How could a sorceress long for the gospel?
Netflix’s The Witcher, which is based on the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, is much more than just another medieval fantasy adventure jostling for a place in our streaming queue. In addition to subversive themes and aesthetics, the series features a character whose arc echoes a very contemporary yearning for the Good News, especially as experienced by women.
Yennefer of Vengerberg is a sorceress (often called a mage) who longs for redemption. She demonstrates the friction that is womanhood in its fallen state: torn between being reduced to a vessel—for others’ sexual pleasure or for unwanted childbearing—and being elevated to power via beauty and seduction. Yennefer longs for a love that neither of these extremes can provide.
When we meet her, Yennefer is in a pitiable state. Born into a poor, abusive family, her troubles are compounded by a physical deformity: she has a twisted spine, a hunchback, and a malformed jaw. Anya Chalotra portrays the young sorceress flawlessly, wearing prosthetics that cause her jaw to jut painfully to the side. The effect is both cringeworthy and compassion-inducing.
Yennefer is purchased by the sorceress Tissaia (MyAnna Buring), who buys her for less than the price of a pig and refers to her only as “piglet.” As Yennefer trains to become a sorceress herself, we discover that she is more than she appears and certainly more than a piglet; in fact, she is possessed of great magic. But she is also convinced that her deformities will hold her back. Yennefer understands the concept of form and function. If she wants to be a mage for a king, she must look the part. In this way her world is sadly reminiscent of our own. To be chosen, she must be beautiful. She cannot come as she is.
How could a sorceress long for the gospel?
Herein lies the first evidence of Yennefer’s insatiable pursuits, all of which will leave her empty. She believes that if she undergoes an incredibly painful and shame-inducing “corrective surgery,” she will be able to attain what she wants through her newfound beauty. The procedure is visceral, bloody, and marked by feminine suffering. Yennefer climbs into a chair that is darkly reminiscent of a modern gynecological seat, placing her feet apart in what can only be described as medieval stirrups. In this subversion of childbirth, we see Yennefer bloodied, covered in sweat, and screaming in pain, as terrible spells are cast on her in order to straighten her spine and jaw. What’s more, the transformation requires Yennefer to be sterilized. Instead of being reduced to a womb, she experiences something opposite but equally distressing: she has the potential for life taken away from her.
At the end of the third episode, the newly transformed Yennefer emerges from a doorway and into the light, a dark, subversive nod to Cinderella’s fabled arrival at the ball. She captures the attention of a powerful ruler and is selected as his mage. If this were a Disney film, Yennefer might have found her happily-ever-after. But a 30-year time jump in the next episode shows an unnaturally youthful Yennefer, preserved in beauty, but still dissatisfied and power-hungry as ever. A dire warning from a fellow mage foreshadows what is to come: “No amount of power or beauty will ever make you feel worthy of either...” Yennefer is again pursuing all the wrong things and discovering that despite her best attempts to create her own happiness, “there is nothing new under the sun."
What sort of hope could come to someone like Yennefer, whose drastic pursuit of power and beauty fails to leave her satisfied? This is where the gospel comes in. Yennefer spends the better part of The Witcher’s first season selfishly seeking adoration and ascension, as if she can achieve wholeness via her own desperate efforts. Yet abundant joy and peace elude her, both in the physical and spiritual sense of the word. Having never experienced acceptance and grace, she seeks to control the world on its terms. The Good News is that a greater love is offered her, and us—one of selflessness, sacrifice, and quiet strength. Perhaps Yennefer will encounter something of this in Season 2.
If, as women, we find ourselves in a position like Yennefer, one where we are either pursuing worldly definitions of beauty and power or we feel that world constantly reducing us to being vessels for its own purposes, we can find hope in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not only a champion of women, he loves all of us even in our brokenness. Whether we are ailing in body or in spirit, his sacrifice covers us, “once for all.” No power that we attain by ourselves and no fabricated beauty we can create will ever make us more deserving of his love. Our beauty comes from him, our power comes from him, and we are at our strongest and most satisfied when we are vessels of his love, continually being made whole.