The Witcher 3 begins with a ferocious battle. With Foltest dead, Nilfgaard has invaded the Kingdom of Temeria and laid it to waste. As Yennefer rushes headlong through a battlefield in the opening cinematic, the forces of Nilfgaard and Temeria slaughter each other in pitched combat. Yet when Geralt awakens from his nightmare and the game begins properly, we’re quickly treated to a different perspective on war, one stripped of the grim grandeur of battle, or indeed heroism of any kind. The village of White Orchard is under occupation, its populace simmering with resentment and fear as Nilfgaard keeps an uneasy peace over their new subjects with a watchful eye towards the local Griffin and surreptitious Temerian nationalism. Neighbor has turned against neighbor as social tensions and score settling emerge into the open, compounded by the extractive demands of the occupiers on the populace. Into this chaos Geralt, the useful outcast and perennial outsider, has once again entered the terrain of forces beyond his control to pursue his own private interests, interests inevitably complicated by his inability to keep his own code of neutrality or escape the attention of political power brokers. He is the reluctant hero for hire.
In many ways, the opening hours of The Witcher 3 are a case study in the entire attitude of the franchise towards war and politics as the grubbiest activities of the human condition. While individuals are not exempt, by moral necessity or practical, from making difficult decisions in these circumstances, Geralt’s adventures in White Orchard leave little indication that these choices can improve things for the better. As our own world, the world of The Witcher is a fallen one, where the worst rule and high-minded bullshit (and sometimes even less) is adduced to excuse rapacity and murder. War in White Orchard is a legalized crime that shreds the fabric and plunders the wealth of society. It is the institutionalization of violence and robbery, as denigrating to the oppressed as it is corrupting to the oppressors. There is no heroism here, only resistance and survival. Such is the bleakness of “Witcherverse”.
White Orchard is under the jurisdiction of Peter Saar Gwynleve, a Nilfgaardian captain of peasant origin who is convinced he is a stern but just ruler. This is demonstrated in his first meeting with Geralt, where he is seen reassuring a frightened peasant regarding the grain levy. Yet this is a self-deceptive act. When Geralt returns after slaying the Griffin, Gwynleve is in the midst of chastising the same peasant from earlier and orders the man flogged over an inadequate grain payment. If Geralt criticizes him, Gwynleve plays the victim by raging at how the local populace have abused his clemency and good faith. But of course he has shown no such thing. Gwynleve has hanged the local lord, according to Elsa the innkeeper. He has created a climate of fear in which a peasant bars his small son from associating with his best friend because this friend taught him a satirical song about Emperor Emhyr. He is a conqueror larping as an enlightened despot or liberator in the self-satisfied manner of any occupier; an imperialist, and nothing more.
With the devastation of conquest comes a fraying of the social contract among the subjugated locals. Willis the local dwarf armorer has become an object of racist hatred due to his provision of services to both sides of the conflict, and this culminates in the peasant Napp burning down his forge. If Geralt apprehends Napp, whose late mother Willis was on good terms with, Napp is hanged. Willis receives new work orders and protection from the Nilfgaardians but becomes even more despised by his neighbors. The other obvious example of this societal breakdown is the brawl that ends the White Orchard questline. When Elsa is assaulted for being a collaborating “whore” by a Temerian nationalist, a brawl breaks out, forcing Geralt and Vesemir to kill many people. Their “heroism” goes unrewarded, earning Geralt a Butcher of White Orchard moniker to add to his collection.
Yet all this suffering is ultimately pointless. When Geralt is told by the hunter Mislav that wild dogs kill for sport, Geralt likens them to humans, and Mislav answers, “they’ve learned much from us. Why not cruelty too?” The war is an act of conquest on the part of Emhyr Var Emreis; unprovoked, unnecessary, and as geared towards silencing the Emperor’s domestic critics as it is towards fulfilling Nilfgaard’s Northern aspirations. Against this foe will rise not some noble liberator but, as the player soon learns, the bigoted and insane tyrant Radovid V The Stern, a megalomaniac whose military genius is matched only by utter savagery and kink for persecution. Like dogs or necrophages tearing at the scraps of murdered men, this is a war devoid of justice or any higher purpose.
Which, by the way, is the point of the whole thing. Like the novels from which they draw inspiration, CD Projekt Red’s Witcher trilogy is a (mostly) antiwar and anti-political franchise, one with a historical memory grounded in the horrors of the Eastern Front of World War II and little appetite for the colonial adventurism of modern Anglophone societies. Caught between Nazism to the West and Stalinism to the East, Poland was devastated in the conflict to the tune of ruined infrastructure and millions of deaths, and it is this historical memory, running through the Witcher novels of the 80s and 90s, that informs The Witcher franchise’s vision of war.
