By Anna Turner
[Editor's note: Ye spoilers for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (and a few Witcher 3 sub-quests) follow]
The moment Geralt arrives in Toussaint, a giant erupts from a windmill. Bloated with literary significance, the message is clear: “this game is about to begin a freefall into chivalric romance. Brace. Brace. Brace.”
The imagery is cribbed from Don Quixote, a giant (sorry) of the Spanish literary canon. It’s partly a story about a man who tries to joust a windmill. It is also about the terrible choices which lead him there, lance in hand, bellowing “Fly not, cowards and vile beings” at a field of 30 to 40 windmills. But why, of all things, is this story being referenced in a 2016 expansion to a game about a mutant with a penchant for fighting, fucking and solving the odd mystery?
The simplest answer is that it establishes tone, and an overarching aesthetic. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine is fixated with chivalric romance – a genre of medieval literature which defines how many of us picture that period. Think knights errant, damsels in distress and grand tournaments with alluring prizes to be won. It seems that, like poor Don Quixote before them, CD Projekt RED were absorbed by these tales of heroes and honour.
The question is whether the relationship between this game and the literature it invokes is merely superficial. Can Blood and Wine’s love affair with chivalric romance be traced only in the sumptuous use of gold and red fabric, its swollen wine barrels, and the glint of sunshine on shiny new armour sets? Or is there a deeper link between these tales and the expansion which opens by so boldly invoking them?
Surface, depth and the uneasy relationship between the two is something visually alluded to in the sub-quest ‘There Can Be Only One’. At the start of this side-quest, Geralt finds himself walking on the surface of a strange and secluded lake. Beneath his feet, a sword lies tantalisingly out of reach. There is a hermit who also dwells there, informing Geralt of “the extraordinary nature of the lake.” As your conversation with the hermit unfolds, it’s revealed that the blade can only be retrieved by a person in possession of the five chivalric virtues: valour, honour, compassion, generosity and wisdom.
The motif of a sword that can only be pulled from its confines by a hero of great virtue is familiar to most of us. It’s reminiscent of Excalibur – the legendary sword of King Arthur. Stories about King Arthur and his knights are known as Arthurian romances, a popular sub-genre of chivalric romance, and “the five chivalric virtues” are also a persistent feature of this genre. Perhaps most famously, the five virtues appear in the story of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight - an Arthurian romance and one of the great works of Middle English. In Gawain the eponymous hero's shield, not his sword, embodies the five virtues, and is emblazoned with a five-pointed star. Each point represents one of the virtues, and as you'd expect those listed in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight vary a little from the ones in Blood and Wine: one is “pité” which can be understood as piety or pity. There seems to have been little distinction at the time between these two qualities.
In this poem, the pentangle and its five virtues are also linked to ideas of Christ. The five points of the star are associated with the five wounds of Christ, and the five joys of the Virgin Mary. The Witcher, as a series, usually engages with issues of Christianity and real-world religion through a curtain of satire, pastiche and parody. However, there are some overt references in this scene atop the enchanted lake. Firstly, Geralt is literally walking on water. Secondly, the exchange he and the hermit share over this strange phenomena.
Geralt: I’m walking on water. Just like …
Hermit: Like who?
Geralt: Like a pond skater. Who were you thinking?
Sir Gawain’s shield adds a great weight of expectation to his tale – will he prove to be worthy of the emblem he bears? Well, no. No he won’t. Much like Geralt of Rivia, Sir Gawain had tremendous difficulty keeping it in his pants and this creates problems for him - eventually, Gawain's lack of virtue forces him to offer his neck up to the Green Knight (who adds his own twist to the tale.) Gawain's fate is not ultimately death, but life with the knowledge he failed to adhere to the chivalric code.
The sword's introduction in Blood and Wine plays a similar role as the shield in Gawain’s story: both tales are transformed into a series of opportunities for the protagonist to prove their virtue. The human element to both knight and mutant, depending on your perspective, is that they fail to do so. In 'There Can Be Only One' the five virtues are revealed to Geralt and he is tasked with demonstrating them within his pursuit of other questlines. But the Geralt who exists in my save file lives in his beautifully restored vineyard, idling away the hours, eyeing up a space on his weapon rack that’s just the right dimensions for a sword he never quite proved himself worthy of lifting. My Geralt, and the poem’s Gawain, have similar regrets to live with.
