So, this is a theory that I've kinda been kicking around in the back of my head for a while, and I've written some posts using this assumption. However, I've never atually gone and typed up a formal theory post. I... kinda made one on tumblr, but that doesn't count, so I've gotta get it up over here. For those of you alergic to tumblr posts, fret not. I'm going to put all that information over here.
Now, as of the Shadows of Self signing, I've got some Word of Brandon on the subject as well! So it's high time we got this thing out here. I'll put the theory itself first, in-book justification, and then Brandon's responses to my questions.
Renarin Kholin's visions throughout Words of Radiance are not a normal manifestation of Truthwatcher powers. They are likely not regular Surgebinding at all and may not even be related to his status as a Truthwatcher.
Now, perhaps this seems counter-intuitive. Renarin says in WoR Ch. 89 that he's a Truthwatcher, which means he "sees." He's been seeing throughout the whole book, counting down to the arrival of the Everstorm. Why wouldn't those two be the same thing?
Well, there's a few very good reasons why there seems to be more going on with Renarin than originally meets the eye:
#1 - Renarin's visions do not match other Radiants' expressions of his Surges.
Admittedly, we have seen very little use of shared Surges by different orders, but from what we have seen, Surge expression seems to be very similar between sharing orders. Jasnah and Shallan's Soulcasting seems to work the same way, to the point that Jasnah believes she can teach Shallan how Soulcasting works, even though they have different Orders. We see both Ym (who is a Truthwatcher!) and Lift use their shared surge of Regrowth, and in both cases, it seems to work in an almost identical way.
We would expect therefore, that Renarin's Surges, Regrowth and Illumination, would manifest in the same way as other users of these Surges.
As stated above, we had two separate practitioners of Regrowth in WoR, one of whom was actually a Truthwatcher. On the other side, we've seen extensive use of Illumination thanks to Shallan, who goes through all kinds of self-training and uses of her Illumination powers. With these examples, we should be able to make a very educated guess as to what Renarin's Surgebinding capabilities are, even though we don't actually see him using these powers himself.
The problem? Neither of those two surges seem to do anything close to what Renarin's visions do. The visions don't line up with either Illumination as we know it or Regrowth.
You might be able to argue that Truthwatchers use Illumination differently than Lightweavers (which I'll support wholeheartedly, but that's a different topic) but this level of difference is difficult to justify. The more logical explanation is that something entirely different is going on.
#2 - Renarin's visions appear to be involuntary, compulsive, and entirely outside of his control.
[ CONFIRMED: See below ]
Renarin is seeing the future, which is highly taboo in Vorin culture. This isn’t something I believe he would choose to do. Considering the way that he hides this from his family throughout the book and the high level of distress he shows in the finale with Shallan, this does not appear to be something he is choosing to experience on his own.
In the same way that seeing the future is taboo, so is writing for men. If Renarin does not want to reveal that he’s seeing the future, we wouldn’t expect him to voluntarily write things down. Seeing him succumb to the vision at the end, he cries out and screams as he writes, and the way that he continues to write the same thing over and over make this seem like an involuntary reaction, going as far to be something he would fight if he could, but cannot. He loses control and is forced to write the glyphs.
Additionally, Renarin cannot control entering or leaving the visions. While we do see Kaladin and Shallan using their surges unintentionally, we never see them using Stormlight against their will. With Shallan and Kaladin, it is a subconcious thing, rather than something done with them actively fighting it. Shallan is never trapped within an illusion, struggling to get out of it. Kaladin does not ever find himself unable to stop using Stormlight, or toppling into the sky as gravity suddenly yanks him the wrong way without him asking it to. As soon as those two become aware of their surgebinding, they can control it, even if they started unintentionally.
Renarin’s visions show no such control. He seems to be able to feel them coming on, but can't do anything to stop them. Once within a vision, he can't get out until the vision itself decides to end. Renarin cannot do anything to stop or resist the visions. They are entirely against his will.
#3 - Dalinar's visions are another example of involuntary, uncontrolled, compulsive visions which are not Surgebinding.
Now, don't say it. Yes I know that Dalinar is a Surgebinder by the end of Words of Radiance. However, I am fairly certain that he was not a Surgebinder before the very end, when he actually bonds with the Stormfather. And he has been experiencing visions since before Way of Kings started. I take this to mean that they're not Surgebinding. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but that's the assumption I'm working under for now.
Dalinar's and Renarin's visions are incredibly similar actually. Both are involuntary and unable to be resisted. Both involve visions. Both have an element of compulsive actions, as Dalinar moves and speaks in other languages and Renarin has an almost hypergraphic need to write during his visions, despite that Renarin probably hasn't ever written before this. They also appear to both be tied to highstorms, since they happen at the same time.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that Dalinar seems to think that Renarin's future-sight is his own up until the reveal, and that he simply can't remember it happening.
That said, there are differences. Dalinar sees the past, Renarin sees the future. Dalinar is completely unaware of the real world while in the midst of his visions. Renarin seems to know and be aware of what's happening to him, even though he can no longer control his body. Dalinar seems to act out what he's experiencing, Renarin writes.
