We’re pleased to include in Witch Week this piece by Piotrek and Ola, authors of the Re-Enchantment of the World blog, here discussing the female characters of the Witcher novels by Andrej Sapkowski. A fuller version of this edited-down post can be read here.
The Women in the world of Witcher
The Witcher! Monster-slaying character from computer games, soon to be made into a Netflix series starring Henry Cavill … but, also, as more and more people in the English-speaking world begin to realise, a book series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Well, actually the books predate games by almost two decades. The Witcher saga, which gave Sapkowski the World Fantasy Award (Lifetime Achievement, 2016) and Gemmell (2009), is finally translated into the language of Shakespeare, so it’s a good time to check it out before the Netflix adaptation.
One of the reasons it’s worth your time – and a good topic to discuss during Witch Week – is a multitude of female characters. Many of them are strong women, active and extremely important for the plot, which is set in a realistic European-medieval fantasy world where gender balance is a bit more equal than in our history, and not only due to the existence of powerful sorceresses. And that is what we want to discuss today, for the general review of the series we invite you to go here. We will try to keep the text spoiler-free, at least in regards to the major events, as our opinions about major characters will be visibly informed by our knowledge of their actions and fate.
Piotrek: The funny thing is, Witcher games are often, and not without reason (especially Witcher I), called misogynistic. Discreet, handsome and fit, Geralt of Rivia is very popular with the ladies, powerful sorceresses most of all, all ready to go out of their way to get him into their alcoves.
Ola: 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).
Piotrek: Yes, they are. We have scheming beauties that would fit the Renaissance-like worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, female wielders of great magics – magic often being a force equalizer in a fantasy setting, and rightly so, there is nothing inherently male in a fireball, but we also have warrioresses and women soldiers more common than in historical armies of late middle ages and early modernity. Not a gender-blindness of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, but Renfri, Milva and Julia Abatemarco are three very different women you’d want on your side in a battle.
Ola: Or at least you wouldn’t want them as your opponents. Having Renfri on my side would do nothing to bolster my courage ;). But the great thing about Sapkowski’s world is that there exist an inherent – ontological, we may say – equality of gender. Sure, the social inequality still exists, robustly — in addition to blatant racism, xenophobia, and deep divisions of wealth and status. Female roles are fewer, less paid and less venerated for the most part (with the exception of healers). If, being a woman, you try to overstep the social boundaries, you may get away with it from time to time — provided that you excel in what you do. And that you have a different kind of immunity to social scorn or other forms of punishment: magic, wealth, social status. But women in the Witcher’s world can be as good and as bad as men. There is nothing — except culture and social rules — that makes them naturally less cruel or less cunning. They are physically weaker, that’s true, but many of them are able to make up for it in a myriad ways. The sorceresses are an especially nasty bunch of women tough as nails, cold-hearted and cruel, and for the most part bent on acquiring as much power and wealth as they can. Even their famed beauty is artificial — a symbol of their status as much as an investment; a weapon, honed to perfection by years of a constant use of magic.
Piotrek: They are a special case and understandably so. And, generally, more capable of cooperation and, ultimately, more effective than their male counterparts. They are able to transgress the social norms with impunity, but not without costs. It’s probably not an accident that Sapkowski made most of them infertile, and more concerned by that fact than witchers. For Yennefer it was a great personal tragedy and for the long time she tried to cure herself.
Ola: But, to be fair, some of the other viewed their infertility as a very convenient development – a price willingly paid for the power, wealth and status. I wonder if there’s an author’s statement somewhere? 😉
There is a certain temptation to treat the sorceresses of the Witchers world as a homogeneous guild or caste. All of them have a certain magical propensity, all of them were uniformly schooled and moulded by their cruel, unforgiving environment, all share certain status and are expected to fill certain roles. Yet within this group are very diverse women with very diverse personal histories, perspectives, needs and wants.
Aside from Ciri, whom we’ll introduce later, Yennefer is ultimately the main female character of the series. The process of her personal growth centers on the realization that there are more important things in the world than power, wealth, beauty and impunity to do whatever you want, and the most crucial lesson she receives is one in sacrifice and selflessness. After decades of taking, Yennefer finally learns to give. To a point Triss Merigold remains her mirror image — or simply her younger version, not yet ready to understand the hard truths about the world. Whereas Yennefer emerges from her trails stronger, more independent and self-reliant as well as self-aware, Triss’ path leads her toward conformity: submission to what she perceives as a higher authority and a choice of safety over freedom.
Nevertheless, even though sorceresses in Sapkowski’s world are decidedly the most visible and eye-catching, there are also other female roles and characters worth mentioning.
