The Mormonism in Brandon Sanderson Novels

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.

Hidden Sacred
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.

15 thoughts on “The Mormonism in Brandon Sanderson Novels

  1. I’m not convinced that using Ender Wiggins as an example of a “chosen one” as a Mormon theme really works — unless Luke Skywalker and every other major protagonist also count as Mormon themes.

  2. Sanderson is very under-appreciated and is really coming into his own. But while some of the examples given are good, others are simply part of fantasy literature, eg. the Chosen One.

    But the biggest one, I think you left out – Deification. It plays a crucial role in the Mistborn series, and it has a lot to do with the extended backstory of all his Cosmere novels (Mistborn, Warbreaker, Elantris, Way of Kings). We will probably see more it in the books following The Way of Kings.

  3. ldsphilosopher and Zen, you are absolutely correct and the Ender example is weak. However, I think that there is a Mormon twist to it that I introduced with a whole group that are chosen. All of the warriors he leads are special in their own ways. The Cullins in Twilight are also a special breed of vampire that are at least self chosen. Throughout Sanderson’s novels are chosen groups with special powers and status. The leadership ends up the elite of the elite in Mormon novels. I think that is tied to the teaching in the Book of Abraham that Jesus was the greatest spirit among great spirits.

    “But the biggest one, I think you left out – Deification.” Yes, I did leave that out because its such a huge subject in an already long post. It would deserve its own treatment and I don’t feel up to that task. The End of the Mistborn series was an absolute surprise that I think is full to the brim with Mormon themes about the nature of the universe, eternal laws, and deification.

  4. Jettboy, yet more books I have to add to my list to read! There are not enough hours in the day…

  5. I will agree with the other posters that the idea of Ender as the Chosen one is very weak as a specific Mormon theme. Having read all of Brandon’s works and being somewhat well read in the rest of the genre, I will also contend that even the ideas of a special group as a chosen one is more a thematic archetype than simply a Mormon type theme. There are plenty of works in the Fantasy/Sci Fi genre that deal with groups of people like this, so even that is something that is probably largely a genre type aspect that may more simply derive from a greater thematic archetypes within human story telling. (See Harry Potter series, or the Wheel of Time for example)

    I would also say that the category of Spiritual Gifts is also too broad. Almost any work within the Fantasy genre will deal with people that have gifts above and beyond that of other normal humans. From Gandalf (Tolkein) to Allanon (Terry Brooks) to the Aes Sedai (Robert Jordan) to Urban fantasy settings like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, all deal with groups gifted something else that ‘normals’ don’t have, and thus becoming elites of elites. This is not unique to Mormon writers, and thus should not be included as a specifically Mormon theme (unless it is written with a specifically Mormon take, but even that might be hard to figure out. Unless it involves a bunch of middle age men standing in a circle around a person with hands on head. Something I don’t think Brandon’s works include: in Mistborn the powers are governed by lineage, in Rithmatist by religious investiture, in Warbreaker anyone can learn and be taught, in the Stormlight Archive power is governed by the actions and ideals (promises? covenants?) of the individual. Yes, in each of these there are elements that could be seen as Mormon or influenced by Brandon’s membership and LDS culture. But I don’t think you can label them all as distinctly Mormon as they are also found in nearly all other works of in the SciFi/Fantasy genre.)

    I agree that many of the other aspects you named can be seen as having been influenced by Brandon’s LDS culture and upbringing. However, I also think that you are reaching on some of them, in part because you already know that he is Mormon, and thus you are primed to see such things in such a light. For instance, the writing on metal in the Mistborn series. As metal is so important thematically in the books, it makes perfect sense that it is used in the ways that it is. So, did the idea start from a Book of Mormon based thought? Or was it added later because it fit so well? You would have to ask Brandon (he is so open with answering and self-aware of his process he could probably answer, and it might just be what you are think.) But does that make it ‘Mormon?’ That’s a tough action to swing. I would contend that someone acutely aware of Mormonism, who was not aware that Brandon was Mormon would not immediately pick up on such as derived from the history of the Book of Mormon. Now, that wouldn’t prove one way or another that it wasn’t a theme/trope derived from Mormonism, but it definitely is evidence that it isn’t such.
    Similarly, even the ideas of deification are not so distinctly Mormon within the Fantasy genre. They are all over in other works, such as Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Does Brandon’s flavor of deification have a distinctly Mormon cast to it? Arguably, even that doesn’t. Looking at the overarching Cosmere (the universe within which most of his fiction books and magic systems are based, not his YA or anything based on earth though. Obviously excluding the Wheel of Time) and the history of the Shards of Adonalsium, it doesn’t match up too well. (Needless to say, there are many spoilers that I just won’t point out here for people. If you are interested there are major fan sites that delve into this, such as the 17th shard).

    But this brings me to the main aspect of your post: why hasn’t there been a distinct perusal of Brandon’s works to find Mormon themes? I can think of a number of reasons.

    Number one: just what has been pointed out above. Many of the themes that he utilizes can also fall well within the borders of established thematic archetypes, and as such don’t immediately stand out as Mormon. Brandon’s writing is less in your face about some of these things than say, Scott Card in his Alvin Maker series or the Memory of Earth series, or Peter Orullian’s Vault of Heaven, or David McFarland/Wolverton. All of these writers (whom I enjoy immensely) utilize many more distinctly Mormon tropes, themes, and stories, if not direct quotations from LDS scripture. I have yet to have found something so overt in Brandon’s work. Thus, from a Mormon perspective, many of these things stand out. For instance, the initiation ceremony in Rithmatist. However, that is strongly tempered by the fact that the Religion shares many characteristics with Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism as well. Thus, where do we stand with it: is it Mormon or something else? So, as opposed to others, Brandon, while utilizing his roots, as you say he can’t write from a vacuum, mixes those thoughts/themes/tropes with elements from elsewhere making them less distinctly Mormon to those not from the in-crowd who can point out and see where he is coming from.

