‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Andrzej Sapkowski, "Season of Storms" (2013/2018)

I’m no aficionado of the Witcher video games. I asked my gamer son and he supplied me with one key datum: ‘they changed it so that if you keep killing cows a demon appears to stop you. In the first version you could just keep killing cows, since you got money for each cow, so you could just kill thousands of them and get all the money, but in the third game they’ve stopped you doing that.’ Good to know, I feel. I was aware that Henry Cavill, upon whom my wife has something of a crush, is set to play him in an upcoming Netflix adaptation, but I’d never read any of the books upon which both games and movie are based. So Season of Storms was a first for me.

Season of Storms will be a last for me.

Hoo what a bad book. On the upside, it’s entertainingly bad rather than just depressingly bad: a mismash of High Fantasy generic clichés, with the Witcher himself a Van Helsing/Clint Eastwood gunslinger combo (“the Van with No Name”) roaming the world killing monsters and having sex with large-breasted sorceresses. If there are nuances to this formula in other Witcher volumes I am, and will I’m afraid remain, unaware of them. In this one the Witcher kills a monster, has his magic swords stolen from him and then spends a very long time looking for them. He’s tortured by an unscrupulous magician, gets into more fights, goes on a sea-voyage, fights a cave-troll. There’s a superbly irritating character called Dandelion who interrupts the action with songs on his lute, like the bard in Asterix. The aged king is going to marry a seventeen year old, and this entails some kind of opaque political conspiracy-ising. On his travels the Witcher meets alluring raven-haired women and flame-haired women and sometimes has sex with them.

The whole has been translated out of Polish into a deliberately fruity High Fantasy idiom by David French (‘nought like a Witcher for dealing with troubles!’) and without access to the original it’s hard to know how much is French and how much the echt Sapkowski. Suffice to say the writing is bad: fond of needless repetition (‘Gonscorek was dead. He was, quite simply, deceased’ [35]) and often just baffling: ‘Sorel Degerlund grinned a vicious smile, a smile calling to mind centipedes squeezing through gaps under doors’ [155]. Indeed, sometimes, the sheer pressure of stylistic badness squeezes the prose into something that’s almost memorable: ‘a stentorian voice tore through the hubbub of the fracas’ [34]. But mostly it’s stuff like this:
The bodyguard … was a half breed, the result of a cross between an ogre and a dwarf. The result was a bald dwarf with a height of well over seven feet. [85]
If the seven-foot-tall dwarfs don’t bounce you out of the story, the unreconstructed 1970s sexism might. The women have ‘raven hair’ or ‘fox-red hair’, wear dresses with ‘plunging necklines’ and ‘cross their legs provocatively’. One female character is described as ‘a moderately attractive blonde’ [121] and some of the women are fat, farting hoydens (‘the Witcher, who always maintained there was no such thing as an ugly woman, suddenly felt compelled to revise this opinion’ [17]). But most are boobsome babes: ‘erotically alluring red hair … attractive figure … plunging cleavage’ [47]. A female warrior wears the following practical and credible outfit: ‘leather shorts with the legs split at the seams to accommodate her thighs. Two belts crossing her chest were pretty much all she had on above the waist.’ The Witcher is seduced by a busty sorceress called Lytta Neyd. ‘You lured me,’ he complains, afterwards. ‘Like an insect. With magical freesia-and-apricot pheremones’ [67]. But his insect-pheromone-related objections in no way prevent the two of them bonking all over the place for pages and pages and pages. ‘I do have a bed you know,’ Lytta tells him, a fact upon which the narrator dilates:
Indeed, she did have a bed. An enormous one. The bed was huge and had a canopy. The bed linen was of silk. It’s no exaggeration to say that they made use of the entire bed, of every single inch. Every inch of the bed linen. And every fold of the sheets. [65]
This erotic olympiad includes one of the flat-out weirdest similes for breasts I’ve ever encountered.
The Witcher brushed Lytta’s hair from her back. Slowly one by one, he unfastened the hooks and eyes and slid the dress from the sorceress’s shoulders. After that he utterly devoted his hands and attention to a pair of galleons under full sail. Galleons one would search for in vain on all the maritime routes, harbours, ports, and registers of the admiralty. [70]

