Throwback Thursday: Revisiting The Witcher, by Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny

In honor of the recent release of Netflix’s new fantasy series, The Witcher, I have decided to revisit one of my favorite fantasy series and its amazing stories.  The Witcher franchise began in 1986 when Andrzej Sapkowski released a short story titled Wiedźmin, or, The Witcher.  This story introduced audiences to Geralt of Rivia, the world of the Continent, the monster hunters called witchers, and the monsters they face.  After publishing several more short stories expanding the world and characters, Sapkowski released the tales in three collections.  This led into a five-novel saga, a standalone novel, a trilogy of video games set after the books, multiple comic books, one movie, two television adaptations, a card game, a tabletop roleplaying game, a board game, and more.  What was once a local Polish series has now become a worldwide phenomenon.

While the short story collection, The Sword of Destiny, was published before The Last Wish, in 1992 and 1993 respectively, the stories present in The Last Wish actually occur first chronologically.  Both books were predated by Sapkowski’s original short story collection, also titled Wiedźmin (The Witcher), which is no longer in print as The Last Wish has effectively replaced the first book in publication.  The short stories are mostly standalone, and more than a few may be read in any order, although The Last Wish provides a framing narrative outside of the tales.  However, everything on the page is leading towards something more.  As is said more than once in the series; something is ending, something is beginning.  The Last Wish is a story of first meetings and getting to know the characters whom we will follow across hundreds of pages.  Sword of Destiny expands the world and the politics of the Continent, while leading readers towards an uncertain destiny and an epic saga unequal in fiction.

The main character of the Witcher series, told mostly from his third-person point-of-view, is Geralt of Rivia.  Geralt is a witcher, a human who has undergone dangerous and strenuous mutations to lengthen his lifespan, strengthen his body, and provide him with the skills necessary to hunt and kill the many dangerous monsters which inhabit the world.  From the outside, Geralt may appear to be your typical gruff, brooding, dark antihero.  That is certainly the image he wishes to project.  Multiple times, he speaks of his mutations removing all human emotions and just leaving the skill set and ruthlessness behind.  He accepts payment for his monster hunting, and operates without care for the many negative stereotypes witchers face in the world.  He is a man who realizes he is not destined to change the world.  In truth, Geralt is a complicated and human character.  His emotions were not killed by his mutations, as much as he would like to believe.  They are still very much present and define his actions more than he will ever admit.  He can be very sensitive, and possesses a biting, dry wit which surprises nearly everyone he comes across.  Contrary to type, he can also become very talkative and loquacious depending on the subject.  While Henry Cavill brings his own interpretation to the character, he fully embodies Geralt of Rivia.

As much as Geralt of Rivia is the main character of the short stories, he is far from the only recurring or major character.  Yennefer of Vengerberg, played amazingly by Anya Charlotra in The Witcher Netflix series, is just as important to the story as Geralt.  First met in the final story of The Last Wish, also titled The Last Wish, Yennefer is a powerful sorceress long before entering the story.  She was a student of Aretuza, the prestigious girl’s school for magic, and has spent her career advising kings and offering her services to the world.  Like many other sorceresses, she has undergone surgery, both mundane and magical, to heal her scarred body and enhance her beauty.  Before Geralt, no one’s eyes can see through the changes.  Witcher that he is, Geralt discovers that Yennefer is far from the noble-born, haughty magicians of the Continent.  Begging her life as a peasant suffering from a hunched back and deformed spine, among other ailments, her naturally affinity for magic provided her with a lifeline to crawl her way out of the mud.  Her ambition knows only a few bounds and, while her love for Geralt later becomes legendary, she initially does not allow her attraction to him interfere with her own agency.  Sapkowski did not want Yennefer to be the type of fantasy damsel in fantasy fiction.  She is tough, but not afraid to accept her own weaknesses.  Her legendary romance with Geralt becomes one of the defining aspects of the entire franchise.

Of course, no discussion of the Witcher franchise can leave out a character with fans across the book, TV series, and video games.  The bard Dandelion, known as Jaskier (Buttercup) in the original Polish as well as the Netflix series, is one of the few major characters of the franchise whose first meeting with Geralt is never shown in the short stories.  We meet the bard as he is already best friends with the grim monster hunter.  Dandelion serves as comedic relief, deliverer of exposition, plot device, Greek choir, and Geralt’s closest friend.  Theirs is a friendship which makes no sense, and yet is survives all obstacles.  Dandelion is a womanizing artist with a flair for magenta tunics and the dramatic.  He is a coward in most situations, having no idea how to handle a weapon, let alone fight.  He is perfectly content to allow Geralt and others to do the dirty work and save him.  However, Dandelion is always brave when most it is most important, sometimes foolishly so.  Joey Batey, who currently portrays the bard in the TV adaption, perfectly encapsulates Dandelion’s transformation from humble bard at the start of the series, to rock god.

There is one other character who plays an extremely important part in The Witcher stories, and while she only appears in the short stories Sword of Destiny and Something More, found in Sword of Destiny, Ciri’s presence can be felt everywhere.  In the short stories, she partially functions as the personification of Destiny, one of the most important themes across the franchise.  Destiny differs from Fate in that fate is unavoidable.  Regardless of the decisions made, characters subject to fate will always meet that fate.  Destiny requires choices to be made.  It is not a sure thing.  Depending on what characters decide to do, or where they go, their destiny may not come to pass.  All characters living on the Continent believe in Destiny, to a certain extent and, while Geralt originally espouses his atheism, he eventually realizes that Destiny is very real and has its eyes set on him.  The short story A Question of Price, found in The Last Wish, introduces the Law of Surprise, a form of payment when one has nothing else to give.  The person being paid may demand that which first greets you upon returning home, or what will left at home but did not expect, among others.  The point is that the reward is a surprise to all.  Geralt demands “that which you already have but do not know” of a young couple, inadvertently claiming their unborn child as his and setting his first step towards a destiny which comes to define the entire series.

Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, the Lion Cub of Cintra, Heiress to the throne of Cintra, Heiress to Inis Ard Skellig and Inis An Skellig, Princess of Brugge, is arguably the most important character in The Witcher franchise.  Called Ciri by those who love her, she is Geralt’s Surprise Child, twice claimed by the Law of Surprise and inescapably tied to his destiny.  Everything in the short stories leads up to her first appearance, and her destiny becomes the central focus of the epic saga, finally concluding in the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.  More than anyone else, even Geralt, the story of The Witcher is her story.

The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold

Next book in the series: Blood of Elves, book 1 of the Witcher saga

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