The Fantasy genre has long been stereotyped as one dominated by men—a genre of farm boy heroes and barbarian king power fantasies. And however false this impression is when it comes to the vast landscapes of the written word, filmic adaptations remain broadly focused on what can be loosely termed “boy stories” such as Legend of the Seeker (2008-10 based on Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth) and The Shannara Chronicles (2016-18 based on Terry Brooks’s series of the same name).
Yet at the same time, both series adaptations of The Witcher and The Wheel of Time have very much zeroed in on womanhood as one of their core themes. It isn’t that women are alien to their source texts, but through the careful arrangement of scenes, foregrounding of back story, shifting points of view, and pruning of plots, both adaptations have teased out and made more prominent previously more obfuscated threads. Female characters have been brought to the forefront of the narrative and been given space to make the story their own on a structural and thematic level.
This is arguably unsurprising given the substantial female fanbase of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the very common criticism of its ostensibly medieval approach to gender1. HBO’s Game of Thrones has concluded, after all, and who would take the iron throne as the next wildly popular Fantasy adaptation remains deeply unclear. I’d argue the sheer prominence of sexual violence in Game of Thrones and the cultural discourse surrounding it has made this a default lens to understand any challenger. I still remember tweets in the wake of The Witcher’s season one drop praising how it manages to serve up a gritty fantasy world without actual gratuitous depicted rape.
And there have been challengers aplenty, of course, including the sprawling historical dramas based on actual medieval queens from the BBC. Which is all to say, it isn’t just that The Witcher or The Wheel of Time is interested in gender so much as women and their experiences specifically. Made within a few years of each other and in the wake of that once ubiquitous Game of Thrones, the two series make for a fascinating comparison as they each take wildly divergent approaches in defining womanhood within their worlds.
The Witcher’s titular Geralt is a monstrous hunter in the world of men, an outcast only tolerated because of his abilities to kill other monsters. The opening episode plucks Geralt’s plot from one of the more ancillary short stories, a dark retelling of Snow White where she is marked for death because of the circumstances of her birth. Some combination of that fateful comet, rapist huntsmen, and superstitious sorcerers has refashioned the princess Renfri into a monster.
There is a distinct fleshiness to the way womanhood is depicted and defined in The Witcher. The braided storylines intentionally juxtapose temporally disconnected events to create meaning. Sex and violence, fear and hope, birth and massacre are all intercut. Geralt and Triss’s gory fight with the cursed princess of a Striga to remake her as human is woven together with the rebirth of Yennifer as conventionally beautiful through violent, womb-destroying magical surgery. It invites you to see those connections between the different visceral manifestations of monstrousness: Geralt is a monster who kills monsters, but he also cares for them; Renfri, Yennifer, and the Striga are all regarded as monstrous in some way because of the circumstances of their birth. The question asked by Renfri in the first episode of what makes a monster and what makes a princess threads its way through the seasons. Princesses, queens, and sorceresses are all in their own way types of monsters.
That very womb-centric biological womanhood echoes through each of the episodes as motifs of monstrous births, bloodlines, and wombs recur. Strength is won through violence inflicted or endured. There is a visceral brutality to it all.
In the episode “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials,” Yennifer talks to a dead infant, a princess whose life she failed to save. Echoing her previous unsuccessful suicide attempt, she reasons that perhaps the princess has cheated life and fate by dying, refusing to become just a “vessel.” Yennifer realises the truth of what Queen Kalis had previously told her in the episode, that she’s just a womb, “a fleshy contraption for squeezing out heirs.”
But for all her disgust at the idea of being an empty vessel, Yennifer fully accepts this as truth. Her ambitions have brought her nothing but emptiness and from there, she decides that birthing a child would cure her of her loneliness. As a parent, she reasons, she would become the most important person in the world to a baby and that would finally be enough.
This motif of empty vessels and wombs returns in the next episode as Yennifer seeks to harness the power of the djinn to make herself fertile again. She inscribes on her lower torso an amphora—the djinn was imprisoned within one—but at the same time, the shape of it is undeniably the same as a womb and we are shown again the image of her fleshy rebirth and her own womb, freshly torn from her body, skewered over a fire.
These connections of flesh and blood and womb are what Queen Calanthe invokes as justification for denying the Law of Surprise, declaring that she would “bow to no law made by men who never bore a child.” She may refuse to be a vessel whose contents can be bargained away by men, but destiny has intervened. Her daughter has fallen in love with the very man who fate says she belongs to and Calanthe is forced to bless this marriage.
These motifs all return again in The Witcher’s second season as the elf Francesca Findabair is introduced and her greatest desire, as revealed to a darkly reimagined Baba Yaga, is to bear an elf of “pure blood” to rebuild their race. She spends much of the season nursing her fateful pregnancy. When this all ends in tragedy and massacre, she pins her hopes on Cirilla of Cintra, a princess whose recurring importance again lies in her birth and blood.
