In episode 4 of Netflix’s Witcher series, a tradition as old as time itself is called on to resolve a ballroom conflict between our eponymous hero and a patron of his services. And thus the series’ main through-line is sketched out right before our eyes, paving the way for the rest of the season. But if you haven’t read the books, the gravity of the situation may not hit you.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for The Witcher episode 4, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials.”]
The tradition in question is the Law of Surprise, which is invoked by Duny, husband-to-be of Princess Pavetta, after Geralt saves his life from a room teeming with suitors for the royal’s hand in marriage. After a bloody brawl, Duny, also known as the Urcheon of Erlenwald, feels indebted to the witcher for rescuing him, but has nothing on his person with which to pay him. Geralt invokes the Law of Surprise.
“That which you already have but do not know,” states the Law of Surprise. A venerable custom in the world of The Witcher, the law is usually called upon to negotiate a payment between a hero and a patron they have saved from certain death. In most cases it can only be invoked by a savee in peril. These endangered unfortunates are usually occasioned by a witcher, but sometimes an ordinary knight can encounter them due to pure happenstance — such was the case with Duny himself, who saved the life of Pavetta’s father 15 years before the events of episode 4, and won the right to marry his daughter through the Law of Surprise. Only after the law is called does everyone in the room stop fighting. To disrespect a custom as anciently awesome as this is to disrespect destiny itself.
The law works like this: Upon realizing that they have nothing with which to settle their score, a debtor might say something like, “State your reward.” This sets up the prerequisites for the law, giving the hero ample opportunity to stake their claim — the first thing you come across when you arrive home will suffice as payment for the debt owed.
That first thing could be some sort of gardening utensil, or a horse, or any other piece of bucolic paraphernalia you might find in a medieval fantasy countryside. Or, perhaps, the person who was rescued could come home to news that their wife is pregnant, in which case the first thing they have without knowing of it is ... their unborn child. In that case, the unborn child is now owed to the hero who called the Law of Surprise, with the child being bound to them by incomprehensible destiny. That’s what happens to Geralt in a matter of seconds at the end of episode 4.
“Fuck,” Geralt mutters after the revelation of what it is that Duny has but does not know. The witcher storms out of the room and into the night, leaving his adoptive daughter behind to grow up as a princess, completely unaware of her fate. But for rites this ancient — this awesome — destiny persists. And despite numerous attempts to thwart it, destiny’s power only grows.
In Andrzej Sapkowski’s Sword of Destiny short story collection, Queen Calanthe, Ciri’s grandmother, recognizes this: After ordering her adviser, the druid Mousesack, to kill Geralt in order to keep Ciri from him, she retracts her request at the last moment for reasons Mousesack does not understand. Perhaps this was a test of loyalty. Or perhaps this was a respect for — or fear of — destiny.
In the Netflix show, Calanthe reaps what she sows from having kept Geralt and Ciri apart for so long. On her deathbed, seen in episode 1, she tells her granddaughter, “Find Geralt of Rivia,” understanding that the girl’s fate is inextricably intertwined with the witcher’s, and if they are to survive the encroaching sea of black from Nilfgaard, they must do so together. Destiny is dealt its trump card, and the witcher in the prison cells below breaks free of his shackles and sets out to find his Child of Surprise.
Eventually the paths of Geralt, Ciri, and even Yennefer will all cross. At the crux of The Witcher is the Law of Surprise, which binds three people without a family through destiny.