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Video by The Witcher Netflix

Vision: The Witcher

Yael Cameron —

Release date: 20 December 2019, Created by: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Available on Netflix

Andrzej Sapkowski first wrote about the resolute and lonely antihero, Geralt of Rivia, protagonist of The Witcher, in 1986, as a short story for a Polish speculative fiction and fantasy magazine, Fantastyka. The Witcher short stories, comics, and novels gathered such a following in Poland thereafter that Sapkowski became known as the Polish Tolkien.[1] Since the early days of publication and film adaptations in Poland, The Witcher has had a remarkable reception globally. The Witcher and its lore came to prominence more widely when CD Projekt Red picked up the storyline for an action role playing PC game in 2007. The game series reached an apogee with its third edition released in 2015, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.[2] It was an ambitious, controversial, and critically acclaimed game, with its world built to a remarkable scale. It is said to be one of the most successful games on the market with over 28.3 million copies sold. At the end of 2019, Netflix released the first series of The Witcher in English, a TV series created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich.[3] With Superman’s Henry Cavill assuming the lead role as Geralt of Rivia, this adaptation has achieved considerable attention. The first season of this series had a perplexing start but the second season directed by Hissrich, Stephen Surjik, and others has been received well by critics who lauded the strong storytelling and satisfying exploration of complex themes.[4] The third season is due to air some time in summer of 2023.

Critics seem undecided as to whether the original author of The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski, himself is religious or not. Reports range from atheist to profoundly faithful. Harley J. Sims claims Sapkowski openly identified as a practicing Catholic in an interview in relation to the premiere of the Polish film adaptation of the books.[5] Regardless of Sapkowski’s actual stance, critics agree that pagan roots of Slavic fairy tales, the legacy of the medieval church, and the enduring presence of Catholicism in Poland today have seeped into the Witcher’s story in various ways, not least the portions of dialogue that are demonstrably theological.[6] Religions and spiritualities abound in The Witcher, from the Sun cult of Nilfgaard to the magical beliefs and rituals of sorceresses, the brutal practices of the Church of the Eternal fire, various maternal cults, belief systems, gods, as well as notions of afterlife, and the presence of things sacred and evil.

Schmidt-Hissrich’s English adaptation of The Witcher follows Sapkowski’s short stories more or less. The serious fans of the original stories and the game are quite bitterly divided on how well the adaptation aligns. The first season begins ambitiously, exploring and developing the triad of main characters, Geralt of Rivia, Ciri of Cintra, and Yennefer of Vengerberg, through anachronistic story arcs. The logic behind this out-of-sequence braiding of the plot is to introduce the viewer to both the unique life situation and experience of the characters (birth, class, powers) and their political significance and allegiance in a world of rising and falling kingdoms. Their lives will eventually intersect on The Continent, an intricate geopolitical world that consists of a number of feudal states and kingdoms in the north, with a common enemy in a hostile and expanding southern empire, Nilfgaard. Furthermore, Sapkowski adds to the already fragile mix marginalised indigenous Elven and Dwarven tribes and powerful arcane schools of magic, all with their own spiritualities and religions.

Henry Cavill describes the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, as the “most fascinating and nuanced of men.”[7] Through a less valorising lens it could also be said that Geralt is a conflicted mercenary with no political allegiance except to coin he is paid to slay the monsters that terrorise villages in the north.[8] In the early years of human colonization of the north, the feudal rulers tasked magicians to create magically-enhanced warriors called “witchers” to protect their holdings.[9] As a child, Geralt of Rivia, is left by his sorceress mother to be raised at the brutal Witcher school of Kaer Morhen. He is one of the few boy children that survive the exposure to alchemical substances that were to enhance their magical potency and extend their physical capacity for close combat. The trial turned his hair white and profoundly affected him in other ways. His grim posture is a product of an early childhood experience of maternal abandonment, and the cruelty of the trials of his youth, further cemented by fear, suspicion, and ostracization by the world in his adulthood. The Witcher, as realised by Hissrich, is a tragic antihero, yet his flaws are salvaged somehow by his internal struggle for humanity and his stoic concern with the ethics of good and evil.

It could be said in terms of biblical typology that The Witcher resembles a kind of Kierkegaardian Elijah. Geralt of Rivia occupies the typal qualities of a lonely and existentially troubled prophet-warrior. He sleeps rough in the wilderness, often cold and hungry, and is alienated from common folk by his miraculous powers and his own self-reproach. His only companion is his horse Roach who receives the bulk of Geralt’s soul-searching. The Witcher’s life is nomadic, moving from village to village in search of redemption, and deferring his personal suffering through endless Sisyphean combat with monsters. His only human contact is with the various extraordinary women he occasionally encounters, such as Yennefer of Vengerberg. At the same time, as his trade as a mercenary is sought after, he is conversely drawn reluctantly into the politics and skirmishes of the northern kingdoms and townships, and the gerrymandering of wizards and sorceresses.

