I’ll admit I’m cheating a bit here. This isn’t a post about CDPR’s Witcher game series but instead will discuss their source material by Andrzej Sapkowski, beware of spoilers for aspects of Yennefer’s character and The Last Wish short story.
Andrzej Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels hold a very special place in my heart. I began reading them in late 2014 to prepare myself for The Witcher 3 and was utterly gripped by Geralt’s adventures and Ciri’s journey from unruly child to powerful young woman. I hungrily devoured excellent fan translations of the last two novels and have since listened to the series twice on audiobook (Peter Kenny gives Geralt a Yorkshire accent, it’s fabulous). Sapkowski’s world is one of horror, violence and grit, war is constant, magic seeps into the land and characters come in all shades of grey. I hesitate to compare it to A Song of Fire and Ice as Sapkowski’s work actually predates Martin’s by several years but there are certainly similarities.
(The man himself)
One such similarity is Sapkowski’s diverse depiction of female characters. Women in these books are queens, warriors, sorceresses, priestesses, bandits, prostitutes and vampires and are treated as actual human beings with wants and desires (wow who knew!). They exist in an undeniably patriarchal society but their narratives are often more than simply a struggle for freedom. Admittedly, threats of sexual violence are uncomfortably frequent but they mostly (mostly *in my best Newt from Aliens impression*) feel like a necessary reminder of the realities of a woman’s struggle in this harsh world (unlike the Game of Thrones television show which submits almost all its female cast to sexual assault with a kind of morbid glee). I for one hope Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of The Witcher novels avoids the ghoulish attitude towards gendered violence that has marred HBO’s otherwise stellar adaptation.
No character, female or male in Sapkowski’s saga is as fascinating or layered as Geralt’s lover and Ciri’s surrogate mother, Yennefer of Vengerberg. She is, in a word, complicated. In two, she’s fucking brilliant. This post is essentially an excuse for me to wax lyrical about one of my favourite characters in fiction but if you bare with me I’ll discuss why she is vitally important to the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and who I think should bring her to life.
(Fan art from JustAnoR)
She’s simply a fantastic character.
To put it simply Yennefer is a fantastic character and if adapted faithfully her presence will elevate the series into something really special. She is a woman of juxtapositions from the black and white clothing she wears to the fascinating contrasts in her character. Yen is not immediately likeable (not that she ever has to be in order to be a great character but anyway). She can be cold, abrasive and even manipulative as evidenced by her first meeting with Geralt in the short story The Last Wish (which is wonderfully referenced in the quest of the same name during The Witcher 3). In the story, Geralt encounters Yennefer while searching for aid after his friend Dandelion, famous bard and all round Lothario, runs afoul of a djin. Sexual tension and double crossing ensue as Yennefer tries to wield said djin’s wishes for herself. The story ends with Geralt using the last wish of the djin to bind their fates together, and so begins their epic and tumultuous romance. As well as her cold manner there is something almost frightening about Yennefer’s formidable powers and unnatural appearance. Take this description from Ciri’s first meeting with her- “Those eyes, violet, deep as a fathomless lake, strangely bright, dispassionate and malefic. Terrifying”.
Yennefer’s critics (of which unfortunately there are many) would argue that she is self-serving and pragmatic. It is true that she is fiercely independent and is willing to make difficult choices, which frequently causes problems in her relationship with Geralt. However, as her character develops she is shown to be a woman with a great capacity for love and tenderness. Yennefer clearly feels a deep sense of insecurity about her infertility which is caused by her magical abilities and she is frequently trying to overcome this. This makes her relationship with Ciri, that softens into a mother/daughter dynamic, all the more meaningful. As the series goes on Yen’s actions are more and more fueled by a desire to protect Ciri, and her selflessness shines through the previously cold exterior. There is also, of course, Yennefer’s romance with Geralt which reveals her humanity and vulnerability as these two damaged individuals find solace in each other.
(Ciri and Yen fan art by Pati Cmak)
Another source of contradiction is Yennefer’s unnatural beauty. Her appearance is undeniably alluring but like many sorceresses in this world, it is a facade that is enhanced by magic. Like almost every element of Yen’s character, however, there is a deeper layer to this. Her beauty acts as a veil for her physical deformities (she was born a hunchback) which was the root of much childhood abuse and trauma.
Through these contradictions, Yennefer feels like a fully realised, multifaceted character who refuses to fit into a particular trope. Sapkowski is constantly subverting the reader’s expectations by uncovering her hidden depths beyond the brittle veneer. Yen is undeniably flawed but this makes her human and sympathetic. It frustrates me that she is so often dismissed as ‘unlikable’ or a ‘bitch’ because she is imperfect, I’ve rarely heard the same complaint levelled against the equally complex Geralt. TV is in its golden age, and its a really great place for female stories, making it the perfect medium through which to tell Yennefer’s narrative that adds so much to the Witcher saga. I really hope that Netflix and the showrunners don’t shy away from the flaws and nuances that make Yennefer such a compelling character.
She helps Geralt grow but is not defined by their relationship.
