Tribalism and Interspecies Relations in the Witcher Saga

By Sampson Berlinski

The Witcher saga author Andzrej Sapkowski built his world with Polish fairy tales in the back of his mind, but quickly decided that such stories with their whimsical nature were lies. The story of the Wawel Dragon for instance, shows a town in terror under the reign of a dragon. When knights and noblemen fail in taking the beast down and are devoured, a cobbler’s apprentice succeeds through trickery: by poisoning the dragon’s lunch with a sulphur-stuffed sheep.1 But Sapkowski didn’t  find this moral drivel believable: according to Sapkowski “Poor cobblers make good shoes, they don’t kill monsters.”2 A world inhabited by monsters and  true to reality is one in which the strong rule, and human ambition and cruelty penetrate most professions. It isn’t surprising then, that the relationships between humans and nonhumans in the Witcher Saga are fractured and infected with human motives unfit for a fairy tale. Sapkowski   threads his narrative with a close allegory for intraspecies struggles throughout our own history. The cohabitation of elves, gnomes, dwarves and other nonhumans with humans is a dark reflection of the very best and worst of human nature. 

A fear of others and of the unknown is the source of much human conflict. Members of one group identify with one another, and group others into categories with easily identifiable traits. Self-identity on this scale can be based on ethnicity, nationality, and political or religious standing, and conflict reinforces the divide between ‘in-’ and ‘outgroups’, dehumanizes others, and thereby “proves” the instigators right. Our enemy is evil. Our enemy is irrational. Our enemy is less than human. Sapkowski, however, creates a world in which these groups are not strictly human to begin with. The civilization he crafts in the Witcher saga sets human morals loose on a fairy tale world, and is therefore fractured and set in with a sense of fatal tribalism. 

Humans already discriminate among themselves, whether by nationality or profession, and it’s no surprise that even base intraspecies discrimination carries over into Sapkowski’s work. A difference in culture starts with ignorance and then grows into conflict. The conflict in the opening scene of The Last Wish sprouts from an insult to the witcher Geralt’s presumed Rivian heritage when he stops at an inn for the night. He is refused a room when the barkeep and the locals guess his accent.3 The locals harass him with the claim that “all Rivians are thieves,” and instigate a fight, while the barkeep watches on but says nothing, because after all, “who likes Rivians?” Even Sapkowski identifies Geralt as other by referring to him as the townsfolk see him– “the outsider”. When Geralt is hired to slay the striga in Wyzim, the magnate Ostrit assumes the “Rivian charlatan” can be bribed4 to leave the monster alive in order to sow discontent with the king among the public. 

This discrimination is exacerbated when humans are confronted with tribes of people following vastly different walks of life. Dwarves stick to their mountains, elves live off the land, but humans are not contained to their niche. Humans civilization spreads through commerce, immigration, war, and a general domination of the natural world. As the mountain elf Filavandrel elegantly puts it:

“The things we used to eat, made use of, are dying, diminishing, deteriorating. We never cultivated the land. Unlike you humans we never tore at it with hoes or ploughs. To you, the earth pays a bloody tribute. It bestowed gifts on us. You tear the earth’s treasures from it by force. For us, the earth gave birth and blossomed because it loved us.”5

The arrival of humans produced a jarring clash in culture, for which the minor physical strangeness of each group to the other is simply an excuse. The real source of conflict between humans and the indigenous peoples of the land they conquer is the absolute incompatibility of their lifestyles. One cannot fuel an agricultural or commercial empire with the same methods that the elves used to sustain themselves. Subsistence hunting and gathering are not possible in the altered ecosystem humans bring, and their invasion is mirrored in a change in the land. The earth is molded to fit human convenience, and others are edged out. Human fortresses and cities pave over the landscape, erasing the natural habitats of the original peoples: dopplers who once coexisted with the wildlife, even in their natural form, no longer have a safe refuge.6Their very existence clashes with human culture; there is no room for a way of life so alien.  Human civilization focuses on growth, not preservation, and from the elves’ perspective that growth is cancerous. Filavandrel compares the spreading dominion of humans to “”lice multiplying in a sheepskin coat,” and just as “natural and repellant” as that process too.7 Cohabitation isn’t an option, and to the elves such a proposal is just as ludicrous as those lice loftily offering joint use of the coat. 

