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The Witcher’s Lack of Diversity aka Can’t We Just Paint Most of Nilfgaard Black

  • Trust me when I say that we are truly blessed in the year of our Lord to be getting more Witcher content. The best selling novels by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, somehow made even more popular in North America by the trilogy of video games, has all the makings of the next epic fantasy TV show. It combines the high fantasy lore of the Lord of the Rings epic with the political machinations and maneuvering of A Song of Ice and Fire, all with perhaps one of the best singular characters between the three of those mediums in Geralt of Rivia as the protagonist. Geralt is the titular Witcher, a fading race of mutated humans engineered for the specific purpose of killing monsters that inhabit the world. They kill everything from water based drowners that attack in packs to vampires…but all for a price. Both the books and the games center around Geralt as one of the best of them, both killing monsters with a deft expertise and often finding himself in the middle of the everyone else’s political ambitions.

    The Witcher

    Netflix announced they would be developing a series for the Witcher a while ago, but the casting has just now started to take place, the first large tumbler falling into place with Henry Cavill cast in the role of Geralt (and effectively solidifying his departure of playing Superman in DC’s movie franchise). I have some…feelings regarding that casting. Mostly that I have yet to find myself altogether impressed with Cavill’s acting across a lot of material now to have confidence he will play the extremely nuanced monster killer, but it could be much worse. And, as with his Superman, at the very least he has the physical aptitude to play the character…but alas…

    Still, the real casting news wasn’t going to become big news until we started to fill in the rest of the cast. Showrunner Laura S. Hissrich has been under constant scrutiny from the beginning, because she dared to state that they would attempt to cast a rich and diverse group of actors for these prominent roles that so many fans across the mediums. Of course, the challenge with that statement is that much like Game of Thrones has fantasy built on a War of the Roses political era and factions from the real world, The Witcher pulls from mostly Celtic, Gaelic, and Polish histories and peoples. Read: Mostly and unequivocally white. Characters described in the book are often described as white, and the video games forgo all possible ambiguity around that as well. Listen, I think Sapkowski has written a rare epic, a book series I often enjoyed more than the in-progress A Song of Ice and Fire to be honest. But he still has fell into the same old fantasy and conventional trap of having this huge imagination to include monsters and elves and specters with painstaking detail but still managed to make almost all the humanoid characters lacking any melanin. Even the games didn’t imagine this until the downloadable content of the third game with Hearts of Stone expansion that introduced the Olfiri, a race definitely based on Indian and Persian cultures.

    The Witcher

    The casting of several characters has shown some diversification of these characters. Yennefer, a pragmatic and sometimes ruthless sorceress who also serves as Geralt’s primary love interest through the books, is literally the epitome of a pearl shined white woman in the books and movies. She will be played by Anya Chalotra who is reported to be multi-raced of Indian and white. Surprisingly, this has caused much less uproar than the fact she is 21-years-old (to Cavill’s thirty-five), and they also play somewhat adoptive parental roles to Ciri (being played by Freya Allen, who is seventeen).

    The big talking point though is the role of Fringilla Vigo, a sorceress from the empire of Nilfgaard, being played by Mimi Ndweni. Of Zimbabwe descent, Ndweni, fair to say, is very different than the white portrayal of Fringilla in the source material. As you can imagine this has caused a stir. Whether taken at face or for the numerous familial connections that Fringilla has to other big characters in the books (we really talking second cousins though fam), plenty of people see this as a pandering or messing too much with the source and…you’ve heard all these pitchfork arguments before. But of course, you’re reading this on Black Nerd Problems, so as you might guess, I have no problem with this change. And actually, I would like to see the casting dive into this ocean instead of just dipping a toe. If Fringilla is played by a Black actress, is there any reason we can’t see a lot more Black Nilfgaardians?

    The Witcher

    To catch you up on some Witcher geography and dynamics, it plays out like many other fantasy novels. Elves and other races ruled the land. Then came humans. Humans are terrible and almost wiped out the elves. Geographically, the world in the Witcher exists on two major states. The divided northern kingdoms ruled by various monarchs and regents. To the south is Nilfgaard, a land ruled by a single emperor who is constantly at war with the north during the books and the games. In addition to Nilfgaard always trying to get its Britain on and expand its empire, Nilfgaard has a different native language than the northern kingdoms, different customs, and are often described as having a slightly different appearance. Predominantly in the books, they have alliances with the elves or at least the Scoia’tael, the guerrilla rebellion of mostly non-humans, but mostly elves that find themselves playing huge roles in the war. There is an otherness to Nilfgaard and due to their rapid expansion and trampling of other cultures, they are often hated. Almost all of the main characters in the source material that we follow have some ties to the north, Geralt included, so Nilfgaard is often regarded as the lowercase antagonist of the series. The fighting and action happen everywhere, but the politics mostly center on the Nilfgaard problem. How and who will deal with their thirst and inclination towards Manifest Destiny.

