Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part II)

(Part I)

Connected to Game of Thrones' pessimistic anti-heroism is a sense of realism. Beyond a few dragons, there is remarkably little magic. In fact, the series often seems to function more as historical fiction, only being held back by the technicality that the story is not actually taking place within the War of the Roses or the French Wars of Religion but on another planet. Just as the series abandons the physical magic of fantasy in favor of a disenchanted realism, it abandons fantasy's psychology of heroism in favor of a more "realistic" disenchanted anti-heroism.

Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Chronicles has much in common with Game of Thrones. While there is a lot more magic, Sanderson represents a key turn within modern fantasy toward science-fiction. Mid-twentieth century science-fiction, as exemplified by writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, turned away from black box technology that differed little from magic in favor of engineering stories that placed how a technology might plausibly work at center stage. Similarly, even as Sanderson starts from a different set of natural laws, his characters approach their magic in a scientific spirit. It is useful to think of Stormlight as the kind of science-fiction novel that someone living in a platonist universe might have written. The naturalism in Stormlight goes so far as to include heroes like Jasnah Kholin, who is an atheist, and her uncle Dalinar, who loses his faith in the Almighty as the series goes along. These plot lines are particularly intriguing as Sanderson is a religious Mormon.

The really crucial connection between the two series is this crisis of heroism. In Stormlight, this occurs very literally at the cosmological level with the death of a divine being called Honor. Nine of the ten Harelds refuse to continue to damn themselves to Desolation every few thousand years in a never-ending cycle to save the world from the Voidbringers. In essence, Jesus has refused to get back on the Cross. At a human level, the story focuses on the implications of this death, much in the same way that Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God presaged the start of World War I. In fact, the war between the Alethi and the Parshendi, the central event of the story, is essentially a fantasy world version of World War I. You have the assassination of a royal figure, King Gavilar of Alethkar (an event that is retold in every book from the perspective of a different character). This leads to a war that quickly turns into a stalemate on the Shattered Plains.

The irony of the Alethi light-eyed aristocracy is that they had just enough sense of honor to declare war to avenge the death of their king but not enough to stop the war once it became a stalemate and spare the lives of the common soldiers (particularly the bridge crews, callously sacrificed as cannon fodder). The dark truth is that the light-eyes have the pretense of an honor code without its substance. The pretense, as manifested in the keen attention to ritual, is necessary considering that their lives of privilege could only be justified by laying claim to serving a higher code. Beyond the rare sets of shardplate and shardblades, what protects the light-eyes is that the masses of dark-eyes honestly believe that the light-eyes are honorable and deserve to rule. The moment they stop believing this, you will have a revolution on your hands (which is one of the main subplots of the second book, Words of Radiance). The pretense of honor allowed the light-eyes to declare war to avenge their king while serving their real goal of collecting gemhearts out on the Shattered Plains battlefield and plotting against each other to improve their individual family positions. The real reason why this war is not ending is that the light-eyes want there to be a war as an end in of itself.

Worse than honor just being dead, its very death has allowed it to be corrupted. The light-eyes, in a  sense, have the corpse of honor, its ritual forms. Because of the almost total absence of actual belief, they are able to parade themselves draped in that corpse. (Considering what shardplates and shardblades are eventually revealed to be, this is not exactly a metaphor.) Honor becomes what elevates them above the rest of society. This means that, by definition, everything they do becomes honorable. Furthermore, acts that conventional thinking might consider dishonorable are now not only not dishonorable but the very height of honor. For only a "truly honorable" person could ever do them. In dealing with light-eyed villains like Amaram and Sadeas, much of their charm and effectiveness comes from their ability to be openly cynical about honor and still to be thought of as honorable. As with Ayn Rand villains, their nihilism is not taken seriously. This makes it a surprise when they can commit such cold-blooded actions without any sense of guilt or remorse.   

This crisis of honor is played out from the perspectives of the dark-eyed commoner Kaladin and the light-eyed Dalinar. Kaladin comes into the story as an idealist, who believes in the honor of his light-eyed commander, Amaram. This faith is cruelly shattered when Amaram repays Kaladin's heroic slaying of a shardbearer by taking the spoils for himself and having Kaladin's men executed to leave no witnesses. As for Kaladin, Amaram's "mercifully" has him branded and sold as a slave. This eventually leads Kaladin to serve on Bridge Crew Four.

If Kaladin is disenchantment from the bottom up, Dalinar is disenchantment from the top down. He is part of the aristocracy, the brother of the assassinated king and one of the main Alethi commanders. More than anyone else, he honestly tries to live up to the code of chivalry as taught in the Way of Kings. Because he is a true believer, he is unable initially to see the treachery around him as manifested mainly by his friend, Sadeas. From Sadeas' perspective, betraying Dalinar to his death is the decent thing to do for a friend, who has lost his touch and a truly noble defense of the aristocratic right to feud without the forced unity of a strong king. One of my favorite moments of the entire series comes in book two when a stylized duel is allowed to turn into a trap for Dalinar's son, Adolin. Dalinar is left pleading for mercy and with the realization that none of his fellow light-eyes, including his nephew, King Elhokar, possess anything but the hollow outward trappings of honor.