The worldbuilding is perfectly cavalier where consistency is concerned: it’s a pseudo-medieval world of magic, swords, horses, taverns, and castles that is also furnished with wicker chairs, checking accounts (‘“Please make out a cheque for four hundred crowns from the sum to the paid” she instructed the clerk. “I know the bank takes a commission’ [244]) genetic engineering and steam engines. In amongst the many hey-prithee archaisms characters say such profoundly un-medieval things as ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ and ‘that says a great deal about the individual’s psychological state’. For every ‘ye gods! Begone I say!’ there’s a ‘there’s a commotion down there in the suburbs’ [116]. The plotting is higgled-piggled, the tone veers all over the place and the overall effect is profoundly adolescent. Then again, so-bad-it’s-good is its own genre, and in this book is a remarkable example of the mode. On the evidence of this, it doesn't look good for poor old Henry Cavill. Serves him right, for my wife having such a crush on him.


  1. Love those galleons in full gallop...you are the wind beneath my wings, the cream in my coffee, the ding in my dong.

    I think you're supposed to look of the hidden meanings, Adam.

  2. It's probably worth mentioning that most game writing is very bad, like people making knock-offs of Chuck Norris films in the 80s bad. The Witcher games take seriously putting you in the middle of a bunch of gritty Polish fairytales/ conspiracies and let you decide who you're going to screw over which is two or three steps up from the usual. I have high hopes for the next generation of games writers who take this as their starting point.

    Dandelion is brilliantly annoying in game, always getting into trouble and then singing about it.

    1. I'm sure that's true. Of course, the Witcher novels antecede the games (although this vol, a late addition to the series, may have been retrospectively influenced by the games' success, I suppose)

    2. Sapkowski hates the games' developer/publisher with a fiery passion, not least because he thought the games wouldn't go anywhere and sold all rights for a not too high flat price instead of what would have been very sweet royalties over which he is now suing. From what I've gathered as someone who played the games a lot but hasn't yet read the books, they're rather different bodies of work, and they do a good job at transporting the characters and general environment to a completely different medium in a way that's more interactive than a strict book adaptation would ever permit.

      I would rate the writing in the games to be on par with "better" fantasy novels, maybe comparable to a slightly drunk David Eddings; some things make no sense at all, there is the odd Wizard Ex Machina, and sometimes they're very blatantly taking the piss out of modern-day elements, but they capture the spirit of a light-hearted, gritty, epic romp all in one, which is a feat in itself. None of it is really as bad as your experience with the book seems to have been (but we probably have vastly different standards in literature).

      At a discussion where Sapkowski took part, it was suggested that the games may be as good as they are because they are different enough from the books; if Andrzej responded, it did not make it to Gollancz's Twitter feed.

  3. Two belts crossing her chest were pretty much all she had on above the waist.

    In that kind of outfit, she could get rolled at night...

    there’s a commotion down there in the suburbs

    The second draft of "Eton Rifles" was a great improvement.

    All in all... oh my. I haven't read any Jordan, Norman or Ringo, but I have read The Eye of Argon, and that seems to be the level of prose-writing we're dealing with.

    1. I'm evidently a sucker for Jam-related humour, but your Eton Rifles line made me actually-lol.

  4. I was obsessed with the short stories and the novels as a teenager, back when that entailed having to fly from Canada to Poland to get the books in the first place.

    But as an adult I admit I'm largely surprised how much praise/attention the series is getting from serious fantasy critics when my memories of the series are so firmly routed in adolescence.

    I enjoy the prose in Polish, however. Never read the English translations.

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  6. The only Sapkowski I've read was "The Last Wish" ('93, translated by Danusia Stok in 2007) but I suspect the effect is much the same. I thought the twisted fairy tales were a bit fun (a Rapunzel out for revenge, a Sleeping Beauty who only awakens to feed...), but agree Geralt is a bit of a bust as a main character. He strikes me as a Dungeons and Dragons character in a campaign which has gone completely off the rails, and the DM is now indulging the player's wildest wish-fulfillment fantasies.

    I think the game's popularity is thanks to two factors. (1) As video games increasingly go the always online software-as-a-service subscription route, it was entirely self-contained and didn't even require an Internet connection to play, and (2) Among open-world, sandbox games featuring 00s of hours of repetitive tasks to keep players occupied, the Witcher game at least invested its endless loops of go-to-x-and-kill-y with a modicum of narrative justification, however sketchy.

    The show was a bit of a mess, however. It tries to redress some of the more Neanderthal portrayals of women, but wants to have its cheesecake and eat it too. Henry is triffically Cavill-ier so perhaps you might not want to watch it in your household?