This week, Netflix finally launches its highly anticipated fantasy series The Witcher. If you’re not familiar with either the source material or just why people have gotten so excited about a white-haired Henry Cavill in a bathtub, you’re probably not sure what all the fuss is about or why this is so exciting. Allow us to give you a quick guide.
If you’d heard about The Witcher before Netflix’s show as announced, odds are you heard of it thanks to the video game trilogy of the same name. Developed by Polish games studio CD Projekt Red, the roleplaying series catapulted from cult classic status to being among the most beloved and critically-lauded video games of the last 15 years.
The Witcher, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt are directly responsible for much of the non-Polish-reading world’s familiarity with Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of novels—their reception is what helped get translations of more recent entries in the saga made in English. Hell, their translation of the title of the series—wiedźmin, which in prior adaptations had been translated as “The Hexer”—as The Witcher helped essentially make that the series’ whole brand in the process. They’re arguably why Netflix is making a Witcher show in the first place.
But here’s the thing: the show is not based on the games, but instead specifically the events of the books, primarily adapting events from the original short story anthologies Sapkowski launched his creation with, and then events from the first three actual novels, referred as the Blood of Elves trilogy. The games are actually set decades after the events of the books, and Geralt starts the first game with amnesia. While Netflix’s series is adapting the books, that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t at least some tonal and aesthetic nods to the games in the TV series. Like, say... bathtubs? Game fans will understand.
The Witcher is set in a land only known as “the Continent.” Home first to gnomes, and then dwarves, eventually elves made their way to the land and established a peaceful relationship with both the natural world and the other races on the Continent, raising great cities among each of their kinds as a trifecta that would come to be known as the “Elder Races.” Approximately 1,500 years before the events seen in the show, a cataclysm known as the “Conjunction of the Spheres” radically changed the Continent forever. A multiversal shattering that tore apart holes in reality, bringing monsters from other existences to the Continent, trapping them there, and leading to them launching themselves upon the Elder Races.
Humans came after all that, and have been around for roughly five centuries by the time of the series. Their civilization first started out as a relatively peaceful presence on the Continent—elves even taught the first human mages, ancient forebears that appeared in the wake of the Conjunction hundreds of years before what would be referred to in human history as First Landing. But, humanity gonna humanity: Seeking dominance over the land, humans put the gnomes, dwarves, and elves to the sword in a series of brutal wars, establishing themselves as the de facto species across the land. Although the other races still have smaller enclaves of their own societies, there are also gnomes, dwarves, and elves that live among (and in service to) humans in their towns and cities, where they face prejudice.
Speaking of human society, by the time of The Witcher humankind has largely been divided into two major power blocs: There’s the Northern Kingdoms, a loosely-allied conglomerate of smaller nations spearheaded by Cintra, and then in the south there’s the Nilfgaardian Empire. Multiple wars of invasion have been fought between the Empire and the Northern Kingdoms—including the one that sets into motion the events of The Witcher.
Okay, you’ve got this far and wondering if you should ask the obvious, awkward question: What actually is a Witcher?
They’re essentially bounty hunters. An order created by humankind to specifically combat the monstrous threat brought about by the Conjunction, Witchers—usually men, although there are female Witchers—are humans that have been rigorously trained in all forms of martial combat and the history of monsters, before exposed to toxic mutagens. If they survive the exposure process, these mutagens give Witchers the ability to latently sense monsters, as well as an element of enhanced strength, speed, and stamina, and the ability to cast a rudimentary form of runic magic. Which, we should note, is very different to what is otherwise referred to as “magic” in the Witcher.
The runic signs Witchers cast are very basic cantrips—wards, traps, minor acts of telekinesis—whereas actual magic is something the user has to be born with the capacity to wield correctly (those that do are called Sources). Manipulating the forces of primordial chaos, a magic user plays with fraught danger with every spell they cast; magic, no matter how minor, requires a sacrifice in exchange, and an unfocused source of chaos could maim or kill them (and those around them) without rigorous concentration, years of training at special schools, or the ability to give in to a stray thought. In exchange, they tap into one of the most powerful forces in existence. Trained Sorcerers can do everything from cast powerful glamours, disguising their form, to manipulate the very elements or teleport themselves across the world.
Magic aside, the mutation process that makes Witchers also sterilizes them, so in order to make more, candidates have to be recruited. This is either through opportunity on their travels, or by a human right known as the “Law of Surprise”—a reward for a job that can be claimed by anyone as giving them ownership of “The first thing that comes to greet” the rewarder, or “What you find at home yet don’t expect.” The Law is nebulous—that’s the point of its risk, it could gift you a bountiful harvest crop, an animal, or the service of a guard. But its latter clause is often interpreted so the Law can give ownership over an unborn child, which Witchers often invoke to gather more trainees.
This uncertain attitude, as well as the fact that they usually only show up when there are vast horrors abound, and care for little other than money, leads to Witchers being generally distrusted by people—something not helped by the fact that, by the present of the books and the show, Witchers are a dying breed and come few and far between.
There’s a lot going on, and a lot of people, wrapped up in the mythos of The Witcher. But really, you only need to be basically familiar with three people going into the show. Which is good, because they’re the protagonists! Say hi:
Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) is the titular Witcher, known as the White Wolf for the color of his hair (altered by the advanced mutagens he was exposed to in his training). He roams the world taking jobs and slaying monsters, carrying on the legacy of his dying order, his only constant companion being his horse, Roach. But Geralt fights, feasts, and, well, the third f-words his way through life to escape a brush with destiny, having invoked the Law of Surprise during an encounter with Queen Calanthe of Cintra and her daughter that binds him to the fate of...
Ciri (Freya Allan), or to give her her full name, Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon. Ciri is the Lion Cub of Cintra, the last surviving princess of its royal family in the wake of the brutal invasion of the kingdom by Nilfgaard. Ciri is pursued by the Empire not just for her status as the heir to the Cintran throne, but for her blood beyond royal birthright: Ciri is a powerful Source, capable of wielding incredibly potent magics passed down through her family over generations. Fleeing her ruined home, Ciri is told to seek out Geralt for protection so she can begin to train to control her powers and take back what is hers.
Initially unlinked to either of these people is a third and very important character: Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra). Born with a severe spinal curvature exacerbated by a childhood of abuse, Yennefer is also a Source, and was eventually rescued from her horrible upbringing by a sorceress named Tissaia de Vries. Tissaia, seeing Yennefer’s potential, took the young girl from her abusive home to be trained in her magical abilities at a school called Aretuza. Yennefer grows to become an incredibly powerful mage, despite being looked down upon by her fellow trainees because of her physical deformities and lowborn status—and uses the lessons learned in her cutthroat time at Aretuza to work her way into high society as a magical advisor to Kings and Queens.
Yennefer also uses her vast magical abilities to cast a perpetual glamour over herself, hiding her spinal deformities to present to the world around her as one of the most beautiful women on the Continent. She eventually meets Geralt in her travels, becoming an ally and his on-again/off-again love interests.
Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer’s stories begin with them both relatively unknown to each other (well, except Geralt and Yennerfer, who are...intimately acquainted) and entirely separated—we know that the show’s creator and showrunner, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, struggled at first with how to effectively introduce all three protagonists in the show through their own lenses, instead of directly through Geralt’s perspective, so expect to spend a lot of time with these characters on their own, despite their eventual importance to each other.
This only really scratches the surface of what’s going on in the world of The Witcher, but it’s also really all you need to know going in. The series itself, which drops this Friday, December 20, should provide more than enough context for you as Geralt goes about his monster hunting business. For now, all you have to do is wait!
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