makes this story so special is how in such a short and simple story, Sapkowski is able to build a lived-in world. Many authors struggle with making worldbuilding come out naturally. But Sapkowski isn’t one of them. His opening pages are intriguing, mysterious, and action-packed, but with enough hints thrown in about the world. The bartender trying to figure out Geralt’s accent is a great example of this.

One of the major themes of the entire Saga is set up in the first few pages of this story. That theme is Geralt a monster that kills monsters or is he something more? Did Geralt kill the men in the tavern to spread the word about him or because they were being bigoted towards him? Did Geralt spare Adda’s life because he believes in helping people where he can, or did he do it to avoid the potential repercussions at the hands of King Foltest? Geralt is neither a good nor a bad person, he simply is a man trying to live his life by the way he thinks is right.

Worth noting is that The Witcher short story is a clear rewrite of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. Sapkowski is juggling many themes and ideas by adapting a fairy tale like this, which is something he will continue doing. The Witcher Saga in many ways is a deconstruction of classic fantasy tropes and what better way to do that than through the lens of fairy tales.

For an example of the deconstruction he is doing, just look at Geralt himself. An older man that is running away from his problems. He is not some noble knight or innocent farm boy, just a person trained from birth to kill monsters. He’s not an ordinary fantasy protagonist, is he?

A Grain of Truth

Claudia’s Analysis

This is my favorite story in the book. Fairytale deconstructionism works really well for me. I was an avid reader of fairytale collections as a child. However, a fairytale deconstruction cannot simply be “It’s insert-fairytale-title but dark”. That is not a deconstruction. Many stories from folklore are dark. Many are not. Just making a fairytale dark does disservice to the storytelling and traditions involved. What I love about Sapkowski, and in turn this story, is that it isn’t about just throwing a mature rating on a fairytale. Sapkowski uses the framework of the fairytale to explore a theme, sometimes contradictory to or in contrast with the original theme of the fairytale. And when it works I feel he knocks it out of the park and elevates the series from “fantasy for boys” to something far more introspective and fun.

The Witcher: Geralt & Nivellan by 
Egor Gafidov
The Witcher: Geralt & Nivellan by
Egor Gafidov

Geralt in this story is what I would recognize as true Geralt. Too serious, funnier than you’d expect, and going out of his way to help people in sometimes unconventional manners. Geralt likes to wax poetic and is bad at small talk. He’s actually an incredibly likable character and his interactions with Nivellen really bring some of that to the front.

The story itself, while expectedly dark, is also unexpectedly sweet. Unlike the first story, I feel sympathy for most if not all the characters, and we’re given information that feels a lot more immediately relevant. We learn more about the Witchers and what the public perception of them means. We learn more about magic and curses. And through Nivellan’s backstory, more about what we should expect out of this world.

Kyle’s Analysis

This story is perhaps the one that is most like a fairy tale in The Last Wish collection. Being a
deconstruction of Beauty and the Beast, it’s only natural. The steps Sapkowski takes to invert the tropes of the story are a testament to his writing talent. Nivellen makes the same deal Beast does, however the woman turns out to be eight years old instead of a beautiful young woman. Nivellen’s curse has made him more confident, and he sees it as a boon. The love Vereena felt for Nivellen is even left a bit ambiguous.

Sapkowski continues his look at what defines a monster. Nivellen fell in with the wrong people, did bad things, and even raped a priest. He was not a good man and thus was cursed to be a monster. Putting on the outside what he is on the inside. However, the irony is that the curse itself caused Nivellen to correct his lifepath. He treats the women that stay with him well. He’s a contradiction and that’s the point. Geralt doesn’t always kill monsters, even though that’s what
he was created for, thus he is a contradiction. Appearances can be deceiving.

A couple things are done to establish Geralt as a character. Geralt isn’t on a contract, he’s just travelling through. This situation is something he stumbles upon, and even though he is not getting paid for it, is intrigued. Geralt is always poor, perhaps it’s because he’s kind or maybe it’s because few people need Witchers. Geralt likes to think of himself as the consummate loner, who simply kills monsters and gets paid for it. But he is so much more. The moment he starts
talking to Roach, his horse, demonstrates this. He needs companionship despite his protests.

The Lesser Evil

Claudia’s Analysis

Wizards locking girls in towers because they might possibly be evil is great,.made better by the throwaway line of knights rescuing them only to die. This story executes very well on the deconstructionist front. The wizards hold a place in the world that is culturally and narratively opposed to Witchers, and the story sets up an excellent and interesting version of Snow White.

