Every year The Witcher seems to increase in popularity because it’s a fantastic IP and because it has shown up in a multitude of forms and mediums. However, unlike the more centralized efforts like Sanderson’s Cosmere, or the MCU, these cross-medium takes on the property are mostly self-contained and have seemingly different objectives. This can lead to a lot of confusion about where to start and how all of the pieces are all connected. So today we thought we would talk about the multifaceted identity of The Witcher. This includes Its origins, the splintering of the IP, and what you can expect to find in each iteration of The Witcher.
Let’s start at the beginning: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski. Here is a very oversimplified version of how the sensation came about. Once upon a time, a Polish author named Andrzrej Sapkowski wrote a very successful collection of short stories about a witcher who traveled the land sorting out the truth of fairy tales. After its rave reception, Sapkowksi decided to write a larger, more narrative-based story around some of the characters from the short collection. While all of this was happening, Sapkowski was approached by a Polish video game team who wanted to make a series of games based on the IP. Sapkowksi has no interest in video games and assumed it would just flop, so he sold them the rights and wanted no oversight into the game. This resulted in the game forging its own path and developing some noticeable differences.
As the game soared to success over its three installments (particularly The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), the Witcher IP has become more and more popular with a wider audience. This finally resulted in the Netflix adaptation, which has forged a new path yet again and launched The Witcher to even greater heights of popularity.
But, while each of these takes on The Witcher has been widely well-received, they tend to cater to different audiences and try to achieve different things. Liking the TV show is not a guarantee that you will like the books or the games. The easiest way for me to explain where I see the various pieces in relation to one another is if you imagine all four on a sliding scale. On one end of the scale is “thematic focus.” Here, the media focuses on exploring themes and narratives and doesn’t tend to focus on telling a linear story with characters. On the other end of the scale is “plot focus.” Here, the media focuses on telling an actual linear story within the world following specific characters and the plots that develop around them. Let’s go through all four media pieces now. They start at a plot focus and slide towards narrative and themes as the piece progresses. We are going to spend the most time on the greater book series because that’s where things get the most complicated. However, I have a few thoughts on all things Witcher.
The TV Show
Full disclosure, I don’t actually care that much for The Witcher TV show. The first season was fun when it focused mostly on the originally unconnected stories from the two anthology books. However, season two moves into more of a chunky plot-heavy story that doesn’t match the other renditions of The Witcher and the core identities explored by the games and books. The show is exciting in ways that only TV can truly be, allowing the audience to fully see into the lives of the characters and enjoy their sometimes merry adventures. The pacing is fun, and the characters really come to life, especially the budding friendship between Geralt and Jaskier. There is a chemistry there that feels real and earned. It’s a major part of why I decided to pick up the books.
The TV show is probably the furthest into the story and plot end of the spectrum. It focuses heavily on Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer’s stories in ways that books, and sometimes the games, aren’t really concerned with. They are the stars of the story, and it matters what choices they make while they continue to grow as characters. I get the feeling that the people who work on the show are devoted to fully fleshing these folks out, and making the audience cherish them in the same ways that they do. And while bad things happen to them, and around them, and sometimes even because of them, I often feel there is nothing truly terrible in store for them.
Let me be clear, focusing on the characters isn’t a mark of shame, and in some cases really opens up possibilities for the story. For example, Yennefer feels like a distant side character in the novels(at least in the beginning) but is fleshed out to be a very interesting and compelling protagonist in the show (in particular in the first season). This is what kept me invested in the show and her character is a concept I liked to explore. But this element of the story is only a smaller piece in the large focus of the medium. The core idea is growing attached to Geralt and company and feeling for them as they tackle trials and tribulations. It’s not a worse form of storytelling, but it is different from the books and more common to the cultural zeitgeist which means it stands out a lot less compared to the books.
While the show was a fun little adventure that I enjoyed at the time, and in some ways spurred my need to read the books, it starts to feel thinner the more I watch. I was ecstatic about the prospect of a second season but went through it in a series of fits and starts. Granted it was after having read a majority of the books, but it didn’t sing the siren song belted out by season 1. But that’s neither here nor there, and we have oodles and oodles of more complicated things to talk about.
