The Witcher Series: The Mastery of Adaptation
Adaptations on adaptations on adaptations is one way to describe the grossly popular Witcher game series. Another way would be: Game of the Year, Best Storytelling, Best Visual Design, or any of the other award title that the series dominated over when its third installment, Wild Hunt, was first released in 2015. Developed by the Polish based company CD Project Red, which won Studio and Developer of the Year, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt increased its revenue sales eleven times more from The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and drove over a million people to pre-order copies. At its core, The Witcher series is a fantasy-rpg much like many other top-selling games like the Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, or Dragon Age, but what makes this series so unique from its contenders? Adaptation.
Andrzej Sapkowski and the origin of the Witcher
The Witcher game series is ultimately an adaptation of The Witcher novel series written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Despite graduating as an economist and having great interest in Polish history, Sapkowski is one of Poland’s most renowned contemporary authors; being compared to the likes of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. He is a five-time winner of the Janusz A. Zajdel Award (an important honour for fantasy writers) and has received the Polityka magazine’s Literature Passport Award in 1997. In 2009 the final instalment of The Witcher series, The Blood of Elves, received the David Gemmel Fantasy Award, and in 2012 he was awarded the Medal for ‘Gloria Artis’ (Merit to Culture). Deferring from his economic training, Sapkowski writes novels, fantasy stories, essays, and dictionaries about the fantasy genre such as the world of King Arthur, and the Dragon Cave Manuscript.
In his early career, Sapkowski first started working as a translator for Fantastyka magazine. The Witcher first made his appearance in the very same magazine when in 1985 Sapkowski’s short story Wiedźmin, “Witcher”, won third place in its fiction competition. Geralt, the main protagonist in the Witcher, began to come to life when Sapkowski continued to publish his first adventures in Fantastyka. Later, Bogusław Ploch wrote a comic based on the short stories from 1993-1995 that Sapkowski personally illustrated. Growing in popularity, after having finished writing The Witcher novels, Geralt’s story was adapted into a poorly received film (2001) and the television series Hexer (2002) both directed by Marek Brodzki.
Mariusz Czubaj, one of Poland’s top scholar in cultural anthropology who specializes in the culture of fantasy, described the author’s writings as:
“a form of polemics with the Polish tradition of the historical novel, with let’s say Kraszewski and Sienkiewicz, who wrote about cruel times while depriving them of that dose of atrocities and a most basic human dimension. Yet the author of ‘The Witcher’ does not hide that his characters are not exactly subtle, but who nonetheless bask with delight in what the literature theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin once called ‘the material bodily lower stratum’.” (Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer)
Czubaj references that Sapkowski utilizes Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival (carnivalesque) versus grotesque realism (grotesque body), which aims to degrade abstract, spiritual, noble, and ideal concepts into a material level. This idea of the carnival versus grotesque body is perhaps what helped make The Witcher series so outrageously popular — it deconstructs the status quo of what fantasy (and by extension to fantasy in video games) should be. Traditionally, fantasy video games follow the Anglo-Saxon history of folklore when constructing fantastical universes. As an extension of this tradition, Tolkien’s mastery of history and linguistics also helped to further shape modern fantasy and helped re-popularize the genre as a whole, but his works have ultimately become the standard. Unlike other video games, The Witcher is not only an adaptation of the novel series, but Sapkowski’s novels themselves are structural reworkings of folklore based predominantly on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Celtic, and Slavic cultures.
