The Witcher Is Slavic, And It Isn’t

By Benjamin Rose

Among the most commonly applied predicates to The Witcher is the notion that it is a “Slavic” fantasy, Slavic being an umbrella term for the various ethnicities that make up the nations of Eastern Europe, such as Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Albanians, Serbs etc. This is notable largely because while Slavs are monolithically White, they represent an ethnic geography distinct from that of Western Europe and the history of Western European imperialism. The word Slav is etymologically related to the word “slave”, reflecting the long history of raiding and warfare with Muslim and Asian powers such as The Ottoman and Mongol Empires which characterizes the history of Eastern Europe. In these conflicts the Slavs were generally on the losing side for the 1st millennium following the founding of the Islamic community under the Prophet Muhammad, and it was only beginning with the Treaty of Karlowitz in 16991, when the Ottomans signed a disadvantageous peace following a long and unsuccessful war against Austria and Poland, that the situation began to reverse into familiar terms of European hegemony and exploitation. 

The influence of longstanding interaction and conflict of the Slavs with various non-European powers on Slavic cultures probably constitutes an entire field of study somewhere, but my purpose is not to interrogate that question on an academic level. Rather, it is simply to note that with significant influences from West and Central Asian cultures, Slavicness is different culturally from Western Europe, and is  often presented in Western media as a subdomain of Whiteness at once familiar to and Other from Western Europeans and their diaspora. “Borat”, in which most of the “Kazakhs” are really just Slavs, and the language spoken in “Kazakhstan” is actually a mashup of Polish and Modern Hebrew, basically captures this vibe, as I noted here: Its essentially typical of the notion of Slavs common in Western Media as “those weird/sinister/hilarious White people over there that are vaguely Third World and sell their daughters for goats or are else Evil Russian KGB Mobsters.” You get the picture.

This gets interesting when adaptations of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels come into the picture, because how that universe is adapted has varied extremely based on who is adapting it. The vision of Witcherverse created in CD Projekt Red’s game trilogy is very Slavic, right down to the sound of it, as my colleague Holly notes in her essay on The Witcher 3’s music and sound design.2 The vision of Witcherverse presented on Netflix is hardly Slavic at all.

First of all, let’s make something clear. I allege that Netflix deeply Westernized and Anglicized The Witcher, and that this was a mistake. I do not allege that this consisted in the show’s diversity in casting, which was a bugbear of many Slavs on social media, who largely disdain the intersectionality of Anglo-American culture as White Guilt over a historically racist imperial project their nations were not a part of. The show had moral and pragmatic reasons for including BIPOC actors in its cast which are alien to the priorities of many Slavic cultures, which skew conservative and resistant to feminism, antiracism, and other aspects of social justice. I am not arguing The Witcher should have been racist and sexist. What I am arguing is that much could be done to make the world of The Witcher feel Slavic on a material, thematic, and spiritual level while still retaining the feminism and inclusiveness for which it won praise. Consider the comments of Alik Sakharov, who departed The Witcher over creative differences with Showrunner Lauren Hissrich:

“You see, in my perception, Eastern-European literature has a completely different pace. It is no coincidence that Andrzej Sapkowski has so many storylines and characters. The producers set the task of setting the adaptation at an action pace and filling it with colorful special effects. That was their vision. My vision was very different and I tried to convey it to them, giving my arguments. Unfortunately, I was not considered convincing enough, so I decided to leave the project.”3

There is no debating the fact that massive changes were made to the dialogue and pacing of the books in the adaptation. For one, Geralt, who is fond of dialectical philosophizing in the books, says very little in the show, an aesthetic choice for which I’ve always found Hissrich’s explanations disingenuous. Whether this penchant for philosophy is inherently ‘Slavic’ is up for debate, but as an Eastern European director, Sakharov’s words should not be discounted out of hand.

More notable is simply the inexplicable abundance of British actors and the generic feel of its fantasy universe. Where The Witcher 3 adhered closely to Polish iconography in the design of the Redanian faction and fashion choices like the kaftan of Olgierd Von Everec, the show lacks such nods. 

