Witch Week Day 2: Sword-for-Hire

Tomorrow, two avid fans of Sapkowski’s Witcher series discuss the women of Witcher, so today Lizzie gives you a quick intro to the books and characters with this review.

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher
English translation by Danusia Stok
Orbit Books 2007 (1993)

The Last Wish comprises six short stories, framed by interludes that together constitute a seventh. Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, offers his services to villages and towns in several principalities of a medieval world. Amphisbaena, basilisk, dragon, striga, vampire – if it’s troubling your district, he’ll get rid of it for you.

The Witcher is bred for battle and then schooled for a life of rescuing the world. Armed with various types of swords and knives, not to mention potions and elixirs, Geralt is nearly invincible. Yet he resents that people think he is a hired killer, “a job that wasn’t in keeping with either honor or the witcher’s code.” He also sees the irony of his work: the more successful he is, the fewer monsters there will be to kill.

Yet these stories focus more on Geralt’s clashes with women than with monsters: sorceresses, queens, rebels –- all as skilled as men in battle or politics or both, all enraged enough to frighten whomever they challenge. Having been betrayed, they’re quick to betray another’s trust. A negotiated peace is often a feint; a shared secret the key to power over an opponent.

Two women play critical roles: The high priestess Nenneke provides him refuge and healing after a nasty fight with a striga leaves him near death. Nenneke is a “voice of reason” (the title of the seven framing interludes), counseling Geralt and negotiating with local nobility about how long the Witcher will be allowed to stay under her care.

And then there’s Yennefer, Geralt’s only love, but also a powerful sorceress he hopes never to meet again. We find out why in the final story, “The Last Wish”. As they vie for a genie’s third wish, Geralt and Yennefer fall in love, but the winner of the battle for the wish makes an enemy of the loser.

Sapkowski uses traditional fairy tales as inspiration –- Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is the obvious source for “The Last Wish” –- but he twists and complicates the stories in surprising ways, and none of them end with people living happily ever after. In “The Lesser Evil,” there is no “kindly huntsman” to set Renfri/Snow White free to befriend the seven dwarves. No, he rapes and robs her before dumping her in the woods. We learn this when, much later, she and her seven loyal mercenaries, on a killing spree, finally meet up with Geralt.

Yes, there’s plenty of violence in the Witcher tales. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and I lost count of how many people are killed –- the total has to be in the hundreds. But Sapkowski shows us Geralt’s struggle to stay honorable. I’m reminded of Paladin, in the 1950s-60s series, Have Gun, Will Travel, a gun-for-hire who tries his best to kill no one (Paladin is the only male dragon-sayer in the Western genre that I can think of). Even though the Witcher’s body count is much higher than Paladin’s, he still struggles to stay honorable in his savage land.

 

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9 thoughts on “Witch Week Day 2: Sword-for-Hire

    1. Sadly, no Tiffany or Granny Weatherwax this year, Dale, just Earthsea dragons and Witcher women planned. Ah, are you divesting yourself of Tiffany’s chronicles? I wouldn’t say no (even though I have The Shepherd’s Crown in hardback, the others are in mismatched editions). So, yes please! 🙂

    2. I love reading everyone’s “what about” comments. Of course Tiffany Aching fits right in with this year’s theme. Pratchett deserves some attention — perhaps in next year’s Witch Week?

  1. I “spotted” that dragon-slayer/sayer article while an academic and reading journals like the ALAN Review, and then used it when I taught YA lit courses for public school English teachers. It’s great lens for considering Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” as well. I’m glad it’s resonating here.

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