Recognizable by a larger audience, Geralt’s adventures, both in Sapkowski’s novels and later adapted into quests, are (if possible) more gruesome interpretations of Grimms’ fairy tales. In the novel The Last Wish, an instance of this is during the short stories titled “Lesser Evil” and “Question of Price”. Based on Snow White, “Lesser Evil” focuses on a princess destined for evil due to a prophecy. Brutally raped by the Hunter who was meant to kill her, Renfri (Snow White) killed the Hunter, and lead a life of thievery in order to survive. She became a notorious assassin with her signature killing method being impaling, and gathered a band of merry, murderous dwarves. After surviving an assassination attempt from her step-mother via poisonous apple, Renfri decided it was time to take revenge and took back her kingdom and even became the favourite mistress of a rich prince. So why doesn’t she live happily ever after? Because her ultimate victim is the wizard who prophesized her demonized existence. In its skeletal form, Sapkowski mimicked the plot of the traditional Snow White in a carnivalesque fashion. A princess is wrongly accused by her step-mother, the hunter tries to kill her but fails, she meets some helpful dwarves, marries the prince, and regains her rightful place in the kingdom. The grotesque body manifests in the prophecy that damned her existence, her horrific life, and the question: is Renfri a monster because of her birth? Or is she a monster because of the terrible circumstances of her life? The answer is never truly clear and neither is the ‘lesser evil’. Does something like that even exist? Geralt (and perhaps Sapkowski) seem to think it doesn’t.
Another easily recognizable Grimm character is Rumpelstiltskin in “Question of Price” which is also found in The Last Wish and as a quest in the video game. Despite not being a major character, Sapkowski’s “Rumplestelt” follows a similar plot formula of offering help in exchange for a princess’ first born. However, the grotesque body is brought into play once again to teach a lesson that destiny should not be trifled with. In The Witcher universe, there is a rule of destiny known as “The Law of Surprise” that can be used as currency. The rules of the law dictate that you must give up a gift to the saviour that is currently unknown to the saved. This can be anything from alcohol, a pet, or a child – and in most cases, it is always a child (“The Law of Surprise”). In the “Question of Price”, when enacting the Law of Surprise, Geralt reminisces on what happens to those who choose to ignore destiny. When the princess, Zivelina, refused to give Rumplestelt her first-born, both she and the child died by plague.
Moving away from Grimm’s influence, the concept of the “Wild Hunt” is actually apart of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. In Old Norse, it was called: “Oskoreia ‘Terrifying Ride,’ or Odensjaakt, ‘Odin’s Hunt’. In Middle High German, it was called Wuotanes Her, ‘Odin’s Army,’ and in modern German [das] Wütende Heer, ‘Furious/Inspired Army,’ or [die] Wilde Jagd, ‘Wild Hunt’.” (“The Wild Hunt”) Also known as an ethereal, nocturnal horde, the Wild Hunt was believed to happen during the dead of winter when it was the coldest, darkest part of the year and icy storms ravaged the landscape. During this time, if anyone dared to come outside they could witness the procession or be unfortunate enough to be detected and taken by it. Some practitioners of magic could apparently join voluntarily by selling their soul to those of the Hunt.
More so found in the games than in the novels, there are also small references to Arthurian legends such as a silly instant where Geralt tries to pull the sword – Excalibur – out of its stone. In the DLC Blood and Wine the “Lady of the Lake” must be consulted during the quest “There Can Only be One” in order for the quest to proceed. She, in turn, will give Geralt Aerondight which is, according to myth, the name of Lancelot’s sword.
Norse and Celtic Folklore
The Wild Hunt also makes an appearance in Sami culture (located in the Northern, arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland). Author Johannes Scheffer, author of Lapponia in 1673, described a similar spectral army in which the Laplanders (Sami people) would make offerings to what they called “Yule Folk” (The Wild Hunt – Germanic Mythology”). Returning more towards a Norse and Celtic perspective, the infamous Ragnarök or “Fate of the Gods,” (a.k.a. the end of the world) is believed by the Skelligers as “Ragh nar Roog”.
Norse influence is mostly found in the beasts that plague the Witcher universe. Botchlings, or mylings, are known as phantasmal reincarnations of unbaptized infants that died. The myth having come into being during a time when infanticide was popularly practiced in secret, mylings would wreak havoc until someone kind enough could give them a proper burial. Curiously, the demonic myth of the botchling is also seen in Slavic folklore where they are known as a poroniec (derived from the Polish word poronić “miscarry”) or drekavac (Serbo-Croatian word for “screamer”). Associated with sexual malpractices of women (sexual deviance, miscarriages, stillborn, improper Catholic burials) a poroniec is a demonic creature that arises from the dead in rage. However, in Slavic traditions, if buried under a threshold the poroniec could turn into a kłobuk (“lubberkin”). Another Norse beast (that also shares roots in Slavic folklore) are the plague wraiths. Known as pesta “plague hag” in Norway, the plague wraith was essentially the personification of the black plague that atrophied Europe in the fourteenth century. A common theme in explaining terrible occurrences, the personification of the plague was also seen in Lithuania, Russia, and Poland as the morowa dziewica “plague virgin” as identified by the Polish Romantic poet, Lucjan Siemieński (“The Myth behind the Monster of Witcher 3”).
