Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Politics of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Part 3: The War for the Pontar Valley (spoilers)

by KnightofPhoenix

Part 1

Part 2

This article will focus on the Second war for the Pontar Valley, waged by the Kingdom of Kaedwen against the Kingdom of Aedirnin and an Upper Aedirnian movement. In my studies in Political Science, I have learned a methodology which I can use to analyze events and conflicts, and I thought it would be interesting and enlightening to do so for this particular war. In doing so, I will demonstrate how the war is more complex than it looks, involving several factors and phenomena. Indeed, this goes to show that CDPR writers know what the fuck they are doing.

In essence, the article will be answering the questions: "What caused the war? What factors decided its timing? What were the stakes?"

There are three levels of analysis that political analysts like to focus on:
The domestic level of analysis, which as the name indicates, deals with the domestic politics and internal workings of the polities involved in the conflict, being Kaedwen and Aedirn.

Then we have the regional / "subsystem" level of analysis. It was tricky to pinpoint, but I believe that the Pontar Valley and the area surrounding it (Aedirn, Kaedwen and Temeria, with Redania close by) has a particular shared dynamic that qualifies it as a subsystem.

And finally, the global / systemic level of analysis. As the name suggests, it deals with the global political stage in general, though when it comes to this particular conflict, the focus will remain for the most part on the North.

I will be investigating all three levels of analysis to reach our conclusion.

Before doing that however, it would be beneficial to give a quick overview of the contested land of the Pontar Valley.

I. The Pontar Valley

"He who controls the Pontar Valley, controls the North."

Bordered by the Pontar river in the North and the Dyfne in the South, the valley is rich in mineral wealth found in mines (mostly coal and silver mines) throughout the land. Dwarven cities like Vergen were built on the prosperity offered by these mines. Furthermore, the land is also abundant in workshops, manufacturers and a strong production infrastructure in general. Thus the population living there is also an attractive resource. 

In addition to the Valley's natural and human resources, it is also the main East - West trade route via the Pontar River. Most of the trade done between Kaedwen and Aedirn with Temeria, Redania and the rest of the North, and vice versa, is conducted on that route. This naturally grants the land immense geo-strategic importance. 

Those two elements render the Valley very important economically and politically, and makes it one of the richest strip of land in the North. 

It is thus only natural that it is heavily contested land, especially when it comes to Kaedwen and Aedirn. Three centuries ago, the Valley was part of Kaedwen and was called Lormark. It was taken by Aedirn and renamed Upper Aedirn. The native dwarves, who have been there many centuries before humans landed on the continent, naturally believe that the land is rightfully theirs. 

During the Second Nilfgaardian war, which saw the Imperial army conquering Aedirn, King Henselt of Kaedwen struck a deal with the invaders and they divided Aedirn amongst themselves. Henselt took the Pontar Valley for himself, no doubt because of the land's wealth and geo-strategic importance, but also for military and strategic reasons. His actions prevented Nilfgaard from acquiring access to the Western Front, thus denying their ability to link their Eastern army with the Western one. This in large part contributed to the North's victory at the Battle of Brenna, which saw Temerian, Redanian and Kaedweni forces clash against and defeat Nilfgaard's Center army which was now isolated from its Eastern forces. Though Henselt returned the land he took in the deal, he earned notoriety for his actions and became controversial even amongst Kaedwenis to say the least. 

A few years after the Peace of Cintra which ended the 2nd Nilfgaardian War, Henselt once again attempted to take what he deems to be his birth right. The Kaedweni army of 4000, led by General Vandergrift, met the Aedirnian army of 5000, led by the knight Seltkirk of Gulet, near the Dwarven city of Vergen. The battle seemed to favor the Kaedwenis at the end, before Sabrina Glevisig, King Henselt's sorceress adviser, cast an extremely powerful and destructive spell which rained fire on both armies, killing three thousand soldiers, Kaedwenis and Aedirnians alike, in a matter of moments. 
Sabrina, a member of the Lodge of Sorceresses, did this to preserve the balance of power in the North, as Henselt hegemony was deemed counter to the Lodge's plans and interests. Henselt was forced to abort the invasion and withdraw, but not before burning Sabrina at the stake. 

Three years after his disastrous campaign, King Henselt once again assembled an army of 5200 soldiers and marched on Vergen, where he was met by Upper Aedrinian forces led by Saskia the Dragonslayer. The 2nd War for the Pontar Valley had begun. 

