Every other Friday, The Path presents an in-depth analysis of one or more short stories or chapters from The Witcher Saga1For the purposes of my commentary, the “Saga” means all the books, not just novels, as it does in marketing parlance.. Today’s installment covers The “Voice Of Reason II” and “A Grain of Truth”.
By Benjamin Rose, Editor
I open my Friday Commentary Series With “A Grain Of Truth”. The plan is to proceed through the entire Saga (minus Season Of Storms) over the course of this year at the pace of a short story or chapter a week, retconning this article below as the defacto first installment: https://thepathwitcher.blog/2020/12/13/from-quora-themes-in-the-first-witcher-short-story/ . That said, let’s proceed. As argued in the article above, The Witcher is essentially the tragedy of Geralt of Rivia, a disruption of Geralt’s settled path in life that sets him on a crash course with Destiny. Yet while “Destiny” in the show is a fairly straightforward and hamfisted force, a Divine Providence steering Geralt towards Ciri and, by extension, spiritual and moral integration into the universal human community3I am using “human” in the sense of possessing sentience, so understand the Elder Races/nonhumans as being included in the term. which he has both rejected and been rejected from, in the books things are more complicated.
First, while the previous sentence holds true for the books, Destiny or Fate are more ambiguous entities in Sapkowski’s texts, with the line between free will and supernatural determinism continuously blurred, perhaps most fully in the symbols of the Roses of Shaerrawedd and the Ouroboros which permeate the main novels and solidify their ending. The Roses, furthermore, illustrate the second great component driving Geralt’s character arc in the books: that of his frequently prophesied and eventually fulfilled death. It is all the more interesting then that, In “A Grain of Truth”, we see the first full articulation of the three elements which make up Geralt’s character arc: his social isolation and spiritual emptiness; the ambiguous role of Destiny in his future; and the inevitable termination of that future in violent death, complete with a prototype of the Roses of Shaerrawedd in the blue roses of Nazair referred to in “A Grain of Truth”. Geralt is alone. Geralt must die. Destiny is speeding him onwards towards oblivion, and in doing so will force him to choose what he has lived for in his long and bitter existence, as well as what he will die for in the end. As Geralt himself says in his last discourse before the Rivian mob forces his hand in The Lady of The Lake,
“The evil I fought against was a sign of the activities of Chaos, activities calculated to disturb Order. Since wherever Evil is at large, Order may not reign, and everything Order builds collapses, cannot endure. The little light of wisdom and the flame of hope, the glow of warmth, instead of flaring up, go out. It’ll be dark. And in the darkness will be fangs, claws and blood.” (The Lady of the Lake 505) 4 I own numerous editions of the books, and so page citations from the same book at the same place in the text may vary in the future, though all English editions use the same series of translations by David French and Danusia Stok.
As I wrote in the previous commentary, Geralt’s psychological circuit from adolescent idealist and defender of the downtrodden to cynical mercenary and back again is the point of the Saga. Those who complain about Geralt’s “whining” only prove this. The Witcher is not a pulp fictional tale of “tits and dragons”, though it unapologetically revels in window-dressing itself as one. It is the tale of the existential war in one man’s head, fought through a lifetime of violence and misery. And it is, I think, not a hopeless one in its resolution.
Be that as it may, it is all the more important to discuss “The Voice Of Reason II” and “A Grain of Truth” because they introduce major archetypes of the series, such as the bloodied rose and the death prophecy, as well as core themes such as the distinctions between Order and Chaos and faith versus nihilism. As in the rest of The Last Wish, Sapkowski is building the mechanics that will determine the course of the series and, when this work is completed by the end of Sword of Destiny, the five novels will serve as the machine in which their consequences unfold.
