Is the Witcher Slavic?

It was a fortunate coincidence that the first Andrzej Sapkowski stories were published when Communism finally collapsed. We discovered that you might be the master in some skill, but this does not necessarily mean you will be paid for your job. 

Geralt of Rivia, the witcher, has become a global pop-cultural icon. That’s obvious. His career has led, however, to a very important question: is he Slavic?

This question might seem insane at first glance. Geralt, after all, by profession and vocation, slays non-human magical creatures in a fantasy world roughly resembling Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. To ask if he is Slavic sounds as silly as asking if Frodo the Hobbit is a Brexiteer.

I have used the example of “Frodo The Brexiteer”, however, with ironic intentions, but this might not be that silly after all. Given everything we know about J.R.R. Tolkien’s political views, he was an arch-conservative. He would surely have voted for Brexit himself, and so would his protagonists (at least “the good guys” – the loathsome Lobelia Sackville-Baggins looks like a “remoaner” to me).

Swordfights and Sorcery

While the ‘Witcher’ saga takes place in a fantasy Never-Never Land (it does not have any formal name, the fan-coined name is simply “The Continent”), its creator Andrzej Sapkowski is a man living firmly on this earth. He lives in Łódź, but he has family roots in antebellum Vilnius (presently Lithuania), and feels emotionally attached to it.

While he avoids openly advertising his political views in his books, he does not shy from revealing them in his public appearances and press interviews. I can personally attest to this as I conducted some of them in person. I was also present at a number of meetings with Sapkowski at international book fairs, science-fiction conventions and festivals.

“An author should not use his fiction as a soapbox for advertising his ideas,” he usually says when asked this question. There are nevertheless certain ‘soap box’ moments in The Witcher saga, including one of a sudden lecture on the importance of free, safe and legal abortion for every woman who feels like she needs one (with no questions asked).

So yes, Andrzej Sapkowski does have his own political opinions. Judging from many conversations, professional and personal, I would sum them up as generally progressive with an emphasis on anticlericalism, in support of further European integration, open borders, multi-ethnicity and a free market economy. He is a liberal in the classic Anglo-Saxon style.

How much of this is contained in the Witcher saga? Not much – after all, it’s a story about sword-fighting and sorcery. There is more, however, in the ‘other’ saga by Sapkowski, the “Hussite Trilogy”, set in actual Central Europe in the early fifteenth century.

The Hussite novels are also full of swordfights and sorcery, but since most of the story takes place within the rectangle of Wrocław, Prague, Olomouc and Kraków, there are a number of political references to the current political issues of the Visegrad Group (the castle itself is also featured).

A World, where Informal Connections were Everything

Sapkowski’s debut was in 1986, when the author himself was middle-aged. He spent most of his professional life working for one of the Communist-era state-owned foreign trade enterprises.

Although the Communist system was trying to eliminate the domestic market economy, it was still forced to participate in the global market economy, thus creating the need for state-owned ‘import-export’ corporations. While they worked in a rather bizarre manner by contemporary standards (Sapkowski himself tells a number of colorful anecdotes about his days as an international salesman), they did provide him with an opportunity to see the world and learn a thing or two about the capitalist economy.

Sapkowski’s debut was in 1986, when the author himself was middle-aged. He spent most of his professional life working for one of the Communist-era state-owned foreign trade enterprises.

This can be sensed in his writing from the very first moment. His first short story, entitled simply “The Witcher”, was published by the “Fantastyka” monthly in December 1986. In the Netflix series, it roughly corresponds to the third episode.

In this story, Geralt of Rivia is hired by a certain King Foltest to do a typical witcher gig: kill a monster called ‘striga’, terrorizing local folk unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of cursed castle ruins. Geralt argues about his reward, and we subsequently realize that his ‘clients’ are trying to cheat him.

While the question of payment seems quite obvious and natural in this literary genre, it was not the case in 1986. Not in Communist Poland, that is.

We were so accustomed to the insane world of the Communist economy, where money is nothing, and coupons, assignments, rations and informal connections were everything that we nearly forgot how to write about prices and transactions in our fiction, especially in science-fiction.

The Daily Reality of Communism

Stanisław Lem’s protagonists, such as Pirx The Pilot and Ijon Tichy, are often ‘hired’ for various jobs. But for how much? In what currency? Cash or wire transfer? Usually, we don’t know. This topic was considered too mundane to mention in a story.

This does not mean our science-fiction and fantasy were avoiding realism. Quite the opposite.

The same Stanisław Lem mastered the formula of describing the daily reality of Communism under a guise of an alien or robotic society. In his milestone novel “Eden” from 1958, human astronauts crash-land on the planet of the same name and discover a horribly failed experiment in creating a perfect society by an alien race called ‘the doublers’.

Stanisław Lem mastered the formula of describing the daily reality of Communism under a guise of an alien or robotic society.

Instead of perfecting themselves, ‘the doublers’ ended up with mass graves, concentration camps and strict censorship, covering this criminal failure. While the allusion seemed quite obvious, the actual Communist censorship did not stop this novel from being published – as the censor who would try to do so would place himself in a vulnerable position.

“What? Do you see a resemblance between this horrible criminal dictatorship and our people’s democracy, comrade censor? You must really hate your job, don’t you?” – that’s what the writer would say. And the censor knew it, so they instead avoided this conversation altogether.

Thus a very popular sub-genre of science-fiction was created. We call it “sociological science-fiction”, and it usually consisted of a more or less allegorical dystopia, depicting a failed social system, a cruel dictatorship, a concentration camp for robots, mass graves for aliens, etc.

