The Witcher And The Aesthetics of Violence
Part One: The Song of the Sword Dancer

Benjamin Rose

Benjamin Rose is the Founding Editor and Lead Writer of The Path. He has been the most viewed writer on The Witcher on since 2019, with content surpassing 2.5 million views.

While a number of adjectives may be used to describe Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher franchise and its adaptations, “upbeat”, “peaceful”, and “nonviolent” do not rank among them. The series is unapologetically grim across its various multimedia instantiations, and seldom pulls punches in regards to violence and its consequences. This is all the more true the closer one adheres to the original source material, which is laden with an acute awareness of the pathology of personal, social, and historical trauma. 

While I have written of this in detail in my private blogging on Quora, it seemed apt, given the ongoing geopolitical catastrophe unfolding at the moment, to write an analysis of violence in The Witcher. The good news ist that such an exercise need not be entirely depressing, for The Witcher, afterall, contains heavy elements of pulp fiction, in which violence is typically aestheticized as spectacle. We are of course speaking of a series about a mutated professional killer. Accordingly, in preparation for the discussion of such a  topic, I’ve decide to break this article up into a two part series with a more palatable intro regarding the aesthetics of combat in The Witcher. Part One will focus on a series of questions. 1) How is combat portrayed in The Witcher texts and their adaptations? 2) How realistically accurate and/or plausible is this portrayal?  and 3) How does this add aesthetc value to the franchise?

First, let’s make a few things crystal clear. Netflix’s The Witcher received massive praise for its fight choreography from the moment it prescreened. While sadly too much time has passed in the Twittersphere to source that claims in detail, anyone who followed the release buildup in 2019 can speak to its veracity. The Witcher’s violence is frequently stunning, no more so than in Wolfgang Stegmann’s choreographed recreation of Geralt’s Blaviken Massacre and duel with Renfri from “The Lesser Evil” 1The Lesser Evil, from The Last Wish, Pages 86-129, First Hardcover Edition. I praised it at the time of my S1E1 review

and continue to believe that despite mediocre critical reception of the season, that four-minute sequence will go down as one of the greatest sword combats ever filmed (particularly it’s first half). In the blink of an eye, we watch Geralt slaughter his way through ten men while deflecting two crossbow bolts and killing several thugs with their own halfsworded2A fighting technique utilized in historical fencing and preserved in the modern practice of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) by which a combatant grips his own blade to attain greater leverage and control over its use and/or employ the pommel as a bludgeon. Geralt’s ability to simultaneously disarm his opponents and halfsword their armaments against them is an artistic embellishment of this technique. blades. He then is forced into a reluctant duel against Renfri in which, to paraphrase Henry Cavill’s commentary on the scene, he abandons his initially defensive posture upon realizing that Renfir’s skill poses a considerable threat to his life, and reluctantly kills her.

In Season of Storms, his “sidequel” written after the conclusion of the main Saga, Sapkowski writes that “A Witcher was twice as strong as a normal man and eight times faster”. While I have often seen this quote criticized among fans as one of many inconsistencies (real or supposed) regarding Geralt’s fighting abilities presented in the texts, it is never in doubt in the main Saga that Geralt is a monstrously fast and agile swordsman. In The Time of Contempt, Geralt is shown to butcher a ten-elf Scoiatael platoon with ferocious ease, and only the demonic sorcery of Vilgefortz is sufficient to trample his wrath3My Colleague Theo Noble recounts both these instances in his “Introduction To Vilgefortz”.. In “The Lesser Evil”, Geralt butchers his adversaries in similarly alacritous fashion, exploiting their impetuous and disorderly attack to outmaneuver and slay them one by one4The Last Wish 124-126. The same magisterial murderousness is shown again in Baptism of Fire, when Geralt cuts down eight marauding rapists in less than two minutes, remarking dismissively afterwards that “They didn’t know how to defend themselves.”5Baptism of Fire 100  

