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Monica Valentinelli

Magic and Motherhood in Netflix’s The Witcher: Part 1

Posted on December 31, 2019 by Monica Valentinelli

The Witcher Roleplaying GameNetflix’s adaptation of The Witcher debuted in December 2019 and has been met with both criticism and accolades. If you’re not already aware, the events in The Witcher Season One are presented as a time-hopping origin story, or braided narrative, for three characters: Yennefer of Vengerberg, Geralt of Rivia, and Ciri of Cintra. The character arcs and setting material were drawn from short stories published in two collections written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski “Sword of Destiny” (1992) and “The Last Wish” (1993), which predate the video games. This post dives into a specific aspect of The Witcher–magic–and does contain some spoilers and only draws from Netflix’s series as a primary source.

I had a lot of fun with Geralt of Rivia and monster hunting as a fan, but wanted to dive deeply into an aspect of the worldbuilding and narrative from a creator’s and setting adaptor’s POV. In Part I, I examine the magic and magical systems present in The Witcher. In Part II, I’ll then dive into motherhood and fertility which serve as examples of how its implemented and commented upon in this setting.

Before I unravel the magic system in The Witcher, here’s some background on magic if you’re unfamiliar with how our world influences worldbuilding in fantasy. If you want to skip the first part, click on this link: Magic and Magic Systems in The Witcher.

Basics of Magic and Magical Systems

In our world, magical traditions and practices have existed for millennia as a means to explain and/or affect natural phenomena, such as the weather, human body and mind, animal kingdom, and the environment, but also to exert influence over the supernatural world by contacting deities, foretelling the future, etc. Magic wasn’t just “this superstitious thing naive people did”, it was their reality.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of magic systems exist. Magic systems can either have a singular focus or be multidisciplinary touching on botany, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Notably, alchemy served as the precursor to chemistry, but even so: there were different varieties informed by religious and cultural beliefs. Keep in mind that while scientific disciplines offer a common set of facts across multiple cultures, magical systems do not employ universal truths even when leveraging the same ritual components or tools.

This is one of the many reasons politics are omnipresent and inseparable from magic. Identity, however, is another and magic is filled with misogynistic and gender essentialist views. Paracelsus, a 16th century Swedish physician, astrologer, and alchemist, for example, believed that magic was natural and accessible provided you weren’t a menstruating woman. European magicians are often depicted as privileged, white, cisgendered males, while village herbalists are illustrated as poor, white, ugly, older women with monstrous features or intent. Women did participate in the development of the sciences and were not exclusively folklorists. Though they are un-credited and have often been erased from the texts, it wasn’t uncommon for a female alchemist to provide aid during experiments.

To further underline how misogynistic magic can be, examine shows and books about witch hunters which reinforce the aforementioned depictions. They were not heroes; they were serial killers that were legally allowed to murder women. Witch hunters like Matthew Hopkins were paid to drag “witches” out of their homes for interrogation, torture, and execution. These men preyed on vulnerable women, which included white women and women of color, throughout Europe and colonial America. In addition to practicing folkloric traditions, the women were also disabled, queer, mentally ill, and elderly; they were targeted because they were poor or isolated. Even in our modern era, superstitions about moles or plague rashes (witch’s marks) and black cats (a witch’s familiar) persist, and many misogynistic and gender essentialist beliefs remain.

Those cursory examples, dear reader, are just scratching the surface of issues that are directly related to the practice, tutelage, recording, and examination of Western magical traditions. Fantasy worldbuilding can be tricky because primary sources have influenced settings used in games, movies, novels, etc. This media then informs other creator’s works and shapes popular superstitions and attitudes toward all women. Thankfully, there are plenty of contemporary resources and courses available at places like www.writingtheother.com that can help you avoid pitfalls and tell a fabulous fantasy story.

Magic and Magic Systems in The Witcher

In fantasy worldbuilding, there are a few components to designing magic: where magic comes from, if magic is renewable or limited, how magic is accessed, if magic usage is regulated, and lastly, what magic is used for.

This five-part framework is how I’ll examine magic in The Witcher Season One.

1. Where does The Witcher‘s magic come from?

The source of all magic is something called “Chaos”. This appears to be a primordial force or power present in the environment and is a naturally-occurring phenomena.

2. Is The Witcher‘s magic renewable or limited?

This wasn’t clear to me from a viewer’s perspective. Tissaia de Vries turns three of the female adepts studying at Aretuza into slugs and tossed them into a glimmering pool in Episode 2; there’s more explanation in Episode 7. The logic given, to refresh the pool, presents magic as a limited resource. Other than the slugs, this wasn’t apparent at all in the narrative or in the world.

Given the history inferred in Yennefer’s narrative, I have so many questions about the nature of Chaos and what elements it’s present in following the slug transformation act. The implied passage of time in her character arc introduced a lot of questions, and I think I’d have less confusion if her storyline spanned years instead of centuries.

3. How is magic in The Witcher accessed?

Short answer: it’s complicated. In The Witcher, there are three disciplines present in the worldbuilding: alchemy or proto-chemistry used to craft potions, botany introduced as a source of magical ingredients, and biology. I couldn’t tell if alchemy was considered magic or not; it was presented as more pharmaceutical than mystical to me, so I’ve mentally regulated that discipline to be more chemical than Chaos-fueled.