Expanded upon in the game more than in the novel, the culture of Skellige is distinctly Celtic in origin. Skellige itself is a direct reference to the Irish Island “Skellige Michael”. Ard in Irish means “high” while an means “the” therefore, Ard Skellige and An Skellige can be translated to “High Skellige” and “The Skellige”. Clan names of the Skelliger also come from Gaelic and Scottish influence as clans Drummond and Tordarroch are real clans in Scotland, while Craits in Gaelic means “shaker”. Their clothing also reflects Celtic culture found in Ireland and Scotland (Phooka12, “The Gaelic/Celtic Culture Influences of the Witcher 3”). Another curiosity is that Elvish speech in the game is heavily based on Gaelic languages (“Elder Speech”).
It is undeniable that despite drawing from the cultures and folklores of Europe, Sapkowski’s (as well as the developers from CD Project Red) greatest influence was from his own Slavic background. A unique concept taken from Slavic folklore is the “Witcher” itself. Roughly translated from the Proto-Slavic vědě “to know” a Witcher is essentially a warlock. However, unlike their witchy counter-parts, Witchers are seen as both figures of good and evil (“Witcher”). Possessing this likeness of “good”, the concept of the Witcher has been connected to the “cunning folk” of Britain, otherwise known by its rarer terminology “white witches” (due to the negative connotations associated with ‘witch’) (“World Goes Wild for the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”).
Slavic mythology mostly manifests itself in the demons and beasts that terrorize Sapkowski’s world. To name a few, the already mentioned poroniec “botchling”, bies “fiend”, czart “chort”, leszy “leshy”, rusałka “rusalka”, strzyga “striga”, kikimora “kikimore”, and południca “noon wraith”. These are all examples of beasts that are totally unique to Slavic mythology, although (as shown with the botchling and the plague wraith) similarities can be found within other European mythologies. Perhaps the most intriguing addition to this monsterology are the Panie Lasu “Ladies of the Wood” otherwise called: Wiedźmy z Krzywuchowych Moczarów, “Witches from Crooked-Ear Swamp”; or by their much simpler English translation: the Crones. These three demonic figures are a direct reference to the infamous Baba Yaga. These cannibalistic ladies may not live in a hut standing on a chicken leg, but they do have a candy trail that leads to their lair deep within the marshes. Despite their monstrous approach, the Baba Yaga fundamentally is a “helpful old hag, ugly to be sure, but willing to give advice that will save the virtuous heroines and heroes,” as folklorist Paula Kiska explains in her article “Wonder Tales”. Within her analysis, Kiska notes that the greatest details within folklore, are those generated from archaic and primeval folk traditions and also as a way to explain the unexplainable. For instance, noon wraiths, were most likely a way to explain heat stroke during long summer months, the same way that plague wraiths explained disease. Despite the Crones being one of the main antagonists in the game, they fulfill the archetype of the old hag by never backing down on their word and always willing to help, but of course, only for a price (usually) drenched in blood. Unlike the noon wraith which is used to explain a natural phenomenon, Baba Yaga’s origins have a godlier explanation — she was the deity of death and regeneration, which fits quite comfortably with her general M.O. (Baba-Yaga). Life cannot regenerate without death. In the quest “Ladies of the Wood” the Crones told the Bloody Baron’s wife, Anna Strenger, that they would not help her miscarry, unless she offered her own life in servitude. The three-in-one manifestation of the Crones also twists quite coherently with Baba-Yaga’s god-like history as in variants of her story, especially those from Russia, she is often depicted as a being of three.
