Calanthe, also known as the “Lioness of Cintra”, spent her life navigating the patriarchal pressures of her society while also maintaining security and safety for her kingdom. Calanthe resisted the confines of marriage, and avoided the consequence of marriage in her society: a complete revocation of her power.
Succession in Cintra, a kingdom on the border between the North and Nilfgaard, is unique compared to all other northern kingdoms. Once a Queen or Princess marries a man, he becomes the de facto ruler in the eyes of the people and the court regardless of whether or not this suitor is from Cintra, or has any connection to Cintra.
Most female royalty in The Witcher series are subject to the trope of short, tedious lives and horrible deaths. In contrast, Calanthe is pretty metal. In this world with its ambiguous equality of the sexes, the scales ultimately tend to slide towards viewing womxn as objects which serve the men in their lives. From a feminist perspective, the life of Calanthe is noteworthy. She is defined by her own actions, and remains the protagonist of her own story. Still, she never fully escapes societal expectations. As a Queen holding a tenuous relationship to marriage, Calanthe spends most of her life defining her own rules in spite of it.
As a young woman, Calanthe came to rule at a young age of 14, after her father’s death. At age 15, she earned a reputation for being skilled and ferocious on the battlefield, earning her the nickname “Lioness of Cintra”.
Soon after, the question of marriage began to absorb her. Originally, she chose not to marry out of personal preference. People scorned, uncomfortable with the idea of a womxn, especially a young queen, creating her own life without a husband. Shameful rumors circulated, accusing Calanthe of incest. Still, she held her own. Eventually, she decided to marry out of convenience, and the rumours made it nearly impossible. One man chose to see through the absurd and to see their future together. Thus, Roegner, Duke de Salm, and Calanthe married, at the ages of 25 and 17 respectively.
In Cintra, marriage operates in the same manner as outside of canon: a transactional means of economic security, one which is usually binding. Womxn throughout history and around the globe were and still are fated to serve as property. Historian Stephanie Coontz posits transactional marriage began in the “early kingdoms and empires of the Middle East” and stretches on for five thousand years, only beginning to slowly shift in the eighteenth century. 1Coontz, Stephanie. After five thousand years spent refining a system meant to secure land and wealth, progressing into an alternative means remains a challenge. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP), “every day 33,000 girls are forced into marriage”2Al Jazeera. “Nairobi Summit Explores Progress on Issues Affecting Women.”. Most forced marriages involve child brides under the age of 14, and are accompanied by a dowry. Forced marriages in the twenty first century serve the same purpose – alliances and economic well-being. Consideration for the child remains absent.
While love marriage is ever present in Western society, its influences tend to make many of us forget just how powerful a five thousand year tradition remains and subsequently persists. Calanthe’s story is spectacular in a fantasy world where transactional marriage in kingdoms is the norm, and individual choice for royal women still veers towards radical. Calanthe represents the boundary breaking willpower that lies within women around the world who embody individual choice, and ultimately choose themselves.
Choosing oneself is not solely about the self, however. Many women choose their path in order to best provide for and protect their families, communities, companies, empires, and the like. Calanthe chose herself over relinquishing her power, thus maintaining her ability to rule over and protect Cintra. Since transactional marriage treats womxn as assets, they remain the object cast into the orbit of a man, or likely, many men. Engaging with the freedom to choose pulls womxn back to subject, and recasts them as the actors in their own lives, able to wield their own power. Constant attempts to pull Calanthe out from her throne were rooted in antagonists observing her awareness and ownership of her power.
“The witcher thinks that the queen, a woman after all, will allow herself to be tricked and in the end will cede to his masculinity. No, Geralt, don’t wait for me to show Weakness.”3 Sword of Destiny, p. 343
Of course, she never allowed herself to be tricked, not even by her husband. While never confirmed, several hints in Time of Contempt reveal Roegner’s attempt to replace Calanthe by assassination. Jacob Fenn, a business partner of Codringher – Geralt’s acquaintance – recalls the suspicion of Roegner’s plans. Fenn explains this forces a knowing Calanthe to strike back preemptively, by attempting to assassinate Roegner while hunting in Erlenwald. Geralt recalls Roegner was saved by Duny, precipitating the series of events in “A Question of Price” from The Last Wish. Readers cannot fully claim this story for truth, however, it remains highly plausible that Calanthe’s own husband would see her as disposable.4 The Time of Contempt, p. 26-28
Sapkowski’s portrait of a self-actualized, powerful womxn reminds the reader of the relationship between knowing oneself and knowing their power, and how this phenomenon instills fear in men who are no longer in control. What’s interesting is that Cintra remains somewhat unique in how royal marriage operates. Cintra’s uniqueness contrasts with the shift towards self actualized, self possessed royal and village womxn who can exist without active suppression, present in many other kingdoms across The Witcher realm.
Calanthe of Cintra was a calculated and unforgiving ruler. Loyal to her own kingdom, she worked to build alliances in Cintra’s best interest. She ruled as a most capable Queen, one who brought wealth and prosperity to the kingdom. In “A Question of Price” from The Last Wish many suitors arrived seeking Princess Pavetta’s hand in marriage, knowing the immense gain of an alliance with Cintra. Calanthe went to great lengths to protect Cintra and expand its potential, while constantly fighting to keep her own power and autonomy:
“And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is, Geralt, to wound some rulers’ pride. Rarely will any of them take words such as ‘No,’ ‘I won’t, and ‘Never’ calmly. But that’s nothing. Interrupt one of them or make inappropriate comments, and you’ll condemn yourself to the wheel.” 5The Last Wish, p. 161
In Cintra, marriage is a tool by which the patriarchy is reinforced. Succession in Cintra favors men heavily regardless of their connection to Cintra. The absence of marriage was equally used to undermine Calanthe. Ultimately, many adversaries dedicated their energy to confining and restricting Calanthe. And ultimately, she persisted. As a strong female lead, she never allowed anyone to define her or her kingdom. Calanthe’s tireless efforts to maintain herself and her kingdom leads us to the obvious: no womxn should have to work this hard to resist confinement, given men can simply exist. Beyond this, a more fascinating idea emerges: Sapkowski chose to write a female lead to contextualize this struggle. The Witcher Series is rife with socio-political commentary, especially surrounding race and gender. A swath of feminist themes arise throughout the novels. Often, each character represents a core concept of exploring modern society, liberation, and sustainable equity.
Calanthe represents many contemporary womxn, and likely many readers, who exist in a society embodying both a bend in the arc towards equity and values of deeply entrenched oppression. Calanthe represents womxn who work tirelessly to provide for themselves, for their families, for their communities. Womxn who still have to fight for the space to rest. Womxn who are expected to justify their choices, because there is still a right choice. Womxn who build an entire life for themselves, who fulfill a meaningful purpose, whose actions inevitably resemble resistance. Resistance is taxing on the mind, body, and soul. Those who resist often do not choose to: it does not feel like a choice. The alternative – to allow oppressors to dictate every framework of a womxn’s life – is hardly a life at all.
Readers, and now viewers across the globe should allow themselves to identify with Calanthe. Both chose to create a life for themselves, though it was never a choice to begin with.
It was a means of survival.