The Witcher Games
Now we find ourselves taking a big step toward the narrative focus side of this scale. The best way I can describe The Witcher games for you is that they “keep the vibes of the original books going perfectly, but spend a lot more time telling tiny cohesive stories.” There is an overarching story to each of The Witcher games. And while each story is good, what really bridges the feel of the games to the original books is its focus on tiny side quests that resemble the thematic nature of the books. Here the games find this wonderful balance of plot progression that attaches you, the player, to the characters, but still gives the writing team tons of space to tell cautionary tales that explore the meaning of human nature in a way that feels true to the books.
The Witcher games are the most transportive of the different versions because it’s the only media form that places the player into the shoes of Geralt and gives them agency to affect the direction of the story. The games, in particular The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, still keep to the plot focus space where all choices seem bad and there is no clear ‘good’ path forward–and in doing so drape the player in a miasma of anxiety. Geralt is a deeply flawed individual, but the games help the player have empathy for his plight by challenging them to do better and showing that oftentimes you can’t just do good, but also have to live with highly consequential decisions made in a matter of seconds.
In many ways, I feel like the games sit at the center of The Witcher web and represent the piece of media that shares the most connections to all other forms of the media. If you like any other piece of The Witcher content, you will probably also like the games. They draw from the best of both the thematic and plot sides, without overcommitting to either, making them the perfect people-pleasing experience. You won’t achieve the startling depth of the books, but there is still great meaty content and ideas in these games. You won’t get the drama and pizzazz of Geralt’s life story like you will in the show, but they’re still in a very touching and moving story that weaves all the pieces together.
The Last Wish
The most thematically focused piece of The Witcher is The Last Wish. This collection of short stories is all about teaching lessons a la Aesop’s Fables with clever twists on a number of well-known classic fairy tales. We are introduced to a number of staple story characters in this book, such as Geralt, Yennefer, and Jaskier/Dandelion. But, while they have distinct and interesting personalities the stories are more about things happening around them than to them (with one notable exception). Geralt is a witness to these tales, and he tends to stand outside unfolding events until agency is forced upon him, sometimes to his detriment. As such, this book represents an almost pure dedication to thematic elements and cares little for the development or reader attachment to the characters.
What is nice about The Last Wish is its relatively straightforward simplicity. It is a string of clever short stories with a cohesive central theme and is delightfully fun to read. There is darkness in them, but it is a darkness you will come to expect and appreciate. It remains to this day both one of my favorite short story collections and one of my favorite standalone tales.
I first read The Last Wish about eight years ago and put a review up on the site that you can find here. I still stand by most of what I said in that review, but if anything, time and a reread have only strengthened my feeling that this book is a perfect window into the mind of Andrzej Sapkowski. The chronology of events is more or less irrelevant, each story stands perfectly on its own. It is short, to the point, and doesn’t linger longer than it should. But, what if Andrzej Sapkowski spent more time with these characters? What if he blended a little bit of plot into the events of the world and used it to explore ideas on a greater scale? Well, that’s how we get the larger Witcher book series—the real focus of the analysis given that we are, in fact, a book blog.
The Witcher Books – What The Hell Should You Expect?
The Witcher book series is weird. I mean that in every sense of the word. Frankly, it feels like something that should not exist in contemporary fantasy literature, and in some ways it doesn’t. After all, the books were published in the 1990s in Poland, only to be translated and published in the United States in a controversial order that seemed doomed to fail. If you’re curious, you can definitely find entire Reddit threads, forum posts, and Wikipedia articles that detail the sordid history of the series as it was translated and published in English. There is also a lot—and I mean a LOT—of conflict over the quality of the translation. Sapkowksi himself has a few words about the translations, but does not wholeheartedly condemn or hail them. I’m not here to do a deep dive into the history of the Witcher, so I’ll leave you to do that research on your own.
