The Witching Hour—Sword of Destiny

The beginning of Sword of Destiny finds Geralt despondent. Perhaps fittingly after the resigned, melancholic walk toward death at the end of The Last Wish, he has resolved to “[meet] the fate of all mutants… [to differ] too much to endure.” He has good reason to resign himself to death. The fact is that as cities and kingdoms grow, as common people become more able to handle the spaces between their towns and nature, the role of witchers is increasingly questioned.

Compared to the murky borders of The Last Wish, the world grows ever more urban and civilized. However, Sword of Destiny blows up the scale. The story “A Little Sacrifice” deals with a coastal nation’s encounter with a previously undiscovered, underwater civilization. In the title story, Geralt acts as an emissary to Brokilon, a dryad forest that borders several nation states. Geralt comes to negotiate further ceding of territory for a local monarch. though Brokilon’s borders are already frayed and the dryads have resorted to more desperate measures to keep their heartland. The increasing scale of these conflicts makes Geralt’s individual role less powerful, especially since his code makes him more than just a tool of power.

Subtextually, the book ties the “civilizing” process to both the creation of national identity and the shoring up of capital. The efforts to newly colonize the forests and oceans of the world are headed up by young kings with a lot to prove. Although the books take place firmly in a mirror of European feudalism, the merchant class is explicitly on the rise. The story “The Eternal Flame” takes place in Novigrad, which Geralt’s friend Dandelion calls “the centre and cradle of culture” Two of its central characters are a banker and a merchant. The machinations of the plot churn around the third party buying and selling of goods. In other words, capital. The stories place themselves at the turning point that will eventually lead to industrialization and firm establishment of modern empire.

In this new economic world, Geralt is in a perilous position. He is essentially a freelance wage laborer. Whatever loyalty he has to monarchs or nations is temporary. Once the jobs dry up, he will leave. He has no direct home and is one of the last of his kind. Though Geralt is in a position of relative power, he is also vulnerable, especially since there are lines he will not cross. Witchers kill monsters, not people, and often whom Geralt sees as people are not considered so by the powers that be.

In “A Little Sacrifice,” Geralt refuses a position with the king, Agloval, because attempting to conquer a sovereign nation of ocean dwellers goes against his witcher’s code. In response, the king says, “It was [the witchers]… who paved the way for us. They strewed the path with the corpses of those who stood in the way of humans, and defended that world from us… we no longer need witchers, and now nothing will stop us.” This quote points to the dual nature of a witcher and how that role grows increasingly irrelevant to the projects of power. Witchers are concerned with balance. They want at least some kind of harmony between the natural and human worlds. Their own mutated and scarred body represents the blurred lines between the cold logic of humanity and the unordered expanse of wilderness. They are therefore opposed to endless expansion. Even as they serve kings, the witchers cannot do all their rulers ask for fear of losing themselves.

Fittingly, the book draws a constant parallel between Geralt and the magical creatures he protects or kills. It even offers them a way out of their marginalization. Unfortunately, for the most part, that means assimilation. In “The Eternal Flame,” doppelgängers, shapeshifters endangered by humans destroying their habitat, find relative peace in disguising themselves as human, permanently. The head of the anti-magic religious secret police is revealed, at the last second, to be a doppelgänger himself, having killed and taken the place of the original human. The moment is presented as a triumphant twist, as his sympathetic presence allows the innocent Doppler to go free. However, surely the hiding creature must keep up appearances. While his assimilation allows him power, the doppelgänger must also bend to expectations of that power or be exposed.

In “A Little Sacrifice,” while Geralt investigates the missing pearl divers, King Agloval has fallen in love with a mermaid, unrelated and preceding his discovery of the ocean civilization. In the volume’s primary twist on fairy tales, the center of this little mermaid tale is not abstract longing, but the concrete problems of a clash of cultures. The king cannot speak his love’s language and relies on Geralt for translation. The mermaid asks the king to join her in her underwater world, rather than become human. Ultimately though, the threat that the kingdom poses to her underwater friends forces action. Near the story’s end, she appears before the king with legs, her sacrifice for the protection of the voiceless ocean. The book finds this assimilation both triumphant and tragic. With it, magic itself finds protection, but the world is robbed of the presence of that magic. It careens the world closer to its industrial, mechanical future.

