It’s been a while since I played The Witcher 3 for PC, and I imagine it’ll be some time before I’m able to go back to it. Was a beautiful game, though, and a lot of fun.
Since I was recently talking about inspiration Sapkowski may have drawn from Michael Moorcock’ Elric stories, it’s good timing, then, for me to also mention some inspiration I’ve noticed CD Projekt Red to have drawn from Polish/German legend in its Witcher 3.
Some mornings or evenings lately, when I have a few idle minutes, I page through a WW2-era book of Polish legends in my possession. One of the stories it contains is that of the evil ruler Popiel.
As is typical of legend and myth, the details of the story vary somewhat with the source, but the book tells of an evil Polish king with a beautiful, but wicked, German wife. Notably, this version of the story goes to great pains to underscore both her wickedness and her Germanness.
The king and his wife treat their subjects terribly and are noted to be sexually depraved.
Eventually, the king’s uncles decide to revolt. Afraid of being deposed, Popiel’s wife goes Lady MacBeth (though her husband takes little convincing), and the two craft and execute a plot to do aware with the uppity uncles. They swear reform, feign contriteness, and invite all the uncles and their men to a great feast. Here they poison their kin.
The common folk, when they learn of this, are driven finally to their own rebellion. Popiel and his wife flee to a tower, and legend here says that a multitude of mice appeared out of a nearby lake. The vermin swept down upon the castle and devoured the evil pair alive, leaving the bodies of the slain uncles alone.
There’s also a German legend about a similarly evil ruler who committed atrocities and ultimately fled to a tower where he was eaten alive by mice.
These towers are both known as The Tower of Mice.
The Witcher 3 takes the bones of these legends and sets up its own story in one particular quest. There’s no evil ruler, but instead an evil mage who experimented on rats and humans. Eventually a mob of angry peasants stormed his tower to slaughter him. And then a bunch of rats came and ate everyone, I think. It’s been a while. Anyway, there’s magic and ghosts and rats.
Legend and folk tale are ripe for the recycling, and that’s one thing I have enjoyed about the Witcher books and games – the use of many traditions that haven’t gotten much play in major contemporary works.