However, I will try to persuade you to consider the series, even in its current English translation. Now, I am not bilingual. I’m barely partial to a second language, let alone Polish, but these books do offer bizarre and refreshing stories for modern fantasy readers. As stated above, The Witcher is not a carefully cultivated intellectual property. It was not designed to be, and honestly, after reading all of the books currently in existence, I’m frankly astounded that any one would even try to build something out of Sapkowski’s world. Don’t get me wrong, the temptation is strong, but walking away from the series and thinking “there is a strong plot at the core of these books,” is taunting the devil himself. Yes, there is a central plot, but as the books plod along, that feels less and less the goal, to the point where it feels like Sapkowski is standing over the reader’s shoulders pointing out where he hid one of his many fuck yous to the reader. It is easily one of the most adversarial book series I have ever read in the best way possible, and I’m in love with it.
The Witcher books feel deliberately designed to turn the reader off of them, while trying to impart incredibly interesting themes. It feels as if the author is purposefully attacking your sensibilities as a reader, challenging your preconceived notions, at times in an almost insulting manner, depending on your approach as a reader. I’m a fairly open reader when I’m in a good mood, always hoping for a good deconstruction that spits in the face of the word genre, so these books felt like a warm hug after several slaps in the face.
What Are The Books About?
Now all of this might have you asking, what the hell are The Witcher books about anyway? Well, it’s about Geralt, and his group of friends and the adventures they get involved in. It’s about Ciri, his daughter by destiny, and the misfortunes she encounters. And it’s about the nature of storytelling, the creation of myths, and the Cold War. Well, no, not actually the Cold War. Well, maybe. I’m not a historian with a Cold War focus, nor do I have a degree in literary analysis.
The larger story, one could argue, begins with The Sword of Destiny and Geralt’s adventures in avoiding being a father. It’s filled with semi-light-hearted adventures with Geralt and Dandelion (Jaskier to the real heads I guess), and a comedic interlude in an outskirt bordertown with Yennefer and a jealous wizard. There is even death and dismemberment. I am in no way whatsoever lying to you. These descriptions do fit the bill, but as I didn’t really dive into in my review of the book, The Sword of Destiny is about as mean as life. Geralt isn’t really a good person here. Sure, he has his personal code, and generally adopts reasonable positions in his dealings. But his interpersonal bullshit is stacked so high you can see it from the moon without a telescope. It pours off of every page how much of a disaster he is with his own relationships, and just how piss poor he is at compromise on a social level. He can solve problems between humans and monsters, for the most part, but has no ability to relate to those around him. Some of that is the world in which he lives, but part of it is that he’s shit.
What fascinates me most about The Sword of Destiny is that Sapkowski does not fix Geralt prior to the events that dominate the rest of the series. He is not “made whole” to become the man who saves the day. The short stories that make up the book serve to highlight who he is leading into his life-altering events. He is broken in many ways, and has hurt a lot of people, and is unwilling to truly connect to the world he inhabits. The stories are sad, funny, enriching and deeply upsetting in many ways. The culminating story, however, sets the reader up for the rest of the series as Geralt finally accepts the fate he has bestowed upon himself, and finds Ciri.
As much as I want to delve into the synopsis of these stories so you as the reader know what to expect, the actual plot becomes less and less the point—something I really cannot emphasize enough. That isn’t to say the story that Sapkowski writes is not riveting, but it has a weird momentum that may cause whiplash. It wouldn’t be easy also to dissect each individual novel after The Sword of Destiny. I read most of the books in quick succession, which made at least Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt run into a single book. If anything, the most recognizable things about each of the books is not the events that happen within them, but the structure Sapkowksi employs to tell his stories.