Now I shall analyse the conflict in all three levels of analysis, starting with the domestic factors in both Aedirn and Kaedwen. 

II. Domestic Level of Analysis

A. Aedirn

Aedirn is your typical medieval kingdom, where peasants work the land owned by nobles who swear fealty to the monarch. Its king, Demavend, is notorious for his harsh oppression of nonhumans, even by Northern standards, as well as his punitive raids into Dol Blathanna, an elven state formed by Nilfgaard on Aedirnian territory during the war. King Demavend was indeed unpopular in general, which incited rebellion led by Saskia, the woman who was said to have killed a dragon.

Saskia, who is secretly a dragon that can shape shift, took pity on the peasants and nonhumans of Aedirn and sought to fight the terrible injustices they suffer. Highly charismatic, She gathered human peasants and farmers, as well as Dwarves and Elves, in open rebellion against the nobility and the monarchy. Proving herself to be a competent military leader, her voluntary militia managed to defeat the Aedirnian army, most notably at the Dyfne. Demavend was in a precarious position. No doubt seeking to escape turmoil and kingly responsibility, he took to the Pontar river and chilled. Unfortunately for him, Letho of Gulet of the Viper School of the Witchers began his assassination spree. Asked to assassinate Demaved by Sile de Tanserville of the Lodge, Letho killed the king on his ship in quite a spectacular fashion. Thus Aedirn slipped into civil war.

While Prince Stennis' right to the throne is indisputable being Demavend's only son, the nobility was divisive and thus no one ascended to the throne. This increased instability benefited Saskia the Dragonslayer, now the only strong military commander in Aedirn.

Aedirn was hence divided into three groups. Saskia and her followers, comprised mostly of human peasants, dwarves and elves, supported by Philippa Eilhart the de facto leader of the Lodge; Prince Stennis and loyalist nobles and knights; and nobles like Count Felart who refuse to recognize Stennis as heir and utterly reject Saskia's ideas of equality and abolition of privileges. Such instability and division made Aedirn an easy and attractive target.

B. Kaedwen

Kaedwen is a feudal monarchy not unlike its Northern neighbors. Peasants farm the lands of their lords, who provide armed men to the king. In addition to its feudal society that privileges the highborn, Kaedwen is also infamous for its persecution and oppression of nonhumans.

A huge kingdom, Kaedwen is the largest polity in the Continent after the Nilfgaardian Empire. However, it is comprised mostly of forests. For that reason, Kaedwen appears to be a relatively poor kingdom. Prince Stennis remarks that the Pontar Valley generates more income than all of Kaedwen combined. While it's likely an exaggeration, it does seem to be the case that the Pontar Valley would significantly boost Kaedwen's income.

Henselt's actions in the Second Nilfgaardian War and his defeat at Vergen three years before the game, in addition to the controversy his sorcerer adviser Dethmold acquired, caused him to be unpopular amongst a number of soldiers, nobles and peasants. Though he does not seem aware of how much dissidents are organized, information that was withheld from him by Dethmold, it is a safe assumption to make that he is aware to a certain extent that his actions made him less popular. We must also take into account that after Sabrina cast a curse on him as he executed her, his son and only heir died and Henselt became more secluded and less open with his soldiers.

Attempting to use foreign policy, generally aggressive action, to address a domestic malaise is called "securitization" in Political Science literature. That seems to be partially the reasoning behind Henselt's expansionism. Scoring a great victory for Kaedwen would not only boost the kingdom's revenues but would also erase his previous defeat from the minds of masses.

Despite the malaise, Henselt was still able to amass and mobilize an army of more than five thousand men.

C. Conclusion

As we can see, Aedirn's collapse into civil war and disunity made it an attractive target. Whatever sense of unity Saskia was able to forge is visibly fragile. This factor most likely played a big part in determining the timing of Henselt's invasion. Furthermore, Kaedwen's low income and Henselt's decreasing popularity also provide important incentives to want to conquer Upper Aedirn.

III. Regional Level of Analysis

A. Breaking of the status-quo. 

Although past events in the North, including the First War for the Pontar Valley, had united humans, commoners and nobles alike, and nonhumans against common enemies, no one leader succeeded in embodying that sentiment of unity and equality and making an ideology out of it as much as Saskia the Dragonslayer and so called Virgin of Aedirn.

