Classic Fairy Tales and The Witcher

It goes without saying The Witcher from Netflix is obviously very influenced by the Slavik/Polish culture from which it derives, and no small part of that influence comes in the form of fairy tales and local mythology popular in Europe in the areas surrounding Poland and Germany. These fairy tales, including the famous Grimm’s fairy tales, are the same source material that a lot of the Disney princess properties are mined from, as well as the movie Shrek.

The Witcher TV show, in particular, has 3 plot threads that very clearly have their origins in famous fairy tales.

1. Rumpelstiltskin and the Law of Surprise

Rumpelstiltskin was a Grimm fairy tale estimated to be around 4,000 years old. It was first published in The Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. The fairy tale is about a young woman who is held captive by a king because her father promised the king she could turn straw into gold by spinning it on a spinning wheel. The king took her, locked her in a room and told her to perform the feat or she’d be imprisoned/executed by sundown. Obviously, she couldn’t do it, so overwhelmed by the gravity of her situation, she despaired.

Luckily for her, a strange, spindly little elf creature (I sort of picture Dobbie from Harry Potter but less “sympathetic slave” and more “grocery store pervert”) showed up and offered to do it for her. At first, he did it in exchange for her necklace, but his price continually escalated. By the third time, she had run out of trinkets and in exchange for helping her, he requested her firstborn child.

The king, following three successful bouts of alchemy, married the girl for her magic power, which is a lot to take in. Like, first of all, this king had very clearly captured and enslaved her, but it’s still supposed to be a good, happy, lucky thing that she married him. That’s pretty messed up on its own. Second, she never used this magic power ever again, because she never had it, so this was a marriage based on lies.

Anyway, years later, Rumpelstiltskin shows up and requests the woman’s child. She protests, because she’s no longer desperate, and is now quite wealthy, but Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t care about money (why would he? He can turn straw into gold). He tells her if she can guess his name, he’ll release her from the deal. By spying on him, she figures out his weird name and escapes their agreement.

It’s a fairy tale meant to caution children about making bad deals out of desperation that will follow them into the future and have severe repercussions.

It’s also, quite clearly, the inspiration for The Witcher’s Law of Surprise concept, in which someone promises “That which they have but do not yet know” as sort of a blank check that seems to result in Rumpelstiltskinning their firstborn child. Geralt invokes this Rumpelstiltskin law in order to become the father of Ciri, and Duny, a cursed knight with a head of a hedgehog (we’ll get to that), uses it to marry Calanthe’s daughter, Pavetta. Which leaves a lot of wiggle room in this law of surprise: you get the kid and if it’s the daughter you get to choose whether you’re going to marry her or be her dad? Little confusing, kind of creepy, but ok.

2. Pavetta’s Marriage and Beauty and the Beast

As I mentioned, Duny, who is cursed to look like a hedgehog (it’s unclear how this happened in the show), invokes the Law of Surprise to justify his courtship of Calanthe’s daughter, Pavetta, because social class is a big deal in those days and Duny has two key things working against him: he’s just a knight, and he has the head of a hedgehog. It’s like a regular old wall street guy in a suit trying to marry Paris Hilton. Like, pff, you’re not even an executive, bro. Get a better title. But then also, less importantly, he’s a cursed half-animal mutant whose hair and, I assume, pubes, are barbs.

Anyway, Pavetta’s into it, so it kind of doesn’t matter how many layers of wrong the whole situation is. Doesn’t really matter that she’s basically getting claimed by a dude who has an expired coupon for one marriage that they still have to honor. None of this is the point of this section. The point is when their true love conquers all and Calanthe relents and approves of the marriage, the dude’s curse is broken and he stops being a hedgehog.

Which, as we all know, is the plot of Beauty and the Beast, which you most likely know because Disney made and remade the film several times, but it was actually a fairy tale written in 1740 by a French novelist named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, We just think of it as Disney because Disney has systematically purchased everyone’s culture, bastardized it and sold it back to them for the last 6 decades by abusing American IP law.

3. Yennefer’s Transformation and Cinderella

Cinderella, another fairy tale we think of as a Disney property, was actually first recorded in its modern form by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697, though its origins, like Rumpelstiltskin’s, go back much, much earlier.

The plot beats are only passingly similar; an unloved daughter gets her wish to change her appearance in order to go to court. But what matters about the adaptation of this fairy tale more, I think, is the theme and moral lesson behind it. There is a system that exists called the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which codifies fairy tales by their tropes, and Cinderella’s trope is “The Persecuted Heroine”, which is what we get in the story of Yennefer.

Yennefer’s plot carries out the same archetypal story as Cinderella: the character is unjustly mistreated and persecuted then, by miracle or coincidental intervention (in Cinderella’s case, her fairy god-mother; and in Yennefer’s case, the wizards of Aretuza), gets the chance to escape their mistreatment and persecution. Yennefer’s story is a bit more interesting because it takes it a step further and doubles down on the Persecuted Heroine archetype by laying it into another Persecuted Heroine plot, because with her it’s not happily-ever-after, but more, out of the frying pan and into the fire, because the wizards of Aretuza, it could be argued, represent a second unjust treatment and persecution plot.

In that way, Yennefer’s plot is actually a sort of evolution of the Cinderella archetypal story structure.

Those are 3 of the fairy tales that influenced The Witcher, but perhaps one of the things that will give The Witcher staying power as a show is its ability to shine a light on more of these cool old fairy tales as newer seasons continue to pile up.

While you’re here, feel free to check out my Witcher Review, Reylo & The Myth of Persephone and Hades, or anything else in the Movies & TV section.