Chaos can be tapped into provided you’re an adept with the right genes and you obtain the proper training through segregated academies before Chaos harms you. By only granting certain characters an innate ability to practice magic, you run the risk of traipsing on ableist, ageist, racist, and sexist stereotypes. This is something you should be aware of before adapting an older work or worldbuilding your own fantasy construct, because how much (or how little) you explain your magic system will inform viewers/readers/players “who” gets to do magic. That, dear reader, is always political. Thankfully, the mages themselves had better representation which was great to see. That said, there were a few issues. Yennefer, for example, declares she’s twenty-five percent elf–which was completely unnecessary and smacks of blood quantum.

For me, the biology was the weakest part of The Witcher‘s magical worldbuilding. The Witcher‘s elven species is presented as a clear stand-in for indigenous peoples from our world and yet the humanoid elves who interact with Geralt don’t seem inhuman other than having pointy ears. If you had to keep that dialogue, Yennefer could have said “my grandmother was an elf” instead and avoid blood quantum altogether. What’s more, Geralt of Rivia remarks to the elves that he’s not human? Only, he was born human and experimented on. Why isn’t he? And, does that mean that mages aren’t human, either, because they’re living conduits for Chaos? More questions!

To access Chaos, trained mages must also remember that magic has a price. While presented as a limitation, I’m not clear what that price is on a spell-by-spell level. If you don’t crush a flower, your hand will mutate? You need to take a magically-induced nap? Give blood? Mind you, “price” is a different concept than “risk”. A spell with risk of failure is not the same as a spell that requires a sacrifice to succeed. By all means–risk away! That technique provides great conflict and helps ground your magic system to show spells don’t always work. (For a similar magic system, watch The Dragon Prince as an alternative; sometimes simpler is better in fantasy worldbuilding!)

In The Witcher, we see more risk than price. Certain flowers are crushed to produce specific effects at Aretuza, for example, but does that mean only people with the proper genes can crush those plants to tap into Chaos? Why those particular flowers if what matters is the fact you’re a mage? We do see mages that burn themselves up to attack an enemy, but again battle magic (while always badass and super fun for me to watch) isn’t consistent either. From a creator’s perspective, I definitely wanted to know more about the nature Chaos to fill in the gaps I had; I personally wouldn’t have been able to adapt the work without having those holes filled, and I feel like there’s knowledge I’m missing from not having read the original works.

How is magic in The Witcher regulated?

The fact you have to be born with magic and learn to control Chaos before you come to self-harm is limiting. Not everyone can perform magic, and those who don’t step in line with the Brotherhood risk harm. I felt this leaned more heavily on “magic always has a price” than it needed to. In a world where alchemy and mental illnesses exist, nobody could concoct a potion to help the afflicted? Or make helping the patients a priority? I would absolutely love to see Geralt of Rivia have an encounter with a young mage who succumbed to Chaos in Season Two to understand how this affects the narrative and the larger world.

On a grander scale, The Witcher‘s magic is dripping with politics. The Brotherhood of Sorcerers is a organizing body that assigns mages to aid kings and shape their kingdoms, local laws can be shaped to govern mages, and certain mages wield power and influence, too. Stregobor, for example, assassinated young women born under the Curse of the Black Sun. It is segregated as well, and the institution remained static for centuries. This was the most unbelievable part to me about the Brotherhood; what organization doesn’t change over time?

Circling back to “magic always has a price”, there is forbidden magic in The Witcher according to Frigilla. I wasn’t sure if that meant forbidden magic isn’t taught, if there’s a punishment for its practice, or how the mages would find out about it. At a cursory glance, certain battle spells appear to cost a mage their life, so I have to assume forbidden means deadly. I was looking for that to understand Frigilla’s threat level beyond what we saw in battle, and expect we’ll see more of her character in Season Two.

What is magic in The Witcher used for?

Trained mages primarily tap into Chaos to produce varied supernatural effects on the natural world. By tapping into Chaos, a mage can unleash a tornado that sweeps enemies off their feet, can grow toxic mushrooms to poison armies, etc. Mages can also affect other people with mind control and other forms of psychic phenomena such as hallucinations. One mage did have a spelled dagger that kept returning to its sheath and another released burrowing worms that took control of victims’ minds; I wasn’t sure how either was possible. I’d love to see how magical relics, powered by Chaos, are created and if non-mages can use them.

Next time, I’m going to zero in on the biological aspects of the magic system by talking about motherhood, fertility, and gender. Hope you enjoyed this critique of magic and worldbuilding in Netflix’s The Witcher! Part II will be published in a week or so, and I’ll interlink the pieces at that time.

About Monica Valentinelli

Monica Valentinelli writes stories, games, essays, and comics in her Midwestern studio. She’s best known for her related works to Vampire: The Masquerade, the Firefly TV show, and Shadowrun among many others. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Creative Writing program, Monica now writes full-time. When she’s not obsessing about deadlines, she designs jewelry and dabbles in watercolors and acrylics. For more about Monica, visit www.booksofm.com.



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