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Joey Batey as Jaskier in The Witcher
Photo: Katalin Vermes (Netflix)

Netflix’s The Witcher is a largely dour series, a gritty fantasy epic clearly meant to capture the same audience as Game Of Thrones. The first episode is a showcase of horrors including mass suicide, military slaughter, and a mage who kills and dissects young women he believes to be cursed mutants.

That bleakness is exactly what makes the introduction of Jaskier (Joey Batey) in the show’s second episode so exciting. (The character is called Dandelion in the English translation of the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that the show is based on, as well as in CD Projekt Red’s video game series). When we first meet the bard, he’s so desperate for money and acknowledgment that he scoops up dinner rolls thrown at him by an unappreciative audience. Then he finds the show’s titular mutant monster hunter, Geralt Of Rivia (Henry Cavill), brooding in a corner of a tavern like a quest giver waiting for an eager party of adventurers to arrive. Sensing an opportunity to gather some exciting new material for his ballads, Jaskier starts following Geralt and spreading word of his heroic deeds. “You smell of death and destiny, heroics and heartbreak,” he says.

While Geralt might consider Jaskier a pest, their relationship is hugely beneficial to the witcher. Geralt turns from a misunderstood menace that most townsfolk would prefer to chase out of town to a legendary warrior—dubbed the White Wolf by Jaskier—that kings and queens are eager to employ and entertain. Jaskier’s song “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” spreads just as virally in the show’s world as it did on the internet. Jaskier is Geralt’s biggest fan, and like any fan, he’s eager to get everyone to share his enthusiasm. If he makes some money by sharing Geralt’s tales, that’s a nice bonus.

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Jaskier brings desperately needed levity to The Witcher while serving as an audience stand-in, someone who appreciates the impossible feats that Geralt can accomplish and literally cheer when something particularly incredible happens. He’s the best part of the show, but his role is far from unique, drawing from a long tradition of bards in epic fantasy.

While William Shakespeare is called the bard as a term of respect for his mastery of poetry, he’s also the founder of the tropes that The Witcher is drawing on. His plays regularly used jesters, fools, and performers to lighten up tragedies, speak truth to power, and directly address the audience. In the witcher’s world of dragons, wizards, and deadly warriors, Jaskier has nothing to offer in a fight and typically runs to Geralt for protection when confronted by a threat. Yet he’s often brutally honest in his assessment of situations as he tries to protect Geralt from his worst impulses when it comes to love and battle. Like most of Shakespeare’s fools, his advice is often ignored, but the humor and irony land anyway as he tells Geralt he should really stay away from his love interest, Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), whom Jaskier calls a “very sexy but insane witch.”

While Jaskier doesn’t directly break the fourth wall, he certainly puts some cracks in it. A collector of stories, Jaskier is quick to share information relevant to the situation while coyly pointing out, “There I go again, just delivering exposition.” He also lampshades the show’s confusing intersecting timelines, which are particularly hard to keep track of given that Geralt and Yennefer barely age. When he reunites with Geralt in episode five, Jaskier exclaims, “What’s it been? Months? Years? What is time, anyway?”

Shakespeare’s most notable fool is Puck, the fairy trickster whose machinations cause much of the conflict in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He helps create a secondary template of capricious yet powerful bards found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. Speaking only in rhyme and possessing abilities that even the great wizard Gandalf respects, Tom often refers to himself in the third person and seems aware that a great story is being woven around him. He’s a strange figure who doesn’t fit neatly into Tolkien’s elaborate mythology, in part because the character actually predates The Hobbit. While Jaskier brings manic energy to every scene he’s in, Tom slows the progress of The Fellowship Of The Ring to a crawl with his long tangential tales. It’s unsurprising that Peter Jackson cut the character in his film adaptations, even though he used some of Tolkien’s other songs from the series to great effect.