    Second, Brandon writes in the Epic Fantasy genre largely, with forays into YA, Middlegrade, etc, and while he is up and coming, if not already established, he is no where near as in the spotlight as Meyer and Twilight. Thus, the Twilight series has garnered more popular attention than anything Brandon or even Scott Card have ever written. This leads to greater public scrutiny. Especially from people who are worried about the fact that the occult could be coming through. Evangelical Christian worries about evils mesmerizing people and leading them astray dovetail into standard Anti-Mormon tropes of brainwashing, mesmerizing, etc., thus explaining the popularity and leading to the intense scrutiny.

    Having said all that, I will say that I agree with you that there are many ideas and tropes within his books that stem from his Mormon upbringing and membership in the Church. However, I think he does a great job of writing them in such a way that those ideals and, what we might label, truths appeal to and resonate with a much larger audience. Thus, they don’t come across as distinctly Mormon, which is another reason that there probably won’t ever be an intense scrutinizing of his work to point out the “Mormon-ness” of it.

    Just a few thoughts

  6. REW, I can agree with you to a point. From an outsiders perspective they are not that distinct. I am not a novice at reading science fiction and fantasy and therefore can recognize where he uses what is conventional to his own advantage. That isn’t a bad thing, because that is what makes good writers. I do contend, however, that how he uses them or how he talks about them is recognizably Mormon to those familiar enough with both. In fact, I think his writings are far more Mormon than Meyer’s ever were, and with much more thought and creativity. We are dealing with a discussion of literature that has existed since the invention of literary criticism; if the thought process of the author can be traced in their works.

  7. Jettboy,
    I agree with you largely on all those points, and those in the OP that I didn’t specifically comment on. Again, I have no problem saying that there is much that is Mormon in Brandon’s writing. That’s part of the reason that I will continually return to and reread his works, whereas others in the genre, not so much. There are a hope and a decency in his books and characters that speak in ways I haven’t found in many other staples of the genre. The general trend toward grittiness and “realism” strikes me as just a cover to write whatever depravity one wishes to see/experience. Brandon retains enough of a fallen world to make conflict real, personal, and multifaceted (i.e. not totally Black and White, Good and Evil), without sacrificing morality and hope.

    My only point is that labelling major portions of his work as Mormon, when they are admittedly a mixture of various influences, misconstrues the fact that it is just as evident that many of the things we may declare as “mormon” are in fact distinct aspects of the genre or mythic archetypes in and of themselves that are found in many other places, and are not just Mormon in nature. This is where the intense scrutiny of Twilight as a Mormon work falls down: everyone is convinced, for whatever reason, that it is pushing a Mormon agenda, and thus, “Mormonism” is “found” everywhere in it. Yet, as you say and I agree, Brandon’s works have a lot more implicit and underlying themes and aspects that are definitely Mormon-related at the least. We should be careful not to assume that only Mormon influences pervade the works of any Mormon artist, as if that were the only influence he/she would ever be affected by.

    Just $0.02.

    Thanks for the post, it’s been thought provoking!

  8. I’d love to comment on this, but I have a hard time doing so. I love Brandon’s novels, but when I read them I have to shove the fact it’s Brandon to the back of my mind. I spent too many hours doing role-playing games with him at BYU.

  9. The temple analogy was interesting. I missed that myself.

    The ‘different folks have different gifts’ thing isn’t specifically Mormon. Its bog-standard Christianity. The parable of the talents, the widow’s mite, St. Paul, Body of Christ, etc.

    The deification theme in Mistborn is pretty fundamental. As with Card’s, I have to wonder if there is something defective in my own faith that makes these Mormon-flavored metaphysical speculations so unappealing.

  10. Pingback: This Summer in Mormon Literature, June-July 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  11. Very interesting Geoff B., even though I wonder how they can get away with that considering that even blogs can be copywrited. Does this blog have commons on it somewhere? Not that I mind as I guess they didn’t print the whole thing.

    Ok, so no one was impress with my The Chosen Ones section. Fair enough, although I honestly think he does it in a way that is not typical of the standard versions. Whole communities are chosen and often out of the general population. Gifts are a “Christian thing” for sure, but again there is a unique Mormon interpretation of how those gifts are given and used that I have noticed in the novels. You aren’t just “born” with them, but develop over time. A person can also develop more than one gift with practice and a bit of luck. I feel that is particular to Mormon understanding of gifts of the spirit.

  12. Ok, so now that we have all properly given Jettboy a cosmic nerd wedgie, can we find anything that will support his ‘chosen one’ hypothesis?

    Let’s see:
    Gifts are given of God(s), in accordance with law (not well understood by mortals) FOR A DIVINE PURPOSE. Further, these divinities were once mortal as we are. What is magic and supernatural, are laws of physics that are possible to be mastered and understood, even if many of the communities influenced are not very scientifically developed. We have Gods influencing mortals (within limits) and mortals influencing Gods, or becoming Gods. In fact, these gifts, and deification are inseparably linked.

    For instance, in the Way of Kings, you have 10 “apostles” err…. Heralds, of whom 9 apostatize who were given divine armor and weapons directly from god (Honor) and when these are used improperly, they are defiled… hence Syl’s disgust at Dalinar’s blade. These gifts only bless and are at their best, when they are used in service (namely, to defend men and women).

    Perhaps each element is not ‘Mormon’ in and of itself, the the entirety of it does have a Mormon gestalt.

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