As our own history demonstrates, changes to the status-quo especially violent ones tend to have a ripple effect in its surrounding region. This also usually leads to aggressive action from status-quo powers who seek to prevent the spread of these new ideas. As we have seen, the Pontar subsystem, and indeed the North as a whole, is one of feudal societies that oppress both peasants and nonhumans.

It is thus to be expected that Saskia's armed revolution would incite the neighboring Kaedwen to intervene. As we have seen earlier, Kaedwen is especially notorious for its oppression of nonhumans, and Henselt himself is a traditionalist when it comes to noble - serf relations and the place of commoners in the social and political stratification.

It is also very important to note that Henselt was in fact asked to invade by Count Felart and other Aedirnian nobles, who are too fearful of the peasant revolts as it threatens their power and customs.

This goes to show that the clash between status-quo forces and revolutionaries is an important factor in the equation.

B. Proto-nationalist sentiment

While it definitely goes hand in hand with the changing of the status-quo, I felt the rise of such sentiments merits its own section.

An important aspect to Saskia's rhetoric is love for the nation and the land. "Aedirnian earth" seems to be a common theme. Indeed her title of "Virgin of Aedirn" seems to invoke the idea of a chaste and virtuous Aedirn, beset by hungry brutish invaders, whose honor and purity must be protected. Nationalist sentiments in our own history often took the symbolism of beautiful women, such as Marianne of France and before her, Joan D'Arc (still considered a powerful symbol).

Revolutions empowering the majority of the populace almost always appealed to proto-nationalist sentiment to a certain degree. Indeed, it proved to be a powerful motivator and a unifying force, especially when Saskia aims to unite dwarves, elves, human peasants, nobles and their soldiers. While Kaedwen and Temeria seem to have similar sentiments, the Pontar Valley embraces it more explicitly. Though it may seem odd that Saskia refers to love of Aedirn, while wanting Upper Aedirn to secede. This I believe demonstrates that Saskia's appeal to proto-nationalism is instrumental (indeed, a dragon would not really care for such beliefs), and her true loyalty lies with her ideals of equality, justice and liberty. Though she probably does genuinely want to protect the rest of Aedirn from Henselt's encroachment.

C. Regional political situation

As we have previously seen, Aedirn fell in turmoil. Henselt's military action however was that of limited gains. His goal was to annex the Pontar Valley militarily. But his political ambition extended beyond that.

Henselt aimed to bring all of Aedirn under his sphere of influence, after he would defeat the only military force the land can bring to bear. He planned to pressure Stennis to swear fealty for him in exchange for giving him his crown (or kill him if need be) and for the nobles to do the same in exchange for him defeating the peasant uprising. The void left by Demavend made all of Aedirn, not just the Pontar Valley, ripe for the taking.

Not unaware of such a risk, Prince Stennis and his loyalists joined up with Saskia's forces to defend all of Aedirn, though such an alliance is done relunctantly and ambivalently. Stennis and his noble allies are not too fond of Saskia's egalitarian rethoric, her breaking of tradition and her secessionist plans. Stennis had hoped that victory in the Valley would be attributed to him and that the people would look for him for guidance, giving him enough legitimacy to impose himself as the kingdom's rightful king. As he would later on discover, things would not transpire according to plan.

In addition, Henselt's campaign carries another dimension when one considers his plans for Flotsam, a Temerian trading post serving as a gateway to the valley. As we discover, Bernard Loredo, the commandant of the garrison in Flotsam, made plans with Dethmold of Kaedwen to swear fealty for Henselt and put Flotsam and its garrison at his disposal. This would strengthen Henselt's control over the Pontar Valley and would provide significant economic and geo-strategic advantages.

However, Henselt had already been mobilizing his army months before King Foltest of Temeria's death and it is unlikely that this event influenced his decision when he made it. However, Henselt certainly took advantage of events in Temeria.

D. Conclusion

So we can also say that Saskia's destabilization of the status-quo when it comes to the empowerment of commoners and nonhumans was a significant factor behind the war, which was started when Count Felart requested Henselt to land on Valley with his army. In addition, her appeal to proto-nationalist sentiment allowed her to carve a fragile alliance with Prince Stennis and Aedirnian loyalists. This was also the case due to Aedirn's fragile political situation that Henselt aimed to fully take advantage of politically, via a military victory. And finally, events in Temeria likely modified Henselt's plans to annex Flotsam and further his control over the Pontar Valley.

