Something Ends, Something Begins: A Retrospective On The Witcher Saga (Part 2)

Welcome back to part two of The Last Wish analysis. This section is far more informal, and more of a back and forth Q&A between Kyle, a longtime Witcher fan, and Claudia, who is reading all this for the first time. Hopefully, you get to hear some interesting ideas and see how two people can walk away from the same series with very different takeaways. We’re going to start with a question from Kyle and alternate.

Convening The Conclave On The Last Wish

If you missed our analysis of the first book in The Witcher Saga, The Last Wish, you can find it here. Anyways, let’s begin!

Kyle Question 1

Do you think the episodic nature of the short stories works? Or would you prefer a more serialized structure like with the later books?

Claudia Answer 1

I adore the short story format and will be sad to see it go. I was an avid reader of fairy tale collections as a child. The loose short story style continuity is hitting notes with me that I didn’t even know I had. I think I will look upon this and the second book quite fondly because of it, though it’s definitely a personal preference.

If I were to take a gander at why I prefer it, I would say it’s because long-form storytelling doesn’t recapture the fairy tale feeling. The impact of twisting a fairy tale might be lost over a hundred pages in a way that it won’t be over 30.

The format also showcases Sapkowski’s favorite hobby of philosophizing via Geralt. The stories in this book are often used as platforms for Sapkowski to create a dialogue, often using two morally opposed characters, who talk about their disagreement. Obviously, Geralt is often the mouthpiece for the “right” argument, at least from what we’ve read so far.

Claudia Question 1

Do you ever find this hurts his character, making him less a person and more a mouthpiece whose views align with whatever argument needs to be had? Which topic tackled in this book is your favorite and why?

Kyle Answer 1

No, this doesn’t hurt Geralt’s character, because he will be wrong on several occasions. A moment from Baptism of Fire comes to mind. Geralt is told to get his head out of his ass and do something by his friends. As the Saga continues on, Geralt will become somewhat distant from the bigger moral problems. They will loom over him, but the Saga is all about him fighting to get his daughter back. The philosophical arguments come more from the actions of other characters, though sometimes Geralt’s.

Geralt’s code is all about neutrality but helping where you can. Eventually, he will discover that neutrality, while looking good on the surface, causes many problems. Yarpen Zigrin will point this out to him in Blood of Elves. He is called out on his apathy and is shown the horrific result of refusing to choose. As a result, I don’t think Sapkowski always makes Geralt right, however, his opinions are certainly valid.

One of the topics covered is abortion and women’s right to choose which is handled with delicate carefulness. Neither side is shown to be right or wrong. The arguments are presented and then Sapkowski lets the reader decide which side is correct. Within this moment we also get some contrast between different cultural backgrounds. This being what it’s like to live in a medieval society versus the semi-modern imperial society of Nilfgaard.

In this book, I think the topic that is tackled the best is the nature of what defines a monster. Sapkowski gives a very nuanced opinion on the topic that all feeds into one of the themes of the series. Evil and good are hard to define. However, sometimes something comes along to prove that there are truly horrible and truly wondrous things out there.

Kyle Question 2

The Witcher Saga often takes classic fairy tales and recontextualizes them into its universe. This usually is for the purpose of deconstructing fantasy stereotypes. Do you think this aids or hinders the stories being told?

Claudia Answer 2

I generally enjoy this. As someone who likes fairy tales, I like their deconstructions. Of course, often deconstructions are bland and retread the same territory of “Look! It’s Cinderella, but dark!” over and over. The Witcher Saga occasionally falls into this trap. However, A Grain of Truth was hands down my favorite story in the entire book. It encapsulated all the best parts of the story as a whole. Deconstructions, genuine humor, humanity, kindness, twisted cruel circumstances, and a sprinkle of action. I guess that’s a way of saying that I think there’s a sort of formula to a Witcher deconstruction of a fairy tale, and when it works it really works.

Claudia Question 2

What is your opinion on the stories’ modern style? In many ways, The Witcher is a very modern feeling fantasy. A combination of word choice, very modern-action hero-esque characters and philosophy make it obvious to anyone reading that this is a piece of modern literature.  In what places does this help or hinder the narrative? Could it be pushed further, and to what effect?

Kyle Answer 2

I took a Science Fiction and Fantasy class during my final year of university. In this class, I wrote an essay that compared the writing of Tolkien and Sapkowski. Something repeatedly mentioned in class was how fantasy writers such as Tolkien attempted to revive the oral tradition of storytelling. As a result, there are a lot of asides that talk about the setting and family backgrounds. While interesting and great for worldbuilding, it is not completely necessary.