Shrike and Geralt have a long talk on what morality is and, as the title suggests, what to do when faced with two equally bad choices. Geralt’s response of “Well, that’s not my job.” is nice. I respect that. And the philosophizing is one of the better parts of Sapkowski’s work.

Blaviken Butcher by Roman Tishenin
Blaviken Butcher by Roman Tishenin

I think what might not be working for me here is that this particular choice isn’t the most interesting one. I feel biased, but I felt Geralt made the best decision he could with the information he had. Lesser of two evils style morality doesn’t work when you have Geralt doing the best with that he can. The true terror of a lesser of two evils choice is when the person making it isn’t someone like Geralt. Stregobor is a terrifying character because he has the moral fiber of a paper bag. People in positions where they feel protected from consequences often come across that way. Geralt and Shrike are interesting because when they speak of consequences, those are going to be very real lived consequences. Which is maybe why for me Shrike comes out as very much in the right.

Kyle’s Analysis

Sapkowski has been philosophising a lot in these stories, but this is perhaps the most overt. As a result, it provides us with one of the most quoted scenes from the series, “Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same.” This one sentence and Geralt’s claim to refuse to make the choice between one evil and another is a massive recurring theme in the Saga. Witchers are supposed to be neutral but sooner or later, something will have to drag Geralt out from this mode of thinking. Both sides may be wrong, but he has to choose, or it will get him killed.

In this story, we see that on a much smaller scale. Sapkowski uses the trope of women being locked away in towers and the fairy tale of Snow White to explore this theme. Stregobor is a misogynistic man who believes that torturing women was alright because it was for the greater good of preventing the prophesied end of the world. Renfri uses her abuse at the hands of Stregobor to justify her crimes, which includes murder, and her need for vengeance. Who is the good guy? The bad guy? Neither one of them is truly good or truly bad. Geralt refuses to choose between them, attempting to take a third path, the neutral one. This causes more problems than if he had just chosen to side with one of them.

In The Witcher Saga, good doesn’t truly exist, neither does evil. That is Sapkowski’s point with all of this, is to show that everything is just a shade of grey, and that choosing apathy is not going to help either. It’s a cynical outlook in my opinion, but on the other hand I also see it as very realistic.

A Question of Price

Claudia’s Analysis

I actually quite liked this story. It was oddly quirky, much like “A Grain of Truth”. All the characters are a bit over the top, but enjoyable, and the entire situation becomes a lesson in the laws of magic as they exist in the Witcher universe.

More than the actual plot I appreciated the world building and unexpected humor. Unlike the previous two stories this one doesn’t hit any philosophical itch for me. I found the fact the princess at the center of the action said hardly a word the whole story to be irritating, but generally I enjoyed the tale. It dips into many fairy tales, but also into some Arthurian-esque style situations.

The very obvious set up with Dunny and Pavetta’s child is the highlight of this story. The role of magic, particularly ancient, unbreakable oath style laws of magic, is becoming apparent. I enjoy this interpretation of magic. Fantasy in film and games normally uses magic that functions as technology without the science. Using ancient, powerful and unbreakable tradition and fairytale style magic is helping to build a setting that’s darker and more brutal.

The characters in these stories aren’t just at the whims of brutal lords and war and monsters. They also risk at any moment bringing unto themselves the unbreakable and immutable force of magic. So many characters find themselves cursed by no fault of their own, or tied up in fate that they have no agency over. That, more than the (less than accurate) medieval atmosphere, does much to contribute to the overwhelming darkness of the setting. Even when things end well, characters remain bound to fates they can’t control.

Kyle’s Analysis

So many major plot points in the Saga point right back to this moment. But Sapkowski presents it in a way that downplays its importance which I think adds to its appeal. For Geralt, this contract from Queen Calanthe was a mystery and forced him into a situation he was incredibly uncomfortable with. Once done, he names his price and leaves. He even mentions in The Voice of Reason, that the child is of age for him to go receive them, but he hasn’t. He is scared of his own destiny while also believing the events of this story meant little.

We got hints in The Witcher that Geralt can handle his own when it comes to dealing with politics and rulers specifically. Many mistake him for a common thug, a monster hunter with no heart and no brains. But throughout this story he’s several steps ahead of most the rulers, cleverly and diplomatically talks his way into the information he needs, and is never intimidated by their political machinations. Once again, Geralt proves himself to be more than what he seems.

