This evening I have decided to stretch my atrophied muscles of literary criticism. For funsies.
Also, for mild pissed-offsies.
I’m most of the way through The Last Wish, by Andrzej Saprowski (he of the unexpected missing vowels), having taken it out of the library this morning. I knew that these books served as the basis for the Witcher games, so I thought they must be pretty good, otherwise why invest money in spinoffs? The Last Wish also won the David Gemmell Legend Award, which sounds fancy.
But of course, I would probably not be writing a Feek post unless something had greatly offended my delicate feminine sensibilities. In short, the book is sexist and I haz angries.
Let me start with a moment of charity and optimism: the original Polish work was published in 1993, when patriarchal ideologies were virtually unchallenged and monolithic. In the past twenty-two years, much has changed, rendering the chances of a work like The Last Wish making it to print unaltered highly unlikely. Unless by, I don’t know, that Vox Day thing Scalzi takes umbrage with.
The book isn’t terrible, per se, but it isn’t aided by pedestrian translation (how does one “curl up on the spot”(pg 3) while standing, in the middle of a fight?) and, in my edition, editing slips (pg 129. Gerald must “eliminate the treat”. Mild hilarity value.). I don’t like the structure, which works as an apt metaphor for Attention Deficit Disorder by jumping between narrative events like a squirrel on speed, but that’s personal preference. I didn’t like Louise Erdrich’s similarly interconnected short story compilations either, so I won’t count that against Saprowatsizts.
Really, this is all on the treatment of women. Without it, the book would merely be forgettable.
Let’s get to this.
Like many a clever author, Sarwpsosati begins with an action prologue. I say ‘action’, but it’s actually a sex prologue. Ha ha! This will hold the audience’s attention!
The nameless “girl” (not woman) does much naked “flitt(ing)” around the obliquely described bed setting, poking Geralt in the eyes with her boobs while he pretends to be asleep (or rather, “she leant over and touched his eyelids, cheeks, lips with the tips of her breasts”(1). I guess that’s more poetic.)
Fair enough; there is nothing inherently wrong with sex, fictional or otherwise. This scene does serve to objectify the ‘girl’ to the nth degree, but I wasn’t slamming down the novel in disgust or anything. In fact, if I was to truly critique anything here, I’d sin the fact that it’s obviously a gimmick – the titillating (titipoking?) scene lasts a mere 276 words and could easily be omitted without affecting anything at all. Tsk. Lazy storytelling.
But sure, I can find more at fault than that. The ‘girl’ is not treated as a ‘girl’ at all. Or, you know, as a human. I mean that quite literally. I initially believed she was going to eat the protagonist. In part, this was because she was moving around super quietly and stealthily and stuff. The other part is because, in the space of 276 words, Sparrowskis likened her to a bird (via flitting related activities), a ghost (“floating through the chamber like a phantom”) and a mermaid (“her eyes…were as huge and dark as the eyes of a water nymph”). Clearly there was paranormal shit going down and Geralt should do less fake snoozing and more running away.
However, following some mammary probing, I realised this was not the case. Whoops.
For myself, and this is merely my perspective here, there is something uncomfortable about descriptions of women that completely divest them of their humanness in an attempt to erotize or depict transcendent beauty. I struggle to describe why, so let me say it inelegantly – it does not allow them to be human. Duh, right? They are so sexy because they are freed from the obligation to have a comprehensive, comprehendible personality. They are elusive, mysterious, other, empty – always a little out of reach.
I guess it also sets up ‘ordinary’ woman-ness as inherently lacking. We just don’t have that shiny siren glamour.
I feel that is probably enough about the first page. Well, half a page.
Although this isn’t my focus, allow me to diverge and point out the book lays down a lot of problematic masculinity in the second and subsequent pages, but which I will ignore for the sake of brevity. A further diversion to acknowledge the lily-whiteness of all and sundry. I thought at one stage this pattern might break, but alas, Eist Tuirseach may simply have had a tan.
The next woman we encounter exists simply to issue the occasional “hysterical scream” (4). Like, legit, that’s all we get. She screams twice, in a “wild” fashion, while the named menfolk speak, argue, order drinks, smash things, kill people, make demands, etc. Nameless Woman 2 must be representative of all her species, because she seems to be the only woman who lives in the whole town.
Apart from the monster.
