Another week has come and gone, and with it another section of The Way of Kings. This week the reread arrives at Part Three: Dying, which brings Shallan back into focus, with Dalinar disappearing for a few hundred more pages. In some ways that means a return to civilization, trading Dalinar’s command tents and fevered dreams for Shallan’s comfortable libraries and uncomfortable moral dilemmas. Did you miss Shallan, fellow rereaders?
Chapter 29, “Errorgance,” introduces the symbolheads, fleshes out Shallan’s criminal motivations, and opens a conversation about Jasnah’s atheism. It’s so brimming with secrets and schemes, so devoted to developing characters and ideas, that I feel obligated to devote an entire article to it.
Chapter 29: Errorgance
Point of View: Shallan
What Happens: Shallan is in the Palanaeum, checking in with her family by spanreed. She reports that she’s in Jasnah’s good graces, but that it will be difficult to get a hold of the Soulcaster. Jasnah guards the Soulcaster carefully, wearing it all day and locking it up at night, but if Shallan can become her bathing attendant she might find an opportunity to steal the fabrial. Privately, though, Shallan is growing distraught over the plan. She has been loving her time as Jasnah’s ward, luxuriating in the unfolding world of scholarship, and may now have to repay Jasnah’s kindness with treachery.
Back in Jah Keved, the family has had its own difficulties. The last quarries have been running out, and people expect Shallan’s secretly deceased father to have an opinion on the succession of the increasingly-ill highprince. They figure that Shallan has a few months to retrieve the Soulcaster, at best. Shallan asks whether it might not be better to seek Jasnah’s help, but her brothers can’t see the princess coming to the aid of “an unknown and disliked Veden house,” or keeping their secrets.
Nan Balat sends Shallan’s other brothers away, and tells her that their servant Luesh, the man who knew how to use the Soulcaster, has died in his sleep. After he died, men showed up claiming to know their father, and implying knowledge of the Soulcaster as well. They want the Soulcaster back. Nan Balat thinks these may be the men responsible for the mysterious maps and letters they found in their father’s possession, men with sinister plans to change the kingdom. He thinks they wanted their father to make a bid for the succession.
Now they have to get the Soulcaster back, but even if they do, they won’t get to use it to continue creating wealth and closing their father’s debts. A noose is closing around them. Nan Balat has his scribe draw a symbol from a pendant Luesh wore, a symbol that was also tattooed on one of the sinister men’s hand.
Their conversation concluded, Shallan crumples up the paper and disposes of it, then goes back to her studies under Jasnah. The scholar has her studying the history of the Alethi monarchy, which is beginning to bore Shallan to tears. Just as she mutters about how she’s “really coming to hate the Alethi monarchy,” Jasnah sweeps into Shallan’s alcove. Jasnah and Shallan discuss the rhetorical mode being employed in the scholarship Shallan has been reading. The scholars subscribe to the Assuredness Movement, which relies on the literary device of intentionally overstating a case in argumentation. Shallan coins the phrase “errorgant” to describe these arguments, which she defines as being “twice as certain as someone who is merely arrogant…while possessing only one-tenth the requisite facts.”
The women go back and forth on the nature and value of certainty and doubt in scholarship, before moving on to the proper applications of Shallan’s hyper-active quipping. Jasnah values Shallan’s cleverness, but thinks it worse than useless when used clumsily or prematurely. She bemoans how Shallan was punished for making inappropriate quips. Putting her in the corner to sit in silence was not only misguided, it was incompetent, as Jasnah is convinced this only gave her more opportunities to think up retorts, and trained her to try to make quips so clever her tutors wouldn’t catch and punish them.
Finally, Jasnah asks Shallan if she’s made any conclusions about the assassination of Gavilar. Shallan is hesitant to offer an opinion, feeling that to be inappropriate from one so young and inexpert, but Jasnah insists, and says that scholarship is worthless when the knowledge gained through research is not put into practice. This sinks in, although Shallan still doesn’t have an opinion to offer. She thinks again how smart Jasnah is, and how much she is learning as her ward. She wonders what Jasnah is looking for in her studies. Just as her stomach grumbles and her thoughts begin to turn to lunch and the freedom to sketch, king Taravangian appears behind her.
