At some point in 2019, Netflix will release a series called The Witcher.
Concrete information is light on the ground, beyond the cast. Henry Cavill is confirmed to star as the Witcher, one Geralt of Rivia, a boy turned monster-slaying-mutant by way of horrendous medieval medical trials.
Undoubtedly, it is Netflix’s attempt at filling the upcoming Game of Thrones sized hole in the entertainment lives of millions of viewers.
It was, before Netflix, a video game. And far before that, it was a series of books, written by Andrzej Sapkowski. Before the game series took off, the books were not well known in the English-speaking world, but in Poland, they were huge.
I became obsessed with the third game – The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt – during my final year at university, and with this obsession came a curiosity about the source material. What happened was I fell in love again, and now I’m in a position where I like the books so damn much I’m nervous about the Netflix adaptation.
I know the books and games don’t go away if the show ends up being a bit of turd, but being so invested in the world means it feels like I have a lot to lose if it goes wrong. I don’t, it’s all fan bullshit, the creators of the show have every right to do what they like with the property in order to make it stand apart from previous iterations. If I don’t like, I don’t have to watch it. The franchise owes me nothing, I’ve already got so much from it.
Still, I’m anxious, and I’m keeping my expectations as measured as possible.
To calm these nerves I’m going to read through the novels again and write a little about them as I go, because that’s just my thing this year.
So, up first: The Last Wish.
It’s a collection of short stories, tied together by a framing device which paints the stories as Geralt’s memories, recalled as he heals from dire wounds, so reading The Last Wish doesn’t feel like reading a short story collection at all. It is a testament to the quality of the six shorts on show that they stand alone, regardless of the framing device, and a testament to the consistency of the writing that they are thematically linked, as well as literally tied by the frame.
Geralt is a hard man. He is grey and scarred and withering. He does not suffer fools. He is often an unwanted presence. When he grants a village or town the good grace of ridding them of their monster problem (for a price, always a price), he is rarely regarded as equal, and frequently scorned. This has left him sarcastic, cold, and very, very good at killing things.
In the first story (titled: The Witcher) Geralt enters the town of Wyzim. He is accosted in a tavern and Geralt, being highly trained and bred to kill, defends himself when a fist is raised. He kills the aggravator, but no one sees the act as self-defence, they see a worthless, violent vagabond, who just killed a man in cold blood. The guards are called, and they take him to the castellan (governor) of the town. Luckily for Geralt, he is here for a job, and the castellan is the man to talk to. A curse has afflicted the inbred daughter of the King, Foltest. After dying in birth, the child was buried in a sarcophagus below the King’s palace. This was a mistake.
This is a world where magic works in grim, cruel ways. There are certain rituals that should be followed, rituals Geralt knows well, and when these are ignored, disaster follows. The princess is resurrected as a striga, a cursed monster with the ability to devastate and devour men.
Geralt, a monster slayer, is hired by the King to cure, not kill, this beast.
At Geralt’s heart is a great duality, and this is what makes him so interesting. He hates people at times, but he very rarely hates monsters, although he was bred to destroy them. He does not hate monsters because to be monstrous is in their nature. He knows people can be better, and has no problem punishing those who choose evil.
On the way to the striga’s lair he is approached and attacked by a man named Ostrit who wants the striga to remain alive and, well, not well, but striga-ish, as it makes the King weaker, and easier to overthrow. Geralt easily knocks him out and uses him as bait, knowing that the striga will give chase when he cuts his bonds, and indeed, Ostrit is devoured by the beast. Ostrit chose to attack him, and Geralt does not give him another chance. But when the striga attacks him, he refrains from killing it. He occupies her crypt until the first cockerel call of the morning, and reverses the curse, but as he approaches the dishevelled girl, she slashes out with an un-transformed claw and cuts his throat.
It’s the first story of a long series, so no, that isn’t it for Geralt. He survives, just.
As an opening story, it is a perfect introduction to the world.
The key factor is Geralt, and his fascinating internal conflict.
Man, versus Monster: raging within him, raging in the world around him, against him.
All of the tales tell variations of this conflict. Monsters sometimes have more heart than man, that’s the gist, but it’s that “sometimes” that makes things interesting for the reader, and difficult for Geralt.
Where does he draw the line? What is monster, and what is man? What deserves to feel his blade, and what deserves mercy? This is the lot of the Witcher. It is a world that you would never want to live within, but which is constantly exciting to read about.
It is familiar to our own world, minus the monsters of course. The same debates about morality have waged throughout our history. What defines evil? Is there justification in killing? What separates man from beast? There are no clear answers here, Geralt must make each decision within context, and although he preaches to practise neutrality, when it comes right down to it he defends the innocent, and the kind, and seeks to destroy the evil, and corrupt.
It’s just the identifying of these traits that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Eventually, this will become a tale of destiny. At the end of the book (in the titular short story) Geralt falls in love with the sorceress Yennefer, and ties their fates together by using his last wish promised by a vengeful, destructive Djinn to bind them together in love. Their relationship develops more in further books, as the over-arching plot falls into place, so that is a discussion for later.
I can’t wait to see how these shorts play out on screen in comparison to the novels. Hopefully they aren’t ignored, as these small-scale moral tales contain some of the most interesting fantasy writing I’ve ever read. The day-to-day adventures of Geralt on show here take place before his more epic journey – which I imagine will be the main focus of the show – actually begins, but they are still captivating, and I hope they get the attention that they deserve.
Next up in the series is another short story collection: The Sword of Destiny. I’m reading a lot of books this year, and with no concrete date on The Witcher Netflix series I don’t know exactly what date I’m looking to have these all finished up by, but they’re a great time, so it won’t be too long before I’m back with a look at book two.