IV. The Systemic Level of Analysis

A. The Lodge and Letho

As we have seen before, Demavend's death was a significant factor behind the eruption of the war, as it caused civil war in Aedirn and allowed Saskia to rise as a dominant political and military force capable of forging her own state. As we have also seen in the first section, Demavend met his end at the hands of Letho, after being asked to do so by Sile de Tanserville of the Lodge of Sorceresses. The Lodge, a secret society of sorceresses led by Philippa Eilhart, was an organization which aimed to empower mages, sorceresses specifically in the North, protecting their interests (and imposing them) from northern monarchs, the populace and the Empire of Nilfgaard which is not known for its tolerance of mages.

Philippa's plan was to support Saskia's rebellion and create an independent state in the Pontar Valley. Though the phrase "He who controls the Pontar Valley, controls the North" is an exaggeration, its aforementioned prosperity, solid production infrastructure and its geo-strategic and commercial importance would make a well administered and independent Pontar State quite powerful and influential in Northern politics. Naturally, Eilhart planned to control that state from behind the scenes, with Saskia, who naively trusts Philippa and considers her a friend, as her puppet. This would give her, and by extension the Lodge, significant political power and influence.

All that was required was for the Pontar to defeat Henselt in battle, imposing recognition in the international arena by force. The Lodge thus is a critical factor in the conflict's escalation.

Of course, Letho was playing his own game, for the glory of the Emperor of Nilfgaard Emhyr Var Emreis. Letho's compliance with the Lodge's instructions to assassinate Demavend was the first step in his plan to assassinate Northern monarchs and shift the blame solely on the Lodge and mages in general, softening the North for a second Nilfgaardian invasion. Nilfgaard's tentacles thus indirectly played a role in spurring the conflict.

B. Loc Muinne

Philippa's plan was in reality two-fold. In addition to creating a sovereign and independent Pontar State, she sought to revive the Council and Conclave, which were destroyed following the events of the Thanedd Coup in the Second Nilfgaardian War. The Council and Conclave was an international mage organization that regulated magic and more importantly, appointed mage royal advisers. Philippa also sought to control this organization from behind the scenes, appointing loyalists as advisers to monarchs and hence gaining significant influence in the entire North.

Furthermore, the Loc Muinne Conference had another very important purpose. To establish a new order in the North, with new borders, following the chaos and opportunity created by Demavend and Foltest's assassinations. The conference would be the perfect stage to officially declare the Pontar Valley as an independent state with Saskia at its head.

This also gives another aspect to Henselt's rationale. Seeking to impose his dictates on Loc Muinne and benefit from it as much as he can, Henselt required significant political leverage. A victory in Upper Aedirn and its annexation would give him immense political weight, thus allowing him to influence the conference to Kaedwen's benefit as much as possible. His political annexation of all of Aedirn for instance would be commemorated in the Conference, should he be victorious. His ambitions go beyond even that, as he seeks to carve up Temeria with his Redanian neighbor as well. Perhaps do even more than that, as Nilfgaard gave him Anais, Foltest's heir.

It is for this reason that Henselt rushed into battle. His victory had to happen before Loc Muinne and not after. It is for this reason that Henselt goes into battle despite the withdrawal of a sizeable amount of his forces due to discontented nobles and the massacre of dissidents when they were discovered. It is also why he personally joined the battle at the front to inspire his men and strike fear in the enemy's heart. It was a desperate but well-calculated gambit.

But Henselt was not the only one who acted on a gambit. The Lodge of Sorceresses's modus operandi had been more subtle and secretive, compared to the rather unsubtle, forceful and risky plan that Eilhart followed. What factors influenced the timing and reasoning behind her actions?

C. Redania

Thus we come to Redania and the rivalry between King Radovid V the Stern and Philippa Eilhart which will dictate major events in the North. It is worthwhile to briefly summarize the political situation in Redania. Following King Vizimir's assassination, Redania almost fell in civil war before the Regency Council, with Philippa Eilhart being a powerful figure, took the reins of power and re-established order. However, they mistakenly ignored and mistreated the young King Radovid V and his mother. Radovid was taught the art of ruling by Eilhart, no doubt seeking to manipulate him, but throughout that period no one doubted that it was the sorceress who was really in control. Indeed, it is very likely that she was behind Vizimir's assassination.

Everyone however, Philippa included, underestimated Radovid. If his father was known to history as "the Just", he will be known by his moniker of "The Stern." Turning out to be an astute, cunning and ruthless politician, Radovid systematically eliminated his rivals and imposed himself as the sole undisputed ruler of Redania. There was only one who challenged his power. Philippa Eilhart.

