Welcome to Witcher Wednesdays, where I read and comment on The Witcher series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski. Today I’m covering the third and fourth stories in The Last Wish , through page 88 in this edition.
This post CONTAINS SPOILERS so don’t read it until you’re caught up with the book. Ready? Let’s go!
The Voice of Reason 2
We’re back to the frame story. Geralt wakes up in a healing temple, where he went to heal his neck after it was so badly injured in the fight with the striga. The girl he was having sex with in part 1, Iola, is revealed to be one of the priestesses of the temple, and she’s promptly shooed by Nenneke, another priestess who seems to know Geralt. She chides him for letting himself get so badly hurt and then later tries to convince him to enter a religious trance where Iola can peer into the “power and fate” surrounding Geralt.
I’m liking these frame story entries. They’re short and provide a breather between stories while revealing more about Geralt (in this entry, for example, we learn that he is a nature worshiper rather than a follower of a specific organized religion). It’s also nice to see that Nenneke doesn’t care if Iola sleeps with Geralt. The relationship between sex and religion in fantasy novels tends to be either the ‘Christianity inspired no sex until you’re married and celibate priests’ variety or the ‘we have strange orgies to worship our Gods’ variety. It’s nice to see a sex positive religion that is okay with extramarital sex without it being part of their doctrine.
A Grain of Truth
Geralt is traveling in the woods with his horse, Roach, when he discovers two bodies, a man and a woman. The woman has an oddly colored, blue rose pinned to her coat. Geralt determines they were killed by some sort of monster and decides to investigate. He discovers a house with a tower, surrounded by a fence. Geralt feels that someone is watching him and he turns to see a girl with black hair and a long, white dress who flees at the sight of him.
Geralt approaches the gate to the house and it opens by itself. Inside he finds a rose bush with flowers that are the same dark blue as the rose that was pinned to the dead woman’s coat. A man with the head of a bear appears and invites Geralt into the house for food and drink. The man, Nivellan, has control over the house – he can make shutters open and close, and have food prepared for him.
Nivellan tells Geralt his story. He was a part of a group of thieves. One day, they broke into a temple and attacked a priestess, who cursed Nivellan to have a bear’s head. Since then, Nivellan has been struggling to reverse the curse. He pays men lots of money to let their daughters live with him for a year. While the girls live with him, he seduces them in hopes that true love’s kiss will break the curse. It never has, and Nivellan has come to terms with his curse, even turning away men who bring their daughters, like the pair that Geralt found in the woods earlier.
Convinced that Nivellan isn’t a monster (he can touch the Witcher’s silver medallion without being harmed), Geralt takes his leave. As he rides away, however, he begins to suspect that the girl who ran from him earlier is Nivellan’s new lover, and not entirely human. Geralt returns to the house and identifies the girl as a bruxa, a type of vampire.
Geralt and the bruxa fight, but Geralt is driven back by the bruxa’s cries. Nivellan comes to Geralt’s rescues and kills the bruxa before she can kill Geralt. When the bruxa dies, Nivellan’s head becomes human again. Geralt remarks that the only thing that could remove that kind of curse is blood – and true love.
This is a neat story, with a twist that I kicked myself for not picking up on sooner. What we have here is a version of Beauty and the Beast, retold in the Witcher universe. Nivellan is the beast and his many female companions take the place of Belle, with the bruxa being his ultimate true love. The rose bush is a reference to the rose that numbered the beast’s remaining days. The title, A Grain of Truth indicates that this may be the true story that Beauty and the Beast was based off of.
This is a fitting retelling of an old fairy tale, and it is grounded firmly in the Witcher universe. One of the dangers in retelling a classic story in a new setting is to cleave too close to the original that you aren’t true to the setting. The brutal laws of The Witcher universe are in full effect here. The one who can save the beast is not a harmless beauty, but someone just as dangerous as himself, and a simple kiss won’t do. No, the curse was laid on Nivellan for a terrible crime and only blood will pay for it.
This reminds me of how the original Grimm fairy tales were, dark and dangerous. It’s also nice to see that Geralt is competent but not all-powerful. He isn’t properly prepared to face the bruxa, and she very nearly kills him because of it. This also makes his foes even more terrifying. Geralt has trained since birth and has become super human due to being fed magic herbs from childhood (this is better explained in the games, or perhaps later in the books?), and yet a battle could turn in an instant and leave him dead. That’s really important. If we’re ever too certain of Geralt’s survival, it’ll kill a book like this in an instant.
For next week, I’m reading The Voice of Reason 3 and The Lesser Evil. That’s through page 144 in the mass market paperback edition of the book. See you next Wednesday!