The Influence of Folklore and Fairytale on The Witcher: Season Two
In season two of ‘The Witcher’ we are reunited with the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter living on the Continent and taking contracts for coin. Unlike Season One, Season Two diverts from its episodic monster-of-the-week format, instead following a complicated plot of politics, treachery, discrimination, and the child at the centre of it all – Cirilla, Geralt’s Child Surprise who he is bound to protect and train. While the format of the episodes may have changed, there are still many monsters for Geralt and his companions to battle, and, as in Season One, many of these creatures have their origins in folklore and fairytale.
Much like how Season One took inspiration from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ to form the backstory of princess and murderer Renfri, Season Two takes inspiration from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to create its character Nivellen.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ is, of course, the story of a prince cursed into the form of a hideous beast and the beautiful woman who falls in love with him anyway. While there are many variations on this tale, the prince is usually transformed into a beast by an enchantress or fairy, due to either a lack of hospitality or manners. He resides in an enchanted castle (possibly one with living furniture) and is forgotten by the world. Eventually he is stumbled upon by a merchant with three daughters, who has gotten lost in the woods.
The merchant is given food, shelter and a place to stay for the night, though he never meets his mysterious host. As he leaves, the merchant plucks a single rose from the garden as a gift for his youngest daughter. At this the beast appears, enraged at the theft after the merchant was given shelter in his home. As a consequence, the merchant is imprisoned. To save him, his youngest daughter takes his place. Eventually she and the beast fall in love, and the beast is transformed back into a man. He explains that his appearance was a curse and that only someone loving him despite his appearance, would break it. The prince and the girl marry and live happily ever after.
Much as ‘The Witcher’ reimagined the story of Snow White as a far darker tale, so too do they reimagine the tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. While Geralt and Cirilla are travelling they find abandoned settlements and dead animals. Unnerved, Geralt decides that they will take shelter in the home of an old friend of his – Nivellen. Upon arriving at Nivellen’s home, he discovers his old friend quite changed. Nivellen has been transformed from man into tusked beast.
The curse, he explains, was laid upon him by a priestess after he and some friends destroyed her temple. In addition to his changed appearance, the curse makes Nivellen immortal – forcing him to live alone and isolated in an enchanted castle.
Geralt grows suspicious of Nivellen’s story. He discovers that Nivellen is not as alone as he claims. Joining him in the castle is the lovely Vereena – the beauty to his beast. He had kept her hidden from Geralt for fear that the Witcher might kill her. Vereena was no human and was instead a vampire -like creature called a Bruxa – likely inspired by the similarly named vampire from Portuguese legend, the Bruxsa. It was she who killed the villagers and attacked the animals. Nivellen had found her injured in the woods and taken her back to his home, eventually falling in love with her and attempting to cover-up her misdeeds.
When Vereena attacked Geralt and Cirilla, Nivellen turned on Vereena, stabbing her to save their lives. Vereena told Nivellen that she loved him before attempting to kill him so that they would be united in death. Geralt decapitated her before she could. With Vereena’s death, Nivellen was transformed back into a human, the loss of his true love breaking his curse.
While there are elements of similarity between ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the love between Nivellen and Vereena, their story is far darker, involving bloodshed, murder and grief. Another factor of the tale which is given a grimmer origin in this story is why Nivellen was cursed. After Vereena’s death he reveals that this was not because of ruining the temple as he had claimed, but because he raped the priestess. A disgusted Geralt leaves the now-human Nivellen to his grief, refusing even to offer the mercy of a quick death.
Though Geralt’s friendship with Nivellen ended with the revelation of what he had done, this was sadly not the last time that someone Geralt considered a friend was transformed into a beast. The next significant monster that Geralt fights (with the exception of a quickly dispatched centipede creature) is his fellow Witcher and close friend, Eskel.
Eskel revealed that he had fought and killed a Leshy – a tree-like creature that can only be killed by fire. In the fight, Eskel was injured, and it is revealed that through this injury the Leshy is able to take control over him, transforming him into a half human, half tree creature and making him attack his fellow Witchers. Unable to save him, Geralt is forced to kill him.
The Leshy that both Eskel and Geralt fight is likely inspired by the Slavic forest spirit of the same name (also known as Leshi). While the Leshy of ‘The Witcher’ was malicious – as many of the creatures they encounter are – the Leshy of folklore is more ambivalent. A protector of the forest and the creatures within it, the Leshy’s interactions with humans often depend on how the human has treated the forest and wildlife the Leshy protects.
Unlike the tree-creature that attacks in ‘The Witcher’ the Leshy of folklore is often depicted as an old man, sometimes covered head to toe in hair, sometimes identifiable by the fact that he is missing eyebrows, eyelashes and one ear. Though this may be a common depiction of the Leshy, he is said to be a shapeshifter, so could appear in any form.
