Lilac and Gooseberries

By Benjamin Rose, Editor

A portrait of Yennefer of Vengerberg

You flee my dream come the morning,
Your scent berries tart, lilac sweet.
To dream of raven locks entwisted stormy,
Of violet eyes glistening as you weep.

”Wilcza Zamieć” (“Wolven Storm”), Marcin Przybyłowicz 

By the time Marcin Przybyłowicz gave permanent expression to the tragic love affair at the heart of The Witcher series, Yennefer of Vengerberg had been a fixture of the cannon for nearly 25 years, having first appeared sometime between 1990 and 1992 with the publication of “The Last Wish”, the last and pivotal story of the chronologically first collection of short stories to which it later lent its name. Refined, imperious, caustic, and damaged, Yennefer flew in the face of traditional fantasy stereotypes at a time when feminism had a tenuous place in popular culture. From her traumatic upbringing to her tortured love affairs to her development of an indissoluble bond with Ciri, Yennefer proves time and again to be Sapkowski’s most intricate and multilayered creation; a “difficult” woman in an ambivalent but unrelenting patriarchy whose flagrant disregard of social norms renders her an object of ubiquitous disdain. Yet far from a Mary Sue or masculinized action hero, the Daenerys Targaryens and Captain Marvels of contemporary sci-fi fantasy, who often represent little more than one-dimensional power fantasies of vengeance against misogyny, Yennefer is both fiercely independent and stubbornly feminine, a testament to Sapkowski’s nuanced and diverse, although arguably oversexualized, depiction of femininity. Within this framework comes one of the most essential attributes with which Sapkowski endows his heroes: the capacity to fail, sometimes egregiously. For Yennefer, despite her unquestionably sympathetic portrayal, is capable of both petty malice, materialism, and domestic abuse as well as great nobility. Throughout her journey remain the constants of a lifetime of alienation and the limits of possibility: the amoral misery of the world of The Witcher and the sword of destiny whose other edge is death. For Yennefer, as for Geralt, life is the universal and unending struggle to expand upon the limits of the possible: To find a place of happiness and content in this world before Death comes at noon to lead us into the fog.1 A reference to “Something More” VII, Sword of Destiny 358-362

Though Lauren Hissrich chose to give us Yennefer’s story upfront and in her own right,  in the texts she is often seen from the perspectives of others. Stylistically, this has its pitfalls, as Yennefer, though never reduced to a mere appendage of Geralt and Ciri, could said to be shortchanged as a character by this tactic. On the other hand, Sapkowski’s method in this regard often has the effect of creating a sense of distance between Yennefer and the reader, underscoring the essential alienation belieing   the faces of savoir-faire, cold civility, or unbridled aggression she typically displays towards others. In her introductory story, “The Last Wish” Yennefer is spoken of at the outset as something between a posh socialite and a damnable witch, living as the mistress of an ambassador in the Redanian town of Rinde under circumstances that amount to a glamorous incarceration:

“It’s more like house arrest than asylum” corrected Errdil. “She’s just about imprisoned there. But she has no shortage of clients. Rich clients. She ostentatiously makes light of the councilors, holds balls and extravagant parties—while the councilors are furious, turn whoever they can against her and tarnish her reputation as best they can” (The Last Wish, page 286).

Thus Sapkowski establishes one of the many dualities of Yennefer from the outset: her tenuous position, as a sorceress, between influential insider and perennial object of suspicion. While the eroticized sorceresses of The Witcher, “Girls who couldn’t forget their ugliness had been covered by the mask of magic”2The Last Wish 301 occupy a complicated position in the social hierarchy of the Continent, Yennefer is an especially acute example, her polarising personality and rugged individualism often exacerbating the ambivalence and mistrust directed at magic wielders on the Continent. This brings her into conflict with both male authority, and, on occasion, female authority as well in the figures of the Lodge and Mother Nenneke. Consider the following passage, again from “The Last Wish”, describing Yennefer’s magical manipulation of Geralt to punish those who have harassed her:

“To put it simply, you stated that a self-respecting man shouldn’t ever call a professional harlot a whore because its base and repugnant, while using the word whore to describe a woman one has never knocked off or paid any money for doing so, is childish and punishable. The punishment you, announced, would be dealt with there and then, and it would be fitting for a spoilt child. You thrust the apothecary’s head between his knees, pulled down his pants, and thrashed his arse with a belt.”3The Last Wish 314

The repetition of the word ‘whore’ in this otherwise humorous passage, offers a key insight into the fragility of the sorceresses’ social positions in The Witcher, a fragility which is emphasised again in Blood of Elves when Sapkowski remarks that “Only druids and magicians—and whores—wore their hair naturally so as to emphasize their independence and freedom”.4Blood of Elves 67 Thus an independent woman on the Continent, at least in the Northern realms, is always an object of suspicion or resentment; and sorceresses, the wealthiest, most powerful, and most sexually assertive of such women, are the prime objects of such hostility. Yennefer affirms as much when she says, while first entrapping Geralt to punish her abusers with a mind-control spell, 

“But you’re the one who’s going to do it because you have to pay me. For your insolence, for the cold way you look at me, for the eyes which fish for every detail, for your stony face and sarcastic tone of voice. For thinking you could stand face-to-face with Yennefer of Vengerberg and believe her to be full of self-admiration and arrogance, a calculating witch, while staring at her soapy tits. Pay, up, Geralt of Rivia!”5The Last Wish 310

