Author of novels and fantasy stories, as well as essays and dictionaries about the fantasy genre - The World of King Arthur, The Dragon Cave Manuscript. Born 21/06/1948 in Łódź, where he has lives and works
An economist by education, Sapkowski worked in foreign trade from 1972-94. He is a five-time winner of the Janusz A. Zajdel Award, the most important honour for fantasy writers. He received Polityka magazine's Literature Passport in 1997. What's more, Sapkowski's popularity is not limited to Poland; his novels have been translated into Russian, English, Czech and German. The English translation of his novel, Blood of Elves, received the David Gemmel Fantasy Award in June, 2009. Sapkowski was given the freedom of his home city, Łódź, in 2008.
Sapkowski began his literary career as a translator affiliated with Fantastyka magazine. He made his debut thanks to the magazine's 1985 fiction competition (Wiedźmin / The Witcher, his short story, won third place; the first prize went to Marek S. Huberath). His subsequent stories were first published in Fantastyka, and later in Nowa Fantastyka, the re-launched version of the magazine. All his novels were published by superNOWA, a publishing house specialising in fantasy.
Sapkowski gained his popularity thanks to The Witcher saga, comprising three volumes of stories and a five-volume novel. The saga originated in short forms included in The Witcher / Wiedźmin, The Last Wish / Ostatnie życzenie and The Sword of Destiny / Miecz przeznaczenia. The structural motif of reworking plots from fairy tales, making them darker and more brutal than the original, can be seen in most of his work. For example, in his short story, Lesser Evil / Mniejsze zło, the heroine - Snow White's distant counterpart - joins a gang of seven dwarves specialising in mugging. Likewise, the evil stepmother's cruelty is attributed to a prophecy according to which princesses born on the day of a solar eclipse are prone to psychopathy, as well as to biological mutations (confirmed by autopsies performed on a number of the prophecy's victims). Yet the story chooses not to confirm whether or not Renfri, the heroine, is a member of the cursed group.
Out of the short stories the framework of a large work slowly emerges. The reader learns of new characters who later prove essential to the development of the plot. Geralt of Rivia is the main hero; he is a man who earns his living by killing monsters, a job he has been trained to do since childhood. In his actions he adheres to the moral code of his guild that, among other things, favours neutrality in any morally dubious situations (the story, Lesser Evil, is again worth noting here). Other remarkable characters include the sorceress, Yennefer, entangled in a complicated relationship with Geralt, and Dandelion, the poet.
During one of his adventures – which entails breaking a spell cast on a princess turned into a vampire – Geralt asks to be paid. In his demand he refers to the law of surprise, a request known from many other legends, where the host is asked to offer something he has in his own home but is not yet aware of. The situation becomes complicated, for the host happens to be the queen of Cinthra, and the surprise turns out to be her daughter's premarital child, a girl later named Ciri. The fates of the witcher and the girl become entwined once again after her parents' death and the fall of the kingdom. Geralt requests the same payment from a man whose life he had saved during his journey. Again the surprise is Ciri who accidentally wanders up to the house. It turns out soon afterwards that the girl, of mixed human and elven blood, will have a crucial influence on the world the book describes.
The fragmentary nature of Sapkowski's short stories is characteristic of his work and is especially evident in the five-volume saga. The plot does not develop in a linear fashion, and crucial information is often stated in passing. The loss of a letter key for political scheming is presented in the form of a short story about a royal messenger named Applegat. The author encourages the reader to think of the messenger as the main hero in the novel, only to kill him with an arrow shot by rebellious, partisan elves.
Another element of Sapkowski's work is his allusions to the present day and recent history. Thus Kovir, an overseas mercenary and isolationist superpower, a country that appears now and then in the saga, is a clear reference to the United States. Similarly, the pogroms directed against elves and dwarves, or the annexation of a country in the name of defending minority rights, hints at the Soviet invasion of September 17, 1939.
Sapkowski is an outstanding master of stylization. He frequently invents unusual forms to describe the action in his novels. For example, the battle of Brenna - crucial to his fictional world as it manages to hold back Nilfgaard's imperial designs - is shown from a dozen or so fragmented yet complementary points of view. The most important ones include a story told from the perspective of the field hospital, a text from a chronicle written by one of the battle's participants (a clerical student who fights as a volunteer in the peasant infantry), and finally, many years later, from the perspective of an exam taking place in an army college of the empire defeated in that battle.
The witcher is a hero who has influenced popular culture. The character can be found in Bogusław Polch's comic books, which he drew from 1993 to 1995. Aside from the short stories, Sapkowski gave him at least one idea which he had not previously used in his prose. In addition, Geralt of Rivia was played by Michał Żebrowski in a poorly received film (2001) and television series (2002), both directed by Marek Brodzki. Based on some of the themes from the five-volume saga, a computer game of The Witcher was also created. It has been the best-selling Polish product in the industry so far. The dialogues included in the film interludes skilfully imitate Sapkowski's style, though the sexual allusions occasionally prove bolder than the original (some excerpts can be found on YouTube).
Despite readers' pleas, Sapkowski gave up the idea of continuing The Witcher saga. His next series was a Hussite trilogy, the main character of which is Reinmar from Bielawa, also called Reynevan von Bielau. The plot is set in the fifteenth century during the Hussite wars that took place on Polish, Silesian and Czech soil. The protagonist is a fairly amorous trainee in magic, always running away from danger while making the wrong decisions with odd regularity. He joins the Hussites at one point, which does not make him feel any safer.
According to Mariusz Czubaj,
Sapkowski's trilogy is a form of polemics with the Polish tradition of the historical novel, with let's say Kraszewski and Sienkiewicz, who wrote about cruel times while depriving them of that dose of atrocities and a most basic human dimension. Yet the author of 'The Witcher' does not hide that his characters are not exactly subtle, but who nonetheless bask with delight in what the literature theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin once called 'the material bodily lower stratum'.
This point can be confirmed by the numerous linguistic allusions to Henryk Sienkiewicz and by the different ways in which the historical figures are viewed, such as Jagiello and Queen Jadwiga, known, for instance, from The Knights of the Cross.In 2009, Sapkowski yet again surprised his readers, setting the novel, Viper / Żmija, in Afghanistan during the time of the Soviet intervention. The main hero is Paweł Lewart, a Soviet Army warrant officer with Polish roots, endowed with paranormal skills. Although his supernatural abilities have been smothered by a stay in a mental hospital, an encounter with the eponymous viper makes them reappear.
Given these works, you can see that Sapkowski's writing is heading toward an even deeper embedding of fantasy motifs in the real world. The Witcher saga is set in an invented world (although some argue that the plot might have taken place on Earth before the ice age); the Hussite trilogy is set at the beginning of the fifteenth century; and Viper comes close to the here and now – the Polish intervention in Afghanistan is mentioned in the epilogue.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, October 2010.
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer