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The Witcher: Magic, Monsters and Medievalism

By Linda C. McCabe

The Witcher is the latest breakthrough series on Netflix. Should you watch it and what is its connection to the Middle Ages and medievalism?

The Netflix original series The Witcher is the latest medievalist fantasy adaptation to capture global attention and is currently the most in-demand television series in the world. It premiered on December 20 and Netflix has ranked it as the second most downloaded show for the entire year of 2019 in only eleven days. This popularity is like a rising tide lifting all boats and has spurred renewed interest both in the video games by CD Projekt Red and the books written by Andrzej Sapkowski. His first novel The Last Wish, originally published in Poland in 1993, translated into English in 2007, catapulted into the top five on New York Times Best Seller list for the Combined Print and E-book Fiction list.


For those who haven’t started watching the series and are wondering whether it is worth your while, you should know that it is an adult medieval fantasy series and definitely not a family-friendly Disney styled show. It is permeated with nudity, profanity, and graphic violence. The Witcher is a series consisting of the 3Ms of fantasy: Magic, Monsters and Medievalism. You should also be aware that Sapkowski includes Slavic customs and mythological characters in his stories unfamiliar to most western audiences. Stylistically the first season is more focused on action-adventure than HBO’s Game of Thrones series that was weighed down far too often with political intrigue and machinations.

This article will be light on spoilers and instead try to assist newbies to understanding certain potentially confusing aspects of the series. Witchers are men who were put through intense training as boys to create superhuman monster hunters. Instead of a radioactive spider to make a superhero, witchers are made by toxins designed to create mutations. The process is deadly, with only 30% surviving. Witchers have a slow heart rate, heal fast, age slowly, become sterile, have yellow eyes, and are no longer considered to be human. Witchers can cast simple magic spells and also learn how to make potions to enhance their strength for short bursts. The title character is Geralt of Rivia, (Henry Cavill). He is a witcher who spends his life roaming the lands as a freelance monster killer. His mutation was more severe than others of his kind and caused his hair to turn white, giving him the nickname of the “White Wolf.” The television series spent months trying to get the right look for Henry Cavill’s wig. They had to settle for grayish hair so the wig wouldn’t turn grandma blue under certain lighting.


Geralt first appeared in short stories, and The Last Wish, the first book in Sapkowski’s series, is a collection of those short stories. Only in his third book does a familiar novel storyline and character arcs begin. Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the Netflix series’ showrunner, had to navigate narrative demands of adapting Sapkowski’s fictional universe for a televised medium. Hissrich decided to look at the book series holistically and structure the narrative so that audiences become invested with the three main characters of the series from season one, rather than follow the books sequentially with an episodic “monster of the week” styled show later morphing into having a narrative through line somewhere in season two or three.

Hissrich pulled events from the short stories in order to establish both characterizations and world building. This included how Geralt achieved his nickname as the “Butcher of Blaviken,” his fight with a striga, the life-changing last wish to a djinn, and enduring legacies that come about as a consequence for claims made under the “Law of Surprise.”

Another major change Hissrich made was to shift the narrative point of view (POV) from Geralt’s to multiple POVs. This allows the audience to follow the three major characters independently. There are also three distinct timelines for these characters that converge only in the last episode, and there isn’t a timestamp done onscreen to help viewers understand when events took place. Having three separate timelines allowed for events to be dramatized as they were happening and not overly depend on the narrative technique of “flashbacks.”

The different timelines becomes obvious in the fourth episode when a major character, who died dramatically in the first episode, is shown in alive and well in the past. For those who want to watch this series on their own, listen for the subtle mentions of Calanthe, Cintra, Foltest, and Nilfgaard to get a sense of the timing. For example, in episode 1 there is a mention of Queen Calanthe winning her first battle in Geralt’s timeline, and in the timeline for the second major character, Princess Cirilla or “Ciri” (Freya Allen), Queen Calanthe is her grandmother and a veteran warrior. That alone should give you the idea that events are not happening concurrently. For those who like visual aids, check out this article with the official Netflix timelines posted.


The third major character in the series is Yennefer of Vengerberg, and she is introduced in episode 2. Originally, Hissrich wanted Yennefer to be included from the beginning, but the length of episode 1 became more like a feature film than an hour-long show. Recognizing the limits for running times, episode 1 was cut to have only two storylines.

An additional difference in the television version is the creation of Yennefer’s backstory that had only been alluded to in the books. This meant in episodes 2 and 3, the transformation process of Yennefer going from an abused farmgirl with physical deformities to a powerful sorceress was written specifically for the series. The degradation and humiliation she suffered as a girl helps fuel her magical powers. Yennefer undergoes a magical metamorphosis and becomes a beautiful woman. However, there was a terrible and irreversible cost she had to pay, and it becomes the source of a lifelong regret. Yennefer’s attempts to find magical means to reverse her loss become increasingly desperate and dangerous. Sapkowski made powerful dramatic choices for his character of Yennefer and they are shown in full display in the television series.