Biological differences between elves and humans, gnomes and changelings, deepen the divide already present between peoples with such contrasting ways of life. Humans and elves can use the shape of their ears to justify their hatred for one another— as proof of inferiority. During Geralt’s encounter with the elves of Dol Blathanna he is bombarded with casual racism, insults like “filthy ape-man,” “insect” and the insinuation that it is surprising that such a creature can even talk. 8 In Jaskier’s case the elves smash his lute, telling him to “play on cow’s horn, you savage,” and seem baffled that a human would even dare to play a more refined instrument.9 With even the slightest taint of physical impurity, human children born during the eclipses are hunted like animals by the Council of Wizards, or at best locked in towers as pariahs. The wizard Stregobor recounts to Geralt these “mutants” horrible autopsies. Organs were missing, misshapen or entirely replaced, and the girls, for their own part, displaying deranged mentalities. Oddly enough, Stregobor comes startlingly close to being self-aware when Geralt addresses both points. Stegobor defends his actions by drawing a line between physical and mental derangement. When Geralt points out that thanks to prolific magic experimentation, mutants are more than common these days, Stregobor counters by saying that “…one can have a wolf’s fangs and go no further than baring them at the trollops in taverns, or one can have a wolf’s nature, too, and attack children.”10 He goes on to claim that this is exactly what the girls born during the eclipse were prone to, specifically “cruelty, aggression” and “sudden bursts of anger.” However, if this temperament is alone the source of the danger the children pose, the wizards locking them in towers to suffer in isolation is quite counterproductive to molding a better one. Nevertheless, Stregobor insists that mutants like Renfri must be put down, a fact that may have less to do with the tenuous argument against her nature, and more with the resistance she has developed to magic.11 Mutants like Renfri force humans to ask what exactly it is that sets them apart from others, whether eagle’s talons, wolf fangs, additional joints, organs, or senses.12 The Council of Wizards’ answer to that question is a defensive and violent response, the decision to presumptuously isolate or eliminate every mutant born as a result of the eclipse. The preemptive nature of this reactionary mindset makes it impossible to tell if these children’s violent propensities are a result of their nature and not of confirmation bias in their tormentors. 

If conflict does find roots in biological difference, it would follow then, that this tribalism would scale with greater biological differences. Here Sapkowski departs from direct historical allegory to make best use of his fairy tail playground. The alien nature of nonhumans presents humans with a more primal fear than that of one another. As the perceived strangeness of another group grows, so does the natural antagonism they face from their peers, and as such the vexlings and deovels of the world suffer even greater persecution than other nonhumans.  While travelling Dol Blathanna, the Valley of the Flowers, with Jaskier, Geralt takes up a request to remove a deovel from the vicinity. According to the locals the pest had been causing much non-violent mischief— stealing and breaking belongings, churning farmland, and on occasion chasing and frightening some poor girl.13 After an unsuccessful attempt to rouse the deovel from his hiding spot, the village elders eventually confess that they made a deal with the deovel, revealed to be a sylvan, appeasing him with grain and seedlings, but that it has grown out of proportion. The inhuman nature of the sylvan leads the villagers to underestimate his intelligence, and their plan to trick him into eating all sorts of deadly objects backfires when he clearly sees through their intentions.14 Despite his beastly appearance, the sylvan is intelligent, even propositioning Geralt to a contest of riddles.