While initially it was fresh and revealing, and mastered after Lem by other writers, such as Janusz Zajdel in Poland or the Strugatsky brothers in the USSR, it felt a bit repetitive and boring by the 1980s. Just how long can you write about Communism in disguise, before your readers begin to grow bored?

Simple Ideas Are Often the Best Ideas

Sapkowski was not particularly fond of this genre of fiction. He jokingly referred to it as “little green men in a gulag”. When he began to write his first short story, he intended to write something as far from ‘sociological sci-fi’ as possible.

And boy, did he succeed!

‘Sociological sci-fi’ was still quite influential in 1986, however, which meant that Sapkowski’s novel approach was not welcomed with open arms by critics. He sent “The Witcher” to an open competition announced by the same “Fantastyka” monthly. And he came in third!

‘Sociological sci-fi’ was still quite influential in 1986, however, which meant that Sapkowski’s novel approach was not welcomed with open arms by critics.

The first prize was awarded to an extremely typical “sociological sci-fi” story, about some laboratory/prison for mutants. It was created, not surprisingly,  by a failed experiment in an authoritarian society.

I was not a critic back then. I was a teenage boy at a very tender age, when you either love or hate any book you read, any song you hear, any film you watch.

To say that I fell in love at first read with “The Witcher” is a massive understatement. Just like other teenage boys and girls in Poland, I became a huge fan of Sapkowski immediately in December 1986. And I never ceased to be.

Today, the formula for “The Witcher” seems quite straightforward. We take the general story structure from Raymond Chandler (a cynical professional is hired “for a usual fee plus expenses” by some truly untrustworthy clients), place it in a fantasy world borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien, and base the plotline around ancient Polish folk tales about the strigas.

In literature, simple ideas are often the best ideas. I don’t blame Sapkowski for mixing these ingredients, especially because as he wrote more stories, and eventually novels about The Witcher, a fourth ingredient appeared.

A State of Literary-induced Hypnosis

It might not be obvious for a foreign author, but in Poland, every child knows that Henryk Sienkiewicz mastered the genre of ‘historical fiction’. Sienkiewicz was a prolific author of serialized novels published in newspapers in the nineteenth century.

Sienkiewicz mastered what we call today “Sienkiewiczian phrasing”. He built his sentences with a specific rhythm, creating in the reader’s mind something resembling a state of literary-induced hypnosis.

He was creating frequent cliffhangers, basically forcing readers to buy the next episode to see how the protagonists would escape from a seemingly hopeless predicament. To make it more effective, he was also great at creating likeable protagonists, the ones you actually root for.

Finally, Sienkiewicz mastered what we call today “Sienkiewiczian phrasing” („frazę sienkiewiczowską”). He built his sentences with a specific rhythm, creating in the reader’s mind something resembling a state of literary-induced hypnosis.

After a couple of pages, you really FEEL like the book has carried you away to the vast and mystical area of the seventeenth century “Wild Fields” („Dzikie Pola”) or fifteenth century Prussia. You feel like you are no longer reading about the adventures of brave, likeable protagonists, you almost feel like you can see it with your very own eyes.

Andrzej Sapkowski uses the same trick in his “Witcher” saga. Once, during the Eurocon in Barcelona, sitting with Sapkowski on a panel I actually mentioned this. I said something like – “admit it, you took it from Sienkiewicz, didn’t you?”. “Guilty as charged”, was the laconic response.

It was a fortunate coincidence that the first “Witcher” stories were published when Communism finally collapsed. Nobody cared about “the mutants in the Gulag”, because the Gulag itself had been dissolved. But we were suddenly faced with entirely different kinds of challenges.

We discovered that you might be a master in some skill, but this still does not mean you will be paid for your job. Just like the Witcher is constantly being cheated by the kings and princes who employ him, we began to feel cheated by those who employed us.

The only Author Writing about our Feelings

A teacher might succeed in taming a formidable enemy that could frighten even Geralt of Rivia: a class full of rebellious teenagers! But getting adequately paid for his job, that’s another question. The same goes for the doctor, a scientist, an engineer…

We currently have a whole new generation of fiction authors, writing about the challenges of living under capitalism. But in the early 1990s, when the entire Polish literary word was changing gears for the new challenges, Sapkowski was simply the only author writing about our feelings.

So perhaps Geralt of Rivia is not Slavic, but he is certainly living at a time of a major shift of social systems. And in these stories, it is too early to tell whether it is a change for the better or the worse. One thing is certain: there will be casualties. And while Geralt tries to do so, he cannot save every soul asking for his help.

I would argue that there is something very Central European about him. In the novel and some of the short stories, he takes part in a major war. This war originated, however, somewhere else.

The saga takes place mostly in small fiefdoms, surrounded by a formidable superpower, the Empire of Nilfgaard, seeking domination of the entire continent. The kings and princes, who employ Geralt of Rivia for their intrigues, are actually irrelevant in the global perspective.

They can only choose between being crushed or vassalized, but even for this, they would have to at least reach an agreement amongst themselves. As one might guess, the local short-term particularist antagonisms are stronger, so basically, the small kingdoms of the Continent end up being played by someone else.

Doesn’t it sound similar? Just as we find in Sapkowski’s “Hussite Trilogy”, this is a somewhat bitter yet accurate description of what was going on in the rectangle of Wrocław, Prague, Olomouc and Kraków for the last 600 years.

Perhaps Geralt of Rivia is not Slavic after all. But he certainly is Central European, just like his creator.

Wojciech Orliński

Wojciech Orliński is a Polish journalist, writer and blogger. He has been a regular columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza since 1997. He has written several books, including a biography of Stanisław Lem, three travel books and an essay on the dangers connected with the development of the Internet. He has also published science-fiction stories and opinion pieces in Nowa Fantastyka.

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