Faith crisis in Brandon Sanderson’s Sunlit Man

This post is full of spoilers. Don’t read it until you’ve read the book, which is very much worth reading and has become one of my favorites by Sanderson.

Brandon Sanderson’s Sunlit Man is the story of Nomad, who has just landed on a hellish planet (again) in his unending attempt to outrun a shadowy enemy chasing him across the Cosmere, the complex and interconnected mythological cosmos of Sanderson’s fiction.

Nomad is also in the grips of a faith crisis, and given the complexity of Sanderson’s mythology, that means Nomad’s got a lot going on.

In his youth, Nomad had been a devotee of an all-creating god and the god of his home country on his home planet. Now he looks back on that time, sometimes with longing to believe again, sometimes wondering what he missed out on: after being offered a drink, Nomad “had a smile about the codes he used to follow, then downed it in a single shot.” He pities the people around him who don’t seem to realize that God is dead (but are actually a couple steps ahead of him in that regard).

But Nomad doesn’t just have issues with dead gods. For years, Nomad had been the companion and apprentice of Hoid, a trickster demigod who has come to acquire a conscience (think of the character arc from season two of Loki), but now Nomad knows only anger for a being who once abandoned him to his suffering. Nomad had once sought answers to the mysteries of the universe, but in their one encounter in Sunlit Man, Nomad tells Hoid what he has come to recognize: “There are too many questions. Seeking any kind of explanation is madness.”

Nomad does have a personal bond with Auxiliary, a spark of divine investiture and a being of the parallel Cognitive Realm who can form into weapons or tools for Nomad as needed and who maintains a constant dialog with him throughout the book. The powers provided by Auxiliary enable much of the action in Sunlit Man, while the dialog between Nomad and Auxiliary provides much of the commentary. But at some point in the past, Nomad’s clumsy misuse of a god-killing weapon of enormous power had destroyed all but a trace of Auxiliary.

The most significant part of Nomad’s faith crisis, however, concerns his former career as a Knight Radiant, one of the elite warriors whose powers to fly and fight and form armor around themselves are based on a series of oaths. At some point before Sunlit Man begins, Nomad had renounced his oaths and walked away from his order. Much of the moral debate in the book concerns Nomad’s longing for the lost sense of purpose his oaths had once given him, his doubt that the sense of purpose was authentic, occasional glimpses of his old powers as his actions align with his former oaths, and his refusal to be the man he once was.

Sanderson doesn’t justify or condemn Nomad’s decision. Nomad didn’t forsake his oaths so he could go sin, nor did he lose faith after discovering payroll irregularities among the Knights Radiant.

I just…did it. I can’t explain my mindset. I can’t justify it. I disavowed my oaths. It’s the choice I made. But I didn’t have a reason…. I look back on the choice I made, and it feels entirely unlike me. But I did it; I made the choice. In the heat of the moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s what I wanted to do or what – logically – I should have done. The consequences stand. This…this is who I am.

Auxiliary hopes that Nomad will return to his oaths, but merely repeating the words isn’t enough; making an oath has consequences, and so does renouncing it.

Sanderson has long been recognized as unusual among fantasy writers for his intricate magic systems, interconnected world building, and for taking religion seriously as a factor of human existence. I would add one more unusual and possibly unique feature: he sticks his landings. Instead of kicking the can down the road, Sanderson resolves the plot arcs in his stories by the time the reader hits the last page. While still setting up the next book in a series or alluding to things to come, Sanderson shows real skill at bringing the various threads of his stories to a satisfying resolution.

And so it is with Nomad’s faith crises. By the end of the book, he tells another character that fighting alongside her has “helped me remember which path I need to be on,” even if that doesn’t mean regaining his faith or re-embracing his former oaths.

But covenants have two parties, and Auxiliary too can make choices, including the choice to sacrifice his remaining life to save Nomad.

I will make you what you were. For a short time. I am the leftover strength of oaths sworn. I am the truth you once knew….

“You can’t do this, Aux. Please.”

You don’t get to decide. I know about consequences. I understand that you betrayed your oaths.

But here’s the thing… Here’s what you never have understood. I also swore to be better than I was. I became a Knight Radiant. I spoke the words.

And whatever you did, I never betrayed my oaths.

And so even though Nomad’s own mistakes had deeply wounded Auxiliary, even though Nomad doesn’t think he deserves it, a spark of divinity willingly dies to save him. I think Brandon Sanderson has a message there.

7 comments for “Faith crisis in Brandon Sanderson’s Sunlit Man

  1. I’ll be back. I read your first couple of paragraphs and realized I *have* to read this book, and don’t want spoilers. Knowing Brandon, this may take a while.

    Huge thank you for the rec.

  2. I didn’t know that you were a Sanderson fan too, Jonathan! I hadn’t thought of Aux as a Christ-figure when I read this book, but that is an interesting thought.

    As a side note, I’ve been musing on the “god beyond” that comes up as a concept in the Cosmere books. Would the equivalent in a Mormon theology be the theoretical first God in the lineage of gods?

  3. ReTx, it’s a book I’m happy to recommend. And fortunately it comes in under 400 pages, so it’s not quite the time commitment of the Stormlight Archive.

