Disability, Magic Cures and The Witcher

Geralt of Rivia is the disabled hero we deserved, but the current reckoning of representation isn’t ready to take on-screen ableism and erasure seriously

Sarah Rose // Features and Literature Editor
Coralie Mayer // Illustrator

Geralt of Rivia is disabled. That might come as a surprise to even tried-and-true fans of The Witcher, from the wildly popular Netflix adaptation or award-winning video game series of the same name—but that’s intentional­. Fans only remember a gruff, battle-hardened, yet still abled, legendary monster hunter because Geralt’s disability has been intentionally erased. In the current new wave of fair representation on screen, leaving out Geralt’s chronic pain is just another way we leave disabled people out of owning their roles as heroes.

Several of Geralt’s bones are shattered early in the series, and he escapes death through magical healing waters. The Netflix adaptation has chosen, rather controversially, to omit how he was left with chronic pain and a disability. Geralt’s disability affects nearly every aspect of his life, from mobility to being able to fight in the Wolf School swordsmanship style he spent his entire life mastering. Most importantly, there’s no magical tincture or healing water in The Witcher universe that can cure Geralt of his pain.

The classic story structure in fantasy of good triumphing over evil often upholds magical cures as a way to triumph over the perceived suffering and impurity of disability. The insidious message is not only that an abled (often white) body is the ideal form, but that it can even be a reward for working hard enough.

When stories use the convenience of ‘miracle cures’ as plot devices, they’re reinforcing the belief that disabled people will never be whole unless they are cured of their affliction. These beliefs bleed beyond the margins of fiction and shatter real disabled and chronically ill people’s self-image. Think about how deeply we collectively buy into this—Gwyneth Paltrow built a 250-million-dollar wellness empire off of it.

Disability on screen is often caught in a Sophie’s Choice between magic and tragedy—either disabled characters die or are magically cured into being abled because we can’t imagine happiness coexisting with disability. Both ends of this dichotomy are forms of erasure, and what makes The Witcher novels so important is that Geralt’s story is neither.

We’re supposed to see Geralt of Rivia as strong. He’s a loveable, reluctant hero with superhuman witcher abilities, yes, but none of that changes after becoming disabled. His story arc doesn’t revolve around a cure for his disability to make him whole again, and it isn’t written into the footnotes through magic and forgotten. The novels even draw on true-to-life understandings of chronic pain from traumatic injuries, nerve damage and arthritis. Geralt’s pain often torments him, and he seeks out ways to manage his disability, but he never stops being the powerful witcher the audience is vicariously cheering for.

Fantasy as a genre has a long history of equating bodies with morality and ultimately flawed archetypes of perfection. The classic story structure in fantasy of good triumphing over evil often upholds magical cures as a way to triumph over the perceived suffering and impurity of disability. The insidious message is not only that an abled (often white) body is the ideal form, but that it can even be a reward for working hard enough.

Claiming disabled feels like admitting failure, when ultimately, claiming our disabled identity is the heroic act of self-acceptance and rejecting a mountain of internalized ableism.

When I was 16, I got sick and never recovered. No number of neuroleptic drugs, surgeries or doctors telling me this shouldn’t be happening to me changed that reality. I heard “you don’t deserve this”  often enough to believe that chronic pain and disability were a punishment for my own moral failing.

The screen sells people like me a pipedream of finality—no illness or disability is without just cause, let alone something permanent. The will of the universe always bends to turn disability into superpowers or absolve it completely. When that doesn’t happen, you’re left wondering why. It’s in heroes like Geralt that we’re allowed to see the truth: disabled people are strong and capable, and maybe even revered—but they are still disabled.

There are already so many reasons that make it difficult to disclose and claim our disabilities. When we fail to meet the impossible superhuman standards set for and internalized by us from the media, we cut ties with our association to the word disabled and to ourselves. Other infantilizing or outright offensive words like ‘special abilities,’ ‘gifted,’ or ‘differently abled,’ emerge as replacements for the dirty D-word. Claiming disabled feels like admitting failure, when ultimately, claiming our disabled identity is the heroic act of self-acceptance and rejecting a mountain of internalized ableism.

With ongoing conversations around own-voices and accurate representations, it’s critical that disabled heroes aren’t left behind and overlooked. Erasing the disabilities and thus the identity of characters like Geralt is damaging. We deserve better—we deserve to see Geralt as disabled.

While The Witcher Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has promised viewers to include Geralt’s disability in the forthcoming seasons, that opens up another conversation about the kind of people we’re entrusting to tell our stories. Hissrich’s response to Twitter user @Mustangsart, a disabled fan and disability consultant who wrote about her connection to Geralt’s disability, shows just how far we still need to go to see disabled people for who they are: “I’ve read these books a dozen times…and I’ve not thought of it further than: “Geralt has some pain, onto the next thing.”

Sarah Rose

Features, Humour, Literature Editor

As a chronic over-sharer, this feels unfair.

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