'The Witcher' Game and Those Inescapable Nietzschean Blues
Who is man? Who is monster? Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomies are at play in the video game series, The Witcher, soon to be a Netflix series.
Before I get into what Witchers are, what they do, and how they came to be, I will give some background for the world that Witchers find themselves in. The world that author Andrzej Sapkowski created in his fantasy series is a new take on the old Slavic mythology of the White Witch, though his work is distinctly Polish and set in a pseudo high- to late- medieval world. It is wrapped in a metaphysical layer of myth and fantasy but is otherwise not entirely different from our reality. Examples tying the Witcher's world to our own include the Vivaldi Bank, which can be likened to the banking families of Italy during the Renaissance; the Church of the Eternal Fire, which is inspired by the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism and the Catholic Church; and the Catriona plague, which is a version of the Bubonic plague.
It is a world of protocapitalism with banks, a papal power structure influencing the affairs of secular sovereign states, and death on a mass and unexplainable scale. Sapkowski's books are worth the read and are good, though most current fans know about Witchers because of the video games produced by CD Projekt Red.
Witchers are mutants. They're not bred, but selected as children and groomed to be monster slayers. They aren't products of nature, but neither are the vast majority of so-called monsters in the world of the Witcher. In their lore there is a phenomenon called the "conjunction of the spheres"; the concept that long ago several parallel universes smashed into each other, allowing peoples and creatures to travel to different realities. Humans traveled to the world that we know, which had only non-human races prior. Magic, and most of the monsters that Witchers hunt, came too.
Witchers start off as normal human boys taken as payment or "adopted" from orphanages and transported to a Witcher Guild. Over the course of their growing years they are subject to training regiments that would kill the most hardened Spartans, and are administered magic herbs, infusions, and spells designed to give them the speed and strength of the monsters they hunt. To fully become Witchers they must undergo the Trials of the Grasses, a challenge with an average fatality rate of seven out of ten.
If a child succeeds, he gains incredible reflexes, agility, the tell-tale cat eyes that all Witchers have, and other fortitudes, such as the ability to consume toxic potions that allow them to fight "with blind abandon, sensing absolutely no pain, ignoring even serious injuries" (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings; CD Projekt Red, 2011). Fans of the series will likely be thinking of the main character, Geralt of Rivia, also known as The White Wolf, as the prime example of a Witcher.
Witchers need these mutations and this world needs Witchers to combat the roaming monsters such as Werewolves, which are fast as hell and equally strong. The Witchers and their mutations allow for the destruction of other monsters too, such as Giant Toads (sometimes it is easier to kill them than to find a conveniently-placed princess to kiss them), Wraiths (spooky spirits), Ghouls (they tend to eat the dead as well as the living), Trolls (sometimes those under-bridge-dwelling bastards' prices get too high to pay, or their riddles get too complicated to solve, and then you have to kill them), or Humans (being Human is not that great of a prospect, especially in a fictitious medieval universe). And for all this struggle and blood, what do Witchers get? Hardly ever a just amount.
Witchers do not kill monsters out of the goodness of their hearts. Indeed, they are often accused of not having hearts or any goodness at all. There is always a fee for their service, and this fee varies depending on several factors. How much can the village pay the Witcher? How long it will take to track, hunt, and finally kill the monster? The beast's level of dangerousness factors into the price, as well. There is a possible fourth factor: how much is the Witcher going to price gouge you?
When the terms are agreed upon, the Witcher sets out to do his job. If the Witcher slays the monster and survives, he comes back to collect the bounty. This is where most of the problems between Witchers and the common folk start. Likely-as-not the village aldermen, elder, chieftain, etc. will say "Master Witcher please have mercy, the harvest failed", or "bandits pilfered our coffers".
The Witcher will be annoyed by this blatant attempt to swindle him out of his hard-earned compensation. These situations can lead to Witchers slaughtering whole villages. Witchers can easily dispatch 40 armed men as long as those men are not professional and practiced killers, and most medieval peasants are not. It is not always the case that the village tries to fraud the Witcher out of their reward, causing the Witcher to put the village to the sword. Sometimes the village strikes first. Fans might rightly be thinking of the "Massacre of Honorton", which we'll discuss later. Regardless, the violent outcome is not uncommon. There is a massacre and Witchers as a whole gain more infamy.
