The worst monsters are the ones we create — The Witcher and our focus on killing monsters.
With the release of the series “The Witcher” in 2019, the story of the monster-slayer has become widely popular. Yet, for being in the mainstream, the themes of The Witcher are quite extraordinary and hold great insight for us all, especially when it comes to who we consider to be a monster.
Geralt, the Witcher, is a man for hire to handle almost any kind of monster imaginable, and in many ways, this seems to be the setting for a rather conventional story of a man tasked with protecting humans from evil monsters. Yet, it is quickly revealed that the story is anything but conventional.
In the first episode of the series, Geralt tells the tale of the first monster he killed, yet to our surprise, this is not some creature, but a man who tried to rape a girl. This is a first dive beneath the surface of the story. We may have presumed that this story would exclusively be centered around Geralt saving people from terrible monsters, but we quickly learn that this is a world that is morally grey. For what we learn that the story exceeds at, is enabling us to empathise and understand almost every character that is encountered, human or otherwise.
One of the best examples of this is seen in the third episode of the series, where Geralt is hired to kill a creature which is terrorising the local population. The situation seems straightforward; locate and kill the creature. Yet, as the investigation ensues Geralt realises that the creature is a Striga. A cursed, aborted fetes, that has grown into a monstrous, dangerous being. After further investigation, Geralt learns that the curse was cast by a man jealous of the girl’s father, the local king, due to a romantic complication with the king’s sister.
The specific details of the story can be learned through watching the series, but what is important here is that this monster, which now kills and ravages wildly, is actually just a child that was cursed due to circumstances beyond itself. So, who is the actual monster? The cursed child or the man who cast the curse out of spite? Geralt, decides upon the latter and allows the Striga to kill the man, whereafter a fight between the Witcher and the Striga ensues. But going into this fight, both we and Geralt understand that this is essentially a just a child, and that the only way to lift the curse is to keep the Striga out of its crypt until dawn. For this reason, Geralt chooses to fight without the use of his sword, and instead fights using blunt tools, barely managing to keep the Striga at bay and himself alive.
It is because he understands the reason for the creatures being, Geralt chooses to try to save it instead of killing it.
This theme is further developed in the sixth episode, as Geralt is hired to guard a hunting party. The group encounters a sickly bipedal wolf-like creature, which Geralt immediately identifies as hungry, and suggests feeding so that I will run off. Barely has this suggestion left his mouth, before a “noble knight” brutally cuts down the creature with excessive swings of his sword, whereafter he declares the situation a glorious victory. What is indicated here is not only that the knight severely lacks understanding of other creatures, but also serves his own image of moral superiority by declaring this creature evil and thus slaying it.
In the real world, we don’t have the same magical creatures, yet the lessons in of the Witcher have much to teach us, nevertheless.
We fear animals such as sharks, bears, wolves, for their alleged bloodlust, yet when comparing the number of people killed by these animals, to the inverse, we see that humans are the true terror, killing other animals by the billions. Bears are kept in circuses, zoos, fight-pits, hunted needlessly. Sharks are culled, fished as bycatch, and even captured, only to be thrown back into the ocean with their fins cut off. When truly trying to understand these animals, we realise that they have little interest in harming people, unless threatened, and that in reality we are the ones acting monstrously.
The problem though, is not limited to other animals. The 2003 movie “monster” tells the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a woman who while working as a prostitute, killed several men. Like other serial-killers she was considered a monster, by both the public hearing about her, and by the court sentencing her to death. Aileen was from the age of 10 routinely raped and abused. Her life was a living hell, from the second she was born.
There is a parallel here between Aileen and the cursed child in the Witcher. For while she certainly did murder several men, one has to wonder what the world looked like through her eyes. As we learn of her childhood, the trauma and brutality she endured, it becomes clear that this “monster” was truly a broken child, doomed by the very people that should have protected her. Again, we can ask, who the true monster is; Aileen or the people who abused her? This is not an attempt to moralise the killings, but instead to understand how these “monsters” come into existence.
