The day of the wolf

‘The Witcher’, a spectacle-rich, high-budget extravaganza, is well-placed to fill that ‘Game of Thrones’-sized void among fantasy fans

On August 23, Netflix released The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, an 80-minute animated movie set in the world of The Witcher, its hit dark fantasy series starring Henry Cavill as the titular character. Witchers are powerful mutants, bounty-hunters who track down and kill dangerous monsters (in small towns, generally near forests, swamps and/or graveyards) for a fee — they do so with swords, potions as well as all manner of dark magic.

In Nightmare of the Wolf, we get to experience the origin story of Vesimir (a character only alluded to in passing in The Witcher’s first season), mentor to Cavill’s character, Geralt of Rivia.

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Pot’s boiling

Nightmare of the Wolf is further reminder of why The Witcher is well-placed to fill that Game of Thrones-sized void among fantasy fans; its breathtakingly mounted action set pieces involve superb VFX, juicy political intrigues (between elves and sorcerers, queens and witchers, you name it) and display the show’s propensity to weave in contemporary issues with allegorical storylines. With a second season of The Witcher forthcoming in December, Nightmare of the Wolf proves to be an effective way to keep the pot boiling.

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In the show’s usual narrative structure, it operates on two timelines: we meet Vesimir as a young boy (David Errigo Jr.), when he is taken in by the master Witcher Deglan (Graham McTavish) and the grown-up Vesimir (Theo James) as he battles a political conspiracy hatched by Kitsu, a rogue elf, and Tetra Gilcrest (Lara Pulver), a sorcerer with a grudge against witchers. A recurring theme, of course, is the process by which young boys are crafted into witchers. “This is the last time I allow any of you to hesitate,” a grown-up Vesimir tells the young recruits candidly at one point, after Deglan bullies him into contributing to the instruction process.

The solitary hunter

The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and to an extent Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series all swing between interconnected genres (epic, high fantasy and so on) but the one subgenre they all pay obeisance to was popularised in the 1930s by the works of Robert E. Howard: we’re talking about S&S (sword and sorcery). S&S’s first and most important works were Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series of novels (in the 1980s, the character was portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pair of films). Think of the genre as a kind of magical, pre-modern counterpart to the ‘lone gunman’ cowboy movies like Django or Unforgiven.

The solitary barbarian/ witcher/ sorcerer travels through an unfriendly and dangerous territory, usually occupied by mythical monsters and other hostile characters. The protagonist kills some, befriends others and forms strategic alliances with monarchs, magicians and other power centres even as he (the subgenre is rather male-dominated) learns something about his own mysterious powers.

S&S is distinguished from the epic or high fantasy subgenre through scale — S&S typically keeps its attention focused on one or two key characters where epics or high fantasies are all about the bigger picture, about the fates of entire kingdoms or mankind itself. For example, The Lord of the Rings can be called high fantasy but its prequel The Hobbit is just as clearly an example of S&S.

For the last 40-50 years, every generation has had its own super-popular S&S franchise and for this generation, The Witcher seems poised to take on that mantle. It already has a major advantage — not only does it tap into the fan-base of the original Witcher novels (written by Polish novelist Andrzej Sapkowski) but the show is also watched eagerly by fans of the wildly popular Witcher video game, which had sold over 50 million copies by 2020. Netflix had two readymade fan-bases to work with and it did not squander its opportunity, making The Witcher a spectacle-rich, high-budget extravaganza, headlined by the hunky Henry Cavill, one of the more recognisable movie stars on the planet.

The Nightmare of the Wolf is already drawing rave reviews, and expect more of the same when The Witcher’s second season drops in December.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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