I should take a step back and talk about the peasantry. Most common folk of the time would not have cause or need to leave the immediate mileage surrounding their home village. So, what if there are no Ghouls or any manner of Draconids (general dragon species), Leshens (animated tree monsters), or Werewolves within those few miles? Those creatures are no more than words, myths, and fairytales. But Witchers, unlike those monsters with their defined hunting territories and lairs, are itinerant and vagrant. A Witcher is likely to appear in the villages that line the path they walk as they look to ply their trade, though not all villages will have monster problems. Tales of 'monsters,' as the peasants hear them, are just stories until one shows up and eats someone.
Compilation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher's Saga from Amazon
What about the tales of Witchers massacring hamlets, then? They are no different than the tales about monsters. They are stories too. But a Witcher is more likely to show up in your village than a monster. So, to the peasants that only hear about monstrous deeds committed by these monster slayers, a present Witcher can be scarier than any fable of Werewolves. They are also scarier than the actual monsters because they are almost human. They talk, walk, eat, and look like humans, but they have noticeable cat eyes and often many scars, and can go toe-to-toe with all those fabled monsters. This dynamic can be likened to the uncanny valley phenomenon – the unsettling feeling one gets when interacting with a human-like creature or robot that is distinctly not human.
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you." – Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian ideals are fundamentals of human nature. The Apollonian comes from the Greek God Apollo, whose domains include truth, knowledge, and music. The Dionysian comes from the Greek God Dionysus, whose domains are wine, ritual madness, and what I would characterize as general fun.
Naturally, the Apollonian embodies the drive and desire to neatly categorize and make sense of the world – it is the measured, the counted, the charted, and the known. The Dionysian embodies the raw emotions and passions in all of us – the mad loves, tilting at windmills, carnal desires, and the chaotic creative forces in our minds.
To be fair, the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy is a versatile vehicle and critical lens that can be applied to nearly every feasible form of human media. But I am exploring Witchers through this lens because in their universe they are specifically created as tools and agents of a broad human Apollonian order, but yet can still fall victim to human Dionysian passions and betrayals. Even further, they have their own rich dynamics within this dichotomy, perhaps answering the question of whether Witchers are more human or more monster.
Witcher Hellhound (Witcher.Fandom)
A wildfire is Dionysian. It burns vast swathes of land, destroying everything in its path. Its power is untamed, unforgiving, and unstoppable. Though much of what it destroys returns to the Earth, enriching it and creating new possibilities for when the chaos of the fire has subsided. Another example is seen in the Yangtze River, which has been a central point for a long string of Chinese civilizations over thousands of years. Its floods served to replenish the nutrients and minerals of the river's basins, allowing the basins to yield massive population-supporting harvests. But the Yangtze is among the mostly deadly rivers on Earth, having flooded numerous times and killing millions in the process. One such case occurred in 1931, when the Yangtze flooded, killing at least 150,000 people and washing away the harvest, thereby starting a famine and leaving the affected areas economically destitute.
An Apollonian example is seen in the biology of mitotic cell division, where one cell divides into two, which both then divide to make four, and those four to eight, in an increasingly doubling mathematical assembly line. The Apollonian can also be seen in the creation of the ancient Greek Parthenon, the opulent and venerable temple and gold reserve. The Parthenon was built using the precise metric of the golden ratio to make it symmetrical and pleasing to the eye. It was built using Doric columns, which are simple, spartan, and efficient in their categorical purpose of holding things upright. They lack the Dionysian extravagance of their Corinthian cousins.
Humanity overall is placed in an Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, as we occupy both the orderly assembly of the Apollonian and the pandemonium and bedlam of the Dionysian. A dramatic example is seen in Leon Trotsky, who led the Red Army during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. The Red Army started as a rabble: a motley mob of untrained peasants and proletariat. It was Trotsky's organizational skills that allowed him to transform the Dionysian throng into an effective Apollonian machine of war. Those organizational skills are also what allowed him to start The Red Terror, which was a reasoned, measured mass killing of so-called counterrevolutionaries, but the effect of it was completely Dionysian as it emitted a sort of schizophrenic chaos into the nascent Soviet state.
In the Witcher's world, humans are no different in occupying both sides of the Apollonian and Dionysian, as seen in Phillip Strenger, nicknamed "the Bloody Baron of Velen". As a young soldier he was wounded and out of commission for a time, and once healed he asked the woman that nursed him back health, Anna, to marry him. Sometime later they had a daughter named Tamara and they were happy.
Phillip Strenger (Witcher.Fandom)
But a soldier's life is often hard with long and distant wars to be fought. During those long campaigns he turned to drink and received a heavy dose of medieval PTSD. On the home front, Anna grew more and more lonely and, judging by the medieval atmosphere of the world, likely economically desperate as well. So in Phillip's absence Anna sought out intimacy and support from a childhood friend.