“The Voice Of Reason II” opens on an at once wistful and comical note. Geralt is recovering at the Temple of Melitele in the Temerian province of Ellander some months after his duel with the Strzyga in “The Witcher”. The events of this story differ from its adaptation in the Netflix episode “Betrayer Moon” in a few ways. First, Geralt resolved the matter of the Stryzga without Triss Merigold, who does not appear in that text. Second, the sequencing of time is different. Geralt has already met Yennefer and invoked the Law of Surprise in Cintra by the time of the events covered in “The Voice of Reason” frame story sequence, and, as “The Witcher” by logical necessity immediately precedes “The Voice Of Reason” chronologically, this means that the place we are at in the story is analogous to the time gap between episodes 5 and 6 in Season 1. This is useful background information, for it tells us that by the start of “The Voice of Reason” Geralt has, in addition to curing the Stryzga, already 1) killed Renfri; 2) saved Nivellen; 3) attended the betrothal feast of Pavetta; 4) been captured and spared by Filavandrel; and 5) bound his fate to Yennefer’s. So while we seem to be at the beginning of our story, we are actually at “the end’s beginning” to reference the title of The Witcher Netflix’s pilot.
That beginning is not an entirely auspicious one, as “The Voice Of Reason II” indicates. Throughout the series, Geralt is often an unreliable narrator in regards to his own subjectivity, and his famous (or infamous) penchant for philosophizing often exists less for the sake of articulating the point of the story than for being defeated by it. Geralt, the man who believes he knows everything, is forced to learn how little he knows by continuously being proven wrong. Corollary to this, Geralt’s friends and loved ones, such as they are, are often wildly superior judges of both his beliefs and his personal welfare than Geralt himself. This motif is established for the first time in “The Voice Of Reason II”. Geralt has repaired to the Temple of Melitele to extend his recovery from the near fatal wounds received by the Stryzga. He beds, or rather, semic-consciously allows himself to be bedded, by a young priestess named Iola who has taken a vow of silence. He spends his stronger moments walking about the garden, anxious to resume his witcher’s work. He insists he’s fine. The high priestess, Mother Nenneke, his former teacher and surrogate mother, disagrees. The following dialogue offers a window into why.
“Geralt, what’s happening to you? How did she get so close to you? What did you want with her? To mount her?”
He didn’t answer, and smiled faintly.
“Don’t grin like an idiot. There’s nothing funny about it. You’re losing your reflexes, Geralt.”
“I’m not exaggerating at all. You shouldn’t have allowed yourself to get wounded, but you did, and very seriously at that. Fatally5 Emphasis mine even. And even with your exceptional powers of regeneration it’ll be months before your neck is fully mobile again.” (The Last Wish 40)
One could easily chalk this up to a condescending lecture (doctors are usually assholes, to be frank), except Nenneke soon takes the conversation in another direction. Later that afternoon, as Geralt walks the garden in search of Iola, Nenneke approaches him to reiterate some off-page advice. She has tasked Iola with entering a mediumistic trance to divine Geralt’s future. Geralt, being an atheist, is annoyed at this plan, considering it useless. Nenneke will have none of this, insisting that Iola has been given a divine gift by the goddess Melitele, and a mini oration on the vagaries of religion and the utility of faith ensues. Nenneke’s words are important:
“You can think that the gods, including my Melitele, are merely a personification of this power [i.e. magic/nature] invented for simpletons so they can understand it better, accept its existence. According to you, that power is blind. But for me, Geralt, faith allows you to expect what my goddess personifies from nature: order, law, goodness. And Hope.” (The Last Wish 43)
She adds that Geralt is “sick”, presumably in the soul, and that she fears he is, “spinning around in some damned whirlpool, tangled up in a slowly tightening noose.” The chapter ends with the issue of the trance unresolved. What are we to make of this?
It bears reminding the reader that the dialogue by Geralt cited at the start of this article, which represents to my mind his mature formulation of his role in the world and the point at which his philosophy finally merges with Sapkowski’s, phrases the struggle of the witcher in exactly these terms: order, law, goodness, and hope. Geralt, by the conclusion of the series has reclaimed his “faith”, though where Nenneke frames faith in religious terms, for Geralt faith is a return to the secularized idealism of his adolescence (whose sundering is movingly recounted in the “Voice of Reason IV”); the belief in himself as a “witcher-knight”; and the redefinition of a witcher, for himself as well as Ciri, as the archetypal hero of Order and hope against the forces of Chaos and despair6One might also note that Ciri, who represents a successor, a legacy, and a foil to Geralt all in one, emphatically identifies herself with this conception of witcherhood by the end of the Saga, and is also called “The Child of Hope” by Phillipa Eilhart in the penultimate chapter of The Lady of the Lake.. Yet to arrive at this reaffirmation of idealism and his identity, Geralt must first descend into the darkest depths of his own trauma, and only now is it starting to come into focus how deeply they have wounded him. Geralt himself remains fiercely in denial as of this point.