For perspective’s sake, this should be put in the context of modern Historical European Martial Arts practice and historical fencing manuals. Standard fencing doctrine holds that no fencer should ever engage more than one opponent alone, much less five to ten and that in such a scenario, the appropriate action, if engagement is unavoidable, is to fight defensively and flee at the first opportunity6This will be the first of many citations referencing Eric Lowe’s writings. Mr Lowe is a HEMA instructor and prominent Quoran. While heroes slaughtering whole battalions with ease is a staple of modern cinema, its is a fantasy in reality. This renders all the more spectacular Geralt’s dexterity with a blade in the context of the Witcher texts, where combat is brutal, injuries often permanent, and implausible theatrics generally eschewed. Geralt is not a “master swordsman”. He is an “offspring of foul sorcery and devilry”7The Last Wish 43, conditioned by decades of experience and supernatural gene-editing to kill abominations with dreadful efficiency. Should those monsters be embodied as men, his enemies are totally,  irrevocably fucked. 

This concomitance of spectacular murder and the constraints of reality makes for an interesting paradox that animates the series. Geralt is at once superhuman and inflexibly mortal. No matter how thick his plot armor, his risk of death is extreme and constant and, a peril that fills him with persistent fear., as he confesses in “Something More”8Sword of Destiny 360. “Book Geralt” is criticized by some for being significantly weaker than “Game Geralt” is killing power and endurance. This is true but obscures the point of the difference. In any hack-and-slash video game, where combat is the main attraction, a character’s fighting power will be inflated. The genius of violence in the Witcher books is its juxtaposition of Geralt’s immense power and intrinsic mortality. Gwynbleidd is no Superman.

Among the most portentious adages across the Witcher franchise is the grim axiom that “No Witcher’s ever died in his bed”, said with fatalism when Ciri prophecies Geralt’s death in Blood of Elves, and in resignation when Ciri mourns Vesemir’s death in battle in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Long before the end of The Witcher Saga, this adage threatens to prove itself true. In Time of Contempt, Geralt is horrifically beaten to the point of near-paralysis and must endure hundreds of pages of diminished fighting ability before being cured with magic. In one encounter, a tremor in his leg causes him to fail to deflect a quarrel at the last moment, sheering off half of an ear. No matter their ferocity, a Witcher is mortal, underscored once more when Coen tells an enquiring Ciri that the best fencers in the world are “In cemeteries”9Blood of Elves 99, U.K. Edition. Violence in The Witcher is with few exceptions life-changing and permanent, hideous in its aftermath and close to us all. To be a Witcher is to dance madly on the knife’s edge of death, though few, dance better than Geralt of Rivia.

The word “dance” of course is integral to the technicalities of combat in The Witcher franchise across its various instantiations. Sapkowski layers his elaborate swordfights in the Saga with pirouettes and other balletic terminology. In one of my more popular posts on Quora, I dwell in detail on the premiss that such a fighting style is perfectly rational by in-universe lore10 “A Witcher” quoth Vesemir, “is a solitary hunter”11The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, from the quest “The Final Trial”. This line is in fact uttered by Lambert and attributed to Vesemir., and the odds are inevitably stacked against him. If he is not faced with a beast whose agility dwarfs that of humans and whose fangs or venom can shear through plate armor, most certainly he will be faced with a mob of malcontents who, be they peasants or hardened brigands, will hold an obvious advantage in numbers. In such circumstances, manuevering is key, and a stationary fighting pose is a recipe for suicide. This is in fact supported in-universe by the famous example of “the pendulum” from Blood of Elves and The Lady of the Lake, where Geralt explicitly says to Ciri, 

“No strongman, mountain-toppling giant or muscle-man is going to be able to parry a blow aimed at him by a dracolizard’s tail, giga-scorpion’s pincers or a griffin’s claws. And that’s precisely the sort of weapon the pendulum simulates. So don’t even try to parry. You’re not deflecting the pendulum, you’re deflecting yourself from it. You’re intercepting its energy, which you need in order to deal a blow…speed Ciri, not strength.”

Readers of the Saga will note of course that this passage is repeated in part during Ciri’s climactic duel with Leo Bonhart when posed against a man who far surpasses her in strength, Ciri must recreate this training in order to break his guard. Witchers, as a rule, eschew combat with humans when possible; but, “As there are monsters which can only be struck down with a silver blade, so there are those for whom iron is lethal.” 12The Last Wish 130 First Hardcover Edition

It goes without saying that while the “dance” is a common literary trope in stories where heroes must fight at a radical numbers disadvantage, as in other fiction, it is literary duct tape on the side of an airplane. While a Witcher may easily possess the stamina and reflexes to exert such continues manuevering against multiple opponents, few if any humans have ever been wise to stand alone against multiple opponents13Nonetheless, while this was extremely inadvisable and cautioned against in the historical literature, techniques did exist for such a situation, specifically the system of fighting in which a two-handed greatsword sword is whirled in sweeping cuts to prevent a crowd of enemies from closing, very much in the spirit of Geralt’s “Whirl” ability in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. See: It should be noted that the technique described does not strictly correspond to Witcher combat styles as presented in the books, though it approaches Geralt’s The Witcher 3 technique. The key distinction is that the CD Projekt Red trilogy armed Witchers with two-handed greatswords, while the books and show adaptation implies Witchers use “bastard” or “hand-and-a-half” swords capable of single or two-handed use, which are generally of insufficient length for such techniques. See: In which I am referring specifically to the answer of Mr Murphy Barret, an experienced HEMA practitioner. My own answer to this question reaches similar conclusions. Barret’s space on Quora,  Swords Are Fun,  offers a good compendium of knowledge on all things sword-related:., much less reliably across time and circumstance, as far as the opinions of living and dead practitioners of historical European fencing are concerned14 But while to split hairs over the depiction of things non-fantastical like real-world weaponry or the laws of physics may be pleasant in an academic context, it is generally an extraordinarily dull and pedantic way to write art criticism. To quibble over such maxims as “Swords don’t weigh 50 lbs!” or “Armor works!” in television reviews essentially obscures the fact that, if it looks cool, who gives a fuck? The purpose of fight choreography in the drama is not to create a realistic portrayal of how men and women actually fight for their lives, but to create tension, characterization, and spectacle through violence15

This is manifest in how HEMA recreations of historical western fencing differ from stage combat. In HEMA, as in life, combat is not “flashy”, but quick and efficient, with matches ending in seconds through strikes that would be fatal if not for the presence of armor16 Again citing Mr Lowe. The previous annotation is also applicable. It is a common misconception prevalent in fantasy writing and drama that swords were primary weapons and capable of piercing armor. In reality, they were sidearms equivalent to a modern pistol, for example, and only the heaviest two-handed swords could pierce armor. Polearms were far more effective against armored opponents and the primary weapons of knights in warfare. Or, put simply, for the medieval warrior, a sword was his semiautomatic pistol, a poleaxe his carbine. See also Mr Lowe’s answer to: The goal is to strike to kill, or rather, deliver a blow that in unprotected contexts would be a Deathstroke, not to engage in extended displays of swordsmanship that demonstrate you and your opponents’ mutual inability to break each other’s guard.

In stage combat, actors strike to connect blade on blade, the rhythm of their combat is choreographed, and certain moves paired with specific shots are used to indicate characters’ moods, thoughts, and skill level in situations of violence, along with the overall thematic import of that violence to the piece. Consider the second half of the Blaviken Massacre, the duel between Geral and Renfri, in “The End’s Beginning”. Cavill’s remarks from a recent Vanity Fair interview (previously summarized above) offer a window into the narrative expressed through violence in that scene and the nature of stage combat as a facet of storytelling in general:

“I didn’t want [Geralt] to have his acting moments and then his fight moments and them not to be connected. I wanted him to look like a living weapon, and I hope I achieved that with the Blaviken piece. At the same time, he can still hold a conversation and try and save someone’s life while they’re trying to kill him. You see it especially with the Renfri fight. He’s on the defensive with a couple of moves to try and put her on the back foot, and she doesn’t listen and keeps on pressing the attack. Eventually you see the point where he realizes that she won’t stop, that he will die because she is quick enough. So he presses the attack. The story of who he is as a character is told physically there.”17

So that concludes my analysis of the technical and aesthetic aspects of combat in The Witcher. In Part Two, I’ll transition from this discussion of the mechanics and aesthetics of The Witcher’s violence to a discussion of the repercussions and philosophy of violence in The Witcher as it impacts the overall thematic arguments of the narrative.

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