Almost every critic who read the wildly popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer seemed to pick up on Mormon themes, even when they weren’t there. Wild speculations about Mormon views on domesticity, feminism, romance, conversion, deification and even the Mountain Meadows massacre were delved into as curiosity or mockery. No matter what she did or said there seemed to be Mormon roots found by someone no matter how obscure or tedious. Even Orson Scott Card’s works were never scrutinized to the degree her works have been. What is amazing is that one of arguably the most prolific and popular Mormon writers has not been given the same treatment. This despite the fact his works are filled with nods and allusions to Mormon theology and culture.
Brandon Sanderson is best known for completing Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy series The Wheel of Time when that author died. He was given the task by Jordan’s wife after she read Sanderson’s own Mistborn fantasy trilogy of books. It was a good pick considering the final books became number one best sellers and how quickly he churns out whole series of thick tomes. He also teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University when not putting down words to pages.
Perhaps there are a few reasons Sanderson and Card don’t have scores of readers trying to pin down every Mormon reference real or imagined. For one thing, Meyer is a female writer who is Hollywood friendly. That means a capacity to reach out beyond the limited fan base of literate individuals to those who might not even open up a book. Someone once pointed out that television and movies are the modern popular literature, while books have nearly returned to the domain of a select (and self selecting) few. Perhaps that might explain why only the original Battlestar Galactica has come closest to the same nit-picking. Will the release of Ender’s Game open up Mr. Card, like it already has for a small group, to the same search for details and diatribes? Perhaps because Meyer is female, much like what occurred with J.K. Rowling to a lesser extent, she is considered an acceptable target.
Clearing the above musing out of the way, what Brandon Sanderson writes has Mormonism in it with some of it blatant. There are a few motifs shared by other Mormon writers, including Meyer’s vampire series. Examples here will include the Mistborn Trilogy and the currently stand alone Rithmatist novel. A routine warning is added that below might contain spoilers.
Gifts of the Spirit
One common theme among Mormon novels is personal gifts. It seems that individuals are given abilities they can use to either help or control others. What causes these special cases depends on the world created by the authors. Not everyone has them, although they can be learned or bestowed to those who didn’t possess them.
The best example would be the Twilight series where Vampires each have certain abilities once they change from human and become bloodthirsty monsters. All of them have super speed, strength, and heightened senses. Beyond that, each have a gift that they excel at even if they can learn to improve on the general powers. Bella, the human girl who falls in love with a vampire, is immune to manipulative powers such as mind reading and telekinesis.
For Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, the characters derive their powers from drinking fluids containing metals. These Allomancers, as they are called, can either specialize in one capability or more rare gain all the powers. Examples include steel that pushes on metals, zinc that inflames other’s emotions, Tin that enhances senses, and copper that hides from “seekers” who can detect those using those powers. The most powerful (and imaginary) metal is atrium that allows the user to see enough into the future to make necessary choices for a perfect outcome. Two using the atrium are equals who can only fight until one “burns” the metal away and becomes vulnerable.
The Chosen Ones
“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was,” reads The Book of Abraham, “and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.”
Probably the most famous “chosen one” in a Mormon novel is Ender Wiggin from the Ender’s Game saga by Orson Scott Card. He is especial groomed to defend Earth by once and for all destroying the bugger enemy. Of course, such a person is not a Mormon theme alone. What might be different is that whole sets of people are set apart for special consideration. Ender is one among equally talented warriors, although proves himself the best.
The novels of Brandon Sanderson seem obsessed with small communities among the larger population who are different and special Those who can burn metal in the Mistborn series has already been pointed out. In his Rhithmatist novel, the existence of people who can do extraordinary things is crucial to the survival of humanity. The novel is named after individuals who can duel by drawing with chalk. Circles, lines, and doodles become powerful weapons that can maim or destroy. People with this rare ability are trained to battle a mysterious force known as wild chalklings that seem only to exist in order to kill. It is the classic story of supernatural good against evil with mortal consequences.