As one would expect from such a large sprawling book series, Geralt and Ciri are not in each other’s presence for a long amount of time. It’s not really anyone’s fault; after all Ciri is the child of destiny, and pretty much every faction has her set in their sights. She is the key to winning for each group, whether it’s Nilfgaard, the Sorcerers guild, or the northern realms. Everyone wants to find her and install her how they see fit. The crux of each plan involves, you guessed it, her ability to procreate and the child she will bear for the world. Meanwhile, Geralt is chasing down every thread he can find when she disappears from the world, picking up plenty of companions along the way. And the real magic to these books is the parallel lives these two lead as they attempt to find one another, and stay out of the grasp of the looming powers of the world.
Spiraling Into The Weird
You’re right, dear reader, the general plot of the books, beyond everyone’s obsession with the fact that Ciri can bear children, is not all that strange. It has some of its own charms, though, which make it feel distinct from the usual “individual against society” conflict that these books inhabit. For one, Geralt, his companions, and Ciri all feel like small players in a larger conflict. They aren’t titanic Individuals being crushed by the weight of society, intending to rupture the systems that hunt them. Instead, all they can do is try to escape and find bits of peace here and there in the relentless hunt perpetrated by the powerful. However, it is not a passive stance, and these folks fight for their life, in pretty spectacular and phenomenal ways. Hell, they even take the initiative when it seems prudent. They learn to care for one another and in that empathy, learn to fight for each other.
Baptism of Fire leans into this the hardest. The band of people that starts to surround Geralt during this book is probably one of the most delightful yet haggard heroic cadres I’ve encountered in a fantasy work. They all have their moments of being complete bastards about one thing or another, but they all are genuinely complex people with complicated relationships with each other and the world. In particular, Milva and Regis are my favorites because of the ways in which they push Geralt out of his moody, and oftentimes misanthropic shell. They also both serve to dispel myths about the world, offering funny quips that seem designed to speak directly to the reader.
And that folks, is where I dive into the deep end.
Taking The Sapkowski-Pill
Bear with me for a moment, because that is a pretty loaded header. There is one thing I absolutely adore about these books, and it’s how antagonistic Sapkowski comes off to the reader, particularly in the last two books (and somewhat in Season of Storms as well). This isn’t just a series of quips made by the characters, or how often it feels like he is winking at the reader with specific conversations or events. It feels like something more fundamentally baked into the structure of Tower of Swallows and Lady of the Lake. Not only does he just throw out all conventions readers would expect of a fantasy tale such as The Witcher, he attacks the notion that a reader would feel cheated by not walking the paved path laid down by other fantasy forebears.
Oftentimes, it feels like a blatant attack on being a fantasy reader in the first place. There were times that I felt I was in a high chair, and Sapkowski was feeding me the story with an airplane spoon, only to flick the oatmeal in my face before I could eat it. And he would look at me dead in the face and ask politely, “what else did you expect?” Now, most of my friends, family, and other writers at the Quill consider me to be a masochistic reader, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I pushed through this. I’ve read through 800 pages of Eragon in space, gobbled two books by an author I can’t stand, and am working on a full analysis of a book that I despise. Pain drives my reading experience at a base level. And while that’s all true, I don’t think you have to be a masochist to engage in the dialogue Sapkowski seems hell bent on having with the reader. It’s challenging, yes, but all great stories should push you here and there.
While I expected to enjoy this adversarial writing style, I didn’t expect to fall in love with it as deeply as I did. It is tough to read something that constantly is fighting to be itself, while also lambasting everything readers want it to exist alongside with. Sapkowski constantly revs up the pacing, pushing the plot only to take the keys out of the car, wink at you and go back in the house. This feels more apparent in Tower of Swallows as he develops a specific kind of cadence with each successive chapter, both lulling the reader into a sense of security while honking an air horn in their face. I never got angry at this approach, even though it was a little frustrating to encounter. But once I bought into this style, I craved more of it. Luckily, Lady of the Lake delivers in spades, serving up a bombastic ending that takes its sweet ass time.