Beyond these direct references found both within the novels and the game, CD Project Red adds small decorative elements within the universe to help accentuate details of Slavic culture, that are not completely obvious to foreigners. The most prevalent of these would be the flower and straw chandeliers that hang in village houses. Known as pająki “spiders” that are predominantly found in Poland, they are “connected to old Slavic rituals performed for the winter solstice and the spring equinox,” as a symbol of protection (“pająki — protective decorations made of straw”).
The written language used by the humans in the Witcher is the Glagolitic alphabet. To simplify a very complicated history, the Glagolitic alphabet is the oldest, original alphabet to appear within the Slavic world. It was ‘artificially’ made (accredited to the Holy brothers Constantine and Methodius) created specifically to match Slavic phonetics (specifically Old Church Slavonic) and to aid Christianization (“Glagolitic Script as a Manifestation of Sacred Knowledge”). Predeceasing (and fighting for domination over) the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet in the Slav world, Glagolitic would make an impact in almost all Slavic states, but gained most ground in Croatia where it was used regularly for liturgical purposes until the 19th century (“The Three Languages and Three Orthographies of Medieval Croatia”). Another small curiosity is that the runes used in the Witcher game are named after Old Slavic gods such as Perun who was the equivalent of “Zeus” in the Old Slavic pantheon (“what is Known About Slavic Mythology”). Within the greater Slavic framework lies an element of Polish-isms that is enhanced within the novel and video game as small nuances too complex to be filled simply under the category of “Easter Eggs”. In the Polish iteration of the game, when speaking to Vesemir, Geralt makes a comment about a fairy tale about an old bear who is sleeping. In Polish, this is a reference to the nursery rhyme “stary niedźwiedź mocno śpi” which is a similar version of the game “what time is it Mr. Wolf”. Another instance of this is when speaking to Dijkstra during the quest “Finding Count Reuven’s Treasure” in English Geralt makes a reference to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, which in the Polish dubbing is translated to the Polonized version of the tale called Jaś i Małgosia “Jack and Margret” (where the candy-crazed witch who tries to devour them is none other than Baba Yaga). Other references include historical myths such as when dziady, or Forefather’s Eve, which takes place (as a reference to the old Slavic pagan Halloween as well as a work of Mickiewicz – more on that in a moment), near the tower of Popiel, who was a legendary Slavic prince.
Role of Polish Romanticism
Among the adaptation from folklore, The Witcher novels and video game heavily draw from Polish Romanticism. Fundamentally different from English and French Romanticism, the Romantic era of Poland was much more grotesque than what its Western friends experienced. Although sharing similar philosophical ideas such as the focus on self, the glorification of the past and nature, these concepts would be corrupted by sacrifice and national cause after the partitions of Poland when the country ceased to exist; and after the failed uprising of 1830 to regain its stolen liberty. Emotions of “pessimism, melancholy, and metaphysical and political rebellion were countered by messianic ideas of the émigré poets,” which lead to a rise of a Catholic inspired messiah complex and recovering a lost, pagan, past (Oxford Handbook: “Polish Romanticism”; Schreiber “Polish Romanticism”). These ideals themselves are evoked within Sapkowski’s novels with political disarray, rabid patriotism, and a return to something mystical before it ceases to exist entirely. Although Sapkowski plays on concepts of Polish Romanticism, the video game more heavily adapts tales from this period.
Most obvious, within the Polish dubbing, is that Dandelion often recites poems from the Polish Romantic period. The most explicit of these references was during the quest when Geralt confronts a Midday Lady. The quest itself is based on Juliusz Słowacki’s Balladyna but after the wraith is defeated, Dandelion recites a fragment from Mickiewicz’s Upiór “The Ghost”.
