From Quora: The Witcher Books Are Not Great “Literature”. Yet They Are Great.

Note: This essay is a reprint of my work on Quora. Find the original answer below:

There are and have been many discordant opinions about The Witcher books on Quora for a while now. On my old account, which I decided to delete, I fell into “the Witcher books are unsung classics” camp and got into protracted and petty arguments with those who fall firmly into the “the Witcher books are terrible camp”. There was a certain dearth of maturity in this debate on all sides, as to be expected on the internet.

Be that as it may, the fact that the books elicit such a discordant reaction is, to my mind, based on a certain complex truth, boiling down to: the Witcher books are brilliant in regards to humor, emotional honesty, character creation and development, action, and, to a modest extent, seriousness of philosophical discourse. They are lovely in substance. But stylistically they are rubbish. They make some very excessive nods to plot armor, are inconsistent in their lore, thin in their world-building, and written in barely passable prose.

I am not afraid at this point to grant such concessions to the Witcher hating crowd. One thing I will strenuously object to, however, is the often repeated sentiment by one of the other answers to this question that Geralt somehow sucks as a protagonist because, in the books, he is whiny, pompous, and conflicted. That is a matter of taste, not criticism. Geralt is supposed to be these things. Even more problematic is the frequent refrain of Martin Guerra Vidal (this is not antagonistic; I am criticizing his ideas, not him) that Geralt is “a mouthpiece for Sapkowski’s opinions”. He must have a different and secret translation then, because this claim is just patently false. Geralt certainly represents some elements of an authorial intellectual insert, but trying to discern precisely how much is impossible.

I do not mean that in an abstract way. It is impossible to discern how much Geralt is a mouthpiece for Sapkowski largely because Sapkowski relentlessly trolls Geralt through the plot and the dialogue and opinions of other characters. This begins in a major way in “The Lesser Evil” short story from book 1, The Last Wish, and really doesn’t let up till the end of the entire series. Geralt’s philosophizes constantly, and time and again, as with the Law of Surprise in season 1 of the show, proven horribly, ridiculously wrong. He believes himself a wise and mature intellectual when, in actuality, he more closely approximates an emotionally repressed 20 something traumatized by a lifetime of violence, alienation, and recognition that his vocation in life is rapidly approaching existential and societal obsolescence. I talk about this a bit in passing here: From Quora: Themes In The First Witcher Short Story

That, not world-building, lore depth, consistency, or prose skill (laugh, what skill?), all of which Sapkowski earns a B- on at his very best, is what makes The Witcher great. Nor is it the swords and sex (which, by the way, is often way more emotionally intimate than the best romance scenes in any of the games, even though yes, there is plenty of gratuitousness as well in between). Its that the Witcher books both conform completely to the gist of what Helen Lewis at the Atlantic writes here Why ‘The Witcher’ Is Better Than ‘Game of Thrones’ and because, unlike the show, the books are both totally in on the joke of their own absurdity and completely able to play at a higher register when the occasion demands it. The Witcher show is a hilariously and self-consciously stupid take on high fantasy.

The Witcher books are a hilariously and self-consciously ridiculous take on high fantasy that will have you laughing one minute and confronting the tragedy of the human condition and the horrors of war and psychological trauma the next. Sapkowski is like a drunk, leftist version of Dostoevsky, if Dostoevsky was into stylized fencing and softcore porn. Both writers are extremely Slavic, I suppose, in that sense. Slavs don’t do White Guilt, because most of Slavic history has legitimately been so blood drenched and traumatic that, especially in Russia, Slavic writers seem to enjoy playing on simultaneously morbid, cynical, comical, violent, and breathtakingly earnest levels all at once. They don’t have time for soft Anglo American hand-wringing over the legacies of sunken empires.* This is of course a huge generalization, and I am really just extrapolating from the totally non statistical sample of Dostoevsky, Sapkowski, and Bulgakov in particular, but if you’ve read literally anything by Dima Vorobiev on Quora, that is what I mean. THAT is what is great about The Witcher novels.

*Note: This should not be taken as an anti–social justice sentiment or commentary on any political issue, merely the criticism of an attitude among Western liberals, White or otherwise, that at times applies our own socio-moral framework uncritically to cultures with widely incongruent histories and political conflicts to our own. While I am neither entitled to speak for Slavs nor uncritical of the more conservative elements of Slavic cultures, the fact of the matter is that White privilege is not a mainstream concern in said cultures in my experience, whose relationship with colonialism and imperial politics was vastly different from that of Western Europeans and the various colonizer states they founded in the Western Hemisphere. Any respectful questions or objections on this issue in comment form are welcome.

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