As the new and highly anticipated PC game is coming out soon, I’m taking a look at where it all started, the excellent fantasy tales of Geralt of Rivia.
For those of you that do not know, The Witcher character, from the excellent PC games (and also on some consoles), is based on the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s “The Witcher” books. There are currently 6 books in the saga; Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Swallow’s Tower, Lady of the Lake and Season of Storms. However, only the first 3 are translated to English at the moment. There are also two additional short stories books called The Sword of Destiny, and The Last Wish. It is this last one that I am going to focus on as it was the first one that was written and what I consider the best as an introduction to this fantasy world and characters even though chronologically The Sword of Destiny precedes it.
Although originally published in 1993 it was only in 2007 that this book had its first English publishing coinciding with the production of the first PC game.
This book is made up of seven different short stories, in a way it is a main story that is broken up by the other 6. I particularly like the way this is done. The main tale is The Voice of Reason where Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, is recovering from wounds he sustained in one of his jobs, in the Temple of Melitele, and has several conversations and interactions not only with Nenneke, the priestess but also with one of the novices Iola, and some other characters. All of these interactions are the key that opens the doors to the other stories, as they are memories of Geralt up to that point that are triggered, by something or someone. Although it can be considered the main story, it is the weakest one compared to the others.
From this up to the “The Witcher and other interesting aspects” section there be spoilers. Not many as I will just give a very short summary of each one, but if you are interested in reading the book you may want to skip the next paragraphs.
The first ever story ever written. Geralt goes to Vizima, where he takes a contract to hunt a Striga. This could be a standard hunt if the Striga was not the princess of Vizima, and he is ordered by her father not to harm her and to reverse whatever happened that caused her to become that. The main suspicion is that she became that way because she was born of incest between the king and his sister. Geralt manages to do the job, in a certain way but not without taking some life threatening wounds, which he is recovering from in Melitele’s temple.
A Grain of Truth
Geralt reminisces on the meaning of love, and remembers the story of when he met Nivellen, a man cursed into beast form within a magical house that does all he commands. There is a beautiful woman around him and the property that is in love with him. Geralt finds out the source of the curse and how to cure it. Although not easy, the tale ends with a particularly lovely dialogue about why all the other attempts to remove it failed.
“”There is a grain of truth in every fairy tale,” said the witcher quietly. “Love and blood. They both possess a mighty power. Wizards and learned men have been racking their brains over this for years, but they haven’t arrived at anything, except that-
“Except what, Geralt?”
“It has to be true love.””
The Lesser Evil
This story is brought up by the fact that sometimes we all have to make choices and neither is good. Geralt has to face Renfri a murderous princess that was ordered to be killed at a young age by her step mother and eventually became a plague on several lands with her band of thugs. Here Geralt must choose between the life of one over the lives of many. It is one of my favourite stories of the book.
A Matter of Price
This may actually be the most important of the stories as it has repercussions over the rest of the saga. Geralt is invited and hired by Queen Calanthe of Cintra to solve a problem without being aware of what it is. The main issue here is the old rule of “The Law of Surprise”, keeping one’s word and that some things must always happen as destiny cannot be bypassed.
The End of the World
Upon the visit of Dandelion the troubadour at the temple, Geralt reminisces on his adventure with Dandelion, a sylvan named Torque and some elves that are facing the change of the world, and probably their future demise.
The Last Wish
The final story of the book. Well… not actually the final story as The Voice of Reason opens and closes the book, but it is the final flashback. This story is as important as A Matter of Price because it also has repercussions to the saga. This story contains a Genie in a bottle and tells the first meeting between Geralt and his love, Yennefer of Vengerberg, a sorceress, his one and true love.
This book ends with Geralt and Dandelion leaving the temple, and facing new adventures that are told in the remaining books, and games after that.
The Witcher and other interesting aspects
The actual Witcher
So, what is actually a Witcher and who is Geralt?
A witcher is a hunter. They are trained to hunt supernatural entities, such as vampires, werewolves, kikimoras, strigas, and others. There are very few witchers as the training and enhancement process has a huge mortality rate. In a way they are not human. One must become almost what they hunt. During the preparation stages their bodies are modified through the ingestion of plants, herbs and potions, those few that survive find that they are stronger, more dexterous, agility and reflexes are better, they are immune to poisons, they can see in the dark and their other senses are also heightened as are his regenerative abilities. Witchers are also trained in tactics, fighting and knowledge of history, mythical creatures and history. They learn basic spell casting through the form of signs, as well as alchemy.
Witchers always carry two swords, one of steel and one of silver. As a general rule one is for humans and the other for creatures but it’s never that simple. Some creatures are immune to silver and silver can kill men.
Geralt is an interesting character, he is also known as “White Wolf” due to his pale skin and white hair, and is considered to be the best of the witchers, or at least the most famous, although sometimes not for the best reasons. Geralt is a conflicted character, which is one of the aspects that make him more compelling. Along his stories in “The Last Wish” Geralt must face decisions, and although he tries to keep neutral and respecting the Witcher’s code. He tries to keep in the grey when he is presented with black and white situations, although he seldom manages to. He always has to pick one side and live with the consequences of his choices. Much of “The Voice of Reason” is regarding these choices and how he tries to cope with them. Geralt considers himself different from the other witchers who are known to be emotionless due to their training and preparation. He feels emotion but tries to control it, unsuccessfully. This is actually the best trait of Geralt’s mind, the fact that he is a mutant, seen as an inhuman by others, and his wish to be a regular man, have a farm, a wife, family. The following books give a greater insight on Geralt and his inner troubles, his relationship with Triss Merigold, Ciri and of course Yennefer, but “The Last Wish” is a good starter to get a taste for the stories.
Why are the stories interesting?
The thing I love the most about this book is that most of the stories are based in folk tales such as the genie in the lamp, beauty and the beast or snow white. These tales are the basis for some of the characters and stories but with a grown up and/or interesting twists to it. In a way while they just take bits and pieces we recognize from the fairy tales they do not take the same path, but they are also a lot closer to the original stories than the child versions we have today, they are violent, sexual and morally interesting.
Morals are one of the most important aspects of the characters in these stories. Most of them can be seen in two ways, there is no black and white, true good or bad anywhere, what looks like a monster may have been simply cursed to look that way, a beautiful princess may be an actual murderous monster, the killer of seven men may have saved hundreds. But on the other hand, the curse may have come from a rape, the princess became a murderer because she was beaten and constantly has someone trying to kill her until she decided to fight back, allowing one person to die would have spared the hundreds and the seven that were killed…
Nothing is simple in The Witcher’s world and that makes it even better.
If you like fantasy I advise you to pick up a copy of “The Last Wish” and then go through the other 3 novels. If you know Polish I am envious because it means that you can read them all. There are also some interesting comics to have a look at.