To deepen the disenchantment, it is not just that Kaladin and Dalinar are good people in a bad world; they themselves are highly flawed individuals. Not only have they made mistakes, their mistakes are of such a nature that there is no coming back from them. Repentance is, by definition, impossible as any attempt to do so demonstrates that one never truly appreciated the gravity of the sin in the first place. Beyond Kaladin's anger at Amaram's betrayal, he is weighed down by the guilt of failing to protect his men. He joined the army because he wished to protect those who could not protect themselves, particularly his drafted younger brother Tien. The reality is that, despite his best intentions, he has only gotten people killed. First, he failed in the particular task of protecting Tien and then he failed even at the symbolic level of protecting the men under his command. The need to redeem himself by fixing the world leads Kaladin to agree to allow Elhokar to be assassinated despite having sworn to protect him. There are good reasons for killing Elhokar and it is not unreasonable to imagine that Alethkar would be a better place if Dalinar took over. There is just that small issue of cold-blooded murder and treachery. 

As for Dalinar, much of the new Oathbringer novel is devoted to revealing that, for most of his life, he was not really any better than Sadeas and Amaram. Dalinar's slaughtering whole towns in "service of the Crown and the Almighty" led to the death of his wife. His subsequent turn to drink to drown his guilt led to his being drunk during the assassination of his brother. In fact, it was Sadeas, who put himself in harm's way trying to protect Gavilar. Dalinar finally managed to strike a magical bargain to escape his guilt that removed all memory of his wife from his mind.

It is Kaladin's and Dalinar's task to save the world by restarting the ancient order of Knights Radiants, who once served the Harelds. In essence, they have to reenchant the world by restoring heroism to it. In this disenchanted world, in which even the heroes are irreparably tainted, reenchantment is achieved by acknowledging both one's sins and inability to atone for them. Next, one tries to do better even while knowing that this may fail. The most important step in a journey is simply the next one. In a story about saving the world, it is amazing to the extent that the major acts of salvation come about by people not trying to save the world but by humbly doing the right thing in front of them.

Kaladin comes to accept protecting a flawed king after Elhokar acknowledges his failures as a king and asks Kaladin to teach him to be better. Elhokar's limited repentance with its honesty in looking at both the past and the future allows Kaladin to step back from "heroically" trying to fix the world in one grand gesture to redeem his past failure to fix the world and instead simply do the honorable thing. It should be noted that Elhokar's moment does not mean he transforms himself into either a good king or a good person nor does it mean that things turn out well for him. 

Similarly, Dalinar's "heroic" attempt to live according to the Way of Kings, while well-intentioned, simply continued the light-eyed practice of donning the forms of honor. He is still trying to atone for his sins, which, as this is an impossible task, leads to him simply continuing to run from the past and ignore it. The big change is when he struggles to negotiate a complex series of alliances as the head of the new Knights Radiant. He is burdened by the fact that he has no experience in trying to convince people to cooperate as opposed to using brute force. With time ticking down to an apocalypse, Dalinar begins his redemption by not trying to seize power even as that accusation is used as an excuse by others to not confront the looming threat in front of them. This sets ups the climax when Dalinar attempts to resist possession by the satanic figure Odium. The trap is that Odium can offer Dalinar the one thing he has been seeking all this time, salvation from guilt. If only Dalinar would consent to possession, he would no longer be responsible for his actions. One might even put this into the past and say that Dalinar had always, in some sense, been under the control of some evil force, which is really what was responsible for what he did. Dalinar saves himself precisely by embracing his guilt and asking to remember. Rather than being a hero, he takes responsibility for his own past and allows the heroic image of himself to be destroyed.

It is interesting to contrast Sanderson and Martin in terms of their production. Sanderson's gigantic body of work has essentially been produced over the same time as Martin has given us only Dance of Dragons. A possible reason for why Martin has not been able to finish his series is that a disenchanted world, by its very nature, does not allow for a satisfactory ending. Martin has to choose between not solving anything, which would be true to his world even as it would be narratively unsatisfactory, or solving things (Daenerys and Jon Snow getting together and ruling happily ever after), which would be dishonest and probably unsatisfactory as well. I suspect we are heading to something like Lost in which, at best, we can hope for an ending that is emotionally satisfying in terms of the characters even as the real issues are ignored. As for Sanderson and Stormlight, there is still a long road ahead and I am sure it will happen at some point that he will write himself into a narrative box. That being said, I am confident that he will see this through and much as a saved Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and brought it to a satisfactory ending, Stormlight will end in a way that justifies having read it from the beginning.