Biblical Topos in Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy


I recently finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me. Why can’t I just read a book and enjoy it for once? Instead, I became obsessed with the religious symbolism of the books and what they meant. My theories got so distracting that part way through the last book I started to get annoyed at the descriptions, story, and anything that wasn’t contributing to me finding out how my theories panned out. I took lots of notes, but didn’t keep track of page numbers for them all, so I won’t be able to quote some things directly.

Most mathematicians have heard of the term topos. Here I’m talking about a literary topos. Roughly speaking a topos is just presenting a standard well-known story in a new setting. Usually the idea is that if the story has some meaning behind it, then you can trace the ways in which the story is changed to understand what the author wants you to take away from it. Of course, Biblical topoi are probably the most common idea in all of Western literature and that will be the focus of today.

Often times it can be annoying to see people read too much into symbols and references that aren’t really there. Since Sanderson is open about being an LDS Christian, and since he did missionary work he is much more familiar with these stories than the average person. I sincerely believe that most of what I’m going to write was intended by the author. I’m going to try to arrange it in order from the most believable to having to stretch a bit (for example, I have no idea how well he knows the history of the early church which will be necessary for some of my analysis).

WARNING: READ PAST THIS POINT AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. I WILL FREELY REFER TO MAJOR PLOT TWISTS THAT HAPPEN 2000 PAGES INTO THE SERIES.

Already in the first book we have some clear parallels of Kelsier to Jesus (strangely, the topoi related to Jesus stories seems equally spread out between Vin and Kelsier). The first thing that happens in the entire series is that mistborns are killed by the Lord Ruler to weed them out so that none rise up and overthrow him. Kelsier survives. This parallels the first major story in Matthew where King Herod kills the male children to make sure Jesus doesn’t survive, but of course he does in that story as well.

At the end of the first book Kelsier knowingly sacrifices his life for the good of the people. Then he comes back to life (in the form of a kandran). It’s been awhile since I read the first book, and I didn’t note whether or not it was three days, but the parallel is unmistakable. He gives up his life to save the world and comes back from the dead a few days later. Then a religion grows up centered on these events.

Now that the main outline is in place, let’s move on to some subtler points. By book three we already learn that the mythology surrounding Kelsier has changed. First off, the story has Kelsier killing the Lord Ruler rather than correctly stating that Vin did it. Secondly, we see that the followers believe that he went to the Pits of Hathsin a man, but returned a god (I wish I had a page number written next to this note to be able to quote it).

This doesn’t have to do with the Bible per se, but this is an illustration of a general phenomenon where stories get embellished and changed when passed on through oral tradition. The second point does have to do with a Jesus topos depending on Sanderson’s interpretation. Many New Testament scholars think that Mark believed Jesus was purely man up until John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in which case he becomes divine. Interestingly, the timelines work out perfectly because this would say Kelsier became divine in early adulthood (around 30?) and then a few years later died to save the world.

There are some weird things about this theory, though. It draws quite a bit attention to the idea that Kelsier (i.e. the Jesus figure) was merely human. The mythologization and deification were embellishments added later. As omniscient readers, we can know for certain that these stories that found the religion are false embellishments. It is usually the non-Christian that points out how likely this is to be the case about Jesus since the earliest Gospel was written 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Also, we see things like the resurrection of Kelsier to be merely a trick he uses to get people to believe he has come back. He doesn’t actually resurrect in the book. This is very hard to reconcile with the idea that Sanderson believes in a real resurrection, but through his fiction he demonstrates how easily people could be fooled on such things.

Ignoring the end (which we’ll hopefully get to since this is running long already), there is a case to be made that Vin is constructed from the topoi of “Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.” Since Vin turns out to not be the Hero of Ages, maybe a better case should be made that the prophecies of the Hero are modeled on the prophecies of Jesus. The most striking comparison has to be:

Who first taught that a Hero would come, one who would be an emperor of all mankind, yet would be rejected by his own people? Who first stated that he would carry the future of the world on his arms, or that he would repair that which had been sundered?

This is about as overt as one can get. “Emperor of all mankind, yet would be rejected by his own people.” Jesus was “king of the Jews” yet it was the Jews that turned against him and cheered for him to be killed in the end. We could go on, but again, it is the differences between what the book tells us is actually true versus what people believe is true that is kind of shocking.

First, Sazed has a bit of a crisis when he realizes that the prophecies keep undergoing subtle changes so that they point to whatever Ruin wants them to. I’m not sure if Sanderson is aware of this, but in Biblical History 101 you would learn that as the Bible was passed along from scribe to scribe subtle changes and errors were constantly introduced. It is literally impossible to recover “the original” if that notion even makes sense. So this idea actually comes from Biblical reality.

Again it is shocking that a believer would draw attention to this. The whole moral of the series (from this point of view, obviously there are much more prominent morals) seems to be that because of our uncertainty of what the prophecies say and the mythologization and possibly blunt changing to make stories fit the prophecies, the person that seems to fit the prophecies actually doesn’t fulfill the prophecies at all. Are we suppose to read this as saying that we are likely wrong about interpreting Jesus as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy? From a Christian?! I just see no way around this being a major theme of the series.

Probably the weakest link (and hence last) is reading Spook as a topos of Paul. Spook uses too much tin and undergoes a transformation. Note this transformation involves seeing a blinding light. After this transformation he starts to receive visions of Kelsier/Jesus. He started a skeptic, but then goes around trying to convert people. This seems to fit the general form of the story of Paul.

I’ll end with some other notes I have jotted down just on religious issues in general. Sanderson raises some interesting issues on the epistemology of belief. In book three we have a conversation that tries to draw this to the fore:

Believers are often willing to attempt the seemingly impossible, then count on providence to see them through. That sort of behavior can be a weakness if the belief is misplaced.

This seems to be almost a variant on Pascal’s wager. Everyone agrees that it would be bad to believe in something false … but just think about how worth that risk it would be if you happen to be right. Another pointer to the Christian symbolism in the book is a very clear description of the concept of the trinity (suitably altered to fit the religions of the series):

I have come to see that each power has three aspects: a physical one, which can be seen in the creations made by Ruin and Preservation; a spiritual one in the unseen energy that permeates all of the world; and a cognitive one in the minds which controlled that energy.

There is more to this. Much more that even I do not yet comprehend.

There are even some LDS specific references. The most obvious one is that the only way to transport truth safely is if you write it on metal plates. This was such an obvious reference to Joseph Smith finding the Book of Mormon on metal plates that I overlooked it for almost the entire series. Another is that the main obligator in book three (I again forgot to write the page down to quote it exactly) says something like, “Why choose to worship a dead God when a living one is right in front of you.” I took this to be a reference to the idea that Mormons believe there are current living prophets, yet other Christians choose to ignore these and listen to the long dead and outdated prophets.

Anyway, there is so, so much more I could go on about as these books were just jam packed full of Biblical topos. The thing I found so odd about the series is that if we take these parallels seriously, then the only way I can see to interpret them is as arguments against Christianity. My blog is “A Mind for Madness” and it has been five years, so maybe I’m finally going crazy but why would an LDS member write something so contrary to what he believes?

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