Taravangian asks he if can join them for lunch, and Jasnah acquiesces. As they eat, Shallan considers the King’s reputation as less than brilliant, despite how he is beloved by his people. The king, however, has come with questions. He wants to know how Jasnah came by her Soulcaster, and how she keeps it from the devotaries, but Jasnah refuses to answer him. He’s also come to ask Shallan to draw a portrait of him, which she happily agrees to.
As she draws, Taravangian engages Jasnah on the subject of her atheism. He probes her lack of faith, but his arguments for the existence of the Almighty are all effortlessly turned aside. Jasnah’s rhetoric is superior, and Shallan begins to feel hollow inside as she watches her mentor defeat a man she quietly admires as he tries to defend his faith. Taravangian admits that Jasnah makes her points “quite effectively,” but that he doesn’t accept them. Jasnah calmly responds that she does not seek to convert him, and asks Shallan if she’s finished with her drawing.
As Shallan looks at her completed portrait, she realizes that she has unconsciously done something inexplicable.
She had drawn something standing in the doorway behind the king. Two tall and willowy creatures with cloaks that split down the front and hung at the sides too stiffly, as if they were made of glass. Above the stiff, high collars, where the creatures’ heads should be, each had a large, floating symbol of twisted design full of impossible angles and geometries.
Shallan looks up sharply, confirms that the hallway is empty, then grabs the sheet and crumples it, apologizing to Taravangian for her sloppy work. Taravangian asks to at least see it, but she refuses in a panic, promising to make him another portrait before the end of the day. Jasnah backs her up, and Taravangian agrees, then leaves.
After his departure, Jasnah comments briefly on how uncharacteristic it is of Shallan to make such a mistake, before moving on to the inappropriate quip Shallan stifled just in time. She urges Shallan to find ways to express her cleverness in appropriate ways.
Shallan and Jasnah discuss Taravangian’s wit. To Shallan’s surprise, Jasnah fiercely defends the king, calling him a wonderful man, who should be emulated for his peace-seeking ways and charitable works instead of scorned. Shallan asks if Jasnah believed everything she said about the Almighty, and Jasnah confirms, but admits she somewhat overstated her position. She keeps her mind open on the topic, although her convictions grow firmer with each conversation like the one she just had. Shallan protests that the conversation wasn’t entirely fair, due to the king’s limited capacity. She makes an argument for religion based on her heartfelt feelings on the matter, and though Jasnah again rejects these arguments, she admits that Shallan’s rhetoric is improving, and that she would yet make a fine scholar.
Shallan swells with pride, before remembering that she is not going to be a scholar. The most she can hope for is to become a successful thief.
Quote of the Chapter:
“Just because I do not accept the teachings of the devotaries does not mean I’ve discarded a belief in right and wrong.”
“But the Almighty determines what is right!”
“Must someone, some unseen thing, declare what is right for it to be right? I believe that my own morality—which answers only to my heart—is more sure and true than the morality of those who do right only because they fear retribution.”
“But that is the soul of law,” the king said, sounding confused. “If there is no punishment, there can be only chaos.”
“If there were no law, some men would do as they wish, yes,” Jasnah said. “But isn’t it remarkable that, given the chance for personal gain at the cost of others, so many people choose what is right?”
“Because they fear the Almighty.”
“No,” Jasnah said. “I think something innate in us understands that seeking the good of society is usually best for the individual as well. Humankind is noble, when we give it the chance to be. That nobility is something that exists independent of any god’s decree.”
I could go on, really I could, but my space here is limited. Suffice it so say that a committed atheist is not a common thing in secondary world fantasy with as high a magic level as Brandon Sanderson prefers. Seeing Jasnah’s arguments here is refreshing, but it’s also fascinating for a variety of reasons. First is the basic fact that we, as readers, are pretty sure she’s mostly wrong. God-like beings definitely exist in Sanderson’s universe, and we have every reason to believe that something that could be called the Almighty once existed. On the other hand, if the Almighty existed, he’s definitely dead now, and even when he was alive it seems like he made all kinds of bad decisions.
I don’t believe that Roshar is currently governed by an omnipotent being that controls fate and makes moral decrees that men and women must follow. I believe that Vorinism is wrong on most of its points. So, I agree in Jasnah. But there is or was a god, and one