The Witcher season 1 primer: A spoiler-free look at the world of Netflix’s high fantasy series starring Henry Cavill
If you haven’t read the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, on which Netflix's The Witcher is based, or played the spin-off video games, or watched the Polish language film and TV show (both called The Hexer), you may need this handy guide on what the first season entails.
This Friday saw the release of Netflix’s fantasy series The Witcher. If you haven’t read the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, on which the show is based, or played the spin-off video games, or watched the Polish language film and TV show (both called The Hexer), you may need a handy guide on what the first season entails.
Here’s a (spoiler free) lowdown on the world of The Witcher.
Past and present
The action takes place on ‘The Continent’, a place of many mediaeval kingdoms, most of them at war with each other. For the purpose of season 1, the ones of importance are Temeria, Aedirn, Creyden, Cintra, and (to some extent) Nilfgaard — and their respective rulers. (View a map of the Continent here.)
The Continent is peopled, for the most part, by humans, but there are other creatures too. From snatches of history, we find out that elves were the original inhabitants of the Continent. However, approximately 1,500 years before the events described in The Witcher books, there was a cataclysmic event known as the “Conjunction of Spheres”. Creatures from other worlds became trapped in this one, and this included monsters and the first humans.
Cut to The Witcher’s present-day, and we find that the elves passed on their knowledge to the humans — especially of channelising chaos, or ‘magic’ — only to have the latter turn on them. Elvish-human animosity has been a feature of the Continent’s history ever since.
A particularly bloody chapter of this conflict was called “the Great Cleansing” in which nearly all elves were slaughtered by humans. While pretty tales are told of the elves withdrawing to their golden palaces, leaving the land to the humans, the truth is far more sordid. Now, the remnants of the elves — the last survivors — lead a ragtag existence away from human eyes (and cruelty).
And what of the monsters?
A wide variety of them continue to lurk on the Continent — from vampires and werewolves to strigas and kikimoras. And since they are partial to human victims, and general mayhem, you need monster hunters to track them down. Enter: witchers, of whom our hero Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), is one.
Witchers are chosen when they’re still young. At Kaer Morhen, the mountain stronghold of the order of witchers, children are put through a variety of painful transformative experiments — a course only the strongest among them survive. The ones who do, become witchers. In a sense, they’re mutants. Their livelihood is earned by killing monsters, and the populace at large does not love them: most witchers are hated and feared where they go, and the order is long past its glory days.
What adventures will you see unfold?
Episodes 1-5 of The Witcher season 1, made available to the press for viewing, draw for the most part from Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish (1993), a collection of six short stories recounting a set of incidents from Geralt’s recent past. The Last Wish moves back and forth through these stories, as Geralt recovers at a temple, from wounds he sustained while confronting a striga.
Sapkowski’s forte is taking elements of popular fairy tales, and introducing a (usually) dark twist. Among other fairy tales, The Last Wish harks back to ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and also common tropes like curses that are lifted only by true love, or spells that can be reversed at dawn.
The characters you need to know — apart from Geralt, of course
While the “White Wolf” is the protagonist, he’s surrounded by several characters of varying import. Two who are particularly significant in terms of carrying forward the season 1 storyline, are Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a mage; and Cirilla (Freya Allan), the princess of Cintra.
While the narrative is primarily seen in terms of what happens to Geralt, Yennefer and Cirilla, you’ll find Sapkowski’s other characters too getting their moment in the spotlight, including Dandelion (a bard who becomes Geralt’s companion), Queen Calanthe (Cintra’s fierce ruler and Cirilla’s grandmother), and Renfri (a princess-turned-killer).
Geralt, Yennefer and Cirilla are all bound by destiny — one that’s unravelled as the story proceeds.
If I’m not familiar with the books/video games, will I follow the plot of The Witcher season 1?
Yes, most of it. But with the amount of new information every episode throws at you, having a little foreknowledge of Sapkowski’s world does help.
…And is The Witcher anything at all like Game of Thrones?
Hmm, only a little. If you’ve been missing mediaeval swordplay, there’s a battle sequence or two that’ll keep you happy.
The Witcher is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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