Seeing as The Witcher Saga is a bit more of a realistic take on the fantasy genre, I like that Calanthe’s position as Queen of Cintra is discussed. Women cannot rule in Cintra, but she manueved her way into power in particularly clever ways. She is the Lioness of Cintra after all, one of the most fierce and brave warriors you could meet on the battlefield. She’s manipulative, kind, confident, but is willing to admit when she is wrong. Despite many people not wanting her on the throne, she is the first person to truly embody the traits necessary to be a ruler that we have seen in the Saga so far.

The Edge of the World

Claudia’s Analysis

Dandelion is going to easily be one of my favorite characters I can already tell. I do get the feeling that, on occasion, he’s used just to show how cool Geralt is by comparison, but that feeling wanes the more time we spend with him, both in this story and the next. Again this Geralt is very much not the man who we met in the first story. In many ways he’s better.

This story is one of the least interesting in terms of plot, at least to me. My interest in the entire situation was mild at best. It’s another case of lack of real sympathy for the characters. All the stories I found fun were much more involved in the personal lives of the characters at the heart of them. This story is a much broader topic, both in terms of theme and character.

Edge of the World by Bathorygen

Notably, as of this point in the book, all the purest and good female characters do not utter a word. The priestess, the princess, and now the goddess are quiet if not outright mute. While I don’t think this is intentional it’s very noticeable.

The emergence of a god feels important given Geralt’s staunch atheism, or at least agnosticism, in the face of organized religion. I like how much Kyle digs into the Elf/Human conflict. That piece of the story for whatever reason didn’t stick with me, but I can’t find much fault there other than I personally just didn’t find it interesting. Again I’m a very character driven reader and the conflicts that grab me are always more personal.

Kyle’s Analysis

Dandelion makes his first appearance and is simultaneously delightful and used to further Geralt as a character. Geralt thinks he’s a loner, but he actually craves companionship. So, Dandelion, a humorous, playfully arrogant, dandy is the perfect friend for Geralt. They are polar opposites. Friendship is often this amorphous thing, but regardless, our friends bring out the best in us. Notice that Geralt is a bit more humorous and lively now that he is no longer alone.

One of the themes of this story is fear. The peasants fear Torque and the elves as they are different than them. Meanwhile, the elves fear what will become of their culture and what the human’s will do to their homeland. The point is that it’s alright to be afraid, but you should never let that fear lead your actions.

Dandellion by Tanya Anor

The argument Filavandrel and Geralt have is biting social commentary. The elves are bitter over losing their land and livelihoods to the humans. They are full of hatred and only want revenge. Toruviel demonstrates this, she is racist and wants nothing other than to kill humans. Geralt admits that what happened to the elves is sad, but they must learn to live with it.

Geralt in many respects is right, the elves are less concerned with preserving their culture than they are with getting revenge, and that will eventually kill them. For the elves it’s a matter of passing the blame onto the humans. Meanwhile, the humans do the reverse, blaming the elves. They are both wrong. They both are to blame for many things, but the reason for this situation comes from themselves and their fear. When we are to blame, we will often find others to blame as we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we are at fault.

The Last Wish

Claudia’s Analysis

This is the most drawn out and complex of the stories in this book without a doubt. The writing is detailed, and with this story in particular it’s easy to tell there’s more at play than the events happening in the moment. I can really feel Sapkowski growing here into something more than what “The Witcher” put forward.

I’ve been trying to write my analysis like a newcomer, ignoring what lore from the series seeped its way into my brain from sheer popularity. But I think it would be unfair for this particular story. We all know Yennefer.

Witcher: The Last Wish by Layferen

Because of Yennefer’s importance in the saga, this story has quite a daunting task. It has to make me believe that Yennefer will be the person Geralt falls for. And it tries. It really does. Unfortunately for me, many of their interactions read more like movie scripts than two people who want each other but can’t or won’t. And that’s enjoyable in its own right.

I’m a hard person to please with romance. I absolutely loathe romance novels. I’ve read several to make sure and I find them intolerably boring. I also tend to find most romances in non-romance media to be eye roll inducing. Unfortunately Yennefer is not an exception. I’m perfectly content to let the story try and win me over. I’ve had late game winners before, but I think I can safely say the appeal of both Yennefer and Geralt escapes me.