Before continuing on to “A Grain of Truth”, it would do to discuss the genesis of the cult of Melitele presented on page 42. Leaving aside Dandelion’s whimsical speculations referenced in-absentia at the bottom of that paragraph, Sapkowski foreshadows a lot here while saying very little:
“In explaining the popularity of the goddess, learned men who studied this phenomenon used to hark back to the pre-cults of the Great Mother, Mother Nature, and pointed to the links with nature’s cycle, with the rebirth of life and other grandiloquently named phenomena.” (The Last Wish 42)
This is a rather brilliant passage in context, and when Dandelion’s common sense observations follow, it offers a charming case study of Sapkowski’s delight in ridiculing academics and academia, as well as his subversion of traditional gender roles, where male “intellectualism” is often found to be arcane and vacuous in comparison to female common sense, saying the same damn thing with an excess of words7The term “Mansplaining” is anachronous to the time period of composition (the early 1990s) and an Anglo-Americanism at any rate, but that which it describes is the substance of his critique.. But it is all the more brilliant in how, with typical flare, Sapkowski manages to say something crucially important to the arc and meaning of the entire Saga under the guise of a throwaway bit of irony. For to Yennefer, easily the best written female character of the series despite her reduced role relative to the show, this philosophy is a deeply compelling explanation of her trauma of infertility, and the inability to generate both in physical terms as a mother and in spiritual terms as part of a wider human community is essentially the crux of the entire problem The Witcher spins on. Yennefer, in ways I will elaborate on in subsequent pieces, is the social opposite of Geralt in most respects. She is elite, wealthy, well-connected, and respected, albeit resented both for being powerful and being powerful while female. Geralt is poor, marginal, hated, and alone. Both are tormented by primarily psychological alienation from the wider human community and their inability to leave a legacy for future generations, making their physical alienation from family life via infertility a wound that extends from both the personal and experiential to the communal and metaphorical realms.
Yet Yennefer, as a woman, and moreover, as a woman in a patriarchal society in which marriage and motherhood remain the primary roles for women, can relate to this trauma in ways Geralt is incapable or less capable of. The first is physical, in his absence of a womb and the knowledge of what it means to be unsexed of one. The second is social. As a woman sold to Aretuza and the Brotherhood for her lack of marriageability (due to her disability), and as a woman whose liberation from the patriarchy is predicated on magicianship and the forced sterility attendant upon it, Yennefer can only achieve liberation at the cost of what is for her (not necessarily all women) an essential component of gender identity. She is not, as the show simplistically and unreflectively portrayed her, an aggrieved adolescent struck by buyers remorse for an ill-considered bargain. She is an abuse survivor condemned by Tissai De Vries to a horrendous choice between sterility and living a disabled, neglected, and disgraced life, in which the traditional outlets of male protection, her father’s family or a husband, are denied her. Far from sparing her sexual subjugation, her most likely alternative to being a sorceress was to live a life of penury as a beggar and prostitute or die by suicide. The notion of a single, disabled, and physically unattractive woman with no kinship network, inherited wealth, or demonstrable skills besides a keen intelligence “making it” in Witcherverse other than by studying magic is zero. Sadly, the odds in our world are probably not much better. Yennefer is a tragic heroine. In turning her Season 1 arc into a boilerplate bildungsroman of “Lady Badass” empowerment, Lauren Hissrich effectively destroyed most of the literary and feminist value in Yennefer8This is in no way a criticism of Anya Chalotra, who proved her ability to act her way out of even the worst rubbish on a scriptural level in Season 1., who was not “the ultimate survivor” because she was arbitrarily good at everything as the script required and served as a vehicle for wish fulfillment, but because she was persuasively good at most things despite an endlessly miserable set of circumstances that would have destroyed the 99% of humanity. To be a strong woman or man in Sapkowski is not synonymous with being charismatic or highly competent, but with demonstrating these qualities consistently under circumstances of struggle that can quickly deteriorate from the grim to suicidal. If the world of Netflix’s The Witcher seems to revolve around the G.Y.C. trio at times and exist merely as a showcase for their brilliance, the world of The Witcher books, like ours, is almost sadistically indifferent to the merits of heroes and villains alike, and demands vigorous action according to principle in the face of uncertain outcomes. There is also a simplicity to the gender politics of the show that extends beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say, if Sapkowski finds strong heroines compelling, he is often equally fascinated by the capacity of strong women to be as cynical and evil as the misogynistic societies which forge them, something we’ll be able to explore in fascinating detail in the cases of Renfri and Calanthe9 Ellie Sullum, who formed part of the first line-up of The Path, wrote the following profile of Calanthe: https://thepathwitcher.blog/2019/11/18/calanthe-lioness-of-cintra/ and recorded some additional thoughts in her S1E4 Review that are worth noting: https://thepathwitcher.blog/2019/12/30/the-witchers-dangerous-women-carry-its-fourth-episode-s1e4-review-of-banquets-bastards-and-burials/. This digression has, however, proceeded long enough, and it’s time to consider “A Grain Of Truth”.
