*This essay may contain spoilers for those who have not read Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series
The first time I met Geralt of Rivia I was standing in the magazine aisle at the local grocery store. He was staring back at me from the cover of some PC gamer magazine I have long-since forgotten the title of, and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was set to launch for PC. The year was 2011. The cover drew me in, and I picked up that magazine, started reading and knew this was a game I HAD to play. Monster hunter, mercenary, mutant… hero. I was intrigued, but after putting that magazine back on the shelf I forgot about The Witcher until Steam had a big sale in 2012, just around the holidays.
I was immediately drawn into this world, more than just intrigued with the character, his back story, his companions and his future so I started to do a little digging and discovered something a lot of other nerds knew about LONG before I came along. The game series was inspired by a series of books by Polish fantasy author, Andrzej Sapkowski, and Geralt of Rivia had been a part of this world far longer than my own daughter had been alive. In fact, I was only eleven years old the year Sapkowski wrote the first Witcher story on a whim, and over the next twenty-eight years (mostly during the 1990s) Sapkowski expanded Geralt’s universe to include several short stories and five novels.
While the story between prose and game differs slightly, it takes place in the same world with similar political issues and problems. One thread remains true between both: Geralt of Rivia is a hero, though he rarely sees himself in that light. Mutated, scarred, and allegedly emotionless, Geralt often thinks himself a monster who kills monsters, someone unworthy of love, friendship and the honor that comes with heroics, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Geralt of Rivia is perhaps one of the few people in this world Sapkowski created who is not a monster.
To define the term monster in this series is a near impossible task, because monsters aren’t always what they seem. In The Last Wish, we meet King Foltest of Temeria for the first time and discover that while he is handsome and wise, he has peculiar romantic tendencies. King Foltest fell in love with his own sister, Adda, and got her with child. The child was born cursed, died shortly thereafter and rose again seven years later as a striga. Geralt was eventually called in to deal with the situation, as the foul striga was murdering people left and right and furthering the scandal caused by her incestuous father’s deeds. Geralt lifted the curse, reverting the striga back to a human girl, but one is left to question whether or not the striga was the real monster of the story, or if it was the father that begot her on his own sister?
Many of the stories in The Witcher series follow this same vein. Geralt is drawn into situations where he must deal with a monster, only to discover said monster is only doing what comes naturally. At times, provoked to action by the evils of society, we, as readers, find the people employing the Witcher are often far more horrific than the monster they’ve brought him in to slay.
The central storyline revolves around Geralt’s on-again/off-again relationship with a beautiful sorceress named Yennefer, who doesn’t know her own worth or believe she deserves to be loved, therefore making Geralt doubt his own worth as a man, and a child of destiny the two lovers come to raise together named Cirilla. Because Geralt is a mutant, he is sterile and will never father children. As a sorceress, Yennefer’s body is barren, and she cannot mother children, something she desperately wants. There is the barest possibility that through sorcery, she might find a way, but Geralt’s sterility would make that impossible. Her resentment for making this wish doubly impossible to attain is a source of tension and bitterness between the lovers, but often we have most difficulty seeing the gifts that lay right under our noses.
Geralt’s destiny is entwined with Ciri’s when she is still in her mother’s womb and he saves her father, Duny, from a curse. Invoking the Law of Surprise as payment for saving his life, Geralt asks Duny for “that which you already have, but do not know.” It is discovered shortly thereafter that Princess Pavetta is pregnant with Duny’s child and Geralt’s destiny is sealed.
He spends years arguing with himself over whether or not he should return and take the child he was promised and train her as a witcher. A witcher’s life is a cruel and lonely life, one he wouldn’t wish on anyone, but destiny cannot be thwarted. After deciding he won’t take her, destiny itself, in the guise of war, intervenes and pushes Ciri into his care time and time again. Finally he realizes he has no choice but to take her, raise her and teach her the ways of the witcher. The training he would have denied her if destiny had not poked its pointy, meddlesome nose into affairs, saves Cirilla’s life on numerous occasions, though at times we’re left to wonder if it is even a life worth living at all. Ciri faces obstacles so insurmountable at times, it is a wonder she makes it through to the end of the books at all, but because of the strength Geralt instilled in her, the unfailing devotion he offered, she never gives up and becomes a legendary hero and unstoppable force herself.
Geralt, as a man, is as flawed as they come. He lives his life in blacks and whites, deigning to neutrality–as is the witcher’s way. He keeps his head down when nasty matters of a political nature crash down around him like unending waves smashing upon the shore, preferring to avoid them. Unfortunately, his world is so embroiled in such matters, it is not always easy to stand in the center of an issue without leaning in one direction or the other. The complicated issue of humanity versus non-humanity that prevails in the story often tugs him toward other non-humans.
He is human, yes, but only in the barest sense of the word. He is a mutant, a freak of nature and an outcast. People seem to take little to no issue dropping a bag of gold in his palm when they need him to do away with a monster terrorizing their town, and though he claims it doesn’t bother him, those same people rarely welcome his presence in their town–even after he’s done away with their monster problem. He’s no stranger to scowls, stares, whispers and derision, and because of humanity’s treatment of that which it doesn’t understand, he’s rather cynical and dour about the world. Despite his often jaded worldview, he still sticks his neck out time and again to help people who very rarely, if ever, deserve his help.
And that is what makes him a hero. As a witcher, it is his job to help people, but in a changing world where the definition of the word monster is tenuous at best, it does become difficult for him to draw the line without occasionally it from time to time. As the war with Nilfgaard rages through the Northern Kingdoms, Geralt finds himself in company with other outcasts: dwarves, halflings, an archer known for aiding and leading Scoia’tael to safety, a Nilfgaardian knight who defected from his king’s cause, a vampire, a foul-mouthed thief and a self-absorbed, wandering minstrel/spy who also just so happens to be the witcher’s best friend. It is the friendship bond he forms with these people on the road to finding and saving Cirilla that inevitably define him.
All his life he’s stuck his neck out for others, and no one’s ever done it for him. Why would they? Why should they? Yet these people are willing to go with him to the very end, to sacrifice themselves for his cause, and as they fall for his cause one by one, he begins to see things differently for the first time in his life. The risk for those who do not appreciate it is no longer worth it. He gets nothing from it, and so long as his loved ones are safe, he sees no reason to go on being the hero. Unfortunately, once a hero, always a hero. When the proverbial shit hits the fan in Rivia literal moments after he’s decided to hang up his sword and live out the rest of his life in peace, the hero rises to the occasion again and sacrifices himself to keep his friends and loved ones safe.
I’m sure if we were to ask Geralt of Rivia if he thought himself a hero he would laugh in our faces. He would more than likely tell us he’s no hero at all, no champion worthy of praises, ballads and songs. He’s just a killer of monsters, a lover willing to die for the woman who holds his heart, a father willing to walk to the ends of the earth for his daughter and a friend who’ll take a pitchfork to the chest to defend the people who accept him for who he is.
A hero in the noblest sense of the word, whether he sees it or not.