Another decision made in the adaptation process was avoiding the criticism CD Projekt Red garnered because many considered the characters in the video games to be “too white.” Instead, the casting of the television series is multiracial. Hissrich is quoted as saying:


The Witcher is really interesting when it comes to depicting racism because it’s about species, not skin color. What makes characters ‘other’ is the shape of their ears, height, etc. In the books, no one pays attention to skin color. In the series…no one does either. Period. In terms of casting, we welcomed everyone and anyone to put themselves forward to prove they could embody the character. We saw all ages, all ethnicities, all levels of talent, from movie stars to fans in Poland who’d never acted professionally before. We chose the best actors.

Bigotry in the series is demonstrated with how elves are treated both contemporaneously and in historical terms in the “Great Cleansing,” as well as people’s reaction to Geralt being a witcher. His yellow eyes are a dead giveaway that he is not normal. He even rejects being called human.

The Witcher is set in a fictional world known as “The Continent” and therefore doesn’t need to adhere to any specific real-world timelines for historical events, artifacts or customs. It is medievalist, but not historically medieval. That distinction allows the costume and set designers freedom when creating the sets, costumes, and armor. The one aspect that annoys me the most is the armor for the Nilfgaardian army. It’s a strange stylistic choice. I don’t understand why they went with what appears to be wrinkled black plastic. Whereas, the plate armor for the other armies looks like what you would expect from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The dueling sequences for Geralt are impressive. They are choreographed like a lethal balletic dance, and Henry Cavill does not use a stunt double. Every scene with Geralt is Cavill playing him. His dedication to this playing this character is praiseworthy.


The battle sequences and attacks on castles are also commendable. They demonstrate how bloody these events would be using swords, daggers, and arrows. The special effects done to create the image of bodies being sliced open or decapitated is done well. Thankfully there isn’t a lingering over any of these violent acts.

There is also a delightful dry wit about the series. For those who like drinking games, you could take a drink whenever Geralt says, “Hmm” or “fuck” or whenever any character says the word “destiny.” Be careful, don’t try to use all three unless you want to get really hammered.

My favorite bit of dialogue is from the fourth episode where Geralt is at a banquet and is coaxed into retelling for the room an exchange he had with “a ragged band of elves.” He winds up giving a toast by saying, “At least when Filavandrel’s blade kissed my throat, I didn’t shit myself. Which is all I can hope for you, good lords. At your final breath, a shitless death.”

My criticisms regarding the Netflix series are niggling ones based on “modernisms” that yank me out of the medievalist timeframe mindset. While The Witcher is medievalist so it has more freedoms than those telling historical fiction narratives, there are still some terms I find problematic. For instance, there is an offhand mention of “reverse psychology” in the second episode. That caused my mind to jump to thoughts about Sigmund Freud. It doesn’t seem appropriate for bards to even have ideas about psychology.

Another modernism that could have been avoided regards mentioning the passage of time in minutes. In episode 2, the rectoress of the magical school scolds Yennefer and orders her to be in the greenhouse in twenty minutes. As if there were wristwatches and clocks everywhere. There aren’t. Besides that, Yennefer was a poor peasant farmgirl who had just arrived at the school. It is doubtful in any medieval fantasy that commoners would have such a concept as the passage of time equating to twenty minutes. It would have been better for the rectoress to say, “Dry your tears, wash your face, and join the rest of the class in the greenhouse. Don’t keep me waiting.” I recognize that these criticisms are nitpicks. Overall, I loved the series and recommend it.

Consider that some of the storylines as adult versions of fairy tales. For example, think of the first episode as a dark retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. There is no evil queen, poisoned apple, time spent in a coma, nor rescue by Prince Charming. There is however a “huntsman” sent to kill a princess in the woods.

Two opposing characters, Stregobor and Renfri, ask Geralt to kill the other – or allow a murder to happen.  Both claim it would be the “lesser evil.” Geralt responds with his philosophy: “Evil is evil… Lesser, greater, middling. It’s all the same… If I have to choose between one evil and another. Then I’d prefer not choose at all.” This demonstrates how Geralt approaches requests/orders to kill. He seeks to only kill monsters, and only those monsters who are dangerous. He does not want to kill people unless he is forced to. At the end of the episode, Geralt made a decision and he will never know if his actions were correct on that fateful day. It will haunt Geralt for years to come and is something Sapkowski wanted his readers to struggle with as well. The series is filled with morally ambiguous dilemmas, this being shown in the first episode sets up the audiences to understand what to expect.

Lastly, a warning should you decide to watch the series. You are likely to become infected with an earworm for the song, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” Covers of that song have flooded YouTube, iTunes, and abound throughout the internet.

Toss a coin to your witcher
O’ valley of plenty
O’ valley of plenty

Linda C. McCabe is the author of Quest of the Warrior Maiden and Fate of the Saracen Knight, fantasy novels that are adaptations from the legends of Charlemagne. She can be found on Twitter at @LindaCMcCabe and be reached through her website 

Top Image: Courtesy Netflix