    The Witcher

    I feel like we’re halfway there with Nilfgaard being mostly Black folks. The otherness of the empire and the disdain of the people (who are often nameless and faceless as a society in the source) are pretty ripe for them to be of a different race already. There are prominent Nilfgaardians that have connections to other characters in the world that present challenges to Nilfgaard being inhabited by mostly Black folks, but we’re talking about a universe where sorceresses are hundred of years old and use glamour spells to look in their 30s. We’re talking about a universe where curses can turn people into monsters until midnight strikes. Surely, they can solve the concerns that racial diversity and ambiguity brings. If Fringilla is Black, then of course any Nilfgaardian can be Black. But also, the point of diversifying the casting and imagining a world is that it isn’t a definitive ‘all Nilfgaardians must be Black now.’ But it would be nice to see a substantial non-white population inside the Witcher, whose world is ridiculous sprawling and dense with cultures, tangled bloodlines, and lore.

    What might be the linchpin of this casting and proving how much of Nilfgaard is diversified will be the character Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach. A hugely important character that crosses paths with Ciri and Geralt in both antagonist and companion roles. Cahir is from Nilfgaard, though his prestige in some Nilfgaard houses make him unique to amplify his successes and failures throughout the source material. While the show may continue to cast some young and little-known performers to these roles like they did with Yennefer, Ciri and Fringilla, the character of Cahir definitely brings to mind an actor like Eamonn Walker, Sterling K Brown, or Aldis Hodge.

    Ultimately, we’ll see if Fringilla gets to be other, all by her lonesome as a single Black Nilfgaardian, or if they will actually build a believable ecosystem around her casting. It is fantasy after all, where else can a man dream if not in this genre?

    The Witcher

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    • William is the Editor-In-Chief, leader of the Black Knights and father of the Avatar. With Korra's attitude, not the other one.

    • Show Comments

    • Btgameshd

      I have been screaming this for months now. It is refreshing to find an article that reflects my ideas on this matter

    • john

      ya lets just change the race of an entire country! if I made a show that portrayed Africans as white you would have a fit. Fringilla being black totally destroys the setting of this universe and is a shame. Triss’ actress is almost as bad.

      • Laszlo

        Funny enough, they are referring to the source material here, but apparently they are confusing the source material with the game (which is where the image is from). If I am not mistaken Fringillas (and Triss’) skin colour are never explicitly mentioned in the original language version of the books. So the creators certainly have some liberty in changing up characters without violating the source material (but even if they had, that would be a minor change without any consequences)… mixed race people or people of colour living in the northern parts of the universe certainly aren’t lore breaking. Unusual perhaps, but not lore breaking. And that would clearly not change the race of an entire faction within the universe, because inter-racial marriages do exist you know?

        I don’t say that everyone has to be happy with the casting choices, but that you think her having dark skin “totally destroys the setting of this universe” either means your mental horizon and thinking are very limited in recognising that large societies are usually not entirely homogeneous, or you are, frankly speaking, a racist.

      • medman

        Always comical to hear people bothered by the race/appearance of fantasy, made up characters in movies, books, games, etc., yet these same people have no objections, or aren’t intellectually curious enough to question the whitewashing of historical figures. You know, people who actually existed. You don’t see many white folks walking into churches and asking why Jesus has white skin and blue eyes when the vast preponderance of biblical historians say that Jesus almost certainly was darker skinned, closer in skin tone to Nelson Mandela or Osama Bin Laden than the white washed western version. But hey, by all means, throw a hissy fit over some made up bullspit. Makes perfect sense. Or how about the fact that paleoanthropologist believe the first modern human was a black female from northern Africa. The progenitor of the human race was black. Deal in science folks. Don’t get upset when your science fiction changes. It ain’t real, and if you can’t adapt, you go extinct. That is the way of the world, and it is as old as time.

      • Opinion

        Okay brother you are wrong, very deeply, one because some black people will agree with you on this matter and some won’t. I have mix feeling indeed. The place is not a white place just created by a white mind. If the place was based in poland I would agree with you, but from my understanding it was the world being mixed with other worlds. Another part on my mind is that if poland made a white shaft I would not be upset. Long as they dont get white people in black faces. Just take the concept of an oppressed class in poland and make one shaft, to tell a story. The show on Netflix is just going off the world of the mixed countries. So all can see themselves in the world. The main characters are still white. No need to be mad about something that should be fear. The matrix was written by a black woman in fact she recently just one that case. The main star was supposed to be black. I am not mad it was Keanu Reeves that got the role I am glad he did. Most black people love matrix. So your comment is not facts. Black people cheer on white heros for years.

        • Mark L. Wong

          I don’t think this black woman “in fact” won anything according to Snopes. I like the Matrix as much as you do but don’t think this is a done deal.

    • none- ya

      I understand your point here, but I always took Nilfgard as a foil for the Nazi party…..seems a little odd to me….

      • Kresimir

        You’re very wrong. Nilfgaard, if anything, mirrors the Persian empire – expansionist, yet diverse.
        The Persians allowed their conquered regions to maintain their culture, way of life, religion, and even a degree of sovereignty. In return, they asked for tithes and compliance with the laws of the empire.
        If you read up on the Persians, you’d see that it’s been proven they even celebrated diversity, with very different figures showing up in their murals.

