The Lady of the Lake brings to a close the extended sequence of novels centering on the Witcher Geralt of Rivera and Ciri the child of destiny, although Sapkowski has written another book of stories, Season of Storms set earlier in Geralt’s personal chronology. The series has its ups and downs: I thought that Baptism of Fire, the third in the set, was “a middle book that does not seem to be aware there is such a thing as a middle-book problem.” On the other hand, the fourth, The Tower of the Swallow, seemed to collect all of the middle-book problems that Sapkowski had hitherto avoided and deliver them in concentrated form. I skimmed a lot of pages.
True to Sapkowski’s confounding of standard Anglo-American epic fantasy, the title of The Lady of the Lake is no sly allusion or crafty hint. The book opens smack in the middle of the Arthurian legend, with Sapkowski’s Ciri drawing a blush and a bit of a flirt from no less a flusterable person than Sir Galahad.
The fairy burst from the water, for a moment presenting herself to the night in all her alluring splendour. She darted towards the rock where her clothing lay. But rather than seizing a blouse and covering up modestly, the she-elf grabbed a sword and drew it from its scabbard with a hiss, whirling it with admirable dexterity. It lasted but a short moment, after which she sank down, covering herself up to her nose in the water and extending her arm with the sword above the surface.
The knight shook off his stupefaction, released the reins and genuflected, kneeling on the wet sand. For he realised at once who was before him.
‘Hail,’ he mumbled, holding out his hands. ‘Great is the honour for me … Great is the accolade, O Lady of the Lake. I shall accept the sword…’
‘Could you get up from your knees and turn away?’ The fair stuck her mouth above the water. ‘Perhaps you’d stop staring? And let me get dressed'” (p. 3)
Galahad, bless his heart, eventually works out that while he has met an extraordinary lady in a lake, she is not that Lady of the Lake. Ciri, in turn, works out that she is not in any of the worlds that she might have expected to be in, for by the time she reaches this part of her story, she has spent time in several. Readers just arrived from The Tower of the Swallow might presume that Ciri’s escape through the portal in the tower has delivered her to this Arthurian lake, but they would be mistaken. She asks Galahad not to call her Lady of the Lake, and explains why:
‘Elfland…’ She wrapped a tartan Pictish rug he had given her around her shoulders. ‘I’ve been there, you know? I entered the Tower of the Swallow and bang! I was among the elves. And that’s exactly what they called me. The Lady of the Lake. I even liked it at the start. It was flattering. Until the moment I understood I was no Lady in that land, in that tower by the lake — but a prisoner.’ (p. 8)
Sapkowski has begun his story at the end, and Ciri’s encounter with Galahad turns to him asking her to recount her tale.
‘This story,’ she said a moment later, wrapping herself more tightly in the Pictish rug, ‘seems more and more like one without a beginning. Neither am I certain if it has finished yet, either. The past — you have to know — has become awfully tangled up with the future. An elf even told me it’s like that snake that catches its own tail in its teeth. That snake, you ought to know, is called Ouroboros. And the fact it bites its own tail means that the circle is closed. The past, present and future lurk in every moment of time. Eternity is hidden in every moment of time. Do you understand?’
‘Never mind.’ (p. 9)
Sapkowski is going to tell Ciri’s story in a roundabout way, circling her destiny before finally taking a bite. Following the initial frame with Galahad, there are scenes of two sorceresses researching the legends of Ciri that have come down their own time in many different forms, with layers of folk tales mixed in among documented accounts from scholars and witnesses. Some aspects of there sorceresses’ stories imply that a great deal of time since the wars and adventures that form Ciri’s stories; at other times it feels as if their discussions are just weeks removed from the meetings and magical workings of the Lodge of sorceresses who stand behind many of the events in Ciri’s and Geralt’s primary world. Past, present and future do more than just lurk, they leap about as Ciri passes in and out of Elfland, in and out of her world of origin, and through various intermediate realms.
The main throughlines of the novel concern the efforts of Geralt and the group he assembled back in Baptism of Fire to find Ciri, Ciri’s efforts to escape various captors, and the vast ongoing war in their home world which, it has long been implied, Ciri will have a key role in resolving. And so it transpires, but not in a straightforward fashion. The Lady of the Lake is a rich as any of the Witcher books, offering derring-do, cunning escapes, funny interludes, tales of friendship and sacrifice, and mythic elements, particularly at the book’s satisfying ending.
‘I would listen to your story,’ Galahad’s eyes glowed. ‘Would you tell it, O Lady?’
‘It is long.’
‘We have time.’
‘And it doesn’t end so well.’
‘I don’t believe you’
‘You were singing when you were bathing in the lake.’
‘You’re observant.’ (p. 9)