The Witcher’s Netflix adaptation has portrayed the First War With Nilfgaard already in Season 1, but it is the second war with Nilfgaard that begins in Time of Contempt which will come to define later seasons of the show. In that novel, when Vilgefortz leads a successful coup to destabilize the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, Emperor Emhyr launches a second invasion of the North unimpeded by magic, resulting in a series of catastrophic early defeats for the North and the collapse of Northern society into fire and blood. One of the earliest traumas of this conflict is the partition of Aedirn between Kaedwen and Nilfgaard, culminating in the sack of Vengerberg and the slaughter of its thousands of inhabitants. Sapkowski writes:
‘They shook hands,’ finished Dandelion, ‘on the bridge on the river Dyfne. Margrave Mansfeld of Ard Carraigh and Menno Coehoorn, the commander-in-chief of the Nilfgaardian armies from Dol Angra. They shook hands over the bleeding, dying Kingdom of Aedirn, sealing a criminal division of the spoils. The most despicable gesture history has ever known.’Time of Contempt 232
It bears mentioning that at this point in the story, Kaedwen has occupied Upper Aedirn in a “peacekeeping” mission on behalf of their neighbors, with one honorable commander advising his subordinates, ‘And if you rape any women, do it on the quiet. Out of sight.’ The trauma continues in the next novel, Baptism of Fire, where the North is ablaze with indiscriminate atrocities, war profiteering, and treachery. And rape. In an early passage which largely sums up the view of soldiers in the novels, the archer Milva notes:
‘They say war’s a male thing, but they have no mercy on women; they have to have their fun. Fucking heroes; damn them all.”Baptism of Fire 69
In contemporary American culture it is commonplace to lionize those who serve. In Witcherverse, the opposite holds. There is nothing particularly surprising in this. Throughout history, including not simply Medieval conflicts but modern ones such as the Bangladesh Liberation War, The Yugoslav Wars, The wars in the Congo and the 2014-2017 Iraq War against ISIS, rape has been the formal or informal prerogative of victorious soldiers. Anyone inclined to honor the “sacrifice” of those who choose bloodshed ought to remember first the sacrifice of civilians who did not choose it. This is true regardless of whether or not deliberate campaigns of dehumanization and genocide are endorsed by the any of the combatants. War, historically speaking, is a systematized state of international criminality, and it is fought for issues of money and power, not noble ideals. The Witcherverse and I concur in this regard, for in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Geralt goes so far as to say that “a wise war is a contradiction”.
Can There Be A “Just” War In Witcherverse
Of course, to leave it at that would be disingenuous, considering the issues raised in my colleague’s article1 https://thepathwitcher.blog/2021/07/01/the-ethics-of-neutrality/ as well as the assassination plotline in The Witcher 3. As Holly has already covered the ethics of neutrality in the books, I’ll stick to speaking about the latter. In the assassination series of quests that begins after helping Triss in “Now or Never”, Geralt teams up with Roche, Ves, Thaler, Dijkstra, and finally Phillipa Eilhart to kill Radovid V The Stern, King of Redania, who aspires to unite the North under one totalitarian empire. If it’s completed, this quest can go two ways: the murder of Ves, Roche, and Thaler and a Northern imperial victory under Dijkstra, or the death of Dijkstra and a successful Nilfgaardian conquest of the North under Emhyr, to be ruled by himself or Ciri if she is Empress. This would seem to throw out the whole notion of war-as-nihilism and suggest there are in fact some things worth fighting for. I don’t buy it. The issue is not that war in Witcherverse is somehow avoidable. If it were so, that would be untrue to life and contradict the basic concept of The Lesser Evil, the concept that moral decision-making is a blind selection among the least bad options, leading to indeterminate outcomes.
This is the assassination plot entirely. Even if we accept Geralt making the wildly uncanonical choice to aid Dijkstra as a desperate measure, the plotline can be spoiled so easily through noncompletion or mistakes at multiple points that it is easy to imagine it as a sort of Destiny-driven event in which Geralt’s inability to stay uninvolved leads him deeper down the rabbit trail. Some of the outcomes it generates if done properly are objectively good. All are better than leaving Radovid in power. In this I will concede that the game departs from the spirit of the Witcher novels radically, where the great victory at Brenna gives way to a cynical peace in which “Evil now acts according to rights.”2The Lady Of The Lake 508
From this it can be argued that while war is inherently evil in the Witcher, a “just” war isn’t impossible. War, like a sword, is a tool of destruction; and in an immoral world ruled by the sword, sometimes a sword is the lesser evil. But a lesser evil is evil nonetheless, in nature if not in degree; and so it can be said in conclusion, perhaps, that if the Witcherverse is one of irredeemable violence, sometimes there is no other cure for it but violence. War in the Witcher can be necessary and even righteous; but in such cases, it is an immoral tool to moral ends, one more than capable of corrupting its wielder and perverting their sought for good to evil. In my next piece, a long overdue followup to “The Witcher And The Aesthetics Of Violence”, I’ll discuss the consequences of living and dying by the sword in Witcherverse.