Don’t get me wrong, I was quite excited about the idea of a ‘striga’, primarily because it was a monster I’d never heard of and descriptions sounded novel. And this was definitely a monster that was planning to disembowel the hero, rather than jab him in the eyeball in a manner not suitable for viewers under the age of thirteen. But over the course of the schizophrenic narrative, I began to note a trend.
All the monsters were women.
Story 1: Monster = Striga = Female.
Story 2: Monster = Bruxa = Female.
Story 3: Monster = Shrike = Female.
Story 4: Monster = Uncontrolled Sorceress = Female.
And that’s as far as I have gotten.
(It’s debateable whether 3 or 4 are the real villains, but they are certainly the ones posing the greatest tangible threat to our hero, so shut up, let me make my argument. They’re more convincing than “society” or “Geralt’s conscience”.)
It’s worth nothing the monsters shared some other characteristics. 2, 3 and 4 were all drop-dead gorgeous (I’m so punny), and while 1 is dismissed as “rather ugly”, everything after that descriptor indicates conventional attractiveness – she is “slim, with small pointed breasts… her hair – flaxen-red” (30). In fact, her only named disfigurement is the fact that she is “dirty” (30). Heaven forbid.
1,2,3 and 4 are all, in varying degrees, to be pitied. They aren’t really bad; they just got a bit out of control. A bit wild. A bit hysterical.
1 is cursed and the product of an incestuous relationship; she didn’t choose this life of eating unfortunate passersby. 2 is a vampire and, while she might like the occasional person-sized snack, she is redeemed by her true love when she lets him stab her with some scaffolding. 3 is a rape victim, plus, Geralt gets to sleep with her. 4 got a little upset when her destined lover was threatened and whose innate magical powers wouldn’t go haywire in such circumstances?
With the dubious exception of 3, none of these female entities are granted a personality or interiority. Although frustrating, this is interesting, because the omission says more about what they represent in the collective unconscious of the author and his presumed readership. The monsters’ wildness, their hysteria, their bite, is threatening. Unrestrained woman-ness is spelled out as a danger – as supernatural, as abnormal, as unnatural – and is always eradicated in a successful conquest by Geralt.
This is achieved in two ways. Either the wild woman permits herself to be saved (1 and 4) by Geralt and begins to behave in a more amicable, pliant and feminine manner – domesticated women – or they are violently eradicated from the story as in 2 and 3. The existence of a bad woman, or even a woman who simply will not conform, is intolerable but fascinating. And so they reoccur in new guises and are cured or killed, killed or cured, while the reader learns more about Geralt and nothing about the trail of bodies in his wake.
It’s all rather patronising. I don’t have a problem with a female villain. I quite like sympathetic villains, of any gender. But it’s undeniably demeaning to deprive the forces of evil with the capacity to commit misdeeds of their own, uninhibited volition. If they must be your monsters, let women be culpable, rather than victims of their own ‘hysteria’ or male-generated circumstances. And, for the love of fantasy, please let them escape the binds of the ‘true love’ imperative. Everyone but the fourteen-year-old-sort-of-maybe-ugly chick was influenced or driven by their romantic desires. For 2 and 4, it was their singular motivation. For 3, well…
The treatment of 3’s rape(s) was exploitative. Would be authors, PLEASE note: rape is not equal to character development. It seems that wasn’t understood in 1993, but I’m hoping this notion will sink in eventually. There are plenty of ways to make me feel sorry for a character; you really don’t need to half-heartedly mangle a real-world trauma for the sake of “authenticity”.
Here’s a good yardstick: Have you written rape into the backstory of your love interest/sex interest? Yes? ’Kay, you fail. Shhh. You aren’t the exception. Really. It’s still bad. No, really. Really really. But listen, you absolutely can remove it and still have a functional female character. I’m serious! No, this one instance of violation isn’t pivotal to her being relatable or human or sexy or whatever. I still need to pity her? Well, kill her pony or something. There you go.
3 had the potential to be an interesting figure, but I’ll never know if she was, because she was summarily killed off by Geralt. Now she can remain a nebulous, elusive, not-quite-human, non-woman forever. Ah well. Least she had a name.