Though hereditary monarchy is the norm of the setting in The Witcher and it has no shortage of incidental kings, women seem uniquely defined by—burdened with—bloodlines in the series. Cirilla is descended from the Lioness of Cintra and that blood-claim to the throne is her defining plot. Yennifer is herself part elf, apparently the source of her natural aptitude for magic. Fringilla is the niece of a powerful member of the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, and of course, Francesca dedicates herself to birthing a pure elven messiah.
In stark contrast to this deeply bioessentialist thesis of women being lonely, empty wombs, The Wheel of Time focuses on women as social beings and their constructed roles in a world of men. Rather than empty vessels or creatures driven by passion and biology, The Wheel of Time’s women form the backbone of its society. Instead, it is the male characters who struggle with isolation and longing for parenthood.
The Wheel of Time establishes womanhood as a core thread in its tapestry opening in its first episode on a triptych of scenes about the role of women in its fantastical world. Moiraine’s lays out in voiceover how arrogant men broke the world at the beginning of time. Her recollection of a mythic past echoes that of Galadriel’s much parodied and iconic opening narration in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but instead of casting herself as an immortal spectator, it is now the job of Moiraine and her sisters to fix that broken world. This is her quest. She dons a striking blue dress almost architectural in its structure; the scene evokes a ritual girding for battle, though it is evidently not one fought steel against steel.
This scene is followed by the red-clad Liandrin astride a horse hunting a man for his use of magic. As she captures him, she stays that his touch pollutes what should remain wholly in the purview of women.
And finally, we have Egwene coming of age and being inducted by Nynaeve into Two Rivers’ circle of women. Her hair is braided, the strands are themselves a symbol of that solidarity the women promise her: that to be a woman is to be always alone and never alone, that she would always have her sisters. She is cast into the river where she must learn to trust the waters. The flow of the river mirrors how the flow of magic is visualised. It is a defining moment for her and a motif the series returns to repeatedly.
Opening on these three scenes, the adaptation shifts the perspective and focus of the series onto the women from the novel’s Rand-centric first book. The infamously sprawling Wheel of Time pentadecalogy was never wholly Rand’s story, but the adaptation leans into this, trusting that the streaming audience no longer needs a humble, unassuming farm boy as their introduction into the world. Instead, it is Egwene’s coming of age and ambitions that form the throughline in the Two Rivers scenes. When they leave, Egwene is no longer just tagging along with the three fate-touched young men that Moiraine has decided too important to let wander about unattended; along with Nynaeve, she is named as one of the potential Ta’veren. Moiraine herself is no longer an unapproachable, infallible enigma out of a “gleeman’s tale,” instead her narration invites us to see this as her own quest. We are privy to her machinations and her vulnerabilities. Her backstory romance with Siuan, the current Amyrlin Seat, is also brought to the fore.
Women are made here through their connections forged with other women. They are defined socially through those bonds rather than biologically through their plumbing or their capacity for childbirth. They take upon themselves the grand task of fixing the messes left by men, but the plots concern not wombs or bloodlines but the social fabric of the world: the grand tapestry woven upon the wheel of time itself—a foundational myth anchored in the opening sequence of the series.
The Wheel of Time’s mythic framework inverts Christianity’s original sin and places instead the act of hubris that breaks the world upon the shoulders of men. It is the reason why men cannot do magic without eventually falling to madness and why the Aes Sedai are entirely composed of women. This is a gender essentialism rooted in a mythic ancient history rather than biology. Wombs, bloodlines, and childbirth play little role in this conception of a sacred feminine. Neither series actively carves out space for trans women to exist, but it is far easier to imagine one in this socio-mythic paradigm than in the fleshy womb-centric world of The Witcher. Magic is spoken of in sacred, quasi-religious terms and we are told repeatedly that women of this world have many different words for what Nynaeve calls “listening to the wind.”
The novels offer further intriguing details of this alternate paradigm of gender, where men are often dismissed as prone to gossip and we have both the Lion Throne of Andor and the Amyrlin Seat as powerful political positions held by women. It is by no means a matriarchal setting, something the adaptation emphasises with Liandrin telling Nynaeve that though women hold the One Power, men still control much of the world and that they are rarely kind to “little girls who show a spark of being greater than they are.” The Children of the Light are also made more formidable than their literary counterparts, having upon them necklaces made of rings from the Aes Sedai they have managed to burn at the stake. In the books, the witch hunters are primarily a threat only to peasant women without magic who are marginalised within their own communities rather than the formidable Aes Sedai themselves.
