Toss a coin to your tutor, o city of plenty

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Elis Harrington explores the merging of reality and fantasy in the city of Oxenfurt

From Inspector Morse to Alice in Wonderland, Oxford has been the inspiration for countless works of art, literature and film. This hardly comes as a surprise, I’m sure. Even when taking a dreary glance out of a library window in what seems like a permanent stress-induced haze, our eyes are met with paved streets bustling with students and tourists, overwhelming architecture, as well as the overall air of grandeur through which the world seems to view this curious city.

Naturally, Oxford’s artistic influence is not just confined to England and the United Kingdom. In his series of novels and short stories set in the world of “The Witcher” (“Wiedźmin”), Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski not only draws inspiration from Oxford, but reimagines it completely within his world of medieval fantasy. As well as appearing in the books, the city of Oxenfurt is an integral part of ‘The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt’ video game and its two expansion packs (for the die-hard fans among us who can’t quite get enough of our ashen-haired hero). Its cobbled streets and stonework buildings create an immersive atmosphere that reflects some of the scenes we, as Oxford students, see on the daily; but how far can fantasy and reality relate to one another and does Oxford really serve as anything more than an aesthetic inspiration?

The city of Oxenfurt reflects some of the darker elements in our society.

Whilst you might find it difficult to find a decent haircut for £10 (or crowns, if you will) in Oxford, there are more similarities between Oxenfurt and Oxford than one might expect, and even an incredible capacity for both a jarring and insightful social commentary that remains relevant even today.

Does Oxford really serve as anything more than an aesthetic inspiration?

We may not live in a war-ravaged landscape where our days are spent navigating our way past blacksmiths and herbalists, but we do find characters from all walks of life here. Much like Geralt of Rivia, we all make rash judgements based on stereotypes. Our opinions on Oxford might have initially been founded upon a chance encounter with a character like Aldert Geert, an arrogant academic at Oxenfurt Academy who prides himself on his ‘superior’ intellect and incredible skill at card games (spoiler alert, he’s very easy to beat). However, just like how not every Oxford student is your stereotypical wealthy know-it-all, not every Oxenfurt student is looking for esteem or academic glory, some are just trying to survive and put their talents to good use, much like Shani, a character you encounter later on in the game.

When it’s not highlighting some of the more problematic flaws in our human behaviour such as prejudice and even racism (Humans and Elves – or any non-human for that matter, are known to have a particularly problematic relationship), the city of Oxenfurt reflects some of the darker elements in our society. Much like in Oxford, Oxenfurt’s class divide is enormous. As you wander around the city as Geralt with two swords adorning your back, you pass wealthy noblemen, poor townsfolk and beggars. This may well be the case in many cities, but given Oxford’s staggering rate of homelessness this reference is slightly too on the nose for us to ignore, whether intentional or not.

Oxford has been the inspiration for countless works of art, literature and film.

What the Witcher does seem to highlight however, is that some, or rather, most contemporary societies tend not to acknowledge many of the more unsavoury parts of their existence, even if they hope to change them. The fact that beggars fill Oxenfurt is understandable. The world outside of the city is being torn apart by war and famine. Poverty, therefore, is inherently rife. However, it is this unsettling familiarity with the scene that should serve to shock us, or at least get under our skin a little. If a fantasy world – let alone one set in the medieval period – can present us with age-old problems that are yet to have a solution in the modern day, this should certainly be a call for reflection.

Whether we’re reading the novels, watching the TV series or playing the game (or in my case, tackling all three at the same time), we find that one universal problem draws our Witcher to the various landscapes of the Northern Realms: Monsters. For Geralt, this quite simply means battling the next striga, harpy or ghoul that terrorises a town for a handsome sum, but for any kind of audience, we realise that these monsters may not necessarily be the problem. The greater monster lies in the human capacity to look a monster in the eye and ignore it, to turn a blind eye to hate and prejudice so that it festers and devours a city, or simply to allow age-old problems to go unchanged. In this case, if art imitates life, fantasy imitates how the unchallenged monsters residing in the darker parts of our human behaviour and society will dominate us in every possible existence.

Image credit: Ian Miles Cheong via Flickr