“Heed my words, for here comes the age of the sword and the axe, the age of the wolfish storm. Here comes the Time of the White Cold and White Light, the Time of Madness and Contempt, Tedd Deiradh, the Time of Ending.
And the world will die away slow, frozen in ice and covered with snow…”
The Prophecy of Ithlinne Aegli aep Aevenien
In 1986, unknown polish economist of foreign trade company Andrzej Sapkowski, wrote short story about Witcher Geralt of Rivia to magazine Fantastyka. Answer of readers and even criticism was extremely successful and Sapkowski continued with writing of other short stories and novels about Geralt. However, true revolution came in the 1990s, Sapkowski published his huge quinary (5. volumes) saga. That is the way, how started one of the most famous tale in the history of fantasy literature.
Firstly, I would like to outline very briefly storyline of the first book (Blood of the Elves), the story is very complicated, so this is just a short outline of book’s theme. The main character is Geralt of Rivia, he is the witcher. As a child, he was taken from his family and trained in the castle of Kaer Morhen, base of witchers. To become a witcher, he had to undergo biological and chemical mutation, witch guaranteed him abnormal strength and speed. His job is to search and destroy monsters, people always pay him money for that. Book assumes the knowledge of Sapkowski’s previous short novels, but it is not really necessary for understanding to first book of his saga. Geralt travels with small child Ciri to Kaer Morhen, the child is the key person of whole story. Ciri is a daughter of King of Cintra, his kingdom was destroyed be enemy empire Nilfgaard and only with huge effort of Alliance of five united kingdoms, Nilfgaard was stopped, but for how long? However, city of Cintra was burned to the ground and captured by the enemy. Ciri is last descendant of roayl family, wich makes her valuable target not only for Nilfgaard, that could legitimize it’s annexation of Cintra, but also for other kings, which would like to have the right to rule in Cintra. The second, and even more important thing is, that Ciri has magical skills, sometimes, she is loosing her consciousness and by unhuman voice is telling dark prophecy about the end of the world and death. Ciri is trained in fight and than moved by girlfriend of Geralt, Yennefer to monastery, to protect and educate her. The book ends, when Yennefer and Ciri are leaving monastery, because of growing danger to Ciri. The key factor is the prophecy of old elven oracle mentioned above, the time of prophecy has come and Ciri is key part part of this prophecy.
Second level of story is dicrebing international situation. Alliance of five kingdoms wants to conquer Cintra back from Nilfgaard dominion. Situation is complicated by saboteur operations of elvens groups in the forests, called Soita’ael, there is a true guerrila war, including annihilation of entire villages of innocent people. Elvens are dissatisfied with still growing power of humand kind at the expense of dwarfs, elves and hobits. It is impossible to describe whole network of links between main and tens or hundreds of secondary characters, bribes, cheats, politics, murders and relations. For better understanding to Sapkowski’s saga, I would like to make a small comparison with the king of fantasy literature, professor J. R. R. Tolkien.
Sapkowski describes huge world, with many states, empires, kings and wars. There are classical races for fantasy literature – men, elves, dwarfs and hobbits, orcs are missing, which is very interesting. I have never read fantasy book without orcs. The important role is the history, good fantasy series have the carefully-worked out history of the whole world, I call it parallel history. There is first problem of Sapkowski, he always refers to historical events in his realm, but it is very confusing. There is missing something like a historical and map handbook to his work. Tolkien’s books are full of indexes, maps, eras and genealogical tables. In my opinion, sometimes even Sapkowski doesn’t know what exactly happend and what did not happen. As the Tolkien was influenced by Christianity and Northern mythology, the Sapskowski was influenced by Slavic and eastern mythology. Sapkowski created a specific language for some parts of the story – elven language, Sapkowski calls it the older language, the same thing did Tolkien. This is especially used to stress some important factc, prophecy or sacred things, books buildings etc. I am not sure how exact is this language, for instance Tolkien created whole grammatical conditions for his artificial language.