With that sacral edge to their magic, the Aes Sedai occupy a role not unlike that of medieval bishops, advising the powerful whilst owing their allegiance only to the Amyrlin Seat. That careful balance of advice and influence plays out as Moiraine passes through Fal Dara, where its ruler is deeply wary of her, despite his sister having studied with the Aes Sedai. The Witcher also casts its mages in that role of advisor at court, with the Brotherhood of Sorcerers bickering over power and positions. But Yennifer scorns this apparent duty to advise monarchs, declaring the task as nothing more than babysitting rapists and murderers.
Despite these deep philosophical divergences to their approach to writing women, both The Witcher and The Wheel of Time feature formidable warriors who are also mothers. The plot corners them and forces them to fight and bleed and sacrifice, leaving their children behind. Both Calanthe and Tigraine are clear reactions to—and inversions, even—of the virginal shield maiden trope, whose martial prowess comes from a denial of sexuality.
Queen Calanthe in particular exemplifies those contrasts, as a tyrant queen of great appetites and ruthless ambition. She leads armies, births children, and sees no contradiction in the idea that she should be able to effortlessly do both. The shape of her armour avoids all the terrible “boob plate” clichés, but still strangely takes pains to make her silhouette seem smaller than the men who fight alongside her, putting her in spaulders instead of large, wide pauldrons. Much like Calanthe, Tigraine Mantear dies in a last stand against those who would hurt her child. She only appears in one scene, but it is made memorable by the fact that she enters labour as in the snow whilst facing off against her opponents. It is a breathtaking fight, capturing a sense of breathless desperation as Tigraine pushes her body to the limit.
Whilst childbirth and sexuality are no longer framed as opposed to the physicality of combat, both series do make storylines of their female characters choosing between magic and children. Yennifer trades her womb for beauty and power. She returns to her old school full of regret and bitterness, telling students that “The ability to create life, real life, they [the Brotherhood of Sorcerers] take that from you.” Egwene begins the series choosing between becoming the village wisdom under the tutelage of Nynaeve and becoming a wife and mother. Unlike in The Witcher, the choice is not framed as biological. It is not a literal pulsing womb that she needs to sacrifice and her discontentment with the idea of a simple settled family life is ultimately a social one. She loves Rand but wants more than the role of wife and mother.
The promise of sisterhood as symbolised through braided hair returns at the end of the season as Nynaeve and Egwene save each other during the final fight at Fal Dara, the city that has never fallen. Nynaeve utters again the lines, “To be a woman is to be always alone and never alone. Feel your braid and know that we all stood before you.” Their friendship is far closer here than it is in the novels, both reenforcing the adaptation’s themes of a socially defined womanhood and laying the foundations for a dramatic reversal when their paths diverge and disagreement ferments between them2.
But where Nynaeve and Egwene end the season closer than ever before, the young men of the Two Rivers have utterly isolated themselves. They started their journey teasing each other over drinks and by the end, they are each utterly alone. Rand survives the Eye of the World but asks Moiraine to tell everyone he has ever loved that he is dead. Perrin Aybara struggles with his own capacity for violence, that regardless of his intentions, each time he picks up a weapon, someone he loves gets hurt. Matrim Cauthon is desperate not to repeat the mistakes of his irresponsible parents, but the call of the dice is too strong and his own cowardice too great. He finally abandons his friends.
None of this is to say that The Wheel of Time paints a portrait of women as wholly virtuous or that their support of each other is uncomplicated or unconditional. There are machinations aplenty within the ranks of the Aes Sedai and Moiraine herself has many enemies. The price Moiraine pays for the great work of steering fate itself is not one paid in flesh and blood but a social one. She has her lover Siuan exile her as cover for her task and later, she is cut off from her bond with her faithful warder, Lan. Again, there is a similarity of plot to The Witcher, in that both she and Yennifer are cut off from their magic, but instead of desiring again that raw power, it is the loss of that connection to another human that she mourns.
This all begs the question of why if the producers were so interested in exploring themes of womanhood, they didn’t just adapt something that didn’t need this teasing out and rearrangement. Why is there seemingly a desire to craft stories about women out of stories that were just less interested in their lot to begin with? Why not work with clay that is more suited to that purpose?
Both series are products of the “streaming wars”, where the various platforms try to expand their userbases by creating content that target specific audiences that would sign up for that series alone—a strategy clearly evident in Netflix’s nostalgia-focused shopping sprees, as well as their high-profile resuscitation of tv series with large, loyal fanbases. Perhaps there is ultimately a reluctance to move too far away from that popular preconception of the Fantasy genre’s superficial masculinity. That we are circling again the tired truism in children’s entertainment that girls will engage in media about boys but not vice versa.
We can probably do better.
1 It is, of course, worth noting that Game of Thrones’ claim to “historical accuracy” is a hardly uncontested. I highly recommend The Public Medievalist on the subject: Game of Thrones Archives—The Public Medievalist.
2 Assuming, of course, the plot of the books remains more or less intact.
© 2022 Jeannette Ng