A Review of Sapkowski's The Lady of the Lake
The main narrative follows shortly after the events of The Tower of Swallows. Ciri has escaped Bonhart and captors sent after her by the wizard Vilgefortz only to find herself having to capitulate to the wishes of Avallac’h and his Elven compatriots.
Meanwhile, the Witcher Geralt and his companions winter in Toussaint, where the refined, charming atmosphere and sorceress Fringilla Vigo prove to be different sorts of danger than what they’ve previously encountered.
At a different time, the sorceress Nimue obtains the help of an oneiromancer named Condwiramurs. The two women attempt to reconstruct what happened to Ciri for not only professional reasons but also personal ones.
The military advance of the Nilfgaard Empire moves on a collision course with the rallied armies of the Northern Kingdoms, set to determine who rules the lands. Shaken from a comfortable lethargy, Geralt and his crew make their way to the stronghold of Vilgefortz where they intend to confront the wizard and put an end to his pursuit of Ciri, no matter the cost.
Who Do You Serve?
As with all the Witcher novels, this one continues the exploration of how the powerful use and manipulate the weak to preserve their own authority. The constant examples throughout the series have been social and political, which continues here, too. There is, however, a larger example that showcases the logical, horrific end of such a policy.
While held captive by the Alder King, Ciri explores what she can of their impressive, Elven lands. What she discovers are the mass graves of humans that the Elves exterminated to repopulate the land with their own kind. Her unicorn guide explains it to her as Ciri looks upon the massive boneyard, saying, “This was not their world at all. It became their world. After they had conquered it. When they opened Ard Gaeth, having deceived and taken advantage of us, just as they have tried to deceive and take advantage of you” (202).
Without any check on power, the people who use it will take any action to maintain their position. Much of this theme is condensed with a meeting between Geralt and Emhyr. When it is revealed who he is and what he plans to do with Ciri—no less vile than what other have wanted—Geralt makes his personal disgust known, though the Emperor protests:
“The end justifies the means,” Emhyr said dully. “What I’m doing, I’m doing for posterity. To save the world.”
“If the world is to be saved like that—” the Witcher lifted his head “—it would be better for it to perish.” (390)
To Geralt, if power and survival mean violating the people who are in the most need and dependency, then it isn’t worth having. In a rare display of people in power not taking advantage of others, Emhyr does not chose to do something terrible for an alleged greater good. He can order traitors executed and send countless men to their deaths, but when faced with the human cost of his actions, he betrays having at least some conscience and is unwilling to harm the few people for whom he has genuine affection.
The theme of the dangers of inaction is prevalent in the sections about Toussaint. The whole Duchy has a magical quality to it, even to characters in a fantasy novel, and there is a general sense of not taking it seriously with its vineyards, knightly oaths, and general Disney World feel.
When he lowers his guard, though, inertia sets in for Geralt. It takes him longer than his companions to realize that Toussaint is a soft tyranny where they’re encouraged to forgo search for Ciri. Admittedly, the manipulations of Fringilla Vigo don’t help, but the relaxing attitude of Toussaint nearly does what monsters, armies, and magical threats could not, which is to halt Geralt’s progress toward Ciri.
In some ways, the sequence parallels that of Odysseus and Calypso in The Odyssey. Almost everything in Toussaint wears a friendly face, but just under the veneer lurks something unpleasant as in the case of Fringilla’s motives, Duchess Anna Henrietta’s fickle decrees dictated by her changeable moods, and monsters in the wine cellars.
Another character has to show Geralt an example of merchants fixed on their goal before he comes to realize how his time in Toussaint has been a gentle captivity (123). Once motivated and recalling his purpose in this whole adventure, the Witcher sets his mind to the task, no matter the obstacle, much to the relief of his companions.
Ciri find herself in vaguely similar circumstances. Avallac’h refuses to let her leave until she consents to being the paramour of the Alder king. The readers and Ciri can see this is an untenable argument because in keeping her captive, no matter the circumstances, she can in no way give consent. She is a prisoner being asked to agree to her own imprisonment and debasement to the Alder King (158). It turns out Avallac’h wants the same thing as Vilgefortz: the product of Ciri’s womb. He may have a different technique, but the results are the same. Neither care the least bit about her as an independent person or what she wants. They only care about securing future power through her genetics.
