Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Questioning the Hero: Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn: The Final Empire"

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone--I enjoyed it from the beginning until the end, and though there are some things that I would have done differently were I Sanderson, I can honestly say that it managed to walk the line between entertaining and thought-provoking. While I emphasize the thought-provoking aspect in the essay that follows, I would say that this book could also serve as escapist reading if someone were hoping for something a little lighter than it might appear from this piece.

Though Christian imagery often permeates the pages of fantasy and science novels, it generally falls into one of two categories:

1) The C.S. Lewis Category: Aslan is great; He's so awesome; everything about Him is cool, cool, cool. I really love Aslan.

2) The Philip Pullman Category: The Church sucks, it's really horrible; everything about it blows, blows, blows. I really hate the Church.
Though both sides are interesting if pulled off correctly, they are both a bit simplistic in their approach to the larger issue of faith, divinity, and mankind. They are both essentially propaganda for their respective schools of thought and there is little room for reader interpretation or even involvement in the plot.

Not so with Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire. Though there is obviously Christian imagery throughout the novel, Sanderson does not obviously thrust his LDS faith into the book, instead leaving breathing and therefore thinking room for the reader. Rather than writing yet another yea-or-nay book on Christianity, Sanderson uses the Christian imagery as a cultural point of reference: "Either way, yes, the Christian imagery is intentional. I didn't put it in simply because I'm religious [...]. I put it in because I think that the images and metaphors of Christianity are deeply-seated in our culture, and drawing upon them provides for a more powerful story. " [2] In this way, he leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions from the book, trusting her judgment enough to allow her to think for herself.

Some might say such a tactic is dangerous for a Christian writer. The god/emperor of the Final Empire is cruel and vindictive and could, upon first reading, seem almost to represent the cruel and vindictive God of the Old Testament. This quickly proves to not be so, however; though there are three separate story lines throughout the novel (Vin, Kelsier, and the unnamed Hero of Ages), much of the more blatant Christian imagery revolves specifically around Kelsior, the "Survivor" of the Pits who presents the common people of the Final Empire, the skaa, with a new god to worship.

Be that as it may, however, it is the journal entries that provide the chapter "bumps" which provides the most food for thought. They are ostensibly written by the Lord Ruler when he was young, before he became an emperor/god and was known instead as the Hero of Ages. It is the Hero of Ages who is to save mankind and he often parallels Christ in many ways, as this prophecy (which could be applied to either the Hero or Christ) clearly shows: "The Hero of Ages shall not be a man, but a force. No nation may claim him, no woman shall keep him, and no king may slay him. He shall belong to none, not even himself." (page 342) In addition, both men come from humble beginnings, rural towns and modest families: "I think it would do men well to remember that this task was not begun by emperors, priests, prophets, or generals. [...] It began in a small, unimportant town whose name would mean nothing to you. It began with a youth, the son of a blacksmith [...]. It began with me." (page 266) Finally, if these allusions to Christ are not enough, the prophecies say that, "He will be their savior, yet they shall call him heretic." (page 146) There is little doubt that the Hero of Ages is a Christ figure.

What is interesting, then, is the manner in which the unnamed Hero of Ages presents himself in the journal entries--while the philosophers of his time name him the savior of the world, he is dubious as to the veracity of their claims. The Prologue to the book opens with this introduction:

Sometimes I worry that I'm not the hero everyone thinks I am.
The philosophers assure me that this is the time, that the signs have been met. But I still wonder if they have the wrong man. So many people depend on me. They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms.
What would they think if they knew that their champion--the Hero of Ages, their savior--doubted himself? Perhaps they wouldn't be shocked at all. In a way, this is what worries me most. Maybe, in their hearts, they wonder--just as I do.
When they see me, do they see a liar?
(page 1)

The reason that this stands out as notable is that, in portraying a doubting savior, Sanderson has added layers to the generally-absent character's personality. A hero who knows he's a hero is rather simplistic; one who questions his own self-worth while still fighting a battle he's not sure he can win is much more complex and appealing.

In addition, for a writer belonging to a church many would identify as right-wing fundamentalist, this exploration of a hero's self-perception and his role as a religious leader is intriguing. For example, towards the beginning of the novel, the Hero of Ages writes, "Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man's opinion any less valid than my own?" (page 19) In this instance and in others, Sanderson shows himself to be very open-minded as to others' religious points of view by merely acknowledging that there are other opinions that can hold weight. The nameless author of the journal reiterates his doubts and fears multiple times, including one that closely parallels Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ:

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd remained there, in that lazy village of my birth. I'd have become a smith, like my father. Perhaps I'd have a family, sons of my own.
Perhaps someone else would have come to carry this terrible burden. Someone who could bear it far better than I. Someone who deserved to be a hero. (page 276)
To be sure, Kazantzakis and Sanderson are not the only writers to address this issue. What makes The Final Empire different, however, is the idea of a doubting savior turning into the evil Lord Ruler, a cruel emperor/god--if he had survived, could Christ also have "gone to the dark side?"

**SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ PAST THIS IF YOU HAVE YET TO READ THIS BOOK!**

If the similarities between the Hero of Ages and Christ ended here, it might be argued that they were purely coincidental. This possible conclusion, however, does not take into account the theme of betrayal that runs through the entire story. Of the the other two main characters (Kelsier and Vin), both deal explicitly with betrayal--Kelsier suspects that his wife turned him in to the Obligators while Vin believes that her brother betrayed her by abandoning her in the streets. Vin even carries this idea so far as to believe that everyone will betray her at one point or another in an uncharacteristically heavy-handed approach by Sanderson.

It is safe for the reader to assume, then, that betryal will play a part in the third story line--that of the Hero of Ages. The journal entry bumps allude to this possibility by emphasizing the hostility Rashek feels for the author of the journal: "[Rashek] does not know me, yet I can already see the anger and hostility in his eyes." (page 128) It is not until the final scene between the Lord Ruler and Vin, however, that the point is made explicitly clear as Vin accuses the Lord Ruler of having murdered the Hero of Ages and taken his place all those years ago.

The entire timbre of the story changes dramatically with this revelation--while it was assumed that the Lord Ruler was the author of the journal, he stood as a character of virtue corrupted by power as he had once foreseen: "I know what will happen if I make the wrong choice. I must be strong; I must not take the power for myself. For I have seen what will happen if I do." (page 577) Instead, the Lord Ruler emerges as a Judas who successfully usurps the role of savior and manages to convince the world that he is Jesus.

There are many implications that accompany this climax--rather than standing as a potential criticism of a Christ-like figure as he once seemed to be, the Lord Ruler is instead a reminder to be careful whom we put our faith in. Sanderson reminds us that only those who are truly heroes should be put in leadership positions.


Work Cited:
[1] Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn: The Final Empire. Tor Books; New York, New York. 2006.

[2] Sanderson, Brandon. "Mistborn: Chapter Thirty-Two." http://www.brandonsanderson.com/annotation/159/Mistborn-Chapter-Thirty-Two

2 comments:

Daniele said...

Sounds like a great book. It's on my list :)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

It's an AWESOME book. I was almost afraid to post this because some people might get turned off by imagery and metaphors, which is such a small part of the complete work.

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