The Law of “Surprise”

By: Holly Ros

Duny! You will give me that which you already have but do not know. I’ll return to Cintra in six years to see if destiny has been kind to me.”

(The Last Wish, pg 200)

The Law of Surprise is a fate-binding promise, one that is often claimed as payment for having helped someone. It’s no stretch to say that many of the events that occur in The Witcher series are a result of Geralt claiming the Law of Surprise as his reward, back before the main events of the series even begin.

In The Last Wish, Geralt claims the Law of Surprise as his reward after having helped Duny claim his own surprise. He does this with the hopes that destiny will bring him a child, one who can continue the witcher profession. Despite this demand upsetting some of Cintra’s royalty (i.e. Calanthe), the Law of Surprise makes good on its promise: Geralt and Ciri’s fates continue to be woven together, whether they want it to be or not. We see the workings of the bindings of destiny as a multitude of problems fall upon Cintra due to Queen Calanthe’s refusal to give Geralt her granddaughter. Although there’s no direct moment in the series the specifically tells us this is destiny’s doing, based on cause and effect, and the beliefs of many of the characters regarding the power of destiny, we can mostly conclude that destiny is at play when it comes to not just bringing Geralt and Ciri back together, but punishing those that kept them apart in the first place.

The Law of Surprise isn’t anything new, having most likely been inspired by the Russian fairytale The Sea Tsar and Vasilia the Wise. This fairytale presents an exchange nearly identical to that of the Law of Surprise. In the tale, The Tsar King offers help to the Sea King in exchange for something he has at home that he does not know that he has. This of course ends up being a son. 

The Law of Surprise can even be found as far back as the Bible. In a story from the book of Judges, a man named Jephthah promised God that if he helped him defeat his enemies, the Ammonites, he would sacrifice to Him “whatever comes out of the door of [his] house to meet [him] when [he] returns in triumph.” Upon returning home, the man’s daughter greets him, and, predictably, he was forced to sacrifice her. Here we begin to see a trend in the “surprise” being a child, one who ends up being separated from their parents whether through death or otherwise.

Even beyond the Child Surprise, it’s a common trope in classic fantasy to claim the first-born child of another family. Stories like Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin perfect example of a child as being used as payment. This leads us to another important topic: the importance of children.

Children represent the continuation of not just a bloodline, but that bloodline’s beliefs and traditions as well. They represent the beginning of a new era and the legacy of their parents. We know that the reason Geralt claims the Law of Surprise as his reward is that it is difficult to find a child who can become a witcher, meaning that the easiest way to find a successor is through that of a Child Surprise. What better way is there to ensure an heir than by claiming someone else’s child, one that is forever bound to you through destiny?

However, the main issue that we run into with the Law of Surprise, which makes it a rather unbelievable reward, is that nothing about the Law of Surprise explicitly states the acquisition of a child. Of course, based on our previous, non-witcher examples, children do seem to be a common outcome. And both stories, along with The Witcher take place in a world existing at a time prior to modern birth control and pregnancy tests, so it isn’t impossible to believe that a pregnancy might catch someone off guard. But the Law of Surprise itself is rather ambiguous. It could be anything: an animal, a disease, a scolding, a package in the mail…

When there’s no guarantee that the Law of Surprise will even result in something positive, it seems like the only reason one would have to claim it would be if they were hoping for something they could not normally obtain, such as a child. But even then, it would be a stretch to believe that a child would be the result, when the surprise could quite frankly be anything.

This is where destiny comes into play.

We can be led to believe that destiny’s role in Geralt and Ciri’s relationship extends prior to the Law of Surprise even being made. We see this possibility in the differences between the Netflix series and the short stories. In the short stories Geralt wanted a child and received one, whereas his Netflix counterpart did not want this child. However, in both cases he’s stuck with this child, one way or another. Destiny does not just come into play after the surprise is discovered. It’s the force that chooses what the surprise is.

“Child of Surprise” seems to be synonymous with “Child of Destiny.” All of the characters that we know to be Children of Surprises, namely Ciri, Geralt, and even Pavetta to some extent, play vital roles not just in each other’s lives, but with the fate of the Continent as a whole. Destiny seems to play a role not just it bringing people together after the promise is made, but making those connections play a vital role in the larger fate of the world. 

It’s like they said! Geralt! It’s like they said! Am I your destiny? Say it! Am I your destiny?”

“You’re more than that, Ciri. Much more.”

(Sword of Destiny, pg 374)

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