Saturday 26 September 2020

Who is the fairest of them all?

Emma Appleton as Renfri
There's a princess. She has a stepmother. Her stepmother has a magic mirror that always tells the truth. Her stepmother is jealous of the princess, and seeks to get rid of her. You know this story, don't you? It's Snow White. It's a fairy story. We tell it to children.

But fairy stories are almost always dark stories, almost always intensely sexual stories, and if you strip away the saccharine sweetness with which the Victorians enrobed them, you find the darkest places of human psychology.

This is what Andrzej Sapkowski does. He is Polish, a writer of fiction; well known and well regarded across the Slavic world but (until this decade) relatively unknown to the English speaking world. His nearest English language equivalent is probably Angela Carter. He has written a series of adult, post-modern retellings of classic fairy tales, and he's strung them together by using a character - The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, an itinerant pest control operative - who weaves his way through all the stories. Over a sequence of books, an entire internally-consistent world is built up around The Witcher, using fairy tales we all more or less remember as building blocks.

One of those building blocks is Snow White. Sapkowski told the tale in the first of his Witcher books, a collection of short stories called Ostatnie Zyczenie (The Last Wish); in the English translation the story which retells Snow White is 'The Lesser Evil'.

Sapkowski's world is a world of small, warring kingdoms, of religious extremism, of arrogant and bloodthirsty rulers, of ambitious and amoral magic wielders. In this world the Witcher is a working class hero. His clients include the aristocracy, certainly; and he knows how to interact with them when he has to. His training in his trade has incorporated a lot of knowledge, as understood in his world, so he is also able to engage on more or less equal terms with the middle classes: with merchants, with scholars, even with mages. But his peers are peasants, craftsmen, small-time mercenaries - even though many of these people are prejudiced against him because of his trade.

The form and structure of the story we know emerges gradually from the Witcher's normal business in his world, presented naturalistically. It's a world of flawed people who have done evil, of uncertain knowledge, of sharp conflicts and murky judgements. The Queen's former advisor, Stregobor, and the former princess, Renfri whom he had plotted to have killed, each ask Geralt to kill the other, claiming that to do so would be the lesser evil. The greater evil each cite is the action which the princess might take if their conflict is not resolved. He refuses both requests.

It's clear that, for Geralt, Renfri is by far the more sympathetic of the two characters - and not simply because he allows her to seduce him. He sees her as more sinned against than sinning. And yet he counsels her not to seek to kill Stregobor but simply to leave town.

Renfri threatens a terrorist act - a massacre - in order to try to flush Stregobor out of his tower; Geralt moves to prevent it. The massacre foiled, Renfri faces Geralt alone. It's clear that he does not want to kill her, but she forces the fight; in doing so, my reading is that she intends and expects to be killed. And she is.

I'm not going to give a synopsis here; you already know the story, although you may not have fully thought through its psychological consequences. What I am going to talk about is the telling.

It concerns a wizard, Stregobor, who, some years before, as court wizard to Aridea, Queen of a minor state called Creyden, had diagnosed her inconvenient stepdaughter, Renfri, as being afflicted with a curse. The Queen had sent her huntsman out into the forest with Renfri, with instructions to return with her heart and her liver which Stregobor wishes to dissect. It hadn't gone to plan; the huntsman had been found, dead, with his trousers round his ankles, and Renfri's cloak pin driven in through his ear into his brain.

Stregobor, in the present of the tale, is hiding in a tower in an out of the way town, because he is being hunted down by Renfri, now adult and leading a band of brigands. He asks Geralt to kill Renfri, because she is cursed and her curse will bring terrible consequences to the world, and thus killing him would be a lesser evil.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License