During the events of The Witcher 1, in a Temeria marked by political instability, Radovid was secretly present in Vizima with little to no protection. He was involved with the powerful organization of Salamandra, before backstabbing them, his primary objective seemingly is to forge an alliance with Temeria by marrying Adda, Foltest's daughter from incest and at the time his sole heir. An alliance with Temeria, which would effectively make him the heir of Temeria's crown after Foltest's death, would also increase his power in Redania itself. It is another example of securitization. However, it is more likely that Radovid had another, possibly more important, goal.

Years before, Redanian intelligence which is reputed to be the best in the continent, took a weakened Order of the White Rose and turned it into the Order of the Flaming Rose, a powerful religious paramilitary organization, with the help of Jacques de Aldersberg. The Order's raison d'etre was to propagate the cult of Eternal Fire, protect humans against monsters, nonhumans and more importantly, mages. Redanian intelligence helped and financed the Order to establish itself in neighboring kingdoms, except in Redania proper.

Radovid's personal presence in Temeria thus also pertains to the Order, which was responsible for the instability caused in Vizima during Foltest's absence. As we see in TW1, Radovid offered military assistance to Foltest in order to defeat the rebelling Order of the Flaming Rose in Temeria. In TW2, Radovid had brought the Order under his direct command and had given them land in Redania. This move would allow him to marginalize the nobility further, but its obvious target is Philippa Eilhart and her associates. By taking control of the Order, professional knights specialized in hunting down and killing mages with zealous abandon, Radovid had struck his first decisive move against Philippa.

Indeed, Radovid foreshadowed in TW1 his intentions to bring down Philippa and the Lodge, which he does in TW2. Him going into Temeria personally and with very few guards was very likely to slip under Philippa's radar so that she does not discover his plans. Philippa does a similar thing in TW2, as she too suddenly left Redania, evaded Radovid and went to Vergen, no doubt aware of the stranglehold that the Stern King had put on her. Philippa's position in the Redanian court had become untenable, thus prompting her to enact her risky plan.

Mage politics as well as Redanian domestic politics, the clash of two political titans, were a huge factor that would explain the war, its causes and timing.

D. Conclusion

The timing of the whole conflict was determined by Philippa's assassination of Demavend and support for Saskia, as well as the critical Loc Muinne Conference. Which prompted Henselt to annex The Pontar Valley in order to further increase his political power and influence in the North.

Philippa's actions were caused by Radovid outmaneuvering her with his recent absorption of the Order of the Flaming Rose, which increased his power within and without Redania while greatly reducing hers, thus pushing her into a corner.

V. Final Conclusion

The Second War for the Pontar Valley was due to several factors.

Economic incentives, provided by the land's richness and its commercial importance, were critical.

So were ideological / social reasons, as Saskia's armed revolution threatened the status-quo when it comes to nonhumans and the subjugation of commoners and peasants, thus causing a retaliation. Proto-nationalist sentiment and common threat brought together Saskia and the Aedirnian loyalists led by Prince Stennis.

Henselt's domestic unpopularity due to his collusion with Nilfgaard and his defeat at Vergen also contributes to the start of the war.

Furthermore, political and geo-strategic reasons were also an important factor. Henselt aimed to control not only the Pontar Valley, but also extend his influence in a weakened Aedirn. Morever, a victory in the Pontar Valley would increase his influence and weight in the decisive Loc Muinne Conference.

In addition, Lodge interests and plans were a key factor in causing the war. Their plan was to create a Pontar State by assassinating Demavend and supporting Saskia, in addition to controlling the Council and Conclave from behind the scenes. Which in turn was caused by Redanian domestic politics.

And finally, the Emperor of Nilfgaard cast his shadow on the conflict via his agent Letho.

This example goes to show the remarkable writing behind TW2's story. Had it been another developer, the war would have been focused almost entirely on one aspect, such as class conflict or racism. They would have made this war based solely on freedom fighters fighting for equality against a conservative power.

But not CDPR, much to a politics and history enthusiast such as myself's delight. It rather preferred to make this war as realistic as possible, giving it several causes and aspects. Thus making it possible for me to even write an analysis such as this. The conflict is based on economics, geo-politics, class conflict, racism, revolution, proto-nationalism, state interests and power struggles.

This is what separates The Witcher 2 from all other games I played.


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