It may be worth drawing a distinction here. The monster-women are not intended to invoke sympathy. As they are not granted enough personality to be relatable, it is impossible sympathise with them. You might feel for Geralt, certainly, for Foltest the King perhaps, for Nivellen the lovelorn Beast, maybe for Duny the Knight. But the monster-women are to be pitied, poor lamentable creatures.
Pity and sympathy are not the same; pity is removed from the object, sympathy necessitates affinity. You pity that which you regard as inferior to yourself; that’s why it is insulting, that’s why the hero might say to the DARK OVERLORD: “I pity you, for you cannot love/forgive/understand”.
In writing this, I feel Sparrowsky utterly failed to identify with any of his female characters, because none of their feelings are allowed a credible voice. The closest remains 3, but she serves more as a mirror to explore Geralt’s thoughts and motivations than a person in her own right.
To which I have to say, “I pity you, Sapkowski.”
Up until now, my hypothetical reader, you might have remained unconvinced by my English-degree speak. Indeed, the curtains sometimes are simply blue. So, have some blue curtains.
“Women don’t have a say in my house.” (pg 77)
Spoken by Caldemeyn, when Geralt points out that Caldemeyn’s wife – Libushe – will not be pleased with him staying over. Libushe is the epitome of the nagging wife who spoils her husband and Geralt’s fun. She is permitted one line of dialogue: “I told you! I said he only brings trouble!”, to which Caldemeyn responds “Silence, woman!”(pg 106). Even allowing the possibility that Caldemeyn is being mocked by the author and Libushe is truly in charge of the household, the point remains that he would be mocked for being subservient to a woman.
“Their outright insane tendency to cruelty, aggression, sudden bursts of anger and an unbridled temperament were noted.”
“You can say that about any woman,” sneered Geralt. (pg 84).
This breathtaking bit of misogyny actually stopped me in my tracks. Wow. I think it’s supposed to be amusing? Humour is premised on agreement, so the reader is supposed to unquestioningly accept that these traits are common to all women. This is Geralt, the badass, super-cool, aspire-to-emulate protagonist, being flagrantly sexist. Because… funny? This is so problematic that I’m actually stumped about where to start identifying issues, so let’s carry on.
“Less serious merchants pinched the backsides of girls carrying beer…Harlots were trying to please those who had money while disparaging those who had none.” (91)
Any tavern setting that Geralt wanders into (hint: there are many) features much the same geography and populace. There are men with recognisable professions engaged in drinking and merriment; in this one instance: merchants (serious and less), carters, fishermen, sailors, and mercenaries. Women present are only to be groped, gawped at or paid for sex – in short, their job is to please and serve men.
“The naked blonde with the apple basket approached, smiled, turned and, swaying her hips, returned to the orchard.” (81)
This woman is literally here for decoration. She walks towards two men, grins inanely and walks away again, never to influence the plot.
“Am I boring you, Iola? I need this. I really do need it.” (116)
The mute priestess Iola is used as a sounding board for an entire chapter of unmitigated Geralt talking. Is she bored? We don’t find out, on account of the fact that she does nothing in the scene at all. Geralt could just as well monologue to himself; Iola is merely a pretty, empty vessel who reminds him of his as-yet-unintroduced beloved, Yennefer. Ultimately, what Iola thinks or feels is irrelevant. What matters is whatever Geralt needs.
“She hasn’t changed a bit,” he said cheerfully. “She still can’t take a joke.” (158)
Indeed, is that not the battle cry of all anti-feminists? Why can’t Nenneke see the light side of sexual harassment? Geralt’s repugnant friend, Dandelion, believed that a priestess was possessed with a “cute little bottom” that would have “been a sin not to pinch”(158). What is it with this book and grabbing women’s asses? Like, why? It happens every second page. The rest of the chapter is weak philosophy lavished with heavy-handed trappings of bromance.
There is much more where that came from, sexism is so casually rife in the everyday interactions of Geralt that it’s possible to flick to just about any conversation in the book and find someone making a joke at a woman’s expense. It’s the bro-code in action, it’s a fraternity predicated on a particular brand of masculinity that can only be sustained by undermining women.
I wonder what the games are like. I’m not exactly inspired to try them.
So. many. taverns.
The vaguest magic system you will ever encounter. How does it work? Who can use it? Does the author know?
Lacks substance; contrite, regurgitated philosophy disguised by a serious tone and vagueness.
Aside from some of the monsters themselves, not very original.
For Feek’s sake.