For a set of stories firmly establishing the personhood of the disabled and “abnormal,” Sword of Destiny is casually cruel and relentlessly misogynistic. Despite the story’s pretty clear attempts to situate these stories in a particular time and place, the stories deploy conventional and contemporary fatphobia and beauty standards. For example, there is hardly an appearance of the mermaid without a passing description of her breasts. In another story, sexual violence is used as a cheap, lurid threat. None of this should come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the games, but it is still jarring to see a book, which can be quite tragic and sensitive,

It is also worth noting that Sapkowski does not have the tact to tie the fiction of elves, dryads, dwarves, and witchers to the real, living experiences of the disabled and people of color. Even as moments resonate, these novels still equivocate real oppression with white myth. It is telling that the most powerful and resonate moments of marginalization are channeled through Geralt, by all textual accounts a cis, white, man. He is the one who is allowed complication outside of easy one-to-one metaphors.

For example, Geralt has opportunities to assimilate: The aforementioned position with Algoval for example. He could, of course, break the tenets of his code to outright hunt intelligent beings like dryads or dragons. He never does this. In fact, he says “The code solves the dilemma for the Witcher.” This is helped by the cultural notion that mutants such as Geralt are emotionless. There is an idea that Witchers are nothing but antiquated machines that have outlived their usefulness. But no matter how much Geralt might posture, or how much the world might protest, he is a living, thinking person. It is just that he is a coward.

Throughout the pages of the book, the world is unfair and cruel to Geralt and the people like him. However, unlike the dryads and mermaids he encounters, he is both unwilling to change the world and also unwilling to fully embrace the new role he might have. The specter of indecision that haunted him at Blaviken recurs. Fittingly for a volume with its title, Geralt comes face to face again with destiny and runs away or stands paralyzed. Sometimes we avoid fate, not because we are trying to break the structure of the world, not because we are trying to end injustice, but because we are scared of injustice ending. We are scared of who we might have to become to change the world. This fear riddles itself throughout every story in the collection. Though Geralt’s place in the world is precarious, it is a place. The breaking of his code would result in a thorough displacement, far more terrifying than death or any beast.

Nowhere does Geralt’s indecisiveness show more than in his relationship with Ciri, essentially his surrogate daughter. In “The Last Wish,” Geralt earns the right to raise her as a witcher, though she is not yet born. When he returns to claim her, her parents are dead, and she is being raised by her grandmother. He ultimately refuses to take her, defying the myth of the witcher, because he “couldn’t assume the responsibility of it.” Yet Ciri returns to his life, a scared princess running away from an arranged marriage, in the dryad forest.

Though Geralt once claimed responsibility for her and then rejected it, he now finds himself being responsible for her, by chance or destiny. Slowly, Geralt remembers who she is. Still, after caring for her and putting her to bed, after watching her resist the lure of the Dryads to stay in the forest, after saving her from bandits and brigands, he leaves. Though she begs him to stay, he leaves.

He justifies this to himself, “because it is what I always do… because death dogs my footsteps. I cannot, I may not expose you to that, Ciri.” To be fair, a witcher’s life is a hard one. And becoming a witcher is even harder. However, Ciri is, even at her young age, well acquainted with death. Her parents were killed during a storm on a voyage. Her grandmother will die by the book’s end, murdered as the local empire expands its borders. No, Geralt is not protecting her, but is protecting himself. Though the world is unjust, though Geralt might make it easier for this bright, powerful, and vulnerable girl, he would rather not have a legacy at all.

However, as the Dryad queen asserts, “The sword of destiny has two blades. You are one of them.” We still get to choose. The final story, “Something More,” starts with Geralt saving a merchant in a monster ridden place, to finally finding Ciri again, a refugee from war, at that merchant’s home. If Geralt had not chosen to save this man, at great risk to himself, he would not have found his way here, nor would he have found Ciri again. He could not escape Ciri, whether in memory or in presence, so he chose her. After it all, we still choose who we are.

Though Sword of Destiny blows up the scale of these stories, turning them into tales of kingdoms and nations, showing a world on the hinge of revolutionary change, it ends with something quiet and warm. In some ways, this is a thematic retread of the first volume. Geralt again learns the importance of caring for others, of acting in conscience, even in morally murky waters. But while the first volume only promised that Geralt could die on his own terms, this one promises he will have something to leave behind. Sword of Destiny reminds us that as we act, we bind ourselves to other people. It reminds us that people are so much more than our destiny, because we choose them.