        • fantasywind

          Nilfgaard resembles more Roman Empire than anything (mixed with touches of germanic Holy Roman Empire and maybe…just maybe some hints of similarity with Reich, they are led by their expansionist policy and sense of superiority over other local peoples bringing them as they viewed it “law and culture” through their Pax Nilfgaardiana) in witcher books nilfgaardian weren’t particularly…tolerant for outsiders they viewed the Nordlings (as they called them) as uncivilized barbarians, in fact they were xenophobic. Nilfgaardians allow some conquered realms to maintain their royal dynasties (and fake autonomy) but it’s clear who rules on those territories, as the emperors have absolute power over entire territory and the provinces are governed by nilfgaardian officials, also nilfgaardians in books send their own settlers to colonize the conquered lands. That’s as far as book give, the show and how it will use this lore is another thing.

    • Allegate

      I agree – nationality and race are at the heart of the setting of the Witcher. If they were going to make a Nilfgaardian black, likely with no incoming explanation for why she is randomly an entirely different race to all of her peers, then why not make literally all of them black? The inconsistency is really irritating and smashes the immersion into smithereens as it is so obviously PC pandering rather than an actual attempt at an interesting and inclusive take on the narrative.

    • David A. Chase

      Serious question. If people want to see a strong story with non-white characters, why not write one?

      People often want to add diversity which is fine, as far as that goes, but it seems that the purpose is to make someone else’s work better reflect what they themselves would like to see. Rather than complain that the work is not to your standards, why not simply create your own?

      As an author, I know how hard it is to create a world, but it is possible, and I do not believe that non-white people lack the talent to create as interesting and full of depth as the Witcher, or Lord of the Rings. So why not do it? Why not create us an original world in which there are no white people?

      My biggest complaint with most diversity is that it is only skin deep. Congratulations, you took a white character and made them black. But they are still white underneath, with all of the cultural and social constructs. I would much rather see a character who was built for the ground up, so why is Hollywood, and the publishing world so resistant to TRULY diverse characters, rather than simply reskinning characters to meet the expectations? It seems lazy and uncaring.

      This is a serious inquiry, not a troll. If there are well-tread answers, I am unaware of them and am interested in any response.

      As to why I am not writing an entirely non-white world, it is because I am white. I have a number of characters who are of different races, but I write what I know, as do most. And like many authors, I place myself in my world.

      I also am not bothered by a white fantasy setting, because it is what the author saw. But I would love to see a world which was non-white, through the eyes of one who had that vision.

      • Claudius

        Well said ! Instead of creating themselves something, they try to change characters just to please them. They want to feel represented, they should represent themselves not FORCE others to do it.

      • Opinion

        I would just like to say that we would if we could, but we are almost met at the door as it slams in our face. You say we create our own, but you not head of hollywood elite. The world dont want to see black leads. China for one that is almost half of the world movie money don’t care for black people in it. Hollywood white care for who will buy, not making blacks happy. If China care to see blacks in strong white roles then more films be made. You going to bring up Black Panther and my response to that is it was a small tell to bring about a bigger picture. That was Hollywood executives arguement to get the character made. Hollywood Politics is always money that is why movies are getting worse and remakes are popping up.

    • Thomas

      Yes that’s great. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m gonna make a Shaka Zulu tv show and have an Irishman play Shaka because diversity is always good no matter if it makes sense or not 👍🏻

    • Thomas

      Yes that’s so true. Now if you’ll excuse me, Im gonna go make a TV show about Shaka Zulu and his life and cast an Irishman to play Shaka because diversity is always good no matter if it makes sense or not 👍🏻

    • Caroline X.

      I have a few points contrary to your suggestion. I personally prefer to see racial diversity spread through the kingdoms, as it seems it’s being done, rather than concentrated in one.
      My reasons:
      Firstly, if we look at how the story of this world is set up, humans came to the continent after the conjunction of spheres, from a different world, so they are not aboriginal too a specific kingdom. Coming from a different world and finding new races, it would make sense to think that humans flocked together and had some degree of skin color diversity when they came to this world.
      Secondly, the book states that Nilfgaardians are the kingdom which most had elven ancestry mixed with human. We can even see a black elf on the series. Also, it is a growing empire, constantly conquering and incorporating other countries. So it makes more sense to see racial diversity in Nilfgaard.
      Thirdly, it’s a lot easier to fall into unfortunate stereotypes if the group is racially compact. It could be cringy to see all the “bad guys” as black people.

    • Egg

      I read a perfectly nice piece on this from a Polishman who felt very proud of his (white) subculture being properly displayed in a setting, only to have American views on what diversity should look like ultimately determine that his culture was “just white” and thus should change.

      Having said that, I believe Netflix did the right thing to go with the times and adapt to their audience. It’s fine.
      The series was fun to watch.

    • Jon

      Lack of diversity? Three of the main mages in the story that are white in the books/games have been woke-casted. Saying there’s a lack of diversity is one of the more insane takes I’ve seen about any show recently.

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