His story is driven forward by destiny and salvation comes through his reluctant fostering of a child through the Law of Surprise, an oath reminiscent of Jepthah’s in Judges 11. However, rather than becoming her father’s sacrifice, Ciri becomes a kind of disciple to Geralt, learning martial arts and entering into her own destiny rather than Geralt’s. The story of Elijah, in 1 Kings 17 and 18 resonates with the Witcher’s plight. Recall Elijah’s fraught and lonely exile in the wadi (1 Kgs 17:3), his sojourns with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:9) and his battles against the monstrous god in the north, Baal, and Baal’s 450 adepts (1 Kgs 18: 20–40). Elijah’s story is one of divine quests and Elijah too fosters a young man, Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19). Like Geralt, Elijah is a tragic hero whose hands are bathed in the blood of destiny, so much so that he wishes for death on account of his own violence (1 Kgs 19:3).

The Witcher PC games and Netflix series are not without controversy. Critics point out pervasive representations of sex and violence. The sexual objectification of women and valorisation of toxic masculinity is ubiquitous according to Oren Ashkenazi who sees The Witcher series’ attempt to be sensitive to current social discourse around sexuality and consent is limited to say the least.[10] However, for commentators like Simon Parkin, they suggest that representations particularly of Geralt’s sexual relationships are meaningful rather than gratuitous – “a human world without sex is either a world viewed through a child’s eyes, or an entirely dishonest one.”[11] Furthermore, the character of Geralt of Rivia could be said to represent significant subversion of toxic representations of masculinity towards the possibility of masculine nurturing and care.[12] This holds true for the characterization of Geralt as morally conflicted antihero yet who through his commitment to the safety and care of his ward, Ciri, finds new purpose and humanity in his life.

Yael Cameron is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology. In the interdisciplinary space of continental critical theory her research draws from literature, religion, feminism and mythology. Many of her publications engage in critical, creative and comparative readings within these fields via a common bridge of post-structuralist, philosophical thought primarily shaped by Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida. Yael is the author of Jouissance: A Cixousian encounter with the Song of Songs (Sheffield, 2015), and is also a published poet with works appearing in literary journals including StylusLit, Hecate, Tarot, The French Literary Review and Meniscus.

[1] Harley J. Sims, “A Polish Tolkien? The Fantasy World of Andrzej Sapkowski,” MercatorNet (13 Dec, 2016) https://mercatornet.com/a-polish-tolkien-the-fantasy-world-of-andrzej-sapkowski/10619/.

[2] CD Projekt Red. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, PS5, 2015.

[3] The Witcher, season 1, Created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, released 20 Dec, 2019. https://www.netflix.com/nz/title/80189685.

[4] Benonie Butler, “‘The Witcher’ Ended its Second Season With a Big Twist — and a Subtle Clue that it was Coming” The Washington Post (22 Dec, 2021): https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/12/22/the-witcher-finale-twist/.

[5] Sims, “A Polish Tolkien?”

[6] Andrezj Sapkowski, “The Last Wish” (trans. Danusia Stok) in The Complete Witcher (London: Gollancz), 48

[7] Chancellor Agard, “Liam Hemsworth Is Picking Up Geralt’s Sword for ‘The Witcher’ Season 4”, Netflix Tudum, (30 October, 2022), (https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/the-witcher-season-4-liam-hemsworth.

[8] “‘The Witcher’ Star Henry Cavill On Why He HAD to Play Monster Hunter Geralt”, Rotten Tomatoes, (21 December, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13qHfXhY47Q.

[9] “Witcher,” Fandom (5 November, 2022), https://witcher.fandom.com/wiki/Witcher.

[10] Oren Ashkenazi, “Eight Sexist Themes From The Witcher TV Show”, Mythcreants (25 January 2022), https://mythcreants.com/blog/eight-sexist-themes-from-the-witcher-tv-show/ ; Riley McLeod, “Netflix's Witcher Show Is More About Politics Than Monster Hunting”, Kotaku (Dec 20, 2019). https://kotaku.com/netflixs-witcher-show-is-more-about-politics-than-monst-1840546135.

[11] Simon Parkin, “Why Sex Matters in Witcher 3, the Grand Theft Auto of fantasy games”, The Guardian, (28 January 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jan/28/sex-witcher-3-grand-theft-auto-of-fantasy-games.

[12] Lisa Cuklanz and Ali Erol, “The Shifting Image of Hegemonic Masculinity”, International Journal of Communication 15 (2021), 545–62.