Piotrek: And, perhaps, in some ways even more interesting, because they have to deal with being a female in men’s medieval world without the benefit of having superpowers. One we meet early is Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, capable on the battlefield but unlucky in dynastic politics, only able to rule as a widow of one ruler and then as wife of another, uninterested in wielding power personally and happy to pursue other entertainments. Her accomplishments were not enough to convince the nobility that a weak woman can be more than a wife, and it wasn’t easy for her to preserve her status as de facto leader of her country. She resembles the great women of Middle Ages suchas Eleonor of Aquitaine or Matilda of Tuscany, both in her successes and in her uniqueness.
Another character, secondary in the books, is Shani. A student of medicine who will later become a dean of the medicine department of the University of Oxenfurt, she’s a rare example of a female non-magical professional. It’s probably only possible because her chosen field attracts many women, albeit usually in less valued, auxiliary roles. Providers of care and comfort, but subordinated to true doctors. Not this one. Still, she’s another exception to the rules of male-dominated society and has to struggle with its prejudices.
Ola: And let’s not forget Nenneke, healer and priestess, a surrogate mother character to Geralt… As strong as they come, aware of her power, and more aware of her weaknesses as well as strengths.
Piotrek: Nenneke, the strong and caring prioress and example of a good human being in position of authority. Not a subversive character, as the likes of her existed in history way more often than warrior-queens or female knights, she is definitely worth reader’s respect and attention.
Finally, Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, product of several crucial bloodlines and, by the Law of Surprise, adopted daughter of Geralt of Rivia.
Ola: It’s actually pretty rewarding to have a female (probable) savior for a change, and an accidental and unwilling one to boot ;). Being somebody’s genetic pet project can, I imagine, put one in a rather foul mood, not to mention the rising risk of certain hereditary diseases, as evidenced in most of the European and Egyptian ruling dynasties.
Piotrek: Yes, well, it’s not fun for the person in question, that’s for sure. And the Witcher saga is largely a desperate struggle of Geralt to give Ciri the freedom to choose her way in life. Ciri is a child, who needs to grow up in very harsh conditions. Even among well-meaning witchers, being a young girl isn’t easy. As Triss pointed out, you can’t just apply the training regime designed for young warriors without making some adjustments… On the road, where everybody really is out to get you, and you lose friends faster than you gain them, it’s much worse. What made it possible for Ciri to retain her very humanity, is family, and in a very modern sense of family of choice, good people caring for each, related or not. This is one of my favourite things about the Saga, and the swift, pointless slaughter of most of characters involved is one of Sapkowski’s greatest mistakes.
Ola: Aaaargh spoilers! I know it’s still painful for you, those many years later, but let it pass :P. Indeed, however, your emotional reaction perfectly underscores the impact of Sapkowski’s saga on whole generation of young Polish readers — and, now, hopefully, not only Polish. But I agree with you: for all Sapkowski’s nihilism and a decidedly grim outlook on sentient life, the Witcher’s saga is a tale of family and emotional bonds we choose to forge and respect. It’s also a tale of forging one’s own path through the world, and of the value of staying true to oneself, when you finally realize who you are and who you want to be. Gender is only one of many facets of one’s personality and, though important, it’s definitely not the most crucial one. As ethical choices make for so much of the Witcher’s saga, I’d venture an opinion that an old-fashioned morality perceived as a choice between good and evil, as well as belief in transcendental values, form the core of Sapkowski’s perspective here.
Piotrek: Overall, I’d say Sapkowski did pretty well. Ahead of his times, and still holding up quite well. We have a variety of female characters, strong in all the meanings of the word, some as tough as their male counterparts, other feminine and still very effective. They have agency, they have weaknesses and depth. I believe they are as progressive as it is possible in this type of society, with its late-medieval technology and culture inspired by various cultures of Central and Northern Europe. Or is my male eye too easily deceived by superficial appearances?
Ola: I believe that gender was never Sapkowski’s main concern, which is only for the best. Initially focused mainly on overturning old tropes and certain genre expectations, Sapkowski finally found himself writing about very old-fashioned themes, albeit in a post-modern way: definition of family, duty, honor, patriotism. The portrayal of women goes in fact along the same lines as the portrayal of men in Witcher — which, at least in my book, is as equal as you can get in a world where cultural and social stereotypes form the very structure of our society ;).
Illustrations come from Witcher computer games, by CD Project Red and highly recommended
Piotrek is an accountant by occupation and sociologist by training, but most of all a lover of stories, wherever they hide — in books, movies, songs, computer or tabletop games. “It can be history, or fantasy, I don’t really care if it really happened, only if it’s coherent, psychologically realistic and interesting. I’m born, raised and living in Poland, but don’t hold the circumstances of my birth against me 😉 Ours is not the only country descending into the ugly chaos of new authoritarianism, and there is still some hope.” His reviews can be seen here.
Ola is a sociologist by education, a researcher by vocation, and, by choice, a traveller through worlds small and big. “I am especially fascinated by the way the culture we create influences our worldviews and choices, but, from time to time, I also enjoy a quick, purely escapist entertainment, provided it’s done well. Born in Poland, currently living in New Zealand, I cannot help but be a realistic optimist.“