Discussion – Portrayal of Religion in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy

Religion, it is a subject which has been considered controversial for as long as it has existed.  There have been wars fought in the names of various gods, there have been kingdoms built and torn to the ground in the name of religion, countries pillaged in the names of deities, and many other such occurrences.  It is important to realize that in most cases it isn’t strictly the teachings/tenets of these religions which are calling for such things, rather it is the interpretation of these texts by human individuals; they are texts which have then become subject to either intentional manipulation or unintentional misinterpretation.  Regardless, the media continues to shed a somewhat unflattering light upon religions, specifically, religions which are not considered the norm within their own borders.

What does this have to do with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy?  While we live in a world which appears to be losing its affinity for religious tolerance, Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy instead presents not only a stand towards religious tolerance, for example Sazed’s collection and teaching of religions long considered to be dead, but also questions the role of belief and faith, questions the idea of the deification of an individual, and exemplifies the personification of a deity.

Religion and Faith

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, religion is defined as “the belief in a god or in a group of gods; an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”  Religion can manifest in many forms, from a simple belief in a higher power to a more complex set of rituals exemplifying said belief.  What is beautiful about the definition of religion, is that it defines the idea of religion without placing limitations upon what makes up the religion itself.  All that is required for a religion is for there to be belief, what the belief is placed in is up to the practitioner(s).

The role of faith in religion has always been one of the most seemingly simple tenets, but in practice can be the most difficult.  Faith doesn’t take into account the inability of  religion to provide answers considered important, or in some instances necessary, for their followers.  This is why the ideas regarding crises and questions of faith are somewhat common.  There are many questions in this world, some of which are unable to be answered by religion, thus allowing for these crises and questions of faith to occur.  We are advancing as a people, scientifically and socially, and these advancements allow for the asking of questions which religion can’t answer adequately nor is there a precedent in place for such questions; the common answer/response then is “to have faith in your god(s), he/she/they will provide.”  Having faith then becomes the final answer to any and all questions!  This isn’t a solution and having faith isn’t always the answer that followers need/want.  Yet, faith is again the simplest of tenets which is found across all religions.

An excellent example of the concept of faith in religion, in its most minimalist definition, is best exemplified by Sazed in his duty as a Keeper.  Sazed collected a great number of religions from various people who no longer lived in the Final Empire under the Lord Ruler’s reign; whole cultures purposefully wiped out by the Lord Ruler in order to further his own control/influence/status as the only god of the Final Empire.  Sazed spent a great amount of his time after the death of Tindwyl, the woman he loved, attempting to find which single religion was true among those he had collected.  He went about this as any scholar would; searching for inconsistencies, lack of explanation, and logical fallacies.  Towards the end of The Hero of Ages, Sazed had evaluated and eliminated almost every religion he had ever studied.  In the end, Sazed learned an important lesson regarding a single consistent truth across all religions; it wasn’t about having proof that their belief was warranted for followers, rather, it was having faith without the need of proof in times of both prosperity and adversity.  Faith in their religion, in their god(s), in their belief, was the most important tenet rather than having all of the answers…the followers had faith and trust that their god(s) would provide.

Deification of a Person versus Personification of a Deity

There are two interesting concepts which take place within the world of the Mistborn Trilogy; the deification of a person and the personification of a deity.  Comparatively, these are two different practices which ultimately achieve a somewhat similar goal; to create a deity to whom you can relate to in your worship.

Deification of Person

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, deification can be defined as “the act or an instance of deifying; to treat (someone or something) like a god or goddess.”  This is a concept which takes place over the course of the Mistborn Trilogy.  Two specific examples of deification I want to discuss are the Lord Ruler and Kelsier/Vin.

The Lord Ruler, who we  learn is a Terris pack-man named Rashek, begins the process of deification 1000 years prior to the events of Mistborn:  The Final Empire.  However, what is interesting about his ascension as a “deity” is that rather than being deified strictly by other people, the Lord Ruler actually promotes the idea of himself as a god.  While it remains true that the Lord Ruler did attain godhood for a short time while holding the power of Preservation at the Well of Ascension, he did not actually become a god!  Yes, he gained permanent power from Preservation, one of the two ruling forces in Mistborn, in the form of allomancy which when combined with his own feruchemical abilities granted him immense power which gave him the appearance of being divine in nature.  When one has lived and ruled for 1000 years, quelled many rebellions, and appears immensely powerful, it becomes easy to portray yourself as a deity and thereby convince others of it.

The deification of Kelsier and Vin, on the other hand, is not self promoted…at least,  not entirely.  It is important to realize that Kelsier did build himself up as a hero and liberator of the Skaa, creating and leaving behind a legacy which would allow the Skaa population, a population which had been repeatedly abused and downtrodden, to embody him as a martyr who died fighting for their liberation.  Kelsier’s deification is only further achieved through his own subtle manipulation after his death.  Kelsier knew that he would die and had a deal with the kandra Ore’Seur that upon his death, Ore’Seur would impersonate Kelsier risen from the dead to the Skaa population and help to further incite them into rebellion against the Lord Ruler.  This event is what sparks the creation of the Church of the Survivor (the survivor being a  name for Kelsier due to his survival at the Pits of Hathsin), where Kelsier is embodied as a god.  Vin ultimately becomes deified within the Church of the Survivor at the end of the first book in the trilogy upon killing the Lord Ruler, within the church she is known as the Heir of the Survivor and is more affectionately called the Lady Heir due to her studying of allomancy under Kelsier’s tutelage.  Kelsier hoped for and planned his entire ascension into godhood among the Skaa, whereas Vin had deification thrust upon her and found it to be a burden rather than an honor.  In the end, I feel that Vin’s deification and worship within the Church of the Survivor is the most warranted because her actions were always in the best interest of the world at large and not just her own desires.  Yes, I recognize that Vin did make choices which ultimately hurt more than they helped, but what is important about those choices was that she never did them out of selfishness or furthering her own claim of divinity, rather, she always made the choices that she thought was in the best interest of the people who relied upon her.

Personification of a Deity

The spirits of Preservation and Ruin are incredibly interesting characters, specifically deities, in the Mistborn Trilogy.  I find the idea that neither can create on their own quite fascinating; Preservation only has the power to preserve and Ruin only has the power to destroy, but it takes the combining of their abilities in order to create.  Sanderson does an excellent job of personifying these deities/forces/gods/spirits, specifically, his personification of Ruin as being incredibly manipulative in his attempts to bring about the destruction he was promised by Preservation for helping in the creation of man.  It is the single most important thing to Ruin; creating chaos and destruction and death in this world.  Giving these otherwise seemingly abstract forces human-like thoughts/emotions/motivations elevates much of the trilogy’s story; instead of a story about the overthrowing of a tyrant and the developing of a new government/way of life/society in his place, the story evolves into a war of the most basic type…a war to survive.  This plays right back into the credence of the Church of the Survivor whose most basic of tenets is survival!

Personal Thoughts – Conclusion

Brandon Sanderson really did an amazing job with this trilogy, as I said in my review, I can’t praise it enough.  Rather than treating religion as something which is inherently infallible, Sanderson instead embraced the idea that religion can be found upon principles or tenets which are egoistic in nature.  I enjoy his portrayal of religion as being something other than perfect because I have come to accept that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge in our world.  Change/innovation have become such an inherent part of the human experience that with every question we solve, a whole other multitude of questions will be asked.  The body of knowledge is ever changing and that is thrilling to be a part of.

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