As previously mentioned with dziady, the quest plot within the game mimics parts of Mickiewicz’s most popular poetic drama Dziady “Forefather’s Eve”. Similarly, in the DLC Heart of Stone, the plot is based of the Polish fairy tale of Pan Twardowski “Mr. Twardowski” (in which the root word is twardo “hard” – meaning his name could technically translate to Mr. Hardcore) who sold his soul to the devil (variants include the ‘devil’ being a bies or czort) for magical powers. He then summoned a massive rooster and flew away on its back to the moon – go figure, but I guess you could say that’s pretty hardcore. Despite Pan Twardowski being a fairy tale, his story heavily inspired ballads by writers such as Mickiewicz and Moniuszko. The expansion also draws paralelles to Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Wesele “Wedding”. Even the quest “A Tower of Mice” is directly taken from another work of Słowacki’s called Król Duch “King of Ghosts” which, again, references the legendary prince Popiel.
Beyond direct poetic exerts, the devastated landscape of Temeria, as analyzed by Paweł Schreiber for Culture.pl (an official publication run by the University of Adam Mickiewicz Press in Poznań), is also taken directly out of the melancholic eyes of Polish romantics. Wooden houses amongst fields of flowers with strange creatures lurking behind every nook and cranny is taken out of the creatively disturbed mind of Mickiewicz in Ballads and Romances, while the landscape surrounding Forefather’s Eve is much more complex:
“this is how Juliusz Słowacki described the area around Gopło lake in a letter to Zygmunt Krasińki in the introduction to Lilla Weneda. This is obviously not the real Gopło, but the lake according to The Poems of Ossian, which were very popular at the time. It is basically a proto-Slavic and Celtic fairy tale hybrid based on the pseudoscientific treatise Pierwotne Dzieje Polski (The Ancient History of Poland) by Henryk Lewestam, adapted to fit Europe’s main concerns at the time. In it, the original inhabitants of Poland are Celts, while their leader, Dervid is a ‘copy’ of the Shakespearean Lear.” (“How the Witcher Plays with Polish Romanticism”).
The Role of Adaptation
Despite the many Slavisms that are entrenched within the atmosphere of the books and the details of the game, it is undeniable that what makes Sapkowski’s novels and The Witcher video game series so relatable is that there is a bit of everything. Everyone can recall some bits and pieces of folklore and fairy tales from their childhood when interacting with the material while also given the opportunity to discover something new. Furthermore, what makes this type of adaptation so intriguing is that Sapkowski has degraded the concept of folklore into a grotesque realism that makes it more relatable to our political climates and mentalities today. The game further deconstructs this by creating a cultural melting pot that combines histories together. By adding in smaller references, what the game does is enhance the material of the novel with intertextual references. What makes the Witcher game series so successful with its book-to-game adaptation is because it relies on these multiple layers of intertextuality and short story functions. Geralt’s life is tumultuous and delivered as a nonlinear narrative. The game is able to adapt Geralt’s adventures within the novels to quests, whilst enhancing and expanding content that Sapkowski has already utilized. The use of short story structures not only helps make quests in the games within the greater plot, but also supports its RPG purposes. Geralt, despite being ‘destined’ for Yennifer, still has romantic relations with many other women, but also doesn’t have the healthiest (or monogamous) arrangement with her. Since the novels don’t piece their unison chronologically, the developers are able to manipulate those events so that players have a choice within events while staying true to the novels. After all, Sapkowski himself explores the struggles of choice and the philosophy of bias behind a ‘lesser evil’.
In her article “Adaptation, Intertextuality, and the Endless Deferral of Meaning,” Ilana Shiloh explains that “any text is an amalgam of others, [that forms] a larger fabric of cultural discourse,” that, as elaborated be Robert Stam, is meant to become an “evershifting [grid] for interpretation.” When interacting with Sapkowski’s novels, the reader is meant to feel a sense of nostalgia whether it be through Grimm’s haunting tales, the climate of Polish Romanticism, or creatures that extend beyond Europe such as the Djinn or “genie” that hails from Islamic mythology. The game further enhances what Sapkowski adapted to create The Witcher into widening the spectrum of not only adaptation, but the intertextual references that come with it. The Witcher series has seen widespread success throughout all of its adaptations because it itself is an adaptation of a variety of common myths from different cultural backgrounds, that have been simplified by the author for a diverse audience.
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