Andrzej Sapkowski, Witcher (1986-2013), Part One

Piotrek: Wiedźmin. THE Polish fantasy series, the only one famous enough to break from the genre ghetto and into genuine literature. Well, for the most part, hardcore old-timers refused to acknowledge that anything genre can be worth their attention… losers. Anyway, wiedźmin (“Witcher” in Polish) Geralt of Rivia became famous soon after the first short story was published, and kept the attention of domestic fantasy enthusiast until the final instalment of the saga arrived in Polish bookshops in 1999. It was translated into several, mostly central-European, languages and became quite popular throughout the region. Wiedźmin inspired a disastrous cinematic adaptation, a slightly better (as some people claim, myself I don’t like it at all) comic and, finally, a video game. One of the best video games ever, but let’s concentrate on the books for now.


Ola: Yeah, let’s ;). I haven’t played a single minute in any of them, and though all I hear around is praise, I’m just… not into computer games, I guess. That’s probably a serious blow to my nerdy cred, but heck. The only computer game I ever enjoyed was Worms… Oh, and that one where with the use of a mouse, a piece of line, a bottle and a plank you had to build a working machine ;).

Well, back to Wiedźmin. Seemingly directed to a very narrow audience, steeped in Slavic mythology and history of Europe (especially XXth century, but by no means only), full of neologisms or real old Polish words… Nobody would have pegged Wiedźmin for a bestselling material. But Sapkowski succeeded where others have not – by creating real, flesh and blood characters, living in a very complex, brutal world. He created something original, different from the hundreds of Tolkien clones and poor cousins flooding the fantasy genre at that time. I could be mean enough to call him an avant-garde of grimdark, and there would be a grain of truth in this description as well. Because Wiedźmin saga is painted in all shades of grey – and even the main protagonist, Geralt, is at best a very dirty white. And that’s what enthralled the audience in Poland and other Slavic countries in the first place: the character’s grim and romantic, ironic and idealistic, depressed and yet unrelenting, in short – a very Slavic world view. Add to it a very postmodern mix of allegory, reference and interplay with the works of popular culture, and you have Wiedźmin.

Piotrek: There are legends, Polish folk stories, postmodern novel-writing techniques, but also a solid fantasy background. Amazing in someone born in 1948 in Poland. He did work in international trade, knows languages, that allowed him to become versed in genre classics, high and low. His nonfic about Fantasy as a genre, Scripture Found in Dragon’s Cave, introduced me (or encourage to take a second glance, in some cases, or at least provided wider context) to such writers as Judith Tarr, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson, Marion Zimmer Bradlley, Jack Vance… he shaped my TBR and TBB lists for quite some time 🙂 I’m not exactly sure, years later, but it’s possible that even GRRM would not get there without Sapkowski, titles alone would not convince me… The Storm of Swords? That sounds like cheap sword and sorcery…

Ok, Geralt. Geralt started humbly, as a protagonist of a single short story published in a magazine in 1986. The fight featured in wonderful cinematic intro to Witcher 1 is its culminating point of this story and I think it’s easy to see why so many readers became enamoured with Geralt. Four years later first collection was published, and finally, in 1993, the canonical stories were collected in two volumes that now constitute the beginning of the Witcher Saga. Then, five novels, the last one published in 1999. Fourteen years later, cash-deprived author whose other books where far less popular wrote another short story collection 😉 Not really a sequel, from chronological point of few, a I love the term used by tvropes’ author – interquel 🙂

Ola: Interquel sounds about right ;). But let’s start from the beginning – the short stories collected in two tomes: The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. Based mostly on Eastern – and Western – European fairy tales, from folk tales to Grimm brothers to Andersen, told with more than one twist, and written more for the sheer fun of playing with the original material than for setting the stage for the saga. There is almost no character development in the short stories – Geralt is fully formed into his fucking-and-fighting self from the very first pages – but what we get instead is a very western, and a bit don-Quixotic outlook: an unbroken, solitary fighter upholding the law in a lawless, cruel world. And yet, at the same time, these are the origin stories – the events happening in them are going to shape Geralt in more than one way, define him anew into the more complex, more three-dimensional character we know from the subsequent five instalments of the saga.

Still, I’m one of those who prefer the short stories to the saga itself. They are true little gems, written within the strict confines of the genre, and yet transcending them in many ways. I love the bitter irony, the instances of the poetic and whimsical clashing with stark, austere grimness (Sapkowski’s rendition of the Beauty and the Beast), the sheer fun of tongue-in-the-cheek moments (jinn, anyone? or the siren :P). Are they misogynist? Hell yeah, at least on the surface. Lots of eager, naked girls around, just waiting to jump into bed – but the grass will do just fine, thanks – with a menacing, handsome dude. Maybe it’s his sterility, I don’t know 😛 But, to be fair, sometimes one is hard-pressed to decide who is using whom. Sapkowski’s world is in this akin to the Renaissance Europe – in both places the women use their bodies, and the promise of sex, as their best weapon. And more than once our protagonist finds himself on the short end of the stick in the intersex exchange of bodily fluids… Because, when you look deeper, the ideas of sexism and patriarchate are among the main concepts Sapkowski plays with – together with the ideas of slavery, destiny, racism etc. Women in his world are just as strong and ruthless and cunning as men (or maybe even more, skilled in the art of bending the societal rules of conduct).

The stories are self-contained. You can read just them to get a good feel of Sapkowski’s world. And, to a point, it’s a wise move – because as good as the saga is, its ending is a huge disappointment.

(End of Part One, Part Two available here)


6 thoughts on “Andrzej Sapkowski, Witcher (1986-2013), Part One

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