The plot of “A Grain Of Truth”, a partial satire of Beauty and the Beast, is simple. A young nobleman from a family of bandits named Nivellen is impressed10 I.e. “Drafted”. My usage here is a bit archaic. as the leader of the family gang after the death of his father. In reality, he is their prisoner, and, during a raid on a local temple, is forced to rape a priestess, who subsequently curses him and commits suicide. Sometime later, he awakens as a bear-like creature and, in a rage, murders most of his gang and house servants, sending the survivors fleeing. After scaring a passing knight one day, Nivellen enters into a sort of impromptu agreement with the local villagers where they send their daughters to his estate for a year to serve as his companions/concubines and the family is rewarded with part of the bandits’ treasure hoard in the end. Nivellen, who is not innately predatory or violent, treats them well ,and all these relationships eventually take on a consensual sexual nature.
Over time the practice becomes infrequent, the woods begin to acquire a nasty reputation, and Nivellen takes up with a taciturn local creature named Vereena, believed to be a rusalka (essentially, a Slavic dryad, or forest nymph). Around this time, Geralt encounters a pair of butchered bodies on the road near Nivellen’s estate and stumbles upon it. Nivellen initially wants to fight him, but they come to terms and he recounts to Geralt his life story over dinner. As Geralt leaves, Nivellen warns him of the dangers about and asks if Geralt can heal him of his persistent nightmares, remarking hesitantly that if he cannot and they worsen, Geralt must return one day to kill him. Geralt tentatively agrees. In the wilderness Geralt comes upon the remains of mangled bodies and a devil’s ring of mushrooms (associated with vampirism) and realizes that Roach is reacting uneasily in a similar way manner as when they were at the estate. Geralt deduces from this that Vereena is a vampire, who was drawn to Nivellen’s guilt-ridden nightmares and is steadily inflaming them to break him to her will and aid her in hunting and murdering. Rushing back to the estate, Geralt confronts Vereena ( revealed to be a bruxa) and is nearly killed in a pitched duel before Nivellen mortally wounds her and Geralt finishes her off. A shellshocked Nivellen, now transformed back into a man by Vereena’s love, is ironically “freed” from his curse. Geralt leads him to safety, pondering the desolation he feels at heart from the affair.
“A Grain of Truth”, while a comparatively minor addition to The Witcher canon, sets several important precedents for the course of the series. As much of this has already been stated above, I’ll take a moment to discuss a few superficial elements of the story which are of lesser literary interest but of note to the fan and loreist.
