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