While the Leshy of folklore is not as malevolent as the Leshy that appears in ‘The Witcher’ it can still be known to cause problems and may be something of a trickster. The Leshy is said to lead people astray in the woods, and also to abduct children – particularly those unbaptised or rejected by their relatives – taking them to live in the forest. Not necessarily pleasant, but not quite the murderous monster of ‘The Witcher’. Were ‘The Witcher’ staying true to Slavic mythology, the battle between Geralt and the Leshy would also have been far less dramatic, while the Leshy may be giant in their native forest, when they leave it, they shrink to the size of a blade of grass.
While these are monsters that Geralt must fight and defeat, the true ‘big bad’ of the season is Voleth Meir, the Deathless Mother, a sinister creature clearly inspired by the legends of Baba Yaga. Voleth Meir was a demon who fed on despair and misery, she was imprisoned by the early Witchers – entombed in her own hut.
The hut is an iconic part of the Baba Yaga legend – the witch is said to live in the woods in hut surrounded by a bone fence and standing on two chicken legs. While initially appearing like the hut of Baba Yaga, the home of Voleth Meir is instead said to stand on the legs of a basilisk.
Those familiar with the basilisk of mythology may be surprised to learn that the creature has legs, as many legends refer to the creature as a giant serpent. While this is a popular depiction, a basilisk is made by hatching a snake or toad egg beneath a cockerel, so there are many interpretations in which the basilisk takes on the composite parts of these creatures. In this way it is similar to the cockatrice, a two-legged dragon with a rooster’s head, which is the result of a cockerel egg hatched under a toad or snake (and no that’s not a misprint, the egg was specified to be a cockerel’s, rather than a hen’s). The basilisks of ‘The Witcher’ draw from both basilisk and cockatrice attributes – they are largely reptilian with two legs and feathers, although they have the head of a serpent rather than a rooster. Though they do seem to have powerful venom, fortunately for Geralt and his fellow Witchers the basilisks of ‘The Witcher’ don’t appear to have one of their most famous abilities – the power to kill with their gaze. In addition to her house standing on basilisk legs, Voleth Meir manages to summon the creatures, setting them on the unfortunate Witchers.
As inspiration for a villain, Baba Yaga certainly fits the bill. She is said to kidnap and eat children, and may even have been created by the Devil himself. Though she may on occasion help those who come to her for aid, it is always a dangerous task. If the hero was not respectful and clever, they may find themselves in Baba Yaga’s cooking pot. Even if the hero did manage to secure Baba Yaga’s assistance, this help was usually a double-edged sword, such was the case for Vasilissa the Beautiful. Vasilissa had been asked by her wicked stepmother to fetch fire from Baba Yaga. Vasilissa lived with Baba Yaga as her servant for a while, both clever and kindhearted enoguh to avoid the traps Baba Yaga set out for her. Finally Baba Yaga sent her home with some burning embers held in an old skull. When Vasilissa returned home the fire burnt bright enough to reduce her stepmother and stepsisters to ashes – while they were deeply unpleasant people, this was still probably not Vasilissa’s first choice for dealing with them.
Baba Yaga is usually depicted as an elderly woman, sometimes one of three sisters – this ties into Voleth Meir’s introduction, where she is initially incorrectly identified as a triple goddess figure, worshipped by the prosecuted elves of the continent. While this is the form that Voleth Meir initially takes, possession does seem to be the theme of the season because she quickly takes over the body of Cirilla. She does this in order to open a portal to her home realm, where upon she takes on yet another form – in this instance a dark monstrous rider on a black horse. We are told that Voleth Meir has re-joined her people as a member of the Wraiths of Mörhogg – or The Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt is a reoccurring legend that appears across Europe. While specifics vary, the legends revolve around one night of the year when a spectral hunt takes place with otherworldly riders – sometimes accompanied by dogs – roaming the earth. The hunt is sometimes said to be made up of gods, devils, spectres, or elves. In Norse myth for example, the hunt is led by Odin astride his steed Sleipnir, while in Irish myth the hunt consisted of the Sluagh na marbh (The Host of Unforgiven Dead) who would leave the fairy realm and attempt to steal the souls of the living. The Wild Hunt was generally something to fear and avoid at all costs. At best those swept up by the hunt would find themselves deposited miles or years from where they started. At worst, they would never be heard from again.
As the season ended with the reveal of these dark riders, and Voleth Meir’s rather dramatic return home, we do not yet know how precisely the Wraiths of Mörhogg come into play in the world of ‘The Witcher’ but with the series officially renewed for a third season, we look forward to finding out!