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When the creators of Dungeons & Dragons looked to Tolkien’s works for inspiration for their rangers, wizards, elves, and dwarves, they also brought over bards, though they struggled with how to mechanically represent them. The class could initially only be pursued by characters who had already had several adventures and also had exceptionally high ability scores. This version of the bard used music and natural magic in the way of Tom Bombadil. But the model changed in later editions to be more along the lines of Puck, with bards becoming users of illusions, enchantments, and mundane misdirection.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that favors specialization, and the bard was meant to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. As a result, it was regularly mocked by serious players looking to play mechanically optimized characters. That weakness is a running gag in Rich Burlew’s web comic The Order Of The Stick, which is inspired by the 3.5-edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons. The bard, Elan, is largely seen as a useless nuisance to the rest of the party, outclassed when it comes to fighting or magic. Yet Elan serves the traditional role of bringing a particularly goofy brand of humor to the series.

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All of Burlew’s characters break the fourth wall on occasion by acknowledging the ways their actions are shaped by the rules of the game, but Elan is the most meta character. He might not actually seem like an adept storyteller when performing puppet shows or singing of his party’s adventurers, but he knows the beats well enough to understand where he fits in them. This allows him to predict plot twists and gives him a near-endless source of courage and heroism. While everyone around him might feel doubt, he knows that, as the good guys, they’re bound to succeed in the end. Every setback they experience is just serving a narrative purpose of making their inevitable victory all the sweeter.

Likewise, Jaskier is fundamentally aware of exactly what kind of world he’s living in. He might not know nearly as much about monsters and magic as Geralt, but he’s quick to seize on any opportunity to benefit from them. When he finds Geralt trying to fish up a jar imprisoning a wish-granting djinn, he’s initially skeptical. But as soon as the cork comes out and the power becomes apparent, Jaskier starts shouting out wishes to claim petty vengeance and luck in love before the witcher can stop him.

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While Elan, Jaskier, and most fantasy bards are armed with a lute, the role doesn’t actually require a musical instrument. The exiled ambassador Ahmad ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior, serves the same purpose as he accompanies a group of Viking warriors on their quest to kill a monster. In this retelling of the legend of Beowulf, Ahmad serves as the audience stand-in, a refined man looking on with horror at the Norsemen’s crude manners while developing a deep respect for their honorable battle. Ahmad’s greatest contribution is to share the tale of their great deeds and sacrifice.

That role also manifests in The Witcher. When people repeatedly assume that Geralt has been killed fighting some monster or another, Jaskier is quick to contradict them. Like the audience, Jaskier knows that the hero is too tough to die off-screen and is sure to dramatically reappear covered in monster guts. But when for a moment he actually does believe that Geralt has fallen, Jaskier promises, “I’m going to write you the best song so that everyone remembers who you were. What we did. Then I’ll sing it for the rest of my days. You always said I had the most wonderful singing voice.”

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That last line is patently false, considering Geralt insulted his voice earlier that same episode. But Jaskier’s been embellishing and changing Geralt’s tales for as long as he’s been singing them. In that way, Jaskier is not just a stand-in for the audience, but for the writers themselves. Tolkien hated the effects of industrialization on Britain, and Tom Bombadil is an embodiment of the beauty and power of nature that the series’ villains threaten to despoil. Puck addresses the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to ask them not to judge the play too harshly.

Sapkowski’s Witcher stories are filled with parallels to the political struggles and ethnic cleansings of Eastern and Central Europe. Those serious topics are part of what drew The Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to the material. When Geralt and Jaskier encounter elves who are trying to win back dignity for their people, Jaskier appreciates their plight, but when writing a song about the incident, he turns it into a more generic adventure story. Through Jaskier, Hissrich acknowledges the great appeal of escapist fantasy but also asks viewers to confront the messy issues of racism, refugees, and sexism that have traditionally been left out of these stories in the interest of having fun.

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Jaskier’s agenda is a simple one that most writers can relate to: He wants to find fame, fortune, and adoration by telling stories that people love. As much as Geralt might mock his skills, Jaskier is good at his job because he understands what makes the witcher such a compelling hero. While Geralt might consider matching wits with wizards and hacking apart monsters to be simply part of a day’s work, Jaskier sees the seed of a fantastic story. Fundamentally what makes the bard so lovable is that he knows exactly what we as an audience want, and he can’t wait to give it to us.

Samantha Nelson is an A.V. Club contributor, freelance food and drinks writer, hardcore gamer and member of the Critical Hit podcast.

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