    Chad, a long time ago Brandon Sanderson did an extensive Q&A right here on this blog, and it impressed me enough to start reading his books.

    As for the “god beyond,” I don’t know – both narratively and theologically (our theology, I mean), there’s a lot more speculation than knowledge. For Sanderson’s mythology, I see the god beyond as a reflection that even in a cosmos full of gods, demigods and divine beings, faith is still the evidence of things not seen.

  4. I’m back! Great book, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have a lot to say. (Err… This is going to be super long…)

    ************************SPOILERS Part 1********************

    I really enjoyed the deconstruction of traditional faith, particularly from the perspective of a protag who has gone through a transition and is attempting to function/assist within a group of believers without either lying to them or attempting to attack their faith. As I’m someone that exists in that sphere, Sanderson did a great job of bringing out the topics that I find myself pondering. He also (somehow!) encapsulated what this *feels* like. The latter really touched me.

    I can see why in the passage you quoted, it’s Aux that appears to be a Christ-figure. This is definitely true and not particularly subtle. From a bigger-picture stance, it’s actually Nomad that becomes the Christ-figure, but in an unusual, unexpected way because the focus is on Christ the man of the New Testament and his influence on humanity rather than Christ-the-God/Savior. Several thoughts on this…

    First- Nomad is titled Sunlit Man by the Beaconites. Say Sunlit Man five times fast.
    Now say Son of Man five times fast.
    Verbally, they are very similar. And that feels intentional. As does the word ‘Man’ instead of calling Nomad the Sunlit God, which would actually make more sense from the perspective of the Beaconites.

    It’s also interesting that Rebeke changes her name to Sunlit One (instead of Sunlit Woman as suggested by one of the GG). Feels very symbolic of a final unity of the peoples at the end of the book. Names, especially the changing of them, are hugely significant to the theme in this book.

    Delving into theme then… The biggest theme of the book is about finding/becoming the ‘greatest power.’ This is pretty blatant in the Cinder King who defines power as the ability to control other people in all ways (Satan much?). “This is true power. The power over (other people’s) life and death.”

    It’s also evident in the Greater Good. Not the Greatest Good, but the Greater Good – Love that Title as it has such a bureaucratic, missed-the-mark feel. (Plus, a leadership structure where the oldest three women or the oldest three men, no mixed genders, rule the people… That’s not a metaphor for the First Presidency or anything…) Lots to discuss here, but I’ll refrain and stick to one topic.

    The discussions between Nomad and the Greater Good are some of the most interesting. Especially when the Greater Goods’ initial inclination is toward mild tyranny (coming from a place of ignorance) and Nomad has to talk them out of it.

  5. Part 2

    Then there are the Scadrians whose power comes from emotional distance and a perspective of science/logic/law. “We heard your plea. That’s all we’re required to by interplanetary law. The locals will need to see to their own troubles.” The Scadrians have a HUGE amount of power in this story *because* they can’t be bothered to get involved. At the same time, it’s a sad power.

    The best part though is Aux. Not just that he sacrifices himself as a Christ-figure, but the WHY of his decision to do so in that particular moment rather than any time prior (something, someone changed). This is the first example of Nomad’s Son-of-Man-influence. Aux says, “Zellion (Nomad). My friend. You’re worth saving.” Then Aux moves on to the plan to sacrifice himself so that Nomad can save the Beaconites.

    (Beaconites… Because that doesn’t sound just like Brighamites or anything… We LDS really love our -ites.)

    Aux’s sacrifice begins a bunch of other sacrifices that all happen not because of Aux, but because of Nomad’s influence.

    Rebeke sacrifices herself to the Cinder King in attempt to save her people because Nomad was an example of strength in words/sacrifice.

    The Beaconites give up fighting or running in order to stay with the weaker stragglers and children, to die with them (a sacrifice) when historically leaving the weak behind was part of their culture. Totally Nomad’s influence.

    Elegy sacrifices the last of her old personality/memories to take the warped part of Rebeke’s new heart so that Rebeke doesn’t become ‘scorched.’ Everything Elegy now is, she became from talking to / watching Nomad.

  6. Part 3

    These sacrifices (and more) are explained when Rebeke takes over leadership of the Beaconites. “I will not be another tyrant. I will be…a symbol. A beacon. Nothing more.”

    Right there. That’s it. The theme encapsulated.

    ‘A Beacon and *Nothing More*.’

    The greatest power, the greatest good, is to be a symbol, a beacon, rather than be the one who is the Savior (or the tyrant).

    Which is Christ-the-Man of the New Testament. Christ helps and heals and teaches and sets an example, all in relatively small ways. Christ’s greatest strength, greatest good is the beacon he was while alive and the beacon he became for the next 2000 after his death. Christ-the-man showed the rest of us how to live our lives filled with the greatest power/greatest good. (aka Grace)

    Boom. :)

    (Okay. I’m done now. I’m not going to do a huge amount of editing of this, so hopefully all my logic makes sense and I haven’t put you entirely to sleep. This was fun!)

  7. Thanks, ReTx. There’s a lot going on in the book, on a lot of levels. One thing your comments bring out is that there’s not just one “Christ figure” in the book – among team Beaconite, everyone is somehow, each one helping to save someone else so that person can save someone else in turn.

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