I don’t count this against the story. I am not a romantic. Quite the opposite. And I found this story deeply engaging for other reasons. The side characters, Dandelion, the way Sapkowski handled this particular fairytale, and Yennefer’s backstory all grabbed me. Though I could have done without Yennefer’s tits popping out during the battle. Just saying.   

Kyle’s Analysis

So, I’m sure to no one’s surprise this is my favorite short story in this collection. Yennefer is my favorite character, so it’s only natural. What makes her and Geralt’s relationship so infectiously loveable is the way they interact with each other. Every scene with the two of them is this power play that combines wit, playfulness, and so much fun. Their conversations are like dancing the Tango, who is the dominant one in the situation keeps changing as they are each other’s equals. They wouldn’t have it any other way either.

Grealt and Yennifer by Tanya Anor

One thing I find interesting is what Sapkowski does to make their romance subvert many tropes. Upon their first meeting, Geralt is infatuated with her. The more time he spends with her, the more flaws with her appearance he finds, but this never stops the infatuation. But it’s nothing more than that. It’s not until he figures out that she used to be a hunchback and understands she has been through so much pain and heartache, that she would understand his outsider’s perspective, that he falls in love with her. Also, when Geralt rushes in to save her like a gallant knight, Yen doesn’t want it. She isn’t some damsel, she can take care of herself.

By tying the romance into a rewrite of the fairy tale of the genie in the bottle, Sapkowski shows one of the deepest desires of Yen and Geralt. Both need companionship, even though they are also both resistant to it. They both need someone to care for them and understand what they have been through. They are perfect for each other, as without each other they wouldn’t be able to know happiness. But that happiness will only last for so long, eventually they will need something more.

The Voice of Reason

Claudia’s Analysis

Even though this story is a framing device, I think it wins in terms of handling Geralt’s character development. In these in-between pages, which were sometimes monologues, sometimes full scenes, Geralt gets the chance to show his thoughtful, intelligent side, while milling about at a temple which feels like his closest thing to home. The author uses this story to conclude and introduce the themes and struggles Geralt himself is contemplating. It’s serviceable for what it is.

Geralt and Nenneke  
by Egor Gafidov

Geralt and Nenneke
by Egor Gafidov

And of course Dandelion and Geralt’s encounter with the Order of the White Rose cements Geralt’s place as a pragmatic, clever protagonist, which is very much my preference. Though predictable, and a little too cool to be taken seriously, I enjoyed Geralt’s duel with Tailles. I am glad this is the note on which the book will, hopefully, lead into the next.

Kyle’s Analysis

Each section of this short story directly references the major theme of the short story that follows it. It’s a framing story with a purpose, as I often find most do not. We get to see Geralt reflect on his past decisions and actions and thus delve more into his psychology. The monologue to Iola is the perfect example of this and I think shows just how introspective Geralt is as a person. Someone of his archetype wouldn’t seem the type to want to look deeply into himself, but he is.

Nenneke herself is just as much an inversion as Geralt. She’s the head priestess of a temple, has a motherly aspect to her, but is not completely pious. She has Iola sleep with Geralt, chastises Geralt for making mistakes, and even sells aphrodisiacs. Nenneke is the titular voice of reason for Geralt, and as we find out more about him, we understand that he wouldn’t listen to an ordinary priest. But Nenneke is no ordinary priest and that’s what he needs.

Interestingly, Geralt listens to her advice but decides to ignore a large majority of it. He participates in the duel with Tallies, proving to himself he is fit to return to the Witcher’s Path. Refuses to reconcile with Yen, despite clearly showing signs of regret of not still being with her. Geralt is stubborn and afraid. Iola’s vision shows that much violence and blood await him, and he knows this. In an interesting inversion of the trope of the hero that is nearly killed and finally accepts his destiny, Geralt runs away. He didn’t ask for this, and he doesn’t want anyone else hurt because of him. He denies destiny, something he won’t be able to do for much longer.

Conclusion Pt. 1

This concludes our analysis portion of The Last Wish, the first book in The Witcher Saga. While technically a collection of short stories, both this and the book that follows weave into the greater story of the saga. Kyle and I wanted to take the time to dive into each story individually, given the structure of the book. The next part of the series will be a much more informal Q&A between Kyle and me about the books overall, and also a check in on how we’re feeling about the series so far.

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