The Witching Hour is a long-form crit series about the Witcher series of books and video games. Shout outs to Andi Boswell, whose editorial help on this was indispensable .
In his first story, Geralt kills only men. He fights a monster, but does not kill it. In fact, he cures it. The opening story in The Last Wish, the first collection of short stories set in the Witcher universe, serves as an introduction, naming Geralt an “itinerant [killer] of basilisks… dragons, and vodniks.” However, the context reveals him to be something else: a man between civilized and natural worlds, one who negotiates their borders—just as often with his voice as with his blade. He is civilization’s enforcer, marking the places where the boundaries between worlds have gotten too close. He is almost a “monster” himself and though the civilized world needs him, it also resents him. Again and again, these stories emphasize the strain, and eventual destruction, placed over Geralt’s head. Again and again they emphasize that for him, and others like him, there is no escape.
There may have been easier times, when Geralt could kill a monster, get paid, and leave. They are nowhere to be found here. Rather, the boundaries between man and monster have become ever more blurry. The book’s second story, A Grain of Truth, retells Beauty and the Beast, with love’s blood sacrifice taking the place of love’s true kiss. In the house where the beast dwells, “There [is] no gap between the wall and the forest, no distinct break (54).” In other words, the magical and non-magical, the monstrous and human seem impossible to tell apart. The Beast himself is no monster, unharmed as he is by Geralt’s silver tools. But his Beauty, a petite girl, turns into a ravenous vampire whose blood transforms the Beast back into human form. Here the monstrous provokes and enables the human. The usual boundaries of “self” are malleable.
Geralt himself embodies a fluid self-hood. In every one of these stories Geralt is a stopgap between different forces and their fate hinges upon his choices. This may be what makes him an alluring video game protagonist. He is always in the middle of the action, able to turn the destinies of entire nations and societies. Geralt fits open world design effortlessly. But the self-titled “Geralt of Nowhere” is not powerful enough to truly “save” the world. What power he does have comes with a grave responsibility. In The Lesser Evil, Geralt must choose between assisting a wronged and violent Snow White in carrying out her revenge or rescuing her prey, a wizard who claims White is cursed, destined to destroy the world. It is exactly the kind of choice that might appear in the marketing for any of the Witcher games. However, Geralt is not decisive. He waits until the last possible moment to act and thus damns everyone. His power becomes a mark, a curse of its own, and he gains the title “the Butcher of Blaviken.”
The world around Geralt further labels him as other than human. The men he kills in the first story are xenophobes who attempt to drive him out of town for being a Rivian, a straightforward, if clumsy, example of the way everyday racism dehumanizes. In the last chapter, a knight wishes to murder Geralt for prestige. Ultimately, Geralt is just another Beast, used and exploited by the humans around him to maintain power. He doesn’t “pass” as human, since his body has been changed to be faster and stronger. He can drink potions that would kill anyone else, he ages slowly with white hair and a youthful figure, and his cat-like eyes shimmer in the dark. All these differences, though, make him useful. He is tolerated, but not accepted. Geralt cannot be anything but a Witcher, so he is placed between monster and man again and again. His fluidity between worlds ensures, contradictory, that he cannot belong to either of them. There is no escape for him.
Fittingly, The Last Wish ends with the promise of apocalypse. A priestess touches Geralt’s hand and vision of his eventual death overwhelms her. Geralt has already seen it, countless times. He is un-phased, only saying “There’s no point in looking over your shoulder (359). In all his power, Geralt cannot even begin to articulate an alternative life. There is no free world for Geralt. The strain of his profession of his “inhumanity” will eventually kill him. The Last Wish’s worldview is bleak, claiming that for irregular bodies there is no escape from a violent death. Before he earned his name as Butcher, Snow White says to him “[We] can’t do anything else… We are what we are, you and I.”
There is, though, another truth here. Moments before he sees his demise, a friend asks Geralt to take care of himself. He replies “I prefer to look after others. It turns out better in the long run.” Despite White’s assertion that he cannot change, he has. While in Blaviken he selfishly waited, now he would act. Now he knows that to care—to live—in the face of death is far better than lying down before demise. Before imminent apocalypse and marginalization, The Last Wish asks us to have the courage to live. Despite this tome’s problems- its casual misogyny, its false equivalence of fantasy creatures and marginalized groups, and its mean-spirited humor- it does ask us to believe that we can shape ourselves, that we can put some good out there, before the world stamps us out. Geralt, despite all the hatred that has come before, does get to choose who he is and how he will face his demise.