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The Witcher’s Elves Just Can’t Catch a Break

Photo: Kevin Baker/Netflix

Spoilers follow for the second season of The Witcher.

Fantasy series are not exactly fountains of relatability. The whole point of the genre is to step outside oneself and to imagine a different reality — one inspired by folklore and myth, populated by creatures and concepts that don’t exist in our universe. Magic! Monsters! Matriarchal societies! (I kid, I kid — except when I watch The Wheel of Time and think misandry doesn’t seem so bad.) The second season of The Witcher hits an array of fantastical tropes that genre fans have come to expect, from Ciri going full Xena in her warrior training to totalitarianism and religious fanaticism on behalf of the Nilfgaardian Empire and the White Flame. The latest episodes also address a truism with which I can absolutely empathize: Elves really get screwed when it comes to real estate! And, like, everything else!

This positioning of elves in fantasy often serves as a contrast to the genre’s depiction of humanity. While humans have forgotten their responsibilities to the natural world and hesitate when it comes to altruism, the elves prioritize both — often to their detriment. In the eight episodes that premiered on Netflix on December 17, The Witcher continues its theme of human selfishness and cruelty, especially in regard to the elves, the original inhabitants of the Continent. The elves have been oppressed and massacred for centuries, and they cannot catch a break when it comes to homeownership, birth rates, or, you know, anything. Their kingdoms and cities were stolen from them, every new home they attempt to establish is destroyed, and after the events of “Voleth Meir,” the first pure-born elf born in countless years is dead. The Witcher primarily aligns us with protagonists Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer, but intermittently throughout its first season and consistently through its second, it makes a case for the elves — refugees and survivors — as worthy of our empathy, too, and perhaps even more deserving of our allegiance.

Like so many fantasy novels, TV shows, and films released after the somewhat forgotten 1924 novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s seminal works The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954 and 1955), and the posthumously published The Silmarillion (1977), The Witcher owes much of its conception of elves to those early visions, in particular Tolkien’s elves. They are ancient; they set themselves apart from humankind; and they have lived through countless betrayals. Remember the memory Hugo Weaving’s Elrond shares with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Men are weak … I was there 3,000 years ago, when Isildur took the Ring. I was there the day the strength of men failed … There is no strength left in the world of men. They’re scattered, divided, leaderless.”

Think of how concerned Elrond is when his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler, hot) falls in love with human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, hot) because he fears she will give up her immortality for that guy, part of a race that has turned its back so often on elves. And think too of Thranduil the Elvenking (Lee Pace, hot) in Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, who hides the elves deep in the forest realm of Mirkwood in response to the dual threats of the dragon Smaug and the returned Sauron. Humans are many and elves are few, and whatever control the latter beings had over their world is slipping away. Who could blame them, after again helping to finally defeat Sauron in The Return of the King, for sailing to the Undying Lands during Middle-earth’s Fourth Age? Their cities will disintegrate into dust and all memory of them will be lost once they leave Middle-earth, but at least they’ll be free of the annoying humans, with their laziness in lighting signal fires and their inability to sense their king is possessed and their masochistic desire to make hobbits sing. (Do I just low-key hate Gondor and Rohan? Probably.)

That overall elven blueprint is repeated in The Witcher. The Continent’s geography is difficult to grasp for viewers unfamiliar with Andrzej Sapkowski’s source novels or the accompanying video games (show us an onscreen map, I beg!), but the series establishes early on that all the human kingdoms, from Cintra to Nilfgaard to Redania, were built on lands originally populated by the elves, and the humans’ locations of power, such as the magical Aretuza academy on Thanedd Island, were originally built by the elves. After the Conjunction of the Spheres merged previously divided dimensions together and brought humans and monsters to the Continent for the first time, its original elven inhabitants taught humans how to turn Chaos into magic to defend themselves. In return for the elves’ hospitality and acceptance, the humans swindled, ostracized, and slaughtered them, as in the Great Cleansing that killed Yennefer’s half-elf father.

In the first season of The Witcher, much of this is explained in chunks of exposition. In episode “Four Marks,” all three parallel story lines address how most humans think either the elves are evil (like the boy who shows off his necklace of elf ears to Ciri) or willingly left behind these lands for “their golden palaces in the mountains” (as Jaskier the Bard tells an eye-rolling Geralt). Most pervasively, humans are completely unaware of the elves’ long history of cultural and material contributions: Yennefer has to be taught about the elves by her lover, the sorcerer Istredd, and Ciri is informed of her grandmother’s bloodthirst by elf boy Dara.

Photo: Jay Maidment/Netflix

The introduction in “Four Marks” of Tom Canton as Filavandrel, the king of the elves, sharply rejects these human misconceptions. He’s a monarch “not by choice,” but because the elves need a leader after being forced out of their home in the Dol Blathanna kingdom, starved, and hunted down. The Witcher, in its first season, was often subversively cynical, and Geralt and Jaskier respond to Filavandrel’s complaints on that wavelength. The former tells Filavandrel to “go somewhere else,” which is his recurring advice in the first season — guidance that ignores how humans have taken practically everywhere. The latter, although at first shocked into silence by the king’s tales of mass graves and murdered babies, eventually spins the story of the elves letting them go into a song about Geralt fighting them off.

“Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” with its lyrics about how Geralt “thrust every elf/Far back on the shelf/High up on the mountain/From whence it came” and sung with energetic gusto, becomes the Bard’s signature jam. Jaskier does exactly what Istredd somberly tells Yennefer humans do (“rewriting history with the stories we tell, the songs we sing about our own triumphs”), and to emphasize that once more, Jenny Klein’s screenplay has Jaskier say a version of the same line to Geralt: “Respect doesn’t make history.”

In The Witcher’s second season, when the elves are reintroduced, they’ve listened to advice Filavandrel’s warrior companion Toruviel gave in “Four Marks.” “Let us take back what’s ours, starting now,” she had implored the king, who instead chose to let Geralt and Jaskier go and then failed to defend the elves from Ciri’s grandmother, Queen Calanthe. In the time between when Geralt and Jaskier cross paths with Filavandrel in the pre-Ciri timeline in season one and the elf makes his season-two reappearance, the elves have deposed him and elevated his romantic partner, sorceress Francesca (Mecia Simson). Introduced in season-two episode “Kaer Morhen,” Francesca is slickly political (“We mustn’t lose faith in a bright elven future”) and is convinced she’s guided by visions of Ithlinne, an oracle offering a certain prophecy about who, or what, could save the elves. Her obsessive desire to provide a path forward for her people leads Francesca into alliances with Voleth Meir, the Deathless Mother demon who inspired the creation of the Witchers, and Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni), the sorceress who helped guide Nilfgaard’s attack of Cintra in the first season. Voleth Meir provides Francesca with a pure-born-elf pregnancy and Fringilla with power over Nilfgaard, and the two women team up to bond the elves and Nilfgaardians together.

At first, that partnership seems like a good idea. Cintra’s Queen Calanthe ordered the slaughter of many elves, and Francesca is working an understandable “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” angle in aligning herself with Fringilla and Nilfgaard. In the middle stretch of the second season, The Witcher expands Francesca’s decision, focusing on the refugee elves and the difficult choices they have to make as a race without a home. Some are settled in Cintra, which they refer to by its original elven name Xin’trea, but they can’t simply live: The Nilfgaardian Army makes them train and fight. In sixth episode “Dear Friend …,” Nilfgaardian General Hake (Antony Byrne) sneers, “Fucking pointies think they can join our ranks,” as he watches the elves train in combat, while Nilfgaard’s Black Knight Cahir (Eamon Farren) mockingly calls the elves “fairies.” But Hake’s and Cahir’s hatred for the elves doesn’t overpower their desire to use these individuals for Nilfgaard’s totalitarian plans. In penultimate episode “Voleth Meir,” Hake complains to Fringilla when the elves don’t all report for instruction, while Cahir volunteers to “deal with them” if they “refuse to serve.” The elves can’t just exist; they have to prove their worth to another group of humans that has no qualms about slaughtering them. And elves who haven’t made it to Cintra are still subject to prejudice and oppression in other kingdoms — like Temeria’s Gors Velen, the port city where Yennefer and Cahir see elves being rounded up and massacred in fourth episode “Redanian Intelligence.” (And where Jaskier, perhaps feeling somewhat guilty about using the elves’ plight for his hit song, is smuggling them to Cintra under the assumed moniker “the Sandpiper.”)

For the elves, that’s all pretty crappy, especially the “being indebted to someone as annoying as Jaskier” part. The situation gets even crappier when Francesca and Filavandrel’s baby is killed in “Voleth Meir,” turning the elves — who had recently decided to leave Nilfgaard to pursue regrowth, reneging on the partnership with Fringilla — vengeful and bloodthirsty. In finale episode “Family,” Francesca goes all Ten Commandments in Redania, casting a spell that slaughters all the kingdom’s babies. (Simson’s face in that second of silence between the cacophony of wailing babies and the screams of their grieving mothers is chilling.) We learn later during a conversation between Cahir and Fringilla that the elves are fighting throughout the Northern kingdoms, attacking as many humans as they can. And we learn even later that Nilfgaard’s White Flame, Emhyr var Emreis, ordered the elven baby’s assassination because he thinks it’s “the best path” to finding his daughter Ciri. Once again, the elves are being maneuvered and manipulated, and an answer to the elves’ existential struggle about who they are without a home isn’t exactly clear.

What is the best path forward for the elves? More pure-blood elves seems out of the question, and joining with another human kingdom, after Nilfgaard burned them, seems foolish. (One of Henry Cavill’s best line deliveries this season is his deadpan observation of Istredd’s alliance with Nilfgaard: “You want to help the elves by joining a kingdom that regularly massacres whole villages? … Quite a conflict there.”) Ciri, now that she is revealed to be part-elf, the focus of Ithlinne’s prophecy, and, as Istredd tells Francesca, Hen Ikeir, obviously has a part to play, but she seems pretty stretched thin at this point, between evading the Wild Hunt and that fire mage guy and especially her creepy dad’s potentially gross advances.

So, genuinely: Can’t all the power players on the Continent, the Brotherhood and whomever else, just find a place that is absolutely empty and give the elves some damn real estate? We’ve seen Geralt wander through so many uninhabited expanses, from mountains to deserts, and one of those has to be suitable! Offer down-payment assistance, tax credits, sacks of gold, whatever currency is used in the Continent! Make peace through compensation! Honestly, between all the widespread genocide, cutting off of ears, and defamation through song, haven’t the elves been through enough?

The Elves Just Can’t Catch a Break