Specific chapter is the style of writing. Sapkowski writes really directly. There are hundreds of vulgarisms, such as shit, idiot, bitches, fuck and many others. Nothing is taboo, characters are talking for example about menstruation, drogs, prostitution, sex etc. Even Ciri’s first menstruation is mentioned. Very frequent topic is racism among races, senteces such as „dead elf, good elf“ are very common. On the other hand, there is also humour, „Ciri: My grandmother used to beat me by cane. Dwarf: My grandmother used to beat me by shovel.“ In Tolkien’s books (I have read all of them, some of them twice) is not mentioned even one vulgar word and they are written by very high still, for example Silmarilion is written very similarly as a Bible, also majority of fantasy literature is rather without brutal vulgarisms. Sapkowski very often uses dialogs and works with place and time. He very frequently changes places, where story is being proceeded, and also time when something happens. For instance: Chapter starts by dialog of Yennefer and Ciri, and they by return describe their relationship from the coming to monastery up to the present. This is relatively new aspect in fantasy, on the contrary, changing of places is almost in every book of fantasy literature.
In my opinion, there is one concrete fact that differs Sapkowski from other fantasy literature writers. In the Tolkien and others, there is war between Good and Evil, Darkness and Light. Morale and never-dieng hope has significant position in story. For instance Tolkien’s writing was influenced by Christianity very much (he was a Roman Catholic, being every day in church). Sapkowski does not divide characters to representators of good and representators of darkness or evil. Characters are somewhere between (but there are always some really „bad“ characters – necessary part of each story). The main character Geralt of Riviva professes the Neutrality. He killes creatures, witch have no place in the world, but he refuses to take participation in war against Nilfgaard (Evil). Others (for example Yennefer) are criticising him because of that. He just takes care about himself, Ciri and few other friends. Sapkowski also mentions one thing, that is no very common in the present fantasy literature – respect for human’s life. Geralt kills only when the is no other way, he respects every human being, no matter good or bad, as valuable. The same thing mentions Tolkien – who has right to kill man, many who live deserve death and many who are dead deserve life. What is really scandalous, is that Geralt has lover Yennefer and sleeps with other women behind her back. Nearly each hero of fantasy literature makes mistakes, but In my opinion, this is too much. It degrades Geralt as a character.
The all information mentioned above tell one, for Sapkowski important thing. His realm and characters are very similar to the real world. This is not fantasy literature! You can disagree, there are dwarfs, elves, hobits, creatures, warriors, magic etc. However, relations among characters, omnipresent hatred and betrayel, prostitution and sex. I have not read all five books, so I can not tell what will happen, but I guess that even main hero will die for sure. In Tolkien (and other classics of fantasy – Lewis, Salvatore), good characters are killed sometimes, it is necessary to „revive“ book and give it some spirit, but still applies that end of all will be the victory of good and light. For instance Silmarilion, huge book of Tolkien, which tells whole history of Middle-Earth from the Creation of the world (Lord of the Rings forms just a small piece of history) – good elves are defeated and for thousand years are under control of evil, but the end is always good. Some Act of God or Higher force always interfere when the situation is the worst and hope is dieing. I would not be surprised, If evil won in Sapkowski’s stories. However even „dark“ Sapkowski gives on the end of first book a small hope, because on of the last sentences is: „Geralt cares about flame, that can light whole world.“ Even in fantasy magazines, critics agree on one thing: This is not reading for children, this is cruel reality. Sapkowski describes a brutal dark Middle Ages. I fully agree with that.
Sapkowski was many times named as polish Tolkien, king of polish fantasy literature. In my opinion, he is one of the most important fantasy writers of the present world, may the the most important one, but you can never compare him to Tolkien, who was building his impressive world for tens of years and never finished it. It does not change the fact, that Sapkowski created complicated beautiful world. His style of writing is truly original and „self-made“ and easily identifiable. Fact, that I have read first book of the story has only one error. I’m forced to read the other four books of saga about Geralt of Rivia, child Ciri and icoming war, because when you once start in the fantasy literature to read some series, you are so curious that you have to finish it. I am just very disappointed, that Sapkowski stopped his writing about Geralt and started to write historical novels some time ago about hussitism and Czech kingdom in Middle Ages, but as Sapkowski by the mouth of Geralt says: „Something ends, something begins.“ Sapkowski is extremely popular, especially in Europe and mainly in Russia, not very much in USA, but this situation will change for sure, because three weeks ago, polish game studio CD Projekt RED produced for years preparing computer game Witcher. This game is going to incerase interest about this gem of polish literature, especially americans firstly play game or watch movie and than read.
Petr Žák, 2. ročník KPES, Cultural and Social Transformation in Eastern Europe