Something I mentioned earlier is that Sapkowski manages to create a living breathing world, quickly and efficiently. He doesn’t spend tons of pages giving us the exposition about the family history of a character we just met. He lets it flow naturally out of the conversations of the characters or their thoughts. As literature has evolved it has become distinctly character focused as opposed to plot focused. It is my opinion that this more organic worldbuilding spawned out of the change of focus. Which certainly aids in my enjoyment of the series.

By nature of being a recent fantasy series, it talks about several relatable issues and themes via a fictional world. That is the very purpose of genre fiction. Take the real and make it fantastical in order to analyze it. For instance, the plight of the elves reads as similar to what the Native Americans experienced due to European imperialism. As mentioned previously, there will be increasingly complex topics covered in regards to gender, politics, and morality. All of which is handled in a very mature and intelligent way. As time passes our attitude towards certain issues change and evolve. So, the Saga handling them in this way makes it very modern.

Kyle Question 3

What do you think caused an interest in the fantasy genre on a global scale? As a result, what do you think makes The Witcher similar or different to other fantasy books of its time?

The Witcher short stories were published in the late 80s to early 90s. They are considered the first distinctly Polish take on the fantasy genre. Around the same time, there were distinctly American takes on the fantasy genre propping up. Perhaps most notably, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Claudia Answer 3

I haven’t read enough to compare it to other fantasy series. I can perhaps share an opinion on the popularity of the genre. As I think fantasy has always been widely popular, in a multitude of forms, and most of what we see is the various transformations of the genre going through peaks and valleys of popularity.

Fantasy has been around since the inception of mankind, and as a genre is a kind of personification of the evolution of man’s understanding of the world. We take for granted many of fantasy’s conventions and forget that these monsters and stories were once very real. In the relatively recent time of the 1890s, Rhode Island tried to kill some vampires. It was tuberculosis, but still, that means in 1890 there were enough people who felt vampires might be real to cause a genuine panic about it. Fantasy is a genre that happily takes these sorts of debunked real-world monsters and turns them into good stories, making many of its inhabitants quite old.

And I think I should add that while these works were published in the 80s and 90s, both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Witcher Saga entered into the public sphere of pop culture (as opposed to the more niche fantasy literature sphere) relatively recently with their respective adaptations. Two dark, fairy tale deconstructionist fantasy worlds gaining great popularity in this day and age is likely not entirely coincidence. I could suppose that the turbulence of emerging technologies and changing cultural landscapes has allowed stories of immense power struggle, violence, and social commentary to be popular, but I also think often times stories like these will be easier to analyze in hindsight.

Claudia Question 3

Does it ever bother you that every female character description opens with a description of her tits?

(Yes this question is facetious but what better way to address what I’m sure will be a reoccurring issue, given the series’ reputation). More seriously, there are very few women with speaking parts in this book who are not evil or trying to get in Geralt’s pants, which I wouldn’t say I found irritating so much as it made the book read like it was written by someone who’s never spoken at length with a woman. Or with a man who gets a lot of women.

Kyle Answer 3

First, I do want to get out of the way for the reading audience that I’m a straight white man. So, I probably will never be able to fully understand the full impact of the over-sexualization of women in popular media has on people. I don’t like it and prefer fiction that avoids it. And as a writer who predominantly writes female protagonists, I make an effort to avoid it as well.

Yes, many of the female characters have their tits described. It’s worth noting that it’s not every single one. It’s not something that I noticed on my first read as I was just too caught up in the story. Upon further rereads, I personally think it’s Sapkowski playing with fantasy tropes. I popped open a few fantasy books and I noticed that most female characters are described in superfluous detail, including their tits. I am bothered by it, however, the series will get better about it. The sorceresses remain sexualized, but that’s built into the setting. However, certain female characters are not sexualized at all, notably Milva.

We haven’t gotten to the introduction of our second main POV character yet, but when Ciri appears she is a child. We watch her grow up over the Saga and what that does to her mentally and physically. Her sexuality and her right to choose what she does with her body is a massive theme of the later parts of the Saga. In future installments it will touch upon the incredibly heavy topics of the patriarchy, abortion, the role of women in medieval society and a semi-modern society, rape, misogyny, and institutionalized sexism.