A most curious theme that can be found in Brandon Sanderson’s books are the hidden chambers. These are places that either no one enters other than the most elite, or everyone enters with the mysteries revealed to a select few. His Mistborn includes at least three places of secret solitude. One is a mine where the great tyrant sends his enemies to live terrible lives of work and distress. This tyrant has his own sanctuary where his most trusted soldiers and priests come and go, forbidden and dangerous for the unauthorized. Deeper inside is a type of Holy of Holies containing an ancient power that if released can end the world. Away from civilization are caves in a mountain where a species of body snatchers hide, watching for signs of the end times.
More telling is a sacred room in Rhithmatist that all young children go to learn of their destiny. What is called “The Master” turns normal seeming children into warriors of chalk. Although everyone can go inside, only those chosen know what happens with the change. They are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to go into any detail about the transformation. Even the room description drops a hint of its special nature, ““Inside he found a white marble room containing a cushion for kneeling and a small altar made from a marble block, topped by a cushion to rest his elbow on. There didn’t seem to be anything else in the room–though a springwork lantern shone quite brightly from above, mounted in a crystalline casing so that it cast sparkling light on the walls.” (321). Despite the secret and sacred nature of this room by those not chosen, no characters push for more information. Questions are asked, but the “we don’t talk about it” attitudes are taken for granted.
Religion and Scripture
Two competing narratives are present in the Mistborn series. Religion is grounded in truth, but these truths are twisted and manipulated to hide the real truth from the population. A dedicated researcher cannot under normal circumstances determine truth from error. Teachings from one religion sound good until reading the text of another that reveals the error of both. For example, there might be a religion that refrains from the physical senses while another believes in the beauty of indulgence to enjoy life. Arguments from both sides are usually logical, making it hard to decide between them what is the more correct when a middle way is actually not supportive.
Mormonism teaches that all religions are corrupted, and yet possess knowledge from the original source of truth. Doctrine and Covenants 123: 12 reads, “For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.” Those who preach and teach spiritual knowledge hide more than they reveal. In many cases, according to this verse, it is deliberate. The same can be said for what happens in the Mistborn series as religion is used to control and hide.
Scriptures aren’t always the best source for getting out of the conundrum. Texts change over time and even from day-to-day. What might be understood and clear at first reading becomes problematic when another viewpoint is introduced. In the case of Mistborn, anything written down on paper is quickly changed by an unseen and evil power to be different or the complete opposite of the original words. Only what is written in metal cannot be corrupted; although interpretations are left to individuals. Gold isn’t mentioned, but the Book of Mormon and Brass Plates readily come to mind. They were used according to scripture to preserve the word of the Lord when other medium would quickly be destroyed.
Theory and myth can be even more problematic. The boy who studies rhithmatists can never use his knowledge because he hasn’t been chosen. Legitimization of intellectual knowledge comes from those who are able to use the powers of the chalk. Those without the gifts are left to wonder why they weren’t blessed, or cursed, with the powers. No amount of reading will suddenly grant them the abilities. A greater supernatural authority is required.
Opposition in All Things
Good narratives have a protagonist as the main character and an antagonist who works against them. Two opposing forces contest for power and glory. The concept of opposition in Mormonism is a fundamental teaching, as Lehi states in the Book of Mormon, “ For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Nephi 2:11).
With Mistborn and Rhithmatist, nature is in a long struggle between the forces of good and of evil. People are small weapons of a larger war that often cannot be understood by the people who are fighting. At first the rebellious mistborn think the enemy is the tyrant and his minions who control the population. By the end of the series far more is at stake when a destructive force and a protective force that controls existence battle for the destiny of reality itself. The rhithmatists are, as was mentioned, fighting an unnatural killer chalk creatures. Desperately they fight to keep the drawings from escaping into the wider world. No one understands where they came from or why they exist, but death will be the final outcome if allowed freedom.
More examples of Mormon themes could be found in Brandon Sanderson’s works given time. He does not write from a vacuum. So far no critical examination has been written on the subject of his religious “hidden agenda” to proselytize readers. Perhaps, despite the extent of his writing, none will be done because there isn’t millions of swooning fans breathlessly hanging on every sentence; even if the Mistborn books would make a great Game of Thrones type mini-series. Still, it would be nice to point to him as an example of the great creative potential to be found in Mormon teachings.