The Law of Surprise sits at the heart of The Witcher and the interwoven destinies of Geralt and Princess Cirilla. Some would call it a convenient MacGuffin at first glance, but the tradition’s implications in Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy world run much deeper as you progress through the narrative.
The Witcher games by CD Projekt Red never explicitly touch on this plot element, instead opting to depict Ciri as Geralt’s ward from a bygone past. When you approach the books, however, Sapkowski introduces the Law of Surprise as early as the first book, in the short story called “A Question of Price.”
The Netflix live-action adaptation also depicts this by roughly following the same story beats as the books, with Queen Calanthe acquiescing to Duny marrying her daughter Princess Pavetta, from whose union Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon — the Child of the Elder Blood — is born. In those final moments, Duny asks Geralt to name something as a means to square off their debt, and Geralt invokes the Law of Surprise, inadvertently binding his fate with Ciri.
But what is this Law of Surprise in The Witcher universe that you keep hearing about, and how does it work?
What is the Law of Surprise?
If ever you find yourself in the world of the Continent, you should know that almost every human knows about the Law of Surprise and may invoke it if they give you assistance but you have nothing to offer them in return. Indeed, if a person comes to someone else’s aid — for instance, to save their life — the savior can invoke the Law of Surprise for repayment, asking the other to offer a boon they possess but know nothing about, or “what you find at home yet don’t expect.”
This usually happens to be a child that the father returns home to without knowing, and due to the agreement, he is compelled to give that child over to the savior. A lot of Witcher masters use this technique to recruit new people to their schools, because the tradition is something that most people take seriously as an oath.
Duny invoked the Law of Surprise on King Roegner of Cintra, Pavetta’s father, when he saved his life many years before the events of The Last Wish. Duny returns years later and arrives at Queen Calanthe’s court to ask Pavetta’s hand in marriage, but the monarch refuses. This is when Geralt intervenes, and a fight takes place. At this point, Pavetta taps into her Elder Blood powers and almost kills everyone in the room, before being knocked out by Geralt.
Calanthe finally relents and agrees to their union, and because Geralt saved Duny’s life, the man asks what the monster-hunter would ask of him in return. Geralt nonchalantly invokes the Law of Surprise, not knowing that Pavetta is pregnant. Even though Geralt is reluctant to claim the child as his own, even years after the incident, he and Ciri are irrevocably connected through the twisting of fate because of this very supernatural law.
When Nilfgaard overruns Cintra and Ciri escapes from the capital, she takes shelter with a simple merchant’s family in the woods. Geralt comes across the merchant Yurga in one of his adventures and ends up saving his life from a monster attack. Yurga insists on repaying the Witcher, and Geralt once again invokes the Law of Surprise. When he and Yurga return to the merchant’s house, they realize that his wife has taken in an orphan girl, who happens to be Ciri.
While at first reluctant to shoulder this burden, as our stoic Witcher usually is, even Geralt admits to himself that something more than fate has intertwined his life with Ciri. And besides that, the time they share in the Brokilon forest has also created a sense of irrevocable sentimental connection between the two, one that can be best described as a father and his ward.
The Law of Surprise and Slavic folklore
Since the Witcher world is mostly inspired by Slavic folklore and mythology, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the Law of Surprise also traces back to those ancient folk tales. But instead of a tool in the hand of professional monster-slayers, the “Prawo niespodzianki,” or literally, “Right of the Unexpected,” refers to a boon offered to a devil as a form of repayment.
This ties into Sapkowski’s larger narrative motif of Witchers being deemed “monsters” and “demons” themselves, and the fact that more often than not, the people of the Continent visit more atrocious cruelties to other groups of people than any actual monster could ever think of, and out of sheer human ignorance, at that.
As Geralt himself once said, “People like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live.”
But even ignoring the larger thematic messages at play here, the Law of Surprise plays an undeniable role in the story of The Witcher. Is it by some supernatural decree that Geralt and Ciri keep bumping into each other, or could the monster hunter have simply walked away after that second time? Though considering the original plotline from the books, that’s actually the third time Geralt meets Ciri.
Netflix might want to explore those questions in future seasons of The Witcher, though as far as the books are concerned, the Law of Surprise is just something that most people, even the very wise, simply allude to without explaining its meaning. Perhaps it might even be best to not dwell too much on the mechanics involved here because the story makes it a point to show that Geralt and Ciri love each other, and the bond they share goes beyond some simple and generic twist of fate.