Triss Merigold, once the archetypal “Witcher Waifu ” of male gamers’ dreams, is a polarising figure among fans of the Witcher novels. For starters, despite literally appearing on the Russian cover of Playboy in 2011 to mark the release of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Triss has largely been eclipsed by Yennefer since the release of the show, in no small part due to Anya Chalottra’s star power and a script that utilized Anna Shaffer to little effect in season 1. To reconcile the Triss of Sapkowski’s novels with that of CD Projekt Red’s Witcher game trilogy was always going to be an impossible task, for while Geralt and Triss’s romance in the games is actually extremely cringe on close inspection, superficially, Game Triss is actually a respectable character, a Sorceress-next-door so to speak with flashes of iron determination.
Except that’s not really Triss Merigold, so much as an elaborate fantasy created by male game developers who didn’t like or know what to do with Yennefer. Where Yennefer is chaotic, domineering, wounded, and difficult, Triss, especially in Sapkwoski’s novels, is explicitly immature; an aged up adolescent whose idealism masks fungible principles and a weak sense of self, best specified in her delusional and unrequited love for Geralt. To say so is not patronizing, it is simply an accurate reading of the source material. The Witcher is nothing if not a series filled with irony, intent on subverting expectations at every turn. So if Yennefer, as Sapkowski once said, is an explicit rejection of the Arwen-like docility of a traditional fantasy heroine, Triss is a send up of more “palatable” female archetypes, a desperate and developmentally stunted romantic whose actions in the book border on abuse, and whose actions in the game cross that border.
This is not to burn Triss in effigy. The Yennefer of The Witcher novels is also an abuser, in part: a deeply traumatized woman whose actions towards Geralt run the course from infidelity to physically assaulting him on numerous off-page occasions (according to inner dialogue in the story “Eternal Fire”). Yet Yennefer is also the most intriguing, compelling, and ultimately admirable character of The Witcher books, not simply because she fulfills the feminist power fantasy of the Girl Boss, but also because she shatters the myth of the lionized abuse survivor. She is a complicated and morally fallible being who reminds us, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phrase, that “There is nothing ennobling about being a victim1We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy 160”, and her nobility consists in overcoming through sheer force of will and sacrifice the cynicism and nihilism imparted to her by her marginalized upbringing. Triss has no such merits in her favor, and even when her idealized presentation in the game series is taken into account, she still emerges on closer inspection as an object of pity.
In Blood Of Elves chapters 2 through 4 we see the sum of Triss and Geralt’s “relationship”. After seducing Geralt with magic into a one-night stand using means that straddle the line between seduction and date-rape, Triss fell hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Geralt, who pities her and bears the undeserved guilt of “leading her on” when he must set boundaries against her affections. She is desperate to sleep with him and essentially begs for sex at certain points in an embarrassing way, eventually succumbing to complete co-dependency when she is laid low by illness on the route from Kaer Morhen to Ellander.
In The Swallow’s Tower she betrays both Geralt and Yennefer to the machinations of the Lodge in a manner suggesting sexual and psychological subservience to the will of Phillipa Eilhart. I reference Triss’s sexuality here not as an exercise in slut-shaming but to draw a distinction in how sexuality is used by Sapkowski to contrast different levels of maturity and agency between Triss and Yennefer. Yennefer is promiscuous from a self-assured position of strength. She is capable of using sex as a means to both hedonism, manipulation, and transcendence (i.e. by making love to Geralt, and formerly to Istedd). Triss is only capable of the former two. She is not, until the end of the novels, an empowered personality, but a vine clinging vainly to men, to women2Triss can be understood as bisexual in The Witcher novels. Both her and Phillipa Eilhart’s sexuality is best described as fluid rather than conformable to precise notions of LGBTQ identity. It should also be noted that Polish society is deeply homophobic and that there are no known instances of male homosexuality in The Witcher novels., or to any nebulous sort of purpose to disguise the hollowness at her core. She is not traiditonal, nor is she helpless in an absolute sense, but while Sapkowski manages to wring a decent amount of gender politics from Triss in the opening act of Blood of Elves, the message is superior to the messenger. CD Projekt Red’s Triss is an idealization that probably comports with who Triss thinks she is, but as the graphic below aptly demonstrates, that is not who she actually is:
The right panel is not an exaggeration. One gets the sense reading Blood of Elves and beyond that Sapkowski felt sorry for Triss. I certainly do. How ironic in that case that the Triss of the game trilogy proves no better on closer inspection. Consider: your best friend’s wife is missing and presumed dead. Said friend has suffered catastrophic amnesia and must reconstruct his entire life story and personality. So you seduce him and construct an elaborate fantasy of a relationship built on his inability to mourn the loss of his former life, scrupulously avoiding any discussion thereof, and only acknowledge his previous life existed after he begins to suffer flashbacks following being framed for a crime entailing capital punishment. Is this…normal?
No, it isn’t. Given the opportunity created by Geralt’s amnesia and Yennefer’s absence in the first Witcher game, Triss chooses to initiate a relationship with Geralt based on multiple lies which swiftly collapses when he recovers from what borders on a magically-induced fugue state. It’s pathetic and sick, and the player is expected to root for it because Triss is “nice” while Yennefer is “mean/arrogant/a Class A bitch” and whatever nonsense adjectives are thrown around the internet. It goes without saying that were the genders reversed, this would carry a significant whiff of rape apologism, even though Geralt was consenting based on the information he was given. All of which raises some complicated questions about what we can expect to see in Triss’s character arc on Netflix going forward.
I would advise the showrunner not to sanitize Triss. Triss is not admirable. Triss is not powerful. Triss is not Yennefer’s equal in character or competency, and if anything should drive the material Anna Shaffer is given going forward, it should be a character arc that follows Triss’s struggle to be her own person rather than a Yennefer wannabe or dependent of Geralt. And she should not come off favorably or as a power fantasy for women to emulate in the affair. The beauty of the Witcher novels is their capacity to depict damaged men and women sympathetically: heroes with tremendous flaws, and villains with glimmers of redemptive potential often never to be fulfilled. The Witcher is a tragedy. It is a chronicle of the struggle for beauty, morality, and honor in a pulp fiction universe that, like our own, is essentially hopeless. All lives are frail. All victories impermanent. But in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose atheism has a tendency to lend explicitly existential and universalizing color to his writings on the struggle of Black Americans against White Supremacy,
“Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one–not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods–is coming to save us. The worst really is possible…and my ambition is to write both in defiance of tragedy and in blindness of its possibility, to keep screaming into the waves–just as my ancestors did.”3We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy 289-290