By Benjamin Rose, Editor
In the opening hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a brief prowl around the pirate-ridden Northwest coast of Velen yields a characteristic micro-drama. If Geralt wanders to the right crossroad, he’ll encounter a group of Northerners preparing to lynch a Nilfgaardian deserter. Off the bat, no information is available about this individual. He could be another Rhosyn, the good-natured Nilfgaardian deserter from the Missing Persons quest who helped Bastien Vildenvert after the two were injured in combat outside White Orchard. Or he could be another John Verdun, the Temerian deserter left for dead to drowners who, if Geralt saves him, quickly takes up banditry. There is no way to know and little time to decide. If Geralt chooses to intervene, which I as the player always do, the Nilfgaardian will go free to return to his family after four Temerians lie dead. Asked why he chose to play hero, the player, as Geralt, has two choices of response: “I hate lynch mobs” or “It was the Lesser Evil.” The setting is appropriate. While Netflix’s The Witcher opened with a depiction of the short story of the same name in its pilot episode, “The End’s Beginning”, it elided the fact that in “The Lesser Evil”, Blaviken, while still a sleepy market town, was surrounded not by woodland but on the sea. Renfri’s eyes are said to be the blue-green color of the ocean. This is not an intentional callback, but the coincidental correspondence of setting in this two minute quest from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is appropriate. There is no escaping Renfri’s ghost.
In a behind-the-scenes promotional for season 1 of the show, Andrzej Sapkowski cited “The Lesser Evil ” as his favorite of the early Witcher tales. It is easy to see why. In most respects, “The Lesser Evil” presages many of the themes that consume the subsequent saga, among them the necessity of ethical choice under duress, the pomposity and arrogance of elites and intellectuals, and the role of women in a society defined by casual abuse, misogyny, and sexual violence. Above all, “The Lesser Evil ” is a story about trauma, suffering and inflicted. At the heart of “The Lesser Evil” is Renfri, exiled heiress of the minor princedom of Creyden, a ferociously skilled and ambiguously sociopathic murderer born under the Curse of the Black Sun and ferociously persecuted by the mage Stregobor. The original text makes extensive use of the Snow White narrative which is familiar to everyone and finds its earliest fixed form in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It is of a piece with many of the early Witcher stories that take pre-existing and often hackneyed European fantasy folklore and satirize it, a practice which continued throughout the course of the Witcher Saga, although it grew subtler over time. Still, while these elements of “The Lesser Evil” seem very derivative in hindsight, the central drama remains fresh. Geralt is caught between Renfri and Stregobor’s feud and, in the confusion of Renfri’s abortive attempt to bait Stregobor from his tower, slaughters her and her gang of bandits. He is denounced as a murderer and driven from Blaviken under a hail of stones, forever earning the Sobriquet “Butcher of Blaviken” in return for his shambolic attempt at heroism. The Netflix show muddled things a bit, making Geralt’s cause for violence more clear-cut, Renfri more sympathetic, and Stregobor’s manipulation, cowardice, and indifference to human life even more overt, and yet it remains one of the show’s most effective adaptations of the early Witcher short stories.
Key to the lasting impact of “The Lesser Evil” is the paradigmatic influence it exerts on subsequent female characters in the narrative, such as Ciri and Yennefer, who did not exist at the time of its composition. Renfri’s fall from royalty to banditry prefigures Ciri’s turn as Falka in Time of Contempt through The Swallow’s Tower, and the grounding of Yennefer’s strength of will in her survival of horrific abuse carries overtones of Renfri’s journey, for good and for ill. “For ill” because Sapkowski never glamorizes abuse and survival in the Witcher. It is a hardening experience, but one that can just as easily create the evil and nihilism of the Rats as the tortured heroism of a Ciri or a Yennefer. Each of the major protagonists, including Geralt, is likewise scarred physically and mentally over the progression of the Saga. Renfri was Sapkowski’s first major exploration of female complexity in a series whose previous entries (“The Witcher” and “A Grain of Truth ”) had presented women mostly as victims.
It is hard to discount the idea that in sketching such complexity with a villain, Sapkowski was forced to reassess the nature of his protagonist in commensurate detail. The Geralt of the eponymous first short story is hardly a character. He is Sapkowski’s conceit of the “professional monster hunter” and acts as such, saying little. The closest we get to hints of Geralt’s inner life in “The Witcher” is his brief philosophical rebuke of Ostrit in the crypt and shades of personality in his investigation and haggling over the Striga contract. But from “A Grain of Truth”, Sapkowski had begun to explore the inner chasm of discontent in Geralt’s psyche, and “The Lesser Evil”, in conjunction with its epilogue, “The Voice of Reason IV”, marks the point at which this issue grows definitive. Geralt is no cold professional, though by the time we meet him, it is clear he has been hiding behind that facade for decades. He is a wounded romantic bludgeoned near to apathy by a life of violence, and slowly succumbing to despair in his alienation. “They created me just as they created you. We’re not so different, you and I” Emma Appleton’s Renfri says to Geralt mid-fight in “The End’s Beginning.” Her dying, ironic prophecy in the streets of Blaviken, though invented for the show, is just as apt. “The girl in the woods will be with you always. She is your Destiny.” Indeed she will be. But there was another “girl in the woods” besides Ciri.