Trigger warning: this article has mentions of self-harm and suicide.
“And now…We’re here alone, without witnesses. Not one is looking at us, and I’m not going to say anything to anyone. Cry, girl. Pour it all out. Make it your last cry. Starting now you will never cry. There is nothing more pathetic than a sorceress in tears,” a young girl hears as a stranger cleans the cuts on her wrists, slashes so deep they have severed her tendons. It is the first act of love that is given to her, and for the next 90 years, it is the last.
Last weekend may have been most widely known as the end of Game of Thrones, but it was also the fourth anniversary of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt—which means it’s been four years since the gaming world got to know Yennefer of Vengerberg.
However, many fans have known her for longer. Andrzej Sapkowski published The Last Wish, the first novel of The Witcher saga, in 1993. The Witcher 3 shows the person who Yennefer has become, but the experiences that shaped her are vital to understanding why she is the abrasive, divisive and cold-hearted sorceress many perceive her as. As we enter a post-Game of Thrones show world and celebrate the women who ruled kingdoms, outlived their abusers and led wars, perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate Yennefer, a woman who is much more than a love interest; who famously dons only black and white clothing as if in juxtaposition of all the shades of complexity within her; and who is one of the most multifaceted women in not just gaming, but also fantasy stories in general.
Since we embody Geralt in the games, we see what he’s come to see in Yennefer: a beautiful raven-haired sorceress known for her affinity in magic; an assertive woman who does what she wants, regardless of the moral concern, annoyance, or anger of her lover; a mother who is willing to use necromancy and inflict pain on the innocent dead to get the information she needs to find her missing daughter. She smells of lilac and gooseberries and wears lace—delicate things that contrast an interior the world has forced her to harden for survival.
In the Witcher world, sorceresses use magic to enhance their beauty, which they use to obtain power over easily susceptible men. But for Yennefer, it’s been to have any semblance of power. She was born a hunchback, a sin so grave to her father that he rampantly abused her until he set out and never came back for dinner. Heartbroken over her husband leaving, Yennefer’s mother began to abuse Yennefer, too. There was nobody to care about Yennefer’s heartbreak by the time she was admitted at an academy for mages.
Tissaia de Vries, the sorceress who took Yennefer under her wing, was the first person to care about her misery, but it is as she said while bandaging her cuts: to the world, there is nothing more pathetic than a sorceress in tears. And so Yennefer never cried or showed weakness—it’s what a patriarchal world demanded of her as an expression of power, and what she demanded of herself to kill the little girl at the bottom of society’s hierarchy who wasn’t mourned by anyone.
This doesn’t change when she meets the love of her life, Geralt, at the end of The Last Wish. “A Shard of Ice,” a short story in Sword of Destiny, introduces a rare move for a leading heroine and love interest: In the time they begin building a life together, Yennefer cheats on Geralt. Believing she’s the queen who rules over a castle built on shards of ice, she breaks the hearts of both men she’s involved with because she’s convinced she’s incapable of being loved. To her, they’re merely deluding themselves and her into thinking they could love the unpredictable witch that villagers all over the northern kingdoms loathe. And so she feels little guilt in unknowingly creating this self-fulfilling prophecy, for it’s not as if there was ever anyone to teach her differently.
What breaks the cycle is not Geralt, but actually Ciri—a surrogate daughter to Geralt. During one of their several periods of separation, Geralt sends a letter to Yennefer requesting her to be Ciri’s mentor in the magic arts. While having embraced all the changes that becoming a sorceress brought to her body, the one thing Yennefer spent years seeking to undo was her infertility. Doing this very thing on normal women was actually her specialty, but it proved to be an impossible task for the woman powerful enough to turn several wagons of people into forest critters with a flick of her foot.
For all it gets right, The Witcher 3 fails to showcase the depth of Yennefer and Ciri’s relationship. It displays her dedication to finding Ciri, but there’s no scene that mirrors when, in Blood of Elves, Yennefer hugs a Ciri terrified of war while affectionately calling her “my ugly one” and swearing that she will always be by her side; when, in Lady of the Lake, Ciri tells the Lodge of Sorceresses, “Yennefer’s fate is linked with mine. We are inextricably linked and that cannot be changed”; when Ciri’s devotion to Yennefer above everything—even Geralt—is clear when she says, “I want to be called Cirilla of Vengerberg, daughter of Yennefer”; when, after enduring a long separation during which they nearly lost their lives, Yennefer finally allows herself to cry upon reuniting with Ciri.
It wasn’t an easy start for them—upon their first meeting, Yennefer vowed to be understanding but could not promise being kind-hearted, for as she says, “it is widely thought I don’t possess such an organ.” But Yennefer learned—she learned without a book like the ones that have taught her how to kill men in power and heal the wounds of soldiers, without the love and acceptance of her parents, without knowing she would ever even have the opportunity to be a mother.
The trauma Yennefer has endured may have left her wrists and heart scarred, but she’s learned to use both to create something entirely hers, something more powerful than any spell she could cast. And though her love for her family has given her reasons to cry, there is nothing pathetic in that. No matter how long it takes for a fourth Witcher game to come along, there’s no doubt in my mind that Yennefer will still stand as one of gaming and fantasy literature’s most fascinating and complex women.
Natalie Flores is on Twitter @heartimecia.