 In Sword of Destiny Sapkowski recreates the Polish story of the Wawel Dragon, the comparison of which provides excellent context for the nature of humans in his grand fairy tale. In Sapkowski’s telling however, the cobbler who poisons the dragon is not crowned king, but is ultimately devoured without dignity, and the dragon is not killed, but falls ill and still offs a few villagers on its way out of town.15 Geralt joins a company of mercenaries and sorcerers in hunting down the escaped dragon, only to be confronted by the golden dragon Villentretenmerth. This dragon displays remarkable intelligence, telepathy, and civility, even offering an honourable duel without the use of its fire breathe. And yet, in the face of this remarkable creature the mercenaries pay its intelligence no thought and only look to line their pockets with whatever they can get for its hide.16 The dragon’s request for a civil, one on one fight is met with disdain, and a refusal to reason with what they see as a monster or an object. “An honourable duel? With a stupid reptile? Not a chance!”: the mercenaries mock the dragon, and when heralding the first duel, treat it as a joke. The hatred between humans and dragons is rooted in reason, certainly; Yennefer posits that the threat dragon’s fire poses to human settlement and civilization is enough reason to wipe them out.17 But the true source of conflict may be something more primordial; a simple yet distinct difference in biology. The two species are alien to one another: Villentretenmerth says that “for dragons, there is nothing as repugnant as man. Man arouses instinctive, irrational disgust in a dragon.”18  The human perspective is not much different, as Jaskier confides in Geralt; “When I see a reptile… it gives me the creeps, the vileness disgusts and terrifies me.”19 This physiological reaction and the ongoing extermination of dragons makes it hard to determine which initiated the other— whether genetic memory or ignorant genocide. 

In another case Geralt and Jaskier20 encounter a doppler in Novigrad, who ends up just as clever if not more so than the halfling it assumes the form of. Despite displaying intelligence on par with their own, the Novigradian custom in dealing with dopplers dictates they be exorcised, tied up, coated in clay and baked until death.21 These mimics’ natural ability to perfectly imitate a person was worrying to the first settlers, and so they were methodically rooted out and exterminated. To halflings and humans alike the doppler’s bastardization of a humanoid semblance is too disgusting to even touch.22 As was the case with human-dragon conflict, it’s unclear which seeded the other— a defensive reaction against an unknown threat or disgust with a being so otherly. When Novigrad’s notoriously ruthless head of secret police is revealed to have been replaced by a doppler, the otherness of the species is called into question. If no one could tell the difference, and dopplers are able to peacefully live alongside humans, why then is this not possible of humans; own accord?The list goes on. The eagerness of the duke of a seaside pearling community to go to war with an underwater civilization to secure his trade23, the unending war on the dryads of Brokilon. Sapkowsi shows humans as a dominant force in the world, leaving little room for other ways of life, even passive ones. The little territory left in the name of nonhuman groups is either uninhabitable, undesirable, or constantly encroached upon. 

Some groups may supplant biological differences with the ideological, and turn on their own kind For example, in the main Saga, theScoia’tael, a militant group of marauding nonhumans, forms to fight back against human occupation. These freedom fighters treat integrated nonhumans as collaborators and therefore hostiles.

As always, there are two sides to any coin, and an opposing force to this tribalism is championed by a few. Interspecies relationships are tenuous as a whole, but not unheard of. Nonhuman peoples might be more likely to come together in the face of a common adversary. The sylvan, Torque, makes a deal with the elves of the mountains to supply them with human crops and agricultural knowledge to survive in the lands in which they had been displaced.24 Scoia’tael elves enlist dwarves and other nonhumans in their crusade for freedom, finding solidarity as the “Elder Races”25, ironically in spite of the elves’ relatively recent arrival on the Continent themselves. Yarpen Zigrin and his band enlist alongside humans to fight the Scoia’tael guerillas, despite now having to kill their fellow dwarves— a previously unspeakable act.  And even with this incredible sacrifice they are held in contempt and their loyalty is put to the test when the humans set them up by drawing out a scoia’tael ambush, hoping to root out a traitor. 

The Witcher Code also demonstrates the faction of those who do not distinguish between intelligent species and their right to happiness and life. Geralt is allowed to unburden himself of morally gray decisions by falling back on his code, refusing to kill dragons, dopplers, or fishpeople. When Nivellen, a wealthy heir to his father’s estate, rapes a preistess of the Church of the Lionheaded Spider, she casts a blood spell on him that turns his head into that of a monster. Nivellen suffers a panic attack and lashes out at the servants on his estate in a frenzy, chasing everyone off. Despite forging an on and off truce with the public by buying the dowries of local maidens, Nivellen is largely treated as a monster, and only left in peace because of the generous use of his fortune. Geralt, however, accepting his invitation for supper, treats Nivellen as he would a human host. Geralt recognizes Nivellen as human when he realizes silver does not scald the man, and so he cannot by blood be a monster. But on a greater level Geralt recognizes the civility and hospitality Nivellen offers, and even recognizes the pure, tragic true love that he holds with a vampire, a love that is fated to die when Geralt takes on the bruxa in combat. This lack of distinction even rises above the biological; when Geralt chooses not to distinguish between protecting Nilfgaardian children or any others (albeit so long as he is paid).