First, Geralt’s investigation of the crime scene at the start of the story sets a clear precedent for the “Witcher Senses” mechanic of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and extends the notion established in “The Witcher” of Geralt as a highly skilled professional whose monster-hunting abilities combine a wide array of technical and practical knowledge. In a very sort of Aragorn-esque manner11Think of the scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where he tracks Merry and Pippin’s escape from the camp of the Uruk-hai Eomer’s Rohirrim have massacred, i.e. the pyre scene, or “that scene where Viggo Mortenson broke his toe kicking a helmet and pretended that his yelling in ‘despair’ was in the script”. Yeah, that one., he is able on two occasions in this story to formulate detailed conclusions on sequences of events and the presence of monsters based on the reading of minute details in his environment. As a philosophy student myself, I find it necessary to state that this sort of empirical investigation is not fundamentally alien to the reasoning on abstract matters such as metaphysics and ethics which Geralt employs elsewhere. It is, fundamentally, the continuum between philosophy and empirical science, and ever since Aristotle devised his “organon” of formal logic 2300 years ago for the purposes of scientific investigation, it has served as the underpinning of both natural and abstract philosophy. Geralt is a literate fellow, and at several points in The Witcher, one can point to Geralt’s combination of extensive practical knowledge and ad-hoc self-education in history, philosophy, and other matters as a derision of academics (typically represented by mages) whose “love” of learning is simply a front for credentialism and the debasement of learning as a means to status and power. But that is neither here nor there and would probably elicit an eye-roll from Sapkowski himself, so I will end by emphasizing that it is always fun as a fan to trace in the books the nuclei of the video game trilogy lore CD Projekt Red developed in its adaptations.
A second thing to consider is that, to be blunt, Sapkowski is a brilliant fight scene writer, and Geralt’s duel with Vereena is one of his best. It is often groused by fantasy “experts” on the internet that Geralt has an excessive amount of “plot armor” throughout the books, meaning that he survives certain scenarios he logically should not to preserve the flow of the narrative. I find this argument to be, in all but a few cases over 2700 odd pages, weak. But without divagating into comparisons between The Witcher and A Song Of Ice And Fire or any other franchise enamored with the constant subversion of expectations and shock value, I will suffice to say that throughout the Saga, although we logically know the story will continue and Geralt, or later, Ciri is not actually going to die at this or that specific moment, Sapkowski’s masterful layering of fight sequences allows us to suspend our own perspective and enter into the psychology of the combatants in a manner that simulates the tension and dread his characters feel. This, along with the spectacular fight choreography, both of which I examine in more detail here :https://thepathwitcher.blog/2020/08/05/on-the-aesthetics-and-import-of-violence-in-the-witcher-part-one-the-song-of-the-sword-dancer/12Originally intended as a two part series, Part II was never written. Perhaps I’ll return to it someday. gives the fights a visceral quality even when we know that the outcome is not in doubt. Because even if it is not in doubt who will prevail in the encounter, the path to victory can be circuitous and unexpected, and the consequences of victory less than positive. For as often as Geralt carves his way through villains in sheer shock and awe, on many other occasions things go totally unaccording to plan. Enter Vereena.
It is the climax of “A Grain of Truth”. Geralt has entered the unbarred courtyard of Nivellen’s mansion and encounters Vereena singing in a ghastly language unknown to mortals atop the dolphin sculpture in the fountain. Geralt, sword drawn, explains her plan to control Nivellen as he has surmised it, then begins questioning here what species of vampire she is out of professional curiosity. A moola? No. An alpor? No. Too late, he begins to understand…
The witcher backed away and clasped the hilt of his sword tighter.
“That means you’re…”
The corners of the lips started to turn up higher and higher; the lips flew wide open…
“A bruxa!” the witcher shouted, throwing himself toward the fountain.
From behind the pale lips glistened white, spiky fangs. The vampire jumped up, arched her back like a leopard and screamed.