Yes, I am a masochist, but the challenge of reading these books is part of the fun and makes for an incredibly unique, enriching experience. We should want to read stories that point out things we take for granted, whether it’s the real world, or the fantasy worlds we run to when we need a break. While sometimes it’s enough to critique swaths of contemporary fantasy as misogynist, we should want stories that take those sexist assumptions to task as well. Maybe the antagonistic nature of the stories doesn’t come off quite so strongly in the original Polish, or maybe American readers are given a watered down version of it, I can’t really say. Either way, I wish more genre writers took this sort of stance and used it to fuel their own narratives.
Deconstruction. What I found so exciting about The Last Wish is that Sapkowski turns well known fairy tales on their heads, and he spends time asking what they really mean to us. Geralt comes off to most as this badass monster hunter, but most of the stories involve him trying to solve problems without having to kill someone or something. Sword of Destiny is similar as he deals with conflict following his own code, often evading the quagmires of his own creation because of his “manliness.” It’s why it’s frustrating to see readers get upset that the rest of the series is not Geralt just being a “badass monster hunter.” While he is an interesting character with a complex code, I never got that sense of “fun monster huntin’ fantasy” other readers experienced.
And so the last three books fit nicely back into that exploration of fantasy and myth. They’re both grimdark and incredibly fantastic. Sapkowski draws from the realities of interpersonal relationships, and fighting for one’s survival against monolithic powers and combines it with stunning interdimensional travel and in-your-face magic. All to ask the big question “what is fantasy anyway?” Is it about killing monsters? Is it about raping and subduing women? Is it about big battles on big fields, where soldiers die in endless glory for intangible causes? While the books never really land on simple answers to these questions, they continue to ask them, fervently and relentlessly. Anytime I experienced a rush of joy or triumph, I was immediately slapped by a sobering reality. At times it could be exhausting, crawling around asking “can’t I just enjoy this one thing?” And each time, my internal Sapkowksi looked down on me, shook his head, and walked away.
Ciri’s story also feeds into this understanding of mythmaking. Yes, a lot of the books do pay attention to Geralt and his many exploits, but Sapkowksi spends a lot of words detailing Ciri’s run from and fights against the many powers who want her for her womb. She makes her own plans, and doesn’t just sit around waiting for her dad of destiny to come and save her. She gets to make mistakes, have questionable relationships, and be a menace to a society that frankly does not give a damn about her as a person. She gets to be her own hero a lot of the time, despite the world finding new ways to try and keep her down. For those concerned, it’s not all hunky dory and filled with sunshine and rainbows but it is heartening in ways a sincere examination of that kind of story can be.
The point is driven home again and again in the myriad of stories the Lady of the Lake presents. There is both triumph and pain in everything, and it’s what we choose to highlight that creates the ultimate myths. We can talk about the glory of the left flank’s heroic holding of the line, but forget the plight of the battlefield surgeons. We can reminisce about the final battle, without recognizing the pain of waiting for it. We cherish the vigilant search for a loved one, but dismiss the need for intimacy and companionship that inhabits the void during that long journey. And that’s what becomes so beautiful about these books, is that Sapkowski goes to great lengths to point all of this out. Yes, there is down time, and it feels slow sometimes only to explode in a near incoherent burst of action, but it truly becomes a story about stories—as annoying as that can be as a descriptor.
The stories that become myths aren’t left to chance. It is an active process, maybe not as guided as The Witcher, controlled by a single author. But society chooses what it wants to see in a story and highlights what it finds value in. More often than not the little people get left out, the unwanted are forgotten, crushed or vilified, and the hero goes home, a changed man with renewed love for his people. All Sapkowski does is question those “values” that are enshrined in contemporary fantasy.
And isn’t that something we should all want as fantasy and science fiction readers? Not necessarily an escape from the increasingly hostile world we live in, but a story that reminds us why we should be fighting against that encroaching fear? Not to make us feel better in the moment, but make us want to push back against the various myths and legends that subdue us, or tell us to hold out for a hero who will fix the problems? The Witcher is not perfect, and I would bet that you will have a ton of small ways that the books anger you in particular. However, it’s one of the few book series I’ve read that constantly bucks against the reins that the author and the reader have placed upon it, and that alone makes it worth your time.