Wordplay and swordplay

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish
Ostatnie życzenie (1993),
translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (2007)
Gollancz 2012

What fun this is to read, and what fun Sapkowski must’ve had writing it! It both pays homage to and takes the mickey out of the swords-and-sorcery genre; it subverts the classic fairytales it plunders while respecting their power and integrity; and it revels in witty dialogue and pithy wordplays only to cut them short with bloody cut-and-thrust swordplay worthy of a movie swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

This is a prime example of the author accomplishing that seeming paradox, having his cake and eating it. He simultaneously deconstructs so-called High or Epic Fantasy by pointing out its use of problematic clichés and then celebrates them by taking them seriously.

And what a character to have take centre stage: Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher trained to tackle the monsters that threaten the communities of this late medieval world, using weapons-skill and magic, and all in the face of fear and suspicion from those very societies he is trying to save.

Gothick pillar, Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff

What are the characteristics of a Witcher? This is a human who has not only been trained in the kind of martial arts that were prevalent in the Middle Ages but has undergone physical changes which turn him into a sorcerer at the cost of some human attributes. Geralt therefore has magical and martial abilities allied to quick mental and physical reflexes, all of which he needs to combat rusalkas, strigas, vampires, amphisboenas, harpies and similar malevolent beings.

But he is likely to have as many problems dealing with ungrateful villagers, impulsive friends and antagonistic knights as he would with dangerous monsters: anybody who exhibits differences or displays a moral code running counter to what’s expected may well be treated with a reversed gratitude.

The narrative zigzags backwards and forwards in time, with a frame that has Geralt recovering from a particularly virulent attack interrupted by episodes from the recent past giving a portrait of his powers and moral compass. Particular individuals feature strongly in the Witcher’s story: the headstrong minstrel Dandilion, the priestess Nenneke who acts as a surrogate mother to Geralt, and Yennefer the sorceress who holds as strong an attraction for Geralt as he for her.

Breaking up the incidents are numerous sections entitled ‘The Voice of Reason’ where Geralt has extended dialectics — principally but not exclusively with Nenneke — discussing or justifying his rationale for future action. The incidents themselves are clever, often humorous but also violent variations on traditional European fairytales and at least one motif from the Arabian Nights. In fact, those three elements — fractured fairytales, violence (offset by hilarious sex) and humour (often mediated through banter and repartee) — characterise the novel and comprise its chief enjoyments.

But however much this might appear a clever cross-genre pastiche of twisted clichés there are also moments of compassion, sympathy and understanding: though fantasy is sometimes claimed to be mainly about good versus evil, the better examples are able to show nuance — even when for example they pretend to be cynical and worldly wise, as in The Last Wish.

This text version by Danusia Stok reads so well it’s hard to believe it’s a translation when it’s so full of English idioms and phraseology. Translators don’t always get the recognition they deserve, but I suppose if a general reader becomes aware of any awkwardness then — regardless of whether the translator is faithfully reflecting the original (and I obviously can’t judge its accuracy) — they’re not succeeding in presenting a readable text. Especially a text like this which is essentially a romp through a Middle Ages that never was.

And the significance of the title? Appropriately we only get to know the relevance of the title’s last of three wishes in the closing pages; and it’s subtly done.


With thanks to Ola and Piotrek blogging at Reenchantment of the World for recommending the Sapkowski books and for writing an insightful post for Witch Week 2018 all about the Witcher characters. Another review of The Last Wish (by Lizzie Ross) appears here.

34 thoughts on “Wordplay and swordplay

  1. piotrek

    You get it 🙂 Thanks, Chris, for this review. I’m fundamentally in agreement with everything you say, and I’m really happy you like the translation – being raised, as a reader, on the Polish version, I couldn’t appreciate it or even objectively judge its quality.

    Now, the tv series… I’ve only seen the final episode yesterday, and I’m disappointed. Not that bad as a show, but as adaptation of Sapkowski’s saga… meh. For me, it looses much of what you praise here…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So glad you approve, Piotrek! After I wrote the review I checked out a couple of comments on the translation, which turned out to be mostly nitpicking rather than its effectiveness as language and ability to evoke the spirit of the original. The fact that I wasn’t constantly checking how much more there was to read of the novel is a good gauge of how well I got on with Stok’s version.

      As to the TV series: the late Christopher Tolkien was dismissive of Jackson’s LOTR adaptation for focusing on action more than he would’ve liked (a limitation, I would have thought, of most screen adaptations): for me adaptations are like translations — I’m happy if they keep the spirit of the original, but if action dominates to the exclusion of spirit that’s a big negative for me. I assume that’s the case with the Witcher TV series?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. piotrek

        To a degree, but what I object to, is the change of narrative focus, from Geralt and his various monster-slayings, through which we discover the world, slowly and thoroughly, to three stories of three protagonist (Yennefer, Witcher and Cirri) getting similar amounts of attention (which leave us with not nearly enough time to experience the stories and get to know the world)… the idea of introducing three main heroes and not just one manly Geralt – ok, but, not at that cost.