When Phillip returned from war and discovered Anna's betrayal, he tracked them to bring his family back together. Upon finding them, he killed Anna's childhood friend in anger, and began beating his wife, despite his continued deep love for her. And thus, we see the Apollonian and Dionysian discord in him. The Apollonian in Phillip sees that his actions, while under the influence of alcoholism and PTSD, ruined his life and drove away the family that he loved. He sees how to be the man and not the monster, but the Dionysian demons entrap him into perpetual cycles of guilt, violence, and abuse.
"The world might seem black and white to you Witchers, but for us common folk it's shades of gray. As is my family's story." –The Bloody Baron (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; CD Projekt Red, 2015)
Unlike humans, who occupy the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, monsters in the Witcher's world overwhelmingly occupy the Dionysian as agents of chaos and conflict. Such monsters lack advance reasoning and are instead ruled by instinct and the universal drive for self-preservation. For example, Shaelmaars, which look like moles clad in stone and are as big as semi-trucks, dwell in underground tunnels of their own making. At random they can tunnel to the surface, at which point some very Dionysian murder and destruction will ensue until a Witcher can be contracted to slay it.
Other monsters, such as Griffins, are as territorial as eagles and as opportunistic as vultures. Though they usually claim territories far from human settlements, they will attack and kill humans and livestock with abandon if the opportunity arises. While some more sentient monsters may aspire to Apollonian tendencies, they seem to be a rare exception. (In other words, Vampires are another story for another day.)
Witcher Gaetan (Witcher.Fandom)
Like humans but unlike most monsters, Witchers are simultaneously agents of both the Apollonian and Dionysian within their universe. A notable event that elucidates this dichotomy for Witchers is an incident involving the Witcher Gaetan, who found a notice in a village calling for a Witcher to kill a monster prowling their woods. Once the contract was agreed upon for a payment of several hundred Temerian Crowns (common currency in the Witcher's Universe), he went off into the woods to hunt and ply his craft. When he returned with his part of the contract fulfilled, as evidenced by the beast's head in his hand, the village leader significantly underpaid him, breaking the agreement.
When the Witcher protested, the common and routine lines rolled out: "Good sir, me young 'uns are starvin' and there's a war on! Gods have mercy, show some pity…" But the Witcher was not swayed. Calming the situation, the village leader told him that they secreted away some gold to the barn so the local lord would not pilfer it from them, thereby luring Gaetan to the barn. Once there, the villagers distracted him as one of their number moved around to his back and tried to skewer him with a pitchfork and failed.
We already established that Witchers are near superhuman, so this was not a clever idea. The Witcher slew him and turned his burning ire to the rest of the village, which was surely in on this assassination plot. He drew steel and muddied the earth with their blood, sparing only one little girl because she reminded him of a LOST sister. The village tried to kill him to save a few crowns, and he killed the whole village in retribution. The Apollonian in this incident is evidenced in that the Witcher was only trying to do his job within the bounds of an agreed-upon contract: to kill monsters for pay. It's all orderly and by the numbers. But it turned Dionysian via blood and steel when then village broke the contract and lured him to the barn.
Both humans and Witchers occupy the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, but for a Witcher to claim that they are human is a dubious prospect. You can ask a Witcher if they are monster or human and they might very well say they are either. This is where the crux starts, because in their world there is little room for discernment. They must occupy one side or the other, at least in the eyes of the world's inhabitants.
You may be thinking that they are just Witchers: at best professional exterminators or at worst, murderers and butchers. That very thought is why Witchers and common folk ought to be concerned with Witchers' existential place in the world. They might find themselves to be little different than monsters, as they are far and away physically advanced compared to their human fellows, and are thus shunned from large portions of human society. This might then bend them towards the Dionysian inner monster and provoke monstrous acts, and by the deed be a monster. On the other hand, a Witcher might accept his position and lot in the Apollonian pecking order as the defender of man from monster. Therefore, by the deed more human than monster.
Witchers are sentient and at times sentimental. They have hopes and struggles as we do and can have a moral compass just as developed as most humans. It is likely that they feel lamentations when they fail to track and a kill a monster that then destroys the village that sought its destruction, or the same emotion after a betrayal by the villagers causes the Witcher to do the same to the village in anger. Maybe Witchers are something beyond human or monster, or outside of good and evil. But at the end of the path they, like we, are forever caught between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
* * *
The Witcher game has been adapted into a new television series by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. It premiers on Netflix (US) 17 December 2019.
- The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - PopMatters ›
- The Problem of Sex in 'The Witcher 3' - PopMatters ›