Medieval by Any Other Name:
The Skellige Isles and the Effective Use of Trope
When Geralt’s journey brings him to the sweeping archipelago of Skellige, he is, for the first time, brough somewhere altogether different, yet somehow familiar. I mentioned in my two earlier analysis of Velen and Novigrad, that those two regions are wholly distinct in their own right. However an important clarification to make is whether Velen and Novigrad are distinct from each other. The answer to that is less of a resounding “yes” than you might imagine. By virtue of a shared border, those two regions bleed into each other, casting swamps into Novigrad and open farmland into Velen. Skellige has the benefit of physical distance, without the need for a porous border. This unique factor highlights what makes the islands aesthetically and culturally unique in the Witcher 3: a sweeping and rugged terrain, a clan based ruling structure, and a common law much more inspired by abstract notions of faith and honor than that of the mainland Continent.
Read a certain way, those three Skeeliger attributes seem to be definitively of a cold, divided, harsh, and definitively Skandinavian-inspired chain of islands. However, they could also be viewed as a Nordic rendition of Medieval/traditional fantasy influence. Divided clans stand surrogate to the stereotypical factionalized kingdoms of the dark ages. A sweeping mountain-scape where fjords could be called valleys is a cold rendition of Middle Earth. The notions of honor and faith, redirected towards a non-pagan God, are a re-painted Chivalric Code. This is to say that Skellige’s unique aesthetics and dynamics counterintuitively lean more into traditional ideals of medieval-inspired fantasy than even Toussaint. However, this isn’t to say as a concept Skellige is derivative or simply a Westeros-painted-Scandinavian. Rather, this high fantasy influence engages with its Skelliger rebrand in a way that simultaneously subverts fantasy’s tropes while elevating the embrace of something new.
A Harsh Land
‘The Skellige Isles are cold, mountainous, and unforgiving. This is consistently established through verbal, allusionary, and visual descriptions of the archipelago. It is a land that forcibly shapes its people and their culture. The cold mountains and icy water breed hearty, resilient folk that value the things conducive to survival: Wit, bravery, strength. These values blend with the internal separation of the chain’s islands, leading to a strong, multi-tribal organization that elevates individuality. Yet, this can all be subsumed by the physical separation that these islands have from the rest of the continent. They are Skelligers first and foremost, not mainlanders. And, thanks to this unique land, the islands are granted a unique potential. As mentioned before, all of the attributes just recounted can be interpreted as Nordic reworks of stereotypical Medieval values. Yet, through a commitment to a distinct culture and purposefully designed narratives (this will be addressed next) this region shapes something altogether different. In short the physical and cultural dynamics of the Skellige Isles allow both the presence of trope and its subversion.
Succession and Subversion
An essential narrative to understanding Skellige’s simultaneous reliance on and subversion of Medieval/fantasy tropes is what I will dub the “succession plot.” This plot essentially consists of you supporting either the son or daughter of the clan ruler in their respective claims to the throne. If Geralt supports Hjalmar, the son, he must follow in his footsteps to slay the beast that has terrorized and decimated the island of Undvik. This setup is a premise as old as time, the dashing knight slays the beast terrorizing the town. Its chivalric, its stoic, and it separates Hjalmar’s motivation of honor from the bounty hunter incentive of Geralt himself. In short, this entire quest is a trope. Yet, upon closer inspection there are key departures from the knight-slays-dragon formula. First, we, as viewers, experience this typical struggle in medias res as Geralt comes to the island after Hjalmar has already begun his quest. This timing allows the viewer to both experience the decimation and the folly of honor-bound, heroic deeds, as we follow the supposed hero through destroyed villages, learning of the companions the fellowship lost along the way. This is an effective subversion of the Medieval-fantasy trope, bringing us to consider the cost of such a knightly gesture. In a second subversion, at the climax of this plot, Geralt and Hjalmar must decide to prioritize killing the monster or saving a fellow “knight”. Our expectation of the trope would lead us to believe that such an honorbound knight would surely rescue those in distress, but that’s not guaranteed. And, as much as that can be read as an injection of the Witcher’s morally ambiguous gameplay, it should also be seen as yet another subversion of the stereotypes of honor that Skellige leans into.
In a more general sense, the succession plot also leans into these tropes simply by recreating situations we have all seen before. Arguments of succession are as old as civilization and come with a mess of existing ideas and stereotypes of what they entail. Even in the Skellige Isles, all of the pieces for a typical succession struggle are there: arguing factions, equally motivated siblings, religions interference. However, the Skellige Isles, as much as they can be granted agency, turn the entire trope on its head by simply including one factor, or should I say, person: a woman, the daughter, Cerys. By simply including a valid female heir and granting the potential of a gender-equal succession struggle, this region challenges a fantasy trope so long claimed by men. Moreover, it elevates the concepts of matriarchal rule and validated tribalism. This impact would undoubtedly have been lessened if the region didn’t already lean into these expectations.
It may be fair to say that the regional design of Skellige is a double edged sword (axe…maybe?). It does risk the staleness that comes with a specifically inspired setting. The question is then, does that matter? I would argue that for the most effective stories to be told, they need to be unexpected. And Skellige accomplished this, not simply through the weight of a wholly original or groundbreaking concept, but through an introspective, internal-interrogation of its very inspiration.