Yet at this juncture, it’s worth asking a fundamental question: is The Witcher actually Slavic, or was it just assumed to be such because it was written by a Polish writer? The answer, on closer inspection, is actually the latter. Andrzej Sapkowski has actually disputed the Slavic character of his work entirely:

“That ‘slavicness’ is rather something akin to a myth, by which my works were overgrown – and I myself too. The label of the ‘Slav’ was given to me and it stayed like that. Why? That Geralt sounds more Slavic than Conan? That I worked something Slavic-alike into onomastics? My first stories strictly adhered to the canon of fantasy – I’m thinking about the world’s canon here. Well, then the translations came and the world’s fantasy industry had to accept a Pole in whose works every smarter readers [sic] could spot some ‘Polish’ or ‘Slavic’ [phrases].”4

This is born out in the text. For one thing, the conflict between Human and Elves in the Witcher has no precedent in Slavic mythology, but is based on the Tuatha De Danann5 of Irish folklore, as is much of the culture of the Aen Seidhe, even down to their name, which is adapted into the Elder Speech from a cognate in Gaelic. The Elder Speech itself is a combination of Latin, English, German, and above all Welsh and other celtic languages, with no major linguistic connection to any Slavic language.6 Furthemore, while the beasts Geralt hunts often have deep roots in Slavic folklore, Sapkowski regularly borrowed Western and even Arab folklore in some instances to frame his universe, with “A Grain Of Truth” and “The Lesser Evil” drawing heavily from Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, respectively.7 Other pan European influences emerge in the city of Lan Exeter from the novels, essentially a Northern Venice, as well as borrowing from Tolkien’s mythological races. The polarising Arthurianism of The Lady of The Lake is another example, as is the heavily Germanic vibe of the Nilfgaardian Empire.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is the reminder, noted in Sapkowski’s quote above, that a fictional universe emanating from the pen of an author from a culture under-represented  in contemporary fantasy is not necessarily obliged to a representational straightjacket. Consider the comments of Japanese-British novelist and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro (sourced from here: ):

“Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views,” he said. “Right from an early age I’ve written from the point of view of people very different from myself. My first novel was written from the point of view of a woman.” “I think there are very valid parts of this argument about appropriation of voice,” he added, saying he believes “we do have the obligation to teach ourselves and to do research and to treat people with respect if we’re going to have them feature in our work”. He said there must be “decency towards people outside of one’s own immediate experience”. But he said: “If I shrink back from something it’s because I would doubt my ability to be able to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it. But, you know, I tend to be quite arrogant about my ability to learn about things, if I put my mind to it.”

Concerns around representation and cultural authenticity often revolve around the ability of BIPOC people to tell their own stories. This is a genuine and serious concern, because bad and demonizing representations can and do have real world consequences in discrimination and violence, as Riz Ahmed’s campaign to improve the horrendous standards of Muslims in media notes.8! But if all virtues are a mean between excess and deficiency, then the excess of tying fictional  representation to identity lies in constricting all creators into the role of autobiographical cultural exponents. Ahmed has also noted in his commentary on representation the sense of freedom he felt while filming Sound of Metal in portraying a character untethered from any explicit ethnic origin9

While this may seem a non sequitur given Sapkowski’s Whiteness and maleness, or the fact that Ishiguro is a man of color who has written from the perspective of more privileged White men, the overarching theme is both the necessity of positive, multifaceted representation and the pitfall of consigning an artist to only create from the perspective of their own culture or demographic, especially in genre fiction like fantasy involving constructed worlds. The values of representation and artistic freedom are in conflict when social inequality between groups is considered; but they are not mutually exclusive. And while my personal perception is that The Witcher Netflix would have benefited from a more overtly Slavic aesthetic, Sapkowski himself has challenged this characterization of his work as stereotypical. Ultimately, The Witcher is a Slavic-influenced work by a Slavic writer, and its adaptation into game and television has always been colored by the identities and presuppositions of those who adapt it. In this sense it both is and isn’t an ethnographically-rooted work.

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