Still, I would argue that Renarin's visions have more in common with Dalinar's visions than with Shallan's Illumination. If Dalinar and Renarin shared a Surge, I'd be comfortable saying that they were a shared Surge. But Truthwatchers and Bondsmiths are actually on directly opposite ends of the Radiant Orders. If this is supposed to be Surgebinding, why are they manifesting similar powers in opposite Orders? Why did Dalinar's start before his Nahel bond?
My answer: they're not Surgebinding. Neither one of them.
Relevant Canon Texts and Commentary:
All are from WoR, because I can’t find any significant evidence of Renarin's powers in WoK.
Does Renarin use his powers somehow to hide his coming into the room and writing the glyphs? Does he put Dalinar to sleep somehow? It’s possible. The sudden break between the paragraphs is strange here...
Sloppy lines, unpracticed at drawing glyphs. Renarin is not used to writing. He also might have been fighting against the complusion to write as he did it.
This is right after the fight with Szeth. Renarin was towed back by Moash at the beginning, and then Kaladin, Dalinar, and Adolin fought. After Kaladin ran Szeth off outside the palace, he was unconscious for an indeterminate amount of time, and then the glyphs were found when he got back. It’s interesting that Renarin would choose to provide the translation, when Navani is there and could read it herself. I would have thought he would not want to implicate himself in the glyphs by reading them. Or perhaps his compulsion pushed him to provide the translation here?
I’m mostly putting this in here because it’s another iteration of the glyphs and I wanted them all. The real interesting stuff comes from the discussion afterward between Dalinar and Adolin.
Seeing as Renarin is the one doing the carving and not Dalinar, Adolin’s theory is undoubtedly what happened. One wonders if Renarin maintains enough control during the visions to be able to hide himself. Does he have enough autonomy to be able to frame Dalinar for the carvings and keep himself from being implicated?
And here we see the reason that Renarin doesn’t come forward with the fact that it’s him. Adolin is used to the idea of his father losing control of himself during Highstorms, but this is taking it a step too far, it seems. Considering that Renarin is already quite an outsider in Vorin culture, he doesn’t want to make it worse. Dalinar is very self-assured even though his own visions are making him lose credit among the other lighteyes. Renarin is not.
Over the sounds of me hissing protectively while clutched around my darling and glaring at Shallan, here we have the first time that Renarin is shown doing something strange and/or powery. No one else can sense the Everstorm yet. Pattern mentioned that the storm was coming to Shallan but Renarin seems to be able to sense it on his own. Even being warned about it, Shallan doesn’t see anything.
Feather continues to be generally upset in Shallan’s direction. It’s interesting again that he says something here. If he’s trying to hide the fact he can see the future, wouldn’t he keep quiet? Is this right here voluntary or compelled?
Feather continues to be GENERALLY STRESSED ABOUT RENARIN’S WELLBEING. By this point we’re definitely getting into involuntary territory. He’s feverish and crying out and screaming. I’m guessing we’re watching Renarin on the cusp of succumbing to the vision, yelling out in defiance right on the edge of it taking him over. Then he’s lost and the writing happens. That said, even as he’s lost control, he continues to talk, whispering as he writes.
(UNRELATED SCREAMS OF RAGE) Okay this quote doesn’t really show much of his powers. We’ll say it’s here for the sake of completeness and not because Feather felt like raging at the heavens. Honestly, by this point, I’m really surprised that Shallan continues to think that Renarin is mad or crazy. Considering he’s been giving the exact same warnings as Pattern you’d think she’d catch on that this is a real thing. In some cases, Renarin’s warnings came before Pattern's.
So here we see what is really the only argument for Renarin's visions being Truthwatching. I'm not convinced. I think that Renarin probably is a Truthwatcher, since there's other evidence that his Nahel bond is legitimate - screaming Shardblades, healed eyes, Glys, etc. -- but I don't take this as immediately confirming that what's happening with his visions is an expression of Surgebinding. I think the visions are either unrelated, or if related (less likely in my opinion), somehow influenced by an outside force as well.
It’s also worth noting here that Glys uses masculine pronouns. Aside from Dalinar and the Stormfather, all other Nahel bonds have been between opposite gender pairs: Shallan/Pattern, Kaladin/Syl, Jasnah/Ivory, Lift/Wyndle, Ym/unnamed spren.
Word of Brandon:
These questions were asked by me, the first at the Words of Radiance Midnight Release (I'd already finished it at that point) and the latter two at the Shadows of Self Midnight Release. Unfortunately, I don't have direct quotes, though I think the SoS questions were recorded, but haven't been transcribed yet. The WoR Release question is unfortunately very far from verbatim as I just asked and didn't write down the answer until a few hours later. Silly Feather. The SoS two, while also not direct quotes, were written down right after being given.
Feather: Is there something important in the fact that Glys and Renarin both have masculine pronouns, while other Nahel bonds have been opposite gender?
Brandon: There is something to it, though maybe not what you're thinking of. (Answer is very paraphrased, sorry. I'm not entirely sure what he thought I was thinking of...)
Feather: Are Renarin's visions compulsive/involuntary?
Brandon: There is an element of that to them, yes.
Feather: Are Renarin's visions Surgebinding?
Brandon: *evil laughter* RAFO!