The Moral Ambiguity of Geralt of Rivia and the Grimdark World of The Witcher Series
Above: artwork courtesy of CD Projekt Red: http://thewitcher.com/
In the genre of grimdark fiction, heroes are not always the most savoury of people. They are not always the valiant knight on a crusade to rid the world of evil or magicians seeking to educate the world and find magic artefacts of ages past. Grimdark heroes come in a multitude of different flavours, and even the shadiest guard or common pickpocket can rise to greatness through dark and inhumane deeds that lead them to power and greatness. Within the world of The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski, one Witcher stands out above the rest: Geralt of Rivia (Gwynbleidd, The White Wolf, The Butcher of Blaviken, Geralt Roger Eric du Haute-Bellegarde) is that Witcher, a man mutated to be able to fight all of the creatures that prowl in the night. Geralt is held as a martyr to some, a legend to others, and to still others, he is a creature who haunts the night. When asked if Geralt is a hero, most people would not outright say that he is; however, in this world even a villain can be a hero in their own eyes. But what does Geralt think of himself one might ask? Geralt is a Witcher who sees himself as neutral in the affairs of others. However, he is not opposed to helping in others’ affairs for the right price. Within the world that Geralt lives he must walk a morally grey road in order to survive; otherwise, he would be food for the worms, leaving the defenceless for the day when the White Frost will destroy all. But what makes this Witcher so special?
Geralt of Rivia, throughout the Witcher short stories and novels, makes many considerably evil decisions. In The Lesser Evil, for example, Geralt is forced to make a decision where no matter the outcome people will die. While passing through the Blaviken, looking for his reward for killing a Kikimori, he brings the carcass to the alderman, who points him towards Master Irion, the city’s resident sorcerer. Upon meeting him, he learns that Master Irion is actually Stregobor, a Kovirian sorcerer, who tells Geralt that he is required to kill the girl Renfi, who is after the sorcerer. At first Geralt refuses, stating that he does not know Renfi and that he could not justify killing her. Later that same evening Renfi and crew of ruffians make their way into Blaviken and get a room and a private drinking quarters in one of the city’s taverns. Geralt introduces himself and learns Renfi’s side of the story – how she was raped and magically turned into stone before finally meeting her band of fighters and making her way toward revenge. After their conversation Geralt leaves to stay at the alderman’s and is visited by Renfi late in the night. She asks Geralt to kill Stregobor for her, and he declines. In the morning Renfi is gone, and Geralt now knows what she intends to do. Renfi plans to coax Stregobor out of his tower by killing everyone who goes to the town market that day. Geralt is then forced to make a decision that is the “Lesser Evil”. He kills Renfi and all of her band, saving the lives of everyone in Blaviken, but also gaining himself the title Butcher of Blaviken, and souring his reputation.
In the novels, Geralt is forced to make many similarly no-win decisions, most of which involve his ward, Ciri, who is basically his adopted daughter. She is a child of destiny and the last known source of the Elder Blood, the Blood of Elves. In the first Witcher novel, Blood of Elves, Geralt has to make choices on how to keep Ciri safe from those who would do her harm. Most heroes in this situation would decide to keep her in a completely safe location; however, Geralt has other ideas. He brings Ciri to Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the Witchers. Geralt and the other three Witchers at Kaer Morhen begin teaching her about different monsters, instructing her in swordsmanship, and having her run the dangerous trails leading up to the stronghold that young Witchers have named ‘The Trail’. Geralt sends word to request the help of a sorceress friend, Triss Merigold, to aid in Ciri’s teaching. Triss helps Ciri in several ways in which Geralt, being a man in a stronghold generally only ever used by Witchers who are all men, would not have been able to understand. Soon Triss makes the decision that she is not the best suited sorceress for the job and mentions that Geralt should have chosen Yennefer, scolding Geralt for letting his petty differences with Yennefer get the better of his judgement. She says Ciri needs to go out and meet people around her own age. Geralt already has a plan for this, to send her to the temple of Melitele to learn under Mother Nenneke, where he knows Ciri will be safe and more likely to learn the necessary social skills. But instead he first brings her, a child of twelve, to a place where she could have died countless times but would learn to protect herself, showing the lose-lose dilemmas that can confront the grimdark hero even when they do not directly involve killing.
Within the world of The Witcher games there are many characters that are constantly portrayed as evil, such as the emperor of Nilfgaard Emhyr var Emreis. Emhyr is a power-driven monarch who seeks to make all of The Continent his own and find his only child, the child of destiny he granted as reward to the man who enabled him to marry his late wife. That child is Ciri, whom he wishes to become his successor, and that man is Geralt. Emhyr begins multiple wars in order to achieve these goals. What makes him a complex character is that he destroys Cintra, the country of which Ciri is the princess and her maternal grandmother the Queen. Therefore, Emhyr is the reason for his mother-in-law’s death and the complete disappearance of Ciri. He makes many decisions like these – decisions that seem to both aid and hinder the achievement of his goals – even after countless years of war, while still searching for his daughter and hiring Geralt to find her during the events of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Nevertheless, he does not consider himself a villain because he does what he thinks will succeed.
Similarly, in the Witcher games, the player is thrust into the shoes of Geralt, controlling his actions and making decisions for him in countless situations, almost of all of which have multiple consequences no matter the outcome. One series of quests in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt shows the hardship of living in The Continent far better than any other. These quests start with ‘The Ladies of the Woods’ and continue until the end of ‘Family Matters’ in which Geralt, on the trail of Ciri, is led to Crookback Bog. Once there he is tasked by The Ladies to kill an evil spirit resting under a tree on the Whispering Hillock. When Geralt reaches the tree, the spirit asks him to set it free. The spirit tells Geralt how to do so and that, if it is not freed, the children that The Ladies keep in their bog will die. With that the player is given three options: help the tree spirit and save the children, trick the tree spirit by bringing the objects it requires but not piercing the heart of the tree with his sword to rescue the spirit, or straight out killing the spirit. No matter which course the player takes either the children of the bog die or the spirit is freed and the people in the town near the Whisper Hillock die. Soon after, the player is tasked with finding the family of the Baron of Crow’s Perch, whose daughter became a religious fanatic and whose wife made a deal with The Ladies, giving one year of her service to the crones in exchange for terminating a pregnancy. Once the Baron goes to rescue his wife from the bog, Geralt’s actions determine her fate. If the tree was killed, the Baron’s wife will live but still serve her year with the crones, from which the player, as Geralt, can rescue her. However if the player saves the children by freeing the spirit, the Baron’s wife will die, but not before at least saying her goodbyes, which leads the Baron to hang himself out of grief. These are the types of decisions that characterize Geralt’s life in a grimdark world of the Witcher games.
In a world so dark and gritty Geralt is forced to walk a line of moral ambiguity to survive. He is a prime example of a grimdark hero, constantly forced to choose between lesser evils in favour of the greater good. His actions can often be viewed as evil, but every action is something he must do in order to live another day and continue to fight in the ever-changing world around him.
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