The wave of sound hit the witcher like a battering ram, depriving him of breath, crushing his ribs, piercing his brain and ears with thorns of pain. Flying backward, he just managed to cross his wrists in the Sign of Heliotrope. The spell cushioned some of his impact with the wall but even so, the world grew dark and the remainder of his breath burst from his lungs in a groan.” (The Last Wish 73)
The fight continues like some nightmarish, underleveled attempt at the boss fight in the cellar of Corvo Bianco from The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine13https://youtu.be/-Vv6nO6LgwQ NSFW. The video also displays the “Witcher Senses” dynamic.. If Geralt doesn’t quite get his ass handed to him, he nonetheless spends the fight in a desperate war of attrition to see who tires faster. The least mistake can be fatal in any duel to the death, but the sheer force of the subsequent pages resides not only in their intricate choreography but in the palpable fact that Geralt at the height of his powers, armed with decades of training, superhuman mutations, and an enchanted blade, can barely withstand his counter with Vereena. It seems clear in the eventual outcome of the fight that without Nivellen’s surprise intervention, he would surely have been killed. This is the grand bait and switch element to Geralt’s “plot armor” in The Witcher. Geralt is superhuman, but humanity on a physical level receives all the frailty it is due in Sapkowski. Geralt is superhuman, because, much as if you asked an adult male, no matter how athletic, to go toe to toe against a silverback gorilla, Geralt’s profession is utterly suicidal. Superhumanity is the minimum requirement. The life of a witcher is cheap. between 60% and 70% of all initiates die in training, and a common proverb holds that “no witcher yet has ever died in his bed14In actuality, this is a quote from Blood of Elves, and only proverbial in a metafictional sense for its repetition in the games, yet innumerable instances in the texts support the notion that fatalism and fatality are common traits of the profession, notably the discussion of “natural selection” with Calanthe in “Something More”.”. Whether Geralt is the greatest Witcher of all time or simply the most effectively publicised (by Dandelion/Jaskier), he is still a being of with blood to be spilled and bones to be broken. On more than one occasion in the Saga, Geralt’s victories consist in little more than living to fight another day in a world that would not pause a second for his passing.
There is a final element to consider in the fight, and here we get back to the broader argumentative scope I began in this commentary, The Tragedy of Geralt of Rivia and its expression in literary terms. This is the ending of the story, those two pages between Geralt’s decapitation of Vereena and assurance of a traumatized Nivellen that he was freed from his curse by her “true love”. There is a subtle element to Geralt’s subjective experience of violence in this passage which mirrors his confrontation with Stregobor after the death of Renfri in “The Lesser Evil”. It runs, as he delivers the killing blow (emphasis mine):
The head fell onto the gravel.
There are fewer and fewer monsters,
And I? What am I?
Who’s shouting? The birds?
The woman in a sheepskin jacket and blue dress [whom Vereena murdered]?
The roses from Nazair?
How empty. What emptiness.
Within me. ( The Last Wish 78)
Confer Sapkowski’s description of Geralt driving Stregobor away from Renfri’s corpse in “The Lesser Evil” (emphasis mine again):
Someone the witcher didn’t know found the hilt of his sword and drew it. “Touch a single hair of her head,” said the person the witcher didn’t know, “touch her head and yours will go flying to the flagstones.” (The Last Wish 128)
What am I? It is all too easy, and wrong, to read this question as a philosophical reflection, just as it is the same to read the passage from “The Lesser Evil” as some sort of metaphorical haze of adrenaline. These summations are wrong, as I have argued since the beginning of my career writing analysis about The Witcher in 2019. The loss of identity, the alienation from one’s physical sense of embodiment which Sapkowski describes, is neither of those things. It is a symptom of traumatic dissociation. Whether you believe or disbelieve that Geralt has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is perhaps largely a function of your lived experience or, for the majority of people (a smaller majority than commonly assumed), the secondhand familiarity of the disease you acquired in news articles or media. If the latter, please understand the high likelihood that, as in the depiction of bipolar disorder I recount in this article:https://thesecondstylus.com/2020/11/18/monsterlands-depiction-of-bipolar-disorder-is-utterly-batshit-thats-a-problem/ , your understanding was almost certainly imparted by non-clinicians who either inadequately misunderstood or wilfully distorted the symptomatology of this disease.. I suspect I have evoked a mixed reaction at this point, with some in the audience considering this assertion blindingly obvious, others rolling their eyes in disbelief. Geralt, they say, does not beat his girlfriends or erupt in explosive, unpredictable bouts of rage. Nor is he an alcoholic. Nor addicted to fisstech. Nor does he sit around paralyzed in learned helplessness like Theon Greyjoy’s shattered husk called Reek. Great. But these observations are superficial, and obscure the innumerable phenomena that argue in favor of my hypothesis, including the mirroring of Geralt’s own pathology in the experiences of Yennefer and Ciri and its contextual clues. Indeed, probably the most famous misperception of witchers in the Saga (which I dub The Slander of Insensibility, a pompous phrase I will use in the future), hinges on the belief that witchers are cleansed of all human emotion by their mutations.
