Silver for Monsters: The Witcher, a 21st Century Hero
Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, carries two swords: Silver for monsters...and steel for humans.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski began publishing stories about a white-haired monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia. Given away by his mother at an early age, Geralt is subjected to magical experiments that forever change him into one of the Witchers...mutated humans bred for the purpose of killing monsters.
Warning: Major spoilers for the Netflix television series ahead.
Part of what makes The Witcher so fascinating is its blending of childhood nightmares with day-to-day experience. Geralt is an orphaned warrior who must battle everything that goes bump in the night, but he is also a human being who must attend to things like feeding his horse or finding a place to sleep. In a different world, like Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Geralt would be a renowned hero known and praised the world over. In The Witcher, he's regarded as something somewhere between a curiosity, a useful pawn, and a monster himself. He lacks the political savvy to navigate the affairs of royal courts, but his moral code has a tendency to draw him up in affairs bigger than himself.
In so many ways, despite the fact that the source material was published at the close of the 20th Century, the 2019 adaptation of The Witcher is truly a heroic saga for this century. One has to look no farther than American politics to find a wave of discouragement. In other arenas, plague sweeps the landscape. Acts of seemingly random violence abound. Sex-trafficking is a larger industry now than ever before. Television is dominated by the anti-hero - Tony Soprano, Walter White, the Punisher - and even the superhero craze of the millennium's opening two decades seems to be drawing to a close. Marvel's most successful superhero was the egotistical Iron Man. DC films have enjoyed more acclaim for their villains, particular for Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix's interpretations of the Joker, than for anything else. For all their richness, superhero films remain a power fantasy...and increasingly that fantasy seems to reside in villains.
If superhero flicks are a power-fantasy, however, fantasy sagas are often religious ones. It is no accident that Tolkien's Middle-Earth and C.S. Lewis' Narnia echo with the themes of Catholic and Anglican Christianity, or that George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire draws so heavily on Early Medieval pagan ideas. Likewise, The Wheel of Time is so steeped in Buddhist conceptions of the world that its Christian elements are at times almost indiscernible. Fantasy sagas possess a unique ability to tap into the spiritual consciousness of their age.
Yet The Witcher is perhaps more in tune with the spirit of its age than even Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. Whatever else can be said about Martin's stories and their tendency towards glorifying sex and violence about all else, there is a sense of promise to them. They are political intrigues, which promise an end where someone sits on the throne of Westeros. Not so with The Witcher. Here, we have only a monster hunter, made sterile through the very processes that created him, doomed to a painful and probably lonely demise. And while Geralt certainly does get his fair share of sex and violence, there is rarely anything glorious about either. He is a pessimist for good reason: He is surrounded by terrible and ultimately inescapable threats.
Still, despite these grim threats, Geralt never sinks to the level of anti-hero. He remains heroic, often only in a small sense, by refusing to break the codes he lives by. The Witcher is a world where the politically expedient thing often seems to be choosing the lesser of two evils. Geralt is unwilling to embrace that dichotomy, however. In his own words: "Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling...it's all the same...if I have to choose between two evils, then I prefer not to choose at all."
Of course, as another character in the show points out, that too is a choice. Maybe even a choice with an evil of its own. Yet Geralt stands true to his beliefs (on his best days) and learns from his failures to live up to his beliefs (on less successful days). In a world born out of nightmares, Geralt of Rivia haunts the nightmares of monsters. He is a hero for a postmodern age, one which grows increasingly unsure if there is anything good enough to inspire hope in this world...but an age certain that Evil does exist. And so long as Evil exists, there will be those who fight it.
Next time, in "Steel for Humans," we'll look at the other side of The Witcher, considering its notion that the most dangerous threat is not something monstrous and inhuman, but the corrupt actions of humans themselves...