content by

Teo Bileta

An Insider’s Guide to Slavic-Inspired Fantasy

There’s a certain fascination with Central and Eastern European cultures that extends beyond those who were born into those cultures and scholars who specialize in Slavic studies. Since I myself belong to the two latter categories, I cannot cast aside my personal and scholarly experience and see our legacies and cultures from a fresh perspective, the way foreign authors can and often do. But what I can do is analyse their approach to representation and compare it to ours.

New variations on Slavic themes provide us with a unique opportunity to see how the rest of the world reflects upon us and our centuries of folklore and literary traditions. Sometimes, it’s an eye-opening experience. But above all, it is an opportunity for our often ignored, stereotyped, and misinterpreted cultures to receive attention and (re)consideration from a new audience of readers and fans.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Slavic Fantasy in Translation

In recent years, fantasy settings based on various non-Western cultures have popped up more and more often as the genre has sought to expand beyond the pseudo-medieval European realms and folklore and mythologies most immediately familiar to readers in Western Europe and the US. With the growing popularity of works featuring previously ignored cultures and subject matter, or which seek new approaches to spinning classic adventures in a different light, Slavic settings and stories are beginning to occupy an unexpected place in modern fantasy literature.

There is a special flavour that sets these stories apart, reflecting a culture which inspires both Western writers and local Eastern European writers alike. While the high fantasy settings that characterize the writing of Tolkien and so many other classic works of classic fantasy remain captivating, so too are the Slavic vodyanoys and rusalkas, the vast expanse of the Russian Empire, and the myths and legends of the Balkans.

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The Witcher: It’s Not Easy Adapting a Beloved Series

Adaptations are difficult. It takes ingenuity and attention to detail to translate hundreds of pages of thorough exposition and worldbuilding into a compelling visual spectacle. Whenever a novel becomes a film or a TV series, artistic minds are set on a collision course. That collision of ideas results in different visions of the same characters, topics, and themes; as a result, not all viewers accept the adaptation, however good it may be on its own merits. Netflix’s new Witcher series is no exception to this rule. Like all other television adaptations, the series deviates from the books. In the case of The Witcher, however, many of these changes, in my opinion, are largely unnecessary and do not make for a coherent story.

Like many longtime Witcher fans, I grew up on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels. Admittedly, trying to distance myself from the characters I’ve grown attached to doesn’t come easily, but I tried to remain objective and open while waiting for the adaptation to finally arrive. By the time the show premiered in late December, I was curious to see how the showrunner and writers would interpret the novels, and was willing to accept the likely omission of the various Slavic elements and themes prominent in the books, as well as the clever literary and linguistic references and wordplay on the part of the author that would inevitably be lost in translation. Despite my scepticism about certain casting choices, I do not mind my opinions being challenged and tested—after all, a successful adaptation offers a unique glance into someone else’s mind. It allows you to access a different vision of the material you think you know and understand. In the case of The Witcher, however, the show challenged and altered the internal logic of the Witcher’s world while not adding great value to the story. As a result, the overall lack of context turns the show into a generic fantasy while ignoring the books’ unique elements and the subtle, but crucial, aspects of Sapkowski’s worldbuilding that set the Witcher saga apart in the first place.

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The Cult of The Witcher: Slavic Fantasy Finally Gets Its Due

The fantasy world of The Witcher has taken decades to achieve its current level of popularity, propelled to cult status by three successful video games, loyal fans, and skillful promotion. Created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the Witcher series pays homage to a familiar fantasy settings and folklore but also subverts your every expectation, offering something few series manage to deliver: uniqueness. Ardent fans like myself are quick to point out the unmistakable Slavic elements that help to define the universe of The Witcher and play a major role in setting this carefully crafted fantasy world apart from other popular works of genre fiction. The question you may be asking is, “What exactly are those Slavic influences, and how do we recognize them in such a complicated, highly imaginative fantasy setting?”

When we think of a standard, conventional fantasy background, many readers will imagine a version of Medieval Europe with magical elements woven into the plot: dwarfs and elves undermine a dysfunctional feudal system, kings rule, knights fight, peasants plough the fields. Occasionally, a dragon shows up and sets the countryside on fire, causing an economic crisis. Depending on the degree of brutality and gritty realism, the world will either resemble a polished fairy tale or a gloomy hell pit—the kind where a sophisticated elf might become a drug-addicted (or magic-addicted) assassin for hire. Slavic fantasy also tends to rely on this time-tested recipe, borrowing tropes from various European legends, with one notable distinction—most of these fantasy elements are drawn from Eastern European traditions. In the case of The Witcher series, this regional flavor makes all the difference…

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