There are moments from The Witcher that sit in the back of my mind. A man kisses his ghostly lover, as her spectral, decrepit form transforms to warmth and youth. Our Witcher, “inhuman” monster hunter, looks back at those who find him monstrous with pity and sadness. A daughter stands before her father and declares that this is her story, not his. These moments linger by the fireplace. Occasionally warming their hands, they chat amongst themselves. I sometimes join them and watch as the fire grows in their eyes. They do not address me, but they allow me to sit among them, to come and go as I please.
All fiction stays with us to some extent; whether consciously or buried in some cave of dreams and half-remembered memories. But The Witcher has burrowed into my brain, so pervasively that I’m now writing a series of articles about its 7 books and 3 games. Whatever space these stories have already taken up, they will now take up even more. I will speak with those moments, letting my voice ring by the fireplace. Why?
There are a few superficial answers to that question. The Witcher is a fantasy of freedom and power. The title character, Geralt, is genetically different from humans, he lives longer and is stronger than the average person. Its influences, medieval literature and Slavic folk tales, play outside the usual fantasy gene pool. The Witcher games are, in some ways, the personification of games I wished for as a child. Open worlds with complex moral choices and a multitude of outcomes. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is what I wanted Fable or Dragon Age to be. While these certainly explain my interest, they do not explain The Witcher’s permanence in my mind.
These stories are important, not because they are essential reading or playing, but because they awaken. They are stories that can trouble our slumber. This is why they so often resemble fairy tales. For the author Andrzej Sapkowski, fairy tales expose the wounds of the world. For us, in a post-Disney culture, such stories often seem clean and easy to digest. The Witcher’s tales resemble their Grimm forebears, twisted and dark. Not because these stories needed blood and sex to become “real,” but because they already are real. We might skip over the darkness in them, the ways in which their monsters resemble our own, but Geralt never will. He knows that that sanitation is for our comfort and not our good. He even says,“People… like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.” The not-so-monstrous monsters Geralt fights and helps are created by oppression and pain. They lay bare the damage we have caused, and what more we might do. Despite their typical fantasy trappings, these stories force us to examine the way we make the human monstrous, and the evil mundane.
I chose the name The Witching Hour for this series because I thought it was clever, but its thematic significance strikes me now. The Witching Hour is a time when darkness and light, the earthly and unearthly, life and death are closer together. From the first short story to the final moments of The Wild Hunt, these stories force us to consider that space. Geralt himself is neither monster nor man. He represents the problem of convergence. He troubles the binaries that humans set up. Despite these binaries being cloaked in metaphor, their disturbance troubles us too. We make monsters of humans; the Witcher makes them human again.
Furthermore it asks us to act. Geralt often questions his role in the world. His power as a monster hunter grants him some distance from common people, but he also relies on them. He could insist that the common troubles of peasants are not his problem. He could take no time to care for those who hire him. Often he is so callous to ignore. These stories show that callousness as hollow. Geralt pays for choosing distance, and so does the world. The Witcher stories do not only ask us to contemplate injustice, but to act, to make something more out of a fractured world.
So come in. Sit by the fire. Listen to us talk of monsters and men, of peasants and kings, of witches and priests. Then go forth into our world – awakened, disturbed, and refreshed.
Welcome to the Witching Hour.
Special thanks to Andi Boswell for the editing help.