Ladies of the Lake
The novel is sprinkled with references to Arthurian legends; the title should have clued in the reader to such a technique. Multiple characters are addressed as or mistaken for the titular Lady of the Lake, there are swords with extraordinary if not magical properties, cursed and wounded rulers round out the cast, and the knightly virtues and high courtly intrigue of Toussaint all create an atmosphere within the novel that lead directly to its conclusion.
As he’s done with fairy tales and folk lore in previous stories, Sapkowski reinvents those traditional elements to infuse his tale with a sense that it is both old and new at the same time. There’s also a sly allusion to the power that legends like King Arthur hold because Nimue explains how such legendary stories convinced her to seeker a broader life than the one she knew (21).
It seems that Sapkowski has a preoccupation with letting readers know who is telling which parts of the story. This trait has run through all the Witcher novels, so there’s no surprise to see it remains all the way through to the end. There’s probably a doctoral thesis waiting to be written about the metanarrative structure of the whole series and an exploration of what it entails in terms of reliable narration, character awareness, and audience awareness.
For readers more interested in the actual plot than these meta-speculations, however, this exercise can often feel like it has gotten in the way. Nevertheless, this technique does lend a fairy tale quality to the whole story, as though it is something meant to be told the same way folk tales are told, reinforced by the Arthurian allusions.
Something Ends, Something Begins
The Lady of the Lake has a dual climax, which function as the moments to which this novel and the whole series has been building. First there is the Battle of Brenna where the Nilfgaardians clash with the armies of the North. In a fashion worthy of a multifaceted conflict, Sapkowski uses many narrators on all sides of the conflict to show the scope, glory, and devastation of the battle. Characters from as far back as The Blood of Elves, have prominent roles, and the audience gets to see not only the crush of combat but also the effects of it on the minds and bodies of everyone involved from kings to generals to mercenaries to soldiers to medics.The Battle of Brenna, while good, is not as excellent as The Battle of Osrung in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, but then again, what is?
The second climax is that of the unwittingly combined attack on Vilgefortz’s castle by Geralt’s crew and Ciri. Here, most of the action is filtered through Ciri, Geralt, and Yennifer, befitting the much more personal nature of this climax. Structurally these climaxes work well and then allow for plenty of breathing room, so the audience can see the full effect over the course of the falling action.
The ending of the novel is a strange and largely satisfying affair. Because there is space for falling action and resolution, the events that fall out of the climaxes make sense. When Condwiramurs is asked how a legend ought to end, she replies, “Good and righteousness should triumph, evil should be punished exemplarily, and love should unite lovers until the end of their days. And none of the heroes should bloody die” (20). Geralt makes a similar statement later, saying, “a story where the decent ones die and the scoundrels live and carry on doing what they want is full of shit” (393). The Witcher series does not end in quite that fashion, but that does not make a poor ending. Many of the characters have their arcs resolved. As one character puts it: “Everything has its price. War demands casualties. Peace, it turns out, does too” (418).
On a related note, it is a bold move for the CD Projekt game developers to canonically continue the Witcher series in their video games. Polish game developers and longtime fans of Sapkowski’s work, they made games that are not retellings of Geralt’s adventures but a continuation of the story in The Witcher, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. While The Lady of the Lake can be a sufficient ending, for anyone interested in something more, it is worth examining these games, especially given their near-universal critical and commercial success.
Witcher series as a whole is a high-water mark for contemporary fantasy with The Lady of the Lake being one of the best entries as a whole. Some of the earlier novels are slower and can be difficult to get into given the narrative structure and strange digressions, but in hindsight a reader can see that much of that world-building and thematic development was necessary to reach the strong conclusion. Taken together, the Witcher novels make up one of the best fantasy stories that no one should miss.
Sapkowski, Andrzej. The Lady of the Lake. Translated by David French, Orbit, 2017.
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