The passage, in the context of the larger scene, carries an undercurrent of sexual mockery, seemingly both flirtatious and spiteful,  as though Yennefer were playing at dominatrix at the same moment as she was giving utterance to pent up resentment at misogynistic persecution. But both themes are undoubtedly present, for “The Last Wish”, besides being the most comical of stories in its eponymous collection, is also the most poignant. Throughout we see subtle hints of the tremendous pain underlying Yennefer’s supercilious facade, culminating in the denouement in which Geralt binds his fate to Yennefer’s to ensure that the Djinn cannot murder her once Geralt has made his final wish. Whether the wish is phrased in explicitly romantic terms or not (a specificity the text never reveals), Yennefer’s astonishment that anyone could place such a value on her life is made specific, along with an extraordinarily revealing moment of self-doubt:

“I’d have expected anything but to…What made you do it, Geralt. Why…Why me? I don’t know whether such a wish can ever be fulfilled. I don’t know whether there’s such a Force in Nature that could fulfill such a wish. But if there is, then you’ve condemned yourself. Condemned yourself to me.”6The Last Wish 344

This theme is continued in the story “A Shard of Ice” from the collection Sword of Destiny, in which Yennefer, having been caught cheating on Geralt with the sorcerer Istredd, and unable to choose between the two of them, states, “I am a sorceress, Geralt…The power over matter which I possess is a gift. A reciprocated gift. For it I paid…with everything I possessed. Nothing remained.”7Sword of Destiny 115 The phrase “everything I possessed” is a tacit reference to Yennefer’s infertility, brought on by the magical changes she endured to enhance her physical aesthetic and cure the multiple deformities with which she was cursed from birth. In The Tower of Swallows, Sapkowski reveals that Yennefer endured horrific physical abuse at the hands of her parents for such deformities, an abuse that eventually culminated in what is heavily implied to be retaliatory violence and murder.8“ Are you capable of forgiveness?” “I forgave long ago.” “Having first satisfied your lust for vengeance?” “Yes.” “Do you regret it?” “No.” The Tower of Swallows 320

The psychological devastation induced by this loss informs much of Yennefer’s alienation from other characters, her loss of family and childhood driving her desire to start a new life with Geralt and Ciri. Yet these relationships come with great difficulty. Her relationships with men in particular , given the patriarchy of the Continent, the abusiveness of her father, and the coldness and condescension of male magicians9Blood of Elves 75-76, are marked by instability  , and on occasion great anger, as evinced by her threats to kill Geralt when he makes a blasé attempt to restart their relationship in “The Bound of Reason”10Sword of Destiny 36-37 Rather than any sort of generalized misandry however, these outbursts are a fiery expression of injured self-worth, framed, as always, by the events of the series which Sapkowski chooses to leave implied or off-page. “Men like to meet their former lovers, like to relive memories. They like to imagine that erstwhile erotic ecstasies give them some kind of perpetual ownership of their partner. It enhances their self-importance. You are no exception. In spite of everything.”

While Yennefer is a divisive figure within The Witcher’s English-speaking fanbase (owing to the thinness of her characterization, brevity of her appearance, and abrasiveness of her demeanor in CD Projekt’s trilogy relative to Triss Merigold), Sapkowski does an admirable job of placing the fault on both sides in her supposedly “toxic” relationship with Geralt, whose hand in their dysfunction is ascribed on numerous occasions (including by his own admission)  to a lack of emotional intelligence and maturity.11Blood of Elves 115; The Time of Contempt 103 Although Yennefer’s behavior on occasion rises to outright physical abuse12“When he lived with Yennefer she would occasionally throw jars of preserve at him in anger. Jars she had received from clients.. Yennefer had no idea how to make preserve–her magic was fallible in that respect.” Sword of Destiny 131, it would not be a stretch to suggest (as I have done in much of my private blogging) that Yennefer’s foibles rise to a level diagnosable as real-world mental illness13There are numerous indications throughout the series that support such a claim, from her generalized trust issues to passages suggesting traumatic dissociation. I have detailed these in my many articles on Quora, which draw on my own experiences with mental illness and theoretical instruction therei rather than clinical training., which is ultimately not merely the product of genetic inheritance, but the environmental and social factors we are exposed to from childhood onward, including abuse. The transparent toxicity of her peer group displayed during the ball at Aretuza in The Time of Contempt, in which both female and male magicians are depicted as perennial adolescents preoccupied with petty intrigue and sexual one-upmanship, can hardly have helped matters in this regard14The Time of Contempt Chapter Three. It is often said in The Witcher that “There is nothing more hideous than a weeping enchantress”15The Lady of the Lake 519. I have paraphrased rather than quoted exactly because, as with Vilgefortz’s “You mistook the stars reflected…” tagline, the exact phrasing changes several times across the books, possibly due to differences between Stok and French in translation style.. Yennefer has had to navigate a cutthroat culture of sorcery since adolescence that left little to no room for displays of emotional vulnerability. Like Geralt, her options were essentially to harden or die, and it should surprise no-one that in this decades-long struggle, her eventual triumph to become the youngest member of the Chapter of Wizards left little room for cultivating kindness or an “agreeable” disposition as personality traits on her priority list. What would that have gotten her? To cite an eminent  (and blunt) authority on the subject of making it as a marginalized woman, “broke hoes do what they can, good girls do what they told. Bad bitches do what they want, that’s why a bitch is so cold.”16 These lines occur in Verse 2 The world of The Witcher gave Yennefer nothing, and everything she has she took by her own efforts. She has no one to apologize to.

It is no exaggeration to state that Yennefer is among the most resilient of characters, male or female, in The Witcher, and her inner strength and discipline along with tremendous capacity for empathy and sacrifice hugely compelling as well as influential upon the character development of Geralt and Ciri. Sapkowski’s finest creation, Yennefer is “the ultimate survivor”17The phrase is Anya Chalottra’s, who is depicted in costume above. See, a nuanced and uncompromising heroine whose agency is central to her own story.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: