Friday, December 12, 2014

Witcher, Hexer, Spellmaker, Pole

Polish video game developer CD Projekt RED is slowly but steadily approaching the release of the third and final entry in it's trilogy of Witcher themed action RPGs.   Long before Geralt of Rivia ever appeared in a game though, he was having all kinds of adventures in prose form.  His first appearance was in a short story written way back in 1986 by, now well regarded author, Andrzej Sapkowski.  This businessman turned novelist's writings were heavily influenced by the Slavic folklore of his homeland of Poland, along with movers and shakers like J.R.R. Tolkien.  Unlike the father of modern fantasy literature though, Andrzej Sapkowski's works are very much a deconstruction of the genre.  His short stories, in particular, represent post-modern interpretations of fairy tale classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Mermaid.

Starting in the mid 90s Witcher novellas gave way to full length books.  Sadly, only about half of the short stories and three out of the five novels staring Geralt have been officially translated to English.  The first non-fan effort, ironically titled "The Last Wish," wasn't published until 2009, a decade after the final novel in the series was released in the original Polish.  Thematically, the books and video games match each other fairly closely; Geralt is wiry, white-haired, cat-eyed, professional monster hunter.  He works for money, but has principles and doesn't lie.  He fools around with women, but has one in particular he's especially fond of (she, on the other hand, is kind of hot and cold toward him).  The setting has a strong eastern European vibe although stock fantasy races such elves, dwarfs and gnomes are present, along with humans organized into late medieval era kingdoms.  A foreign warmongering empire launches an invasion and everything pretty much goes into Game of Thrones direction from there.  At times oddly placed instances of maternity occur.  Discussions about metallurgy, biochemistry, genetics, racism, terrorism come up from time to time.  There's also a university in the world of the Witcher that feels like a closely hewn copy of Oxford.  For me the real distinction of the Witcher though is its tendency to subvert expectations.

Sure, Geralt is a badass, but he doesn't have much luck saving the princess, nor does he do a very good job of rescuing other damsels in distress.  He loses spectacularly in a one-on-one fight against the big bad of the novels.  When asked to deal with a highly poisonous monster that threatens his traveling companions he simply runs it off by banging a pot and ladle together.  The first full length story "Blood of Elves" begins with the bard Dandelion, singing about love and war only to have his audience try to dissect the details of the song in order to separate fact from embellishment.  Thus far though, my personal favorite is a scene involving a faun.  Traditionally, stories like these involve a lot of nonsensical riddles and tricks.  Instead, Geralt simply tackles the little goat-legged twerp.  What follows is a hilarious amount of grappling, kicking, and rolling in the dirt that doesn't end well for anyone.  All these quirks of the series are what makes it standout from the boggy morass that is modern fantasy literature.

Other than the Witcher saga, Andrzej Sapkowski has written a spy novel set during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a trilogy of (mostly) historical novels that take place during the Hussite Wars, a table-top RPG book, and a fantasy encyclopedia.  His style is what makes the Witcher interesting, and I find myself wishing that even more of what's in his books were in the games.  That's not to say the games are bad.  On the contrary, there extremely well made.  Having said that though, I am looking forward to reading future translations of Andrzej Sapkowski books even more than playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

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