        Even worse, instead of a world in multiple shades of grey, we have, from the beginning, an epic struggle against Nazi-Nilgardians….

        Altogether, not a disaster, but a show far worse than it could have been.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The books are generally available now, thanks to the Netflix series, but gamers have known the characters for quite a while, and Polish readers even longer than that. I’ve got a copy of Blood of the Elves to come: they make an appearance here, a hint of things to come perhaps?

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  2. I only just came across this book series (Amazon has been trying to get me to buy them) and it seems that I should. Enjoyed your review.

    I agree it is rarely that we complement translators for their work, but there are quite a few that I’ve read recently including Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 where I didn’t feel in the least that I was reading one.

    Congratulations on 1000 posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I neither play video games nor watch Netflix but online advertising has been heavily promoting this series not just for physical books but as ebooks and audiobooks. I’m generally able to resist these siren calls and am glad I bought the book a year and a bit ago so I can be a little smug now! 🙂

      Thanks for the felicitations, Mallika, I knew I was coming up for this milestone soon but WP informed me anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m very happy you enjoyed Sapkowski’s short stories so much, Chris! They are my favorites, and I love them for the same reasons you do – and for the constant subversion of expectations, especially vivid in the short stories (the saga, for obvious reasons, becomes more linear and herded 😉 )

    Great review! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you both again for recommending this series, I’m so pleased to have at last mark a start on it!

      Though I haven’t yet read as much Moorcock as I’ve intended it strikes me that Geralt has much in common with Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné: the latter is a swordsman and a sorcerer, and an antihero and an albino who feels alienated from his own people and the people he moves amongst. But that’s not to diminish Sapkowski’s creation, of course!

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        1. Must dig out the couple of Elric titles, if I still have them, though when I’d get round to them heaven knows. Hope you get your copies back! I’ve resolved to never a borrower or lender be…

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      1. I’ve read some Moorcock and can see the similarities you point out, though I wouldn’t consider Elric and Geralt much alike – too many differences for me 😁!
        I think Moorcock tried to create a tragic hero, first and foremost; Sapkowski’s protagonist is more ironic, and his tragedy stems more from the fact that he is nearly alone in his worldview and ethics…

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            1. We know he was an avid reader of fantasy early on, back in the eighties, as he knew English pretty well and traveled to Western Europe many times, and even wrote a book on fantasy tropes and most common topoi. I would have to find out for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised if he knew Moorcock’s Elric and consciously reflected this influence in Geralt’s physiognomy 😉

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            2. I’m afraid it wasn’t, unfortunately. Moorcock is mentioned there, more than once, and there was apparently quite a discussion going on with regards to this issue – commented upon Moorcock himself 😉 A white-haired superior swordsman, remaining beyond the boundaries of communities, is apparently a quite popular European mythological figure – I believe I found some Finnish mentions in the net… So here we are, back to the very basics, Chris! 😊

              Liked by 1 person

            3. Albinos were conventionally regarded as ‘other’, weren’t they, the object of suspicion and fear. I’m also reminded of the albino monk Silas in the dreadful Da Vinci Code book, which I suspect Dan Brown must have borrowed from somewhere — if not folklore, then where? Voodoo?

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Albinos, especially in Africa, are still regarded with mixture of awe and fear, not only as other but also alien, endowed with strange, magical properties and powers. There apparently was, or maybe still is, a black market dealing in albino body parts… I remember reading a reportage on it a few years back.

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      1. Planning to start with Blood of Elves, which I should pick up tomorrow. It’s been on my radar for years, partially due to my video gamer friends, just hadn’t gotten around to it.

        Hopefully it will live up to its reputation. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Good luck! Polish fellow bloggers Ola and Piotrek above suggested I start with The Last Wish: though published after Blood it lays out more of Geralt’s origins, motivations and modus operandi than its predecessor. But no doubt your gamer friends have equally good reasons to suggest otherwise!

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  4. Oh my goodness! I just finished “The Last Wish” last week and am now onto Sapkowski’s second collection “Sword of Destiny”. I really enjoyed the first book only to find that his second is even better! This stuff reads like a breath of fresh air in the medieval fantasy genre. I had wondered whether you might like a book like this – and now I know! Also, many congratulations on your 1000th post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words about the blogging milestone, Jo! Yes, the Witcher stories seem to be right up my street in terms of a mix of humour, philosophy and fantasy. I’ve got Blood of the Elves to go yet, and then I may be onto the others too.

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