If tribalism is projected by its perpetrators, then there is a small set of responses available to such a society’s subjects. Sometimes the best an overwhelmed and subordinate group can do to survive, culturally or literally, is to assimilate into the dominant society. Again, this can be done culturally, or literally. The arrival and dominion of humans on the continent has made their way of life predominant in much of the world; elves’ hunter-gathering and dwarves mining are no longer possible with encroaching human civilization and agriculture. Instances of cohabitation do exist, but to varying extents and with varying success. Elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are given the “modest possibility of assimilation” 26 because after all they do not after all differ much physically from humans. From a biological standpoint, intermarriage may or may not be possible, and has varying implications. Some may believe this tarnishes pureblood lineages. People of mixed-heritage may be accepted into one group or the other, have a place in both worlds, or in neither. The Aen Seidhe Filavandrel suggests that an interspecies relationship spells death for the elf, and that the persecution their progeny face throughout their life isn’t much better.27 Geralt counters that whatever their current struggles, and no matter how difficult it may be, the elves only chance at survival is to attempt to integrate into human society. But to Filavandrel’s credit, even the races that do attempt coexistence with humans are still seen as inferior, and subjected to discrimination that hampers whatever living they are otherwise able to eke out in humanity’s shadow. Even in the relatively progressive industrial Novigrad, humans have difficulty distinguishing one halfling from another28, and establishments refusing to serve nonhumans are not extraordinary. 

If a subordinate group is denied assimilation, their options are limited by the severity of the power that the dominant group holds. The discrimination seen by those who might otherwise be able to assimilate amplifies, the subordinate group or persons are refused service at businesses, and pogroms may start. If the public favor turns against cohabitation it will eventually reach a tipping point where humans will no longer tolerate cohabitation: nonhumans may be forced to live with their own behind distinct borders. Despite this forced reservation, the agreed upon borders are still infringed and further restricted— memories are short and more is taken. The elves in the mountains of Dol Blathanna are starved and freezing in lands foreign and inhospitable to them. They are forced to resort to stealing human farming and industrial techniques, but even so they are dying out quicker than they can learn to live in the way humans do.29 All the while the humans in the valley are insistent on their dominion of the land: The claim their grandfather’s staked was generations ago from a human perspective, but not nearly so long from the elves’. The brevity of human life deceives humans across the Continent that things have always been this way. Tribalistic conflict is cyclic, and self-reinforcing; the descendants of each group face blame or guilt for the actions of their predecessors. To break the cycle is a difficult thing, and for nonhumans with longevity on their side, memory has served only to more deeply embitter them. The failure of the intelligent races in Sapkowski’s fairy tale to coexist is rooted in their largely human nature.

Endnotes

1.  “Poland – The Wawel Dragon.” Europe Is Not Dead. https://europeisnotdead.com/poland-the-wawel-dragon/ Accessed 11 November 2019.

2.  Purchese, Robert. “Meeting Andrzej Sapkowski, the writer who created The Witcher.” Eurogamer.  25 March 2017. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-03-24-meeting-andrzej-sapkowski-the-writer-who-created-the-witcherAccessed 8 November 2019. 

3.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 1. 

4.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 13.

5.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 106.

6.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 154. 

7.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 106.

8.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 103. 

9.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 104.

10.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 48.

11.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 48.

12.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 45.

13.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 92.

14.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 97.

15.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 18. 

16.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 55, 57. 

17.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 40. 

18.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 73.

19.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 62.

20.  Known in the English translations as Dandelion

21.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 123.

22.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 125. 

23.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 209. 

24.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 103. 

25.  Sapkowski, Andrzej. Blood of Elves. Orbit, 2009. pp. 115. 

26.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 154.

27.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 106.

28.  Sapkowski, Andzrej. Sword of Destiny. Orbit. 2015. pp. 127.

29.   Sapkowski, Andzrej. The Last Wish. Orbit, 2008, pp. 105.

 

Published by The Second Stylus

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