It is often explained by the fandom that witchers cultivate exceptionally thick skins to avoid the prejudice and hatred they are subjected to, but in these conversations there is a curious disregard for any consideration of how men subjected to constant racial abuse, extreme social isolation, or the responsibility of continuously taking human life actually react to these situations in reality, especially if they occur under circumstances of crippling moral injury or helplessness in the face of circumstances. I would suggest that stories of those subjected to solitary confinement; the violence and looting which has plagued the margins of otherwise legitimate Black Lives Matter protests since May 2020; and stories like those of the Cursed Platoon from the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan15https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/clint-lorance-platoon-afghanistan/ answer this question: violently, self-destructively, and poorly. This is a critical element to Geralt’s characterization as a tragic hero, and will recur throughout my later commentary installments. The insensibility of a witcher is not the product of mutation. It is, when it exists, the reactive neurological refusal to feel. It is to encounter horror so immense as to go numb.
The Witcher revels in violence. It also refuses to soft-pedal the consequences of it. And in “A Grain Of True” we see violence beget violence, barreling forward through brains and bodies in a domino effect. From the context of lawlessness he inherited from his father, Nivellen is coerced to commit an act of sexual violence, sealed in the blood of suicide, that curses him and those around him to suffering and death. Violence, whether sadistic, survival-based, or the product of fear and madness, reproduces itself like a cancer metastasizing through the body. Nivellen’s crime destroys his gang and servantry by massacre. Afterwards, a pleasant interregnum of mostly consensual sex patronage follows, but as the daughters and the treasure wanes, Vereena’s appearance turns his woodland realm into a killing field beset by her predation, her “love” slowly feeding on the psychological self-mutilation of his guilt to corrupt him into the monster he fears himself. This in turn leads Geralt to them with the death of the armorer’s daughter, and Vereena’s own death at the hands of Nivellen and Geralt. Aeschylus would have a field day with this shit. This is lex talionis, transported out of the clan feuding and interfamilail murder of the House of Atreus into some bizarre kaleidoscope where murder lurks without and within, and no comforting ability exists to externalize it in the curse of Tantalos or the Furies.
The coup de grace is Geralt’s deathstroke and the momentary void of identity it opens in him, the toxic suspicion of his own inhumanity that hearkens back to the Slander of Insensibility and the inhuman cruelty of the Trial of The Grasses, a horror whose sheer lack of elucidation in the Saga and summary reference by Geralt in conversation suggests, disputably but not unbelievably, a horror so vast as to defy words. Though The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not canonical to the books, one should consider the way in which it is spoken of there, particularly by Lambert, as indicative of its loathsome nature. I suspect, or at least am tempted to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the torturous spectacle to which Yennefer and the witchers of Kaer Morhen subjected Avallac’h to in that game was a significant soft-pedaling. What little we know of the Trial from the books indicates that the creation of a witcher is a human sacrifice; that to steel oneself against the vileness of monsters, a witcher must first survive the most monstrous obscenity16 Cf. “A Shard of Ice”. This poses some hard moral questions in regard to Geralt’s decision to train Ciri in Blood of Elves, but those will have to wait.
The last thing I want to speak of is the blue roses of Nazair, mentioned four times in “A Grain of Truth.’ The first instance occurs at the scene of Vereena’s murders which opens the story. The second is the mention of them growing in Nivellen’s garden when Geralt first enters his estate. The third is his inner monologue as he kills Vereena quoted above. And the last is when Geralt leads Nivellen past the rose bushes as they abandon the estate. I know only three things about the blue roses of Nazair. They are the same species later established as the Roses of Remembrance in the books and then The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. They are the prototype of the White Roses of Shaerrawedd, the mantic roses of the rebel Aelirenn who led the last battle against human colonization and was killed. And they are harbingers of death. In the end, the most that can be said of them may be that they are Sapkowski’s inchoate groping towards the unity of love, death, and eternity that found its final expression over a decade later in The fatal fulfilment of the thorns of Aelirenn. Possibly they are a “mystery box”, meaningless withal. I cannot say. Finis.
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