Warning: spoilers ahead for season 1 of The Witcher on Netflix.
For anyone that didn’t read the book series or play the video games, it can take a second to feel like the world of Netflix’s The Witcher makes sense. Then, just as you’re getting comfortable with all the monsters, prophecies, and curses, they throw in the Law of Surprise, which is perhaps the most confusing part of the series.
In episode 4 of The Witcher, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials,” we finally get a bit of backstory as to how each individual storyline is intertwined. The timeline is a bit hard to follow at times, but this episode does a lot to give a sequence to the stories. The first mention of the Law of Surprise happens as a banquet Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May) is holding for her daughter, Princess Pavetta (Gaia Mondadori). Calanthe has plans to help secure her kingdom through the strategic matchmaking of her daughter until a masked knight named Duny (Bart Edwards) bursts onto the scene to claim Pavetta’s hand in marriage. His claim hinges on the Law of Surprise. Years earlier, Duny, who has the head of a hedgehog for reasons that aren’t fully explained, saved the life of King Roegner, Calanthe’s late husband. The episode doesn’t go into too much detail on that other than he was cursed and only returned to his fully human form at midnight.
The Law of Surprise is a covenant seemingly as old as time in the world of The Witcher, which actually has its roots in Polish and Slavic folklore. In short, the law states that a great deed such as saving someone’s life deserves a repayment equally as great and unexpected. In return, a person can place a claim on something the person returning the favor doesn’t have yet (or at least know that they have). Whatever the indebted would not have possessed had it not been for the great deed seems to be what most people invoking this law receive. “By tradition, I chose the Law of Surprise as payment,” Duny explains in the episode. “Whatever windfall he came home to find would be mine.” In this instance, it was King Roegner’s daughter, Pavetta, because the king came home from the trip to find out he was going to be a father. The Law of Surprise acts as destiny. Once claimed, it is inevitable. Making the whole “claiming her hand in marriage” thing a little less creepy, we learn that Duny and Pavetta met by chance, fell in love, and spent a magical night together before he came to ask for her hand in marriage (keep that in mind for later).
The invocation of the Law of Surprise does not sit well with Calanthe’s plans to marry her daughter off to form an alliance with a neighboring kingdom. She doesn’t care about the Law of Surprise and has no plan to honor it until destiny steps in to make sure it comes to fruition — also a huge sword fight, but mostly destiny. Geralt comes to Duny’s aid and when Calanthe finally agrees to let Duny marry Pavetta, Duny insists on repaying Geralt. Geralt, rather nonchalantly given how much trouble it just caused, claims the Law of Surprise for his repayment. As if destiny divined it, Pavetta is struck with morning sickness on the spot and it becomes clear that Geralt’s reward for his great deed will be Duny and Pavetta’s child, Princess Ciri (Freya Allan).
Now, it all makes sense. Okay, not totally, but the Law of Surprise helps explain a lot about how each of the characters are connected across multiple generations. The law continues to play out through the rest of the season, and with season 2 confirmed, it seems like it will continue to play a significant role in many of the main characters’ storylines.