Claudia Question 4

Bounding off of that real quick if you don’t mind, what are your feelings on the cultural perception of Geralt’s romances in both The Witcher games and book?

Kyle Answer 4

So, I want to address the “Geralt as a sex god” thing. To my memory, Geralt sleeps with a total of ten women throughout the Saga which is a roughly 15-16 year timespan. One of these women is Yennefer. Barring the people he slept with before Yen, every single one of them is an attempt to try and get over her. But he can’t, he loves her and even admits that he only thinks of her.

Please bear in mind that one of those sexual encounters was not of his own free will. Someone magically coerced him into her bed. I will save my rage-filled rant on that character for a later time when it’s no longer a spoiler. Another one of them was an attempt to manipulate him in The Lady of the Lake on behalf of an organization that hasn’t been founded yet. This is the only time Geralt sleeps with someone other than Yen after Time of Contempt.

It’s worth mentioning that Yen sleeps around herself. That’s just the nature of Yen and Geralt’s relationship up until Ciri enters the picture. Their relationship is a rocky road and will require something more than mutual love. The one thing they both want but cannot have, a child.

Kyle Question 4

Any particular core character that you have met so far (Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion) that you greatly like or dislike and why?

Claudia Answer 4

I would die for Dandelion.

Speaking seriously, I actually do very much like Geralt, though I think it feels like the Geralt we meet in The Witcher is not the same Geralt of the rest of the stories. He trends towards unconventional, take a third option style decision making and his killing of the men in the tavern in that first story actually seems oddly rash of him…maybe it’s cause Dandy and Yen weren’t there to tell him to chill.

I can’t say I greatly dislike anyone, which, credit to Sapkowski’s writing. It’s always good when I don’t even dislike the bad guys.

But, also, I would die for Dandelion.

Claudia Question 5

Is there anything in particular that you actively dislike about this book? I ask because it’s the first, and you are a genuine fan, so I want to know what holes you can find. It’s easier often times, to pick something apart when you love it dearly.

Kyle Answer 5

There are a few minor things that I just have to wave away but are annoying in The Last Wish. Most of it comes from translation issues, the biggest one being Dandelion’s name. In the Polish originally his name is Jaskier which when translated to English means Buttercup. It was believed that it sounded too feminine therefore his name was changed to a more masculine flower. Thus we get Dandelion.

The other minor things are like Vizima, the capital of Temeria, not being translated properly so it appears as Wyzim. Also in The Witcher short story, King Vizimir II of Redania is referred to as Vizimir of Novigrad, which lore-wise makes no sense. Novigrad is an independent city-state that resides in the borders of Redania but is not subject to its laws as it’s not an official part of the country. To my memory, this is never explained but it could also very well be just a translation issue.

Many of these problems come down to having two different translators. Danusia Stok for The Last Wish and Blood of Elves, and David French for the rest of the series. The only major thing I can think of is actually something you brought up yourself. The Geralt we see in The Witcher is a bit different from the Geralt we see in the other short stories. The basis of his character is there, and a lot of the elements established would be embellished on later, it just reads more like an outline of the idea. It’s very clear that Sapkowski wrote it to be a standalone short story. He even has admitted that when he wrote The Witcher there was no grand plan of the Saga, just an idea for a new take on a classic fairytale.

Kyle Question 5

Having just finished the first book, The Last Wish, what is your overall impression so far? Are you looking forward to the next book?

Claudia Answer 5

My overall impression is that the writing is very good, the author has not had very many discussions with women about sex and how they view it, and the best parts of these stories as they unfold is likely going to be character driven for me more than anything. I’m an avid D&D player and worldbuilder, but in storytelling, I tend to doze off if the characters aren’t actively interesting.

I think The Last Wish is quite obviously a setup. More so in some places than others. And I enjoy most of the suggestions of what’s to come. I do think that the world building has grabbed me to some degree because I do find myself turning over the implications of certain magical things in my head as I walk away from these stories. I also am very much looking forward to seeing how Sapkowski will handle a female POV character.

I’m also wondering how much of what bothers me in Sapkowski’s writing is inherent to the genre or translation and how much of it is actually him. But only time will tell.

This Conclave Is Adjourned But The Witcher Saga Continues On

Thank you for joining us at the beginning of this interesting journey. Going through The Witcher Saga book by book like this with an additional discussion has already proven to be an intriguing and fun experience. Join us next month for our analysis of the second book, The Sword of Destiny, as well as another Q&A. Until then, we end this discussion for reasons of state!

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