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Warning: wall of text, privilege, systemic social issues Spoilers: complete Cosmere works, up to and including Rhythm of War I’m going to lay out what I see as an underlying thesis and theme of the various depictions of anger/vengeance/redemption/justice in the Stormlight Archive. My positionality in approaching this issue is that of a well-off, well-educated, cis-het white male, so keep that in mind any time I make an assertion that contradicts your lived experience. I expect that to happen, and can and should be challenged for it where warranted. I’d like to start with the concept of redemption, which is a strong theme of the Stormlight Archive, and more broadly speaking Brandon’s works in general. It’s important to separate our extra-textual understanding of Brandon as a religious person, because while that can inform his writing, it’s important to treat the text on its own explicit and meta-narrative levels without resorting to ‘because the writer is ___________’. All text has its own purpose the writer intends, as well as possibly contradictory understandings some or many readers form as they engage with the text. So, many characters of the Stormlight Archive are either in some process of redemption or have the ability to undergo a process of redemption: Dalinar, Moash, Szeth, Shallan (amongst many others) have either explicit harmful actions in their backstory or some kind of ‘low point’ to climb from. Whether that is specifically due to their own conscious choices varies, but the idea of redemption is present throughout the whole text. I was struck by the assertion in the latest Shardcast that ‘redemption is not something you deserve’, which I think is apropos here. To reduce it to its simplest form: you cannot ‘make up’ for killing someone. There is no price you can pay that is worth the pain of that cut-off life to those who are left behind. Questions of fairness cannot enter into a discussion of ‘redemption’. I teach a variety of subjects to middle school students, both music (my specialty), as well as religious studies, ethics, and health education (all kind of wrapped up in one course). One of the ideas we discuss frequently is that it is really problematic to answer the question ‘what is good?’ or ‘what does it mean to be a good person?’ No one would think positively of someone who walks into a room and says ‘Yes, I am a good person!’ We would interpret that as bragging, covering for hidden flaws, and various other negative connotations. So, then, what is ‘good’? What does it mean to be in the process of redemption? In judging this, we can take some textual evidence for what the Stormlight Archive envisions. Dalinar at one point states that ‘a hypocrite is just someone who is in the process of changing’ (paraphrase mine). I think this is perhaps the most obvious lampshading of the text’s understanding of redemption. Dalinar acknowledges that inconsistency is not a flaw of the process, it is an integral sign that redemption is possible. Only by acting counter to the way one used to can you demonstrate a true change - after all, if it’s not visible and clear to understand, you haven’t really changed. Another element to this process is the importance of choice. The Stormlight Archive, in spite of the strong ties to the typical ‘prophecy/future-sight’ approach of much epic fantasy, goes to significant lengths to show the critical impact of the free will of individuals. The fact that Elhokar is cut down at the very beginning of his journey towards what we might consider (potential) heroism by an individual who has begun a downwards arc of villainy demonstrates that choice matters. An individual has far-reaching and irreversible consequences on the lives they touch. Once freed from the blind obedience to the Oathstone, Szeth could easily have chosen to end his life permanently in dealing with the trauma of acknowledging his pain and the consequences of his actions. But he did not. I think this goes a long way towards contextualizing why we react so differently to the various characters (who are or have been pretty terrible people). Dalinar is someone who was, objectively speaking, a monster. He was a war criminal, a sadist, and a butcher, responsible for hundreds of deaths at his own hands, and thousands more committed under his direct orders, including all manner of non-combatants, who were bystanders in an aggressive war of conquest where their families were trying to resist what they saw as an invader. This is the kind of person that anyone would be justified in taking pleasure or relief if they were to be executed for their crimes. The amazing thing about Dalinar as a character is that the easy path would be one where he continues to drink himself into oblivion, especially once he regains his memories. We almost get that in Oathbringer. Having gone through all that he has gone through, knowing what he knows about the person he used to be, he could abdicate his positions, insist he be jailed or executed, and attempt to go for what we might consider a typical form of accountability. But he doesn’t. He chooses to live with his pain, and chooses in spite of that pain to attempt better. There is no forgiveness. He can’t and doesn’t expect it. Forgiveness is a demonstration by the wronged that they are strong in spite of the pain, not an absolution for the guilty. Now we can contrast this with Moash. Moash is justified in feeling anger towards Roshone and Elhokar for the injustices committed against his family. He has experienced a similar loss to Kaladin, Teft, and others who have all suffered at the hands of the nobility. He feels incredible pain, and seeks methods to redress those wrongs. And so he chooses to attempt (and of course, eventually succeed) at taking the lives of those who have taken so many others. What is interesting about Moash is that his choice is one that in fact copies what was done to him. The way it is written makes it clear that Moash is another tragic event in an endless cycle of tragic events. His choice continues the cycle, in contrast to Dalinar’s, which attempts to alter the cycle. It’s worth noting that although Moash succeeds in ending Elhokar’s life, he does nothing himself to address the possibility of another ‘Moash’ happening in the future. Jasnah talks a good game about changing the way the monarchy works, but that cannot be laid at Moash’s feet (we’re not here to take away her agency). After getting his vengeance, Moash goes on to experience the result of giving up his emotion to Odium, feeling vacant, and outwardly pursuing a course of extreme nihilism, attempting to encourage others to seek oblivion. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Moash’s ideal end goal becoming the nothingness that we might remember from Ruin’s viewpoints in Mistborn. So Moash chooses a path that brings him some kind of warped form of peace, but certainly drastically alters how others perceive him, as well as inflicting another cycle of pain on those left behind (we can already seen the results of this in how Gavinor envisions his future as a warrior in Rhythm of War). But, for better or (especially in this case) worse, Moash’s choice matters. From the comparison of these two viewpoints, let’s turn towards Kaladin and the Knights Radiant in general. The text has gone out of its way to show that the Radiants are flawed. Both in past and current incarnations, oaths have been broken, injustice has been allowed to continue, and even those chosen for Radiance almost by necessity exhibit near-fatal flaws. Kaladin suffers from mental health issues, trauma, and an almost crippling inability to let others take responsibility instead of him. Syl is constantly trying to work with him on how to take that drive, that pain, and turn it into action to help and protect others. And he frequently fails - boy, how does he fail! In spite of that failure, we get great moments where he chooses the hard way, standing up for his beliefs in spite of his failure. Nowhere is this more obvious than the scene in Words of Radiance where he defends Elhokar (from Moash, no less). Kaladin up to this point has actively chosen courses of action that make Elhokar’s death at the hands of his friend more likely. His key realization is a version of the statement earlier on that no price is sufficient for a lost life! He realizes that people are people, and someone murdering the king would be in many ways identical to his brother being killed. He explicitly calls out that what matters is that Elhokar is trying. Elhokar’s choice matters, and if his choice matters, then Kaladin’s matter, too. And he swears the second oath as a result. We are shown through the relations between Kaladian/Syl, and the Radiants and their spren that that is not what matters. What matters is that they try. What matters is their choices. I face this issue a lot when trying to teach students about social justice and systemic oppression. The problems confronted by any imperfect society are monolithic, and the reproduction of those systems is buried deep in the patterns of how we are raised from a very young age. And so it can seem daunting to contemplate changing it. In fact, it is actually impossible that any one person will effect enough change to see the results in their lifetime. It would be easy in that situation to throw one’s hands up and say ‘I can’t change the world, so I might as well not go through the heartache.’ I think that the text is saying that that is no excuse. Just because you can’t change the way the world works by yourself is not an excuse to not choose to try. If enough people make that choice, that is what changes the world. As the text says “What is the most important step a man can take? It’s the next one.” So what is good, or justice, in the Stormlight Archive? Good means choosing to do better. Not best, but better. Anyone is capable of this at any time. Is it justice that they are not killed for their crimes? Not precisely. It is justice that the attempt is made, and it is justice that the wrongs are acknowledged. Dalinar’s story so far has done a better job of showing us that acknowledgement than, say, Szeth’s. Although everyone else acknowledges what Moash has done, critically, he has not. He has not chosen the path that leads to redemption yet. Is it possible? If what truly matters is the person’s choice, as I would argue the text believes, then it is possible that Moash may make the choice at some point to pursue that road. It will be painful. It will be unpleasant. Readers and in-text bystanders alike will have a hard time stomaching it. But, and this is why we love those stories, it reminds us that none of us are so imperfect that we cannot, too, choose redemption.
Something that really hit me, as a law student in New Zealand, was the conflict about who are the legitimate rulers of the land. The Parshendi are native to Roshar. By their invitation, humans were allowed to arrive, being given Shinovar. Humans, ever seeking to expand, were not happy with the small boundaries they were given, and took more and more. Eventually, the Parshendi were being properly invaded, and had to fight back. Now the invaders are considered the de facto rulers, and the natives are a minority. For those unfamiliar, New Zealand was an English colony before it became an independent country. But before that, the Maori had settled. Through a series of events that involved the injustices that colonialism has become known for, Maori now represent a minority of the population, both statistically and politically. The country is now in a position where it can question whether or not its own rule is justified or not. And it is not a question with easy answers. We study the justification for following the Common Law system of Western countries, instead of the Tikanga Maori law system. We study how the Treaty created for the English to be granted title is unfair and unrecognised throughout its history. Without getting too far into the politics of New Zealand, I thought it was analogous to the issue of Parshendi or Human land title. This is why I felt that the conflict was a lot more powerful than I've seen other people reporting it to be, even though it is predictable. The Radiants are bound by their Oaths, in ways that require them to feel justified in what they do. But when only the descendents of perpetrators remain to bear the guilt, and the victims are still calling for justice, what really is the right thing to do? Cooperation, though the ideal solution, is extremely hard to achieve throughout a history of injustice. New Zealand attempts to address this with affirmative action, but then there are those who say there is too little or too much reverse discrimination, and that racial bias still is a factor. I'm aware other analogies exist, especially the Native Americans, but this was what I was most familiar with. One last thing, I've always felt that Nale and the Skybreakers seemed a bit silly, following the law as it is written instead of by what it means (what could be called a strict textual, positivist approach). A little of that was cleared up with Edgedancer and Oathbringer (though Nale does say that he only asked for permission to kill Surgebinders after confronting lift, meaning he was illegally executing people before that), I still feel that they need a more developed sense of jurisprudence (philosophy of law) to give meaning to anything they do. The law exists for a reason, namely to bring order to the chaos of human interaction. This was mentioned many times by various Skybreakers. Despite that, by joining the Parshendi, they encourage an escalation of chaos and disorder. I'll make a separate post about this later, after I've had more time to think on it. Sorry for the wall of text