The Witching Hour—The Lady of the Lake

The Witcher novels’s conclusion is the culmination of both of the series’s principle instincts. In its climax and much of its narrative proper, it re-centers the chosen family of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri. It also blows up the scale even further, beyond the fantasy fare of nations and prophecies, into considerations of history and storytelling themselves. It’s the most meta of the novels. The Lady of the Lake, as indicated by the title, conjures the chivalric romance. By the book’s end, Geralt himself will be placed on a boat like in L’Mort de Artur and Ciri will rely the events of her life to Galahad (yes, THAT Galahad). The Ouroboros is a recurring image and the book is immediately concerned with events recurring and parallel histories affecting each other. The book opens with future scholars analyzing the events of the Witcher novels, faded as they are into history and legend.

In a real way, The Lady of Lake spills into what the series threatened to become all along: a postmodern smattering of timelines and perspectives. It “contains eternity in a moment” as the book itself puts it. This is a well worn, but often magical, literary theme, from Ulysses to Slaughterhouse Five to A Tale for the Time Being. Lady of the Lake’s novelty in primarily in its high fantasy setting. In the books nigh constant breaks and interludes, it flips between time and space. The council of sorceresses made holy saints by future history, fantastical fact turned into the heady stuff of legend. The book attempts to flip flop from genre to genre, turning from historical account to epic fantasy to sultry romance within individual pages. Weirdly, this is a strong change. Rather than squishing an evocative, but conventional, dark fantasy story into a whirlwind structure, The Lady of the Lake packs its themes into its formal qualities. 

Broadly the book alternates between Ciri’s dimension hopping trip through alternative timelines and concluding the war between the northern kingdoms and the Nilfgaardian empire. The primary issue is still that Sapkowski is not an elegant writer, at least in translation. In describing a battle, he cannot help but name every battalion, choking the reader in proper nouns and irrevelant detail. The peace talks between Nilfgaard and the north take up one bloated, frivilous chapter. One might say that, “welcome to the fantasy genre,” but the genre’s roots have much clearer worldbuilding. Tolkien’s expoisition is much more deliberate, careful, and considerate. While Sapkowski’s flood of detail sometimes summons delight and beauty, it just as often feels endless and insipid. 

Strangely, Sapkowski’s “ouroboros” of history feels more vivid when its lens is straightforward. In one dazzling chapter, Ciri hops from dimension to dimension and time to time, struggling to find her way back to Geralt and crew. Because of the limited perspective, the flip from genre to genre feels grounded in an emotional self.

This has its strengths and its weaknesses. Ciri is, once again, the heart of the novel. Her bravery and fury in the face of continuing injustice almost never fails to be thrilling and inspiring. She also gets the novel’s most human emotions. She longs to return to her surrogate father and mother. While most of the novel’s other characters, Yennefer and Geralt included, don’t get a ton of time to really have a vivid perspective, Ciri’s subjectivity is always centered. 

However, with this centering comes a doubling down of Sapkowski’s worst instincts in writing women. Ciri is constantly under threat of sexual assault, a common threat no matter what world or time she travels to. Even the most benevolent forces working to control her only have interest in the potential of her womb. Her “elder blood” would perhaps grant some future heir power and strength to fix the world. Sapkowski is visibly trying to make some kind of feminist statement, but it feels more fetishistic than forceful. Ciri is so constantly assaulted, and in a variety of different contexts and times, that the book most consistently argues that it is just like this for women, rather than treating sexual violence as a great injustice. 

The book also lacks any revolutionary imagination, in keeping with its predecessors. The chapter on the peace talks also flits through time, showing executions and coronations all between people in power shuffling territory like pieces on a board. The book also emphasizes Capitalism’s rise, attribute the book’s ongoing conflict to business interests. However, the perspective of any kind of working class feels marginal. The book takes pity on the peasantry, but does not grant them any real voice. In fact, it frequently attributes the hatred and xenophobia of the world to simply the ignorance of the masses. The problem is not so much that Lady of the Lake is pessimistic, but that it cannot even gesture at possibility or evocatively articulate despair. Even Ciri’s whirlwind trip through the multiverse serves mostly to illustrate that history’s miseries are both recurring and plentiful.

There are moments of escape of course. The conclusion of the Cintran peace may have just insured a slight difference in the division of power, but it also opens the door for unlikely friendships and new rebellions. The peace talk chapter concludes with a trio of veterans from multiple sides of the conflict joining forces in what the book calls “a beautiful friendship.” All these freedoms are small, though, coming at great cost, implied to be all too brief, or only won by individuals, not communities.

This book’s expansion of the elves as abstract personifications of indigenous peoples only affirms that grim truth. The book opens right where the last one left off, with Ciri entering the ancestral homeland of the elves, dimensions away from the book’s primary action. Here, the elves have built a vast empire, later revealed to be built on the dead of countless of the dimension’s prior inhabitants. This is a tired trope. Revealing how the marginalized would be just as cruel in power as the privileged, another example of the book’s weightless pessimism. However, it does gain some resonance in how it depicts an empire is in decay. Their only hope is in (surprise) Ciri’s womb. As Ciri attempts to escape her captors, she is at once allured by the elves and disgusted by them. She eventually finds that it would be better for it to die then for her to prop up its corpse. Within this disturbing frame is an effective landscape of failing empire. Furthermore, the elven revolutionaries, who joined with Nilfgaard for the promise of their own kingdom, find that empire pays in kind. Their kingdom is stripped of its power and many of its ringleaders killed.  The only person who can really escape the elven empire or the elves’s marginalization back home is Ciri herself. Who is not even an elf.

In fact, Ciri is the only one who is able to save anything. Ultimately she escapes all those who wish to use her body. She saves Yennefer and Geralt from a certain death at the hands of xenophobic mob. Her destiny is still her own, and it is Geralt and Yennefer’s love for her that saves them in kind. This is in spots moving, but is, once again, the tale of individuals. I simply don’t know why Sapkowski insists on grand narratives of entire kingdoms when his most powerful prose is found in the small tales of one ragtag family.

In the end, Sapkowski cannot transcend or even pay off his own limitations. Despite their ambition and wandering cinematic eye, the novels cannot muster anything as succinct and powerful as Sword of Destiny. The series attempts to end with possibility. Ciri walks off with Galahad into the rest of her life. But it instead feels closed off, shut to the future. We know what Ciri will find at another court, with other knights. Her endless travels will be empty in the end.