In much of the mainstream talk and with serial-killers, it seems though, we are often more interested in having clearly defined monsters. The same way as the “noble knight” in the Witcher, that is, so that we can see ourselves as good and virtuous by comparison to these dark beings. The story of Aileen is a tragedy. A tragedy that will teach us very little if we settle on merely declaring her a monster, instead of understanding the horrific causes of her being.
We may find a sense of moral superiority in merely condemning her, but it will come at the price of losing the necessary insight needed to ameliorate the lives of millions of women worldwide, and thus avoid similar cases in the future.
Another way The Witcher explores our willingness towards condemnation is through the many factions that are at constant war with each other. What is remarkable is how members of each faction are usually completely convinced of their own righteousness, and thus of the opposition’s monstrousness. Whether the divide be between smaller groups, kingdoms, race, the characters we meet usually have strong stances aligned with their faction, and especially regarding how much they hate the opposing faction.
In the first episode, the kingdom of Cintra is sieged and overtaken by an army from the kingdom of Nilfgard, and it is clear that Nilfgardians are both brutally ruthless and religiously zealous. It seems that Cintra is the “descent” kingdom, which has now been overtaken by darkness. Yet, as the story continues, we learn that Cintra has in the past dealt similar violence to the elven population (another race).
The many factions have all suffered at the hands of each other and now allow this grief to fuel their continued violence. This is not to say that they all execute violence to similar degrees, or even that some factions don’t seem almost completely separated from conscience, such as the zealous Nilfgard. But what it does show is a seemingly continuous cycle of violence and destruction, to which all factions participate.
And as the series clearly shows, this is understandable. In the second episode, Geralt learns about much of the atrocity that the elves have endured, and having this knowledge, it is not hard to imagine why the elves carry a hatred of humans. Yet, having gained new awareness, Geralt neither condemns nor joins the elves, but instead advises that they, instead of focusing on warfare, focus on rebuilding elsewhere. To focus on building instead of vengeance.
Overall the story makes it clear that there are no clear heroes and villains, as even the most violent groups, commit that violence as a reaction to what has been done to them.
A similar situation is taking place in the real world, as political polarisation is intensifying and spreading. In the case of the current US election, members of both sides seem to believe that the opposition is essentially an existential threat. Perceptions basted both on a long and violent history, but arguably more so on the current divisive events. Nonetheless, what is lacking is the acknowledgement of the opposing faction’s humanity. For while people understandably choose one side and oppose the other, this is unlikely to resolve the actual cycle of violence.
The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, are a prime example hereof due to the obvious nature of the polarity. Both sides of the matter perceive themselves as being righteous, and this manifests as violence that is perceived as either a confirmation of the opposition’s evil, or as just means of defence. Determining which side has the more righteous stance is mostly futile, as the number of elements factoring into any event taking place are innumerable but will also likely fail to satisfy a person believing that their side holds objective truth and moral superiority.
Without being willing to understand why the perspective of those we consider opponents, and thereby accepting the possibility for misunderstanding in our own perception, it is hardly possible to imagine how to ameliorate the situation constructively and peacefully.
A more major, yet often neglected, example, is that of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Commonly understood to be either mistakes or a war-crimes, they have been the reason for at least hundreds of thousands of civilians deaths, and many atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict. What has been especially lacking is an understanding into why so many people were willing to take up arms against the Western invaders, and arguably this failure was due to our limited perspective. We saw ourselves as good and righteous, and the enemy forces as evil savages, and thus any actions from a Western perspective became immediately justifiable.
As seen both in the story and the real world every person, group, faction, has a reason for being the way they are. But while our immediate reaction may be to demonise those with a different perspective, this leads only to violence and further polarisation. It seems that, however difficult, the true solutions to our problems will only become clear once we are willing to consider every perspective, especially the ones opposing us.
At its core The Witcher serves as a mirror to ourselves and our world, helping us gain awareness and understanding that is essential for us to move forward and approach life in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.
It is at once a challenge and inspiration to approach the world with courage and understanding, instead of fear and damnation, which will help us overcome the challenges at hand, both individually and as a people.
Thank you for reading.