There’s also a second set of chivalric romance stories that illuminates how Blood and Wine lifts ideas from medieval literature: the Breton lai. Breton lais are short, rhyming tales of love and chivalry that are often other-worldly, and some of the earliest originate in France. You can hear and see France throughout Blood and Wine, even if the location of Toussaint is ostensibly fictional. French literature, too, is omnipresent in Blood and Wine. The world is populated with many self-contained, strange and memorable quests – some of which seem to parallel with these short story collections.
Many of the most famous Breton lais were written by a woman, Marie de France, and it’s her stories that I’m frequently reminded of when playing Blood and Wine. The world of Toussaint feels like her world; populated by romantic love of many different shades – passionate, tragic, unrequited. Peopled by a chivalrous but often troubled aristocracy. Shot through with a bolt of magic that makes everything burn a little fiercer, the colours blaze a little brighter.
I'll end with a direct comparison between a quest from Blood and Wine and a story from the Lais of Marie de France. The quest is called 'Warble of a Smitten Knight’, the story ‘Laüstic’. Both recount the tale of a young and beautiful lady, displaying to the world every virtue society expects of her, with a secret to keep. Both are about a love which struggles to breathe under the conditions in which it grew. Both are about a wondrous bird who, though innocent and faultless, nevertheless must die.
‘Laüstic’ begins with two knights: one who has a beautiful and genteel wife, and another who has fallen madly in love with her. The second knight is great at tournaments, but unlucky in love. At night, the young bride rises from her marriage bed to stand at a window where the two star-crossed lovers can gaze at each other, talk, and even exchange gifts in private. As this is the world of chivalry, of course, they can never touch.
The young bride’s husband asks what keeps her from her bed late at night. There is a nightingale in the grounds, replies the bride. “I take such delight in it and desire it so much that I can get no sleep at all” she says. Oh dear.
The lord has the nightingale trapped. In a fit of rage, he wrings its neck and hurls it at her. Its small corpse is sent to the neighbouring, lovelorn knight who understands at once that their affair is over. He has a tiny coffin prepared for the bird, more like a reliquary or religious vessel, built from pure gold and embellished with fine jewels. He carries it with him always.
It’s a sad, beautiful story. One I feel echoes through ‘Warble of a Smitten Knight’ – a quest about uncovering a wealthy lady’s secret and trying to bring her a little closer to the chivalrous knight who loves her. The subject of the quest is a noblewoman named Vivienne de Tabris. Like the lady of ‘Laüstic’, Vivienne seems chronically distracted and unable to focus on her courtly duties. She also has a great affinity for birds. After investigating her sleeping quarters, Geralt finds a feather and large claw marks. Later, he encounters a small bird outside Vivienne’s tent. It sings sweetly.
Vivienne suffers under a curse. By night she becomes part woman, part oriole. Her delicate features obscured by a grotesque beak, her skin covered in green and yellow feathers. This curse has driven her to a life characterised by lies and deceit. Like the jealous lord of ‘Laüstic’, Geralt’s task is to bring the lies and deceit to an end.
The game offers players two solutions to this quandary. Either, you can allow Vivienne’s chivalrous admirer, Guillaume, to take the curse onto himself. Or, you can transfer the curse to an unhatched oriole egg, leaving Vivienne with the lifespan of a small bird. A young man’s life will be destroyed, or an egg will be cursed and then crushed. I chose the egg. Vivienne chose a life without Guillaume. Lais are short stories. Sometimes cutting them short means creating an ugly, messy incision.
This quest draws from the same palette of ideas, images and sensations of Marie de France’s lais. Both ‘Warble of a Smitten Knight’ and ‘Laüstic’ contain similar lessons; the promise of a self-contained story is not always the promise of a quick resolution, or any resolution at all. A chivalric code, sometimes, is not the guarantee it seems. There are many games influenced by the medieval world on the surface, but The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine offers players an exploration of the world medieval people dreamt of, the world their stories proposed as possible, and the kind of heroes they imagined.