Arts, Books

Andrej Sapkowski and The Witcher

Picture him. A man in heavy, slightly austere, round-rimmed spectacles. He has a thick bushy moustache. A cat rests on his lap. He is sitting at a desk. A blue monitor flickers in front of him. Books litter the rest of the desk.

It is dark outside.

The year is 1985.

The man is Andrej Sapkowski.

And he is working on a story.

The story must be short. Fantastyka, the Polish fantasy magazine he is writing for, has only given him 30 pages. He knows certain things, as he sits there. Sapkowski knows that the traditional fairytale is an intellectual swindle. That, as he eloquently puts it: “Poor cobblers make good shoes, they don’t kill monsters. Soldiers and knights? They are idiots generally. And priests want only the money and fucking adolescents. So who’s killing monsters?”

‘The Witcher’ series might be best summarised as an answer to that question.

Sapkowski is of a naturally pessimistic disposition, and knows that life is – at bottom – a losing struggle.  And – perhaps most importantly – he knows, like Hemingway of whom he is a disciple, that it is the writer’s job to write truly.

It is his reverence for – and understanding of – the essential contradictions of truth, which make his work worth reading. Sapkowski understands the folly of the noble cause, the lie of ‘true love’; and all the beastly, depraved aspects of humanity. But he also understands that it is all worth it. That there are some things worth dying for, that some sort of love – however hard and difficult – is better than none at all, and that, despite it all, the great mass of men are decent.

Sapkowski’s truth is a redemptive one. Geralt begins his journey with extreme scepticism. He is lost, abandoned by his love, silently self-loathing, and alone. He ends the journey found. With a place in the destiny of the universe, a broad heart, and with the realisation that he was, all along, just as human, and just as noble, as anybody else.

Sapkowski’s truth, like Hemingway’s, is forged in a crucible of pain and irony; and it is present in every silence, in every gap between the words. In everything not said. A consistent thread of humour runs through ‘The Witcher’. The plot and all of its subsequent nobility is set in motion – by chance, or destiny – in the second book, when Geralt goes out to take a piss, and is subsequently thrust, bleary-eyed and ignorant, into a rather complex coup.

Were it not for the Witcher’s foolish scruples, if not for his impractical rules, many of the later events would have had a completely different course. Many events would probably never even have taken place, and then the history of the world would be different. But the world’s history unfolded as it unfolded, and the sole reason for this was that the Witcher had scruples. When he awoke at dawn and felt the need, he did what anyone would have done. He walked onto the balcony and peed in the pot of nasturtiums.

Sapkowski’s long self-conscious explanation is unusual – and it is a testament to his skill that it does not seem tedious, when read in its context. But, the point is that the description is ironically-humorous. On the one hand, Sapkowski is correct. The events of the plot do happen because Geralt – despite his own blindness to it – is unusually scrupulous. On the other hand, they are set in motion because Geralt needs to piss at this most unlucky time.

Not since Hemingway has a writer done so much with so little. On that note, go and buy the fucking books.

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Gabriel Ward

June 2021
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