In Sapkowski’s words:
“I find boring or disgusting the stories where the hero can have sex with any woman because those women can’t wait to have sex with him. In those stories, women are the hero’s prize, the warrior’s reward, and as such, they have nothing to say, they can only moan and faint in the hero’s strong arms. I am convinced that only with contact with the other sex – whether it is cause of attraction, care, confrontation or opposition – a hero can fully grow. When I created Yennefer’s character I wanted Geralt to fully grow, but then I decided to make things complicated. I created a female character who refuses to be a fantasy stereotype. To please the reader.”
Geralt is infamous for his lasciviousness, bedding many of the women that he encounters during his adventures. Unlike the characters Sapkowoski is describing however, these women have interesting stories to tell and their encounters with Geralt are mutual exchanges not simply ‘the warrior’s reward’. After meeting Yennefer however, Geralt matures and calms somewhat as their relationship, although tumultuous, contains a warmth and sincerity that he did not have with previous women. Without this relationship, Geralt could be seen as a James Bondesque womaniser which would result in a far less sympathetic protagonist. If Geralt is going to carry this tv series the way he does the books then showing his humanity through his relationship with Yen is vital. I didn’t find myself fully sympathising with the Geralt of CDPR’s game series until The Witcher 3 largely due to Yennefer’s absence in the previous games. No offence to Triss fans but her role as the love interest in The Witcher 1 and 2 diminished both her and Geralt’s arcs from the books. She is most engaging outside of her brief romance with Geralt and I feel that CDPR dropped the ball by forcing her into an awkward love triangle, Netflix would be wise to avoid this in their adaptation.
(Love interest Triss is the worst Triss)
Although Yen is the catalyst for Geralt’s growth, she is not some dark fantasy ‘manic pixie dream girl’ who simply exists to complete the male protagonist. Neither is she a ball and chain constantly trying to tie him down. In fact, Yennefer’s stubbornness, restlessness and occasional infidelity contribute to their many break-ups just as much as Geralt’s. Through their relationship and a shared love of Ciri they are forced to compromise and grow as characters.
(The infamous stuffed unicorn which had this…lovely cameo in The Witcher 3)
Yen brings the drama
One thing that can be said of Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship is that it’s dramatic. It doesn’t veer into the toxic or abusive (in my opinion) but it is certainly incredibly passionate. This is a romance that has been on and off for 20 years, it’s rocky but the moments of affection and poignancy feel really earned. Pregnancy and STD’s also aren’t a problem (because magic) so they are having alllll the sex. Yen gets off by having sex on the back of a stuffed unicorn…yeah I’m not even gonna pretend to understand that one (Netflix could have a lot of fun with this). The destined nature of their relationship grants it an epic, tragic quality which is engaging enough without any forced love triangles.
Yennefer also has connections to the Lodge of Sorceresses and various monarchs which will provide viewers with an insight into the political machinations of this world that Geralt and Ciri avoid and disdain.
(CDPR really nailed Yennefer’s design in The Witcher 3)
She’s iconic (and not just Ubisoft iconic)
With his white hair, cat-like eyes and twin swords Geralt is a visually arresting character. But Yennefer’s black and white clothes, dark curls, violet eyes and perfume of lilac and gooseberries are equally memorable. Having characters this distinctive in their appearance is an asset to the Netflix series as they arrive fully formed and vivid.
So, who should play her?
Since Netflix’s adaptation was announced back in May, I’ve seen a number of great suggestions as to who should play Yennefer including Hayley Atwell, Katie Mcgrath and Caitriona Balfe to name a few. Tumblr has also recently latched onto Salem actress Janet Montgomery, I’ve never actually seen the show but just from looks alone, she’s perfect for the role.
(Salem’s Janet Montgomery)
In my eyes, however, there’s a pretty clear choice. Yennefer’s actress needs to be able to sell her formidable power and that fascinating mix of abrasiveness and vulnerability. She also needs to be alluring with a sense of intelligence and sharp wit beyond her beauty. I mean come on, it’s Eva Green.
She essentially played this role in her excellent performance on Showtime’s short-lived (and highly underrated) Penny Dreadful. Green’s Vanessa Ives went from channelling ancient spirits in a spine-chilling seance to tenderly consoling a heartbroken Victor Frankenstein. She was a woman of terrifying power but also heartbreaking fragility, a three-dimensional character with sexuality, autonomy and flaws. Green is a brave performer who is willing to be both emotionally and physically naked and elevates everything she performs in to a higher level. Don’t believe me? I urge you to go and watch 300: Rise of an Empire which is leagues better than it’s predecessor simply because of her glorious performance which is the stuff of scenery chewing legend.
(She absolutely owns 300 Rise of an Empire)
There’s also the benefit that Green really looks the part and is clearly willing to work in tv given the previously mentioned Penny Dreadful and the pretty terrible BBC version of Camelot from 2011 (again, she was great in it).
As for Geralt? Mads Mikkelsen. Obviously.
Phew. Okay. I think that’s enough Yennefer for one post. I hope through this collection of ramblings, I have shared my love of this incredible character and made it clear that she is absolutely vital to the success of Netflix’s adaptation. With Sapkowski seemingly heavily involved I’m very hopeful that it will remain accurate to the world and characters he so brilliantly crafted.
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