When you think of Eastern European literature, you are probably not thinking about fantasy. Sure, you may have been forced to read Master and Margarita in High School but for the most part, Eastern European literature evokes images of misery: a dreadful and unavoidable fate; madness; ruminations on (depressing) history; unrequited love; faith; and, of course, death. The world of elves, dwarves, gnomes, dragons, and unicorns seems far removed from these concerns.
It isn’t. And if you need proof of that, look no further than the Witcher series by the Polish author, Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski’s novels are set in a fantasy world that feels a lot like Medieval Poland. And while it is (as I suppose one would expect from an Eastern European saga) concerned with the often-morbid themes of destiny, death, history, love, and madness, there is much love, camaraderie and, above all else, humor in these novels. Perhaps more surprising still, many of the topics the saga treats are thoroughly modern. For while the novels are set in a fantastical Medieval world, the stories they tell are influenced I think (more than a little) by modern Eastern European history and modernity as a whole.
There is, for example, the theme of genetics and the very modern ethical concerns surrounding humans tampering with DNA. Geralt, the “hero” of this saga (and I use the word hero advisedly), is a mutant (he was a human boy—one born most improbably to a sorceress) who was later mutated into a witcher, a bounty hunter paid and specially bred to hunt monsters. But Geralt is hardly alone. For as we read further in the novels, many of the characters have had their genetic inheritance tampered with, either directly or subtly. Or, take the theme of homosexuality. Ciri, one of the main characters, whose daughter is destined to be Queen of the World is bi-sexual. She is also what we would call a juvenile delinquent; no worse, she is a gang member. If you happen to know of another fantasy saga in which one of the main characters is a bi-sexual gang member, I would love to hear about it.
And over it all is the theme of war. This should surprise no-one. For much of today’s writing about war, in general, is greatly influenced by Eastern European literature. And how could it not be? For this is a region that has rarely known peace and whose countries have had their borders drawn and redrawn over and over again. Oddly perhaps, because of the non-stop thousands of years old wars, sworn enemies had to learn to live together (if only for the sake of their often common children)—amidst chauvinism, nationalism and competing stories of “what really happened.” And this Eastern European reality too informs the Witcher saga where sworn enemies help one another find loved ones while those who seem to be “on the right side” are often revealed to be monsters.
And perhaps it is the Eastern European history and reality (a reality characterized more by shades of gray than by black and white) that demands there be no heroes in this saga. Geralt, the main protagonist is a kind of bounty hunter. He has a moral code (one he invented himself) but if he needs money desperately enough (to help loved ones for example) he will break it. The love of his life, the sorceress Yennefer, can hardly be called a saint. She is a strong-willed, often selfish, often self-absorbed, always obsessed with political machinations woman who has had more than her share of sexual exploits. Geralt’s and Yennefer’s tumultuous relationship is a trial for their “adopted daughter”, Ciri, who (like too many children whose parents go through a divorce) ends up falling in with some seriously bad company and joins a gang. Take away the magic, the dragons, the vampires (who aren’t evil either incidentally; they’re just a different race of beings) and the like and this summary might be of an article in a modern sociological journal.
Except it’s far more powerful than that. By placing these novels in an alien yet recognizable setting; a setting filled with fairy tales (no matter how twisted), dwarves, elves, unicorns, dragons and all the other creatures of fantasy, Sapkowski lulls us into a thinking it’s safe to wander about this world with his heroes; he makes us think it might be safe to look into the still pools of water we find there. But when we look—even if it’s just a glance—we see ourselves and our world staring back at us. Though perhaps, dear reader you won’t know that straight away. Perhaps you will only realize ita only after you have turned the last page and closed the last book that has been translated into English. But realize it you will. And for that reason alone, I recommend the Witcher Saga.
I would also recommend that you read the novels in story rather than translation order. That order is:
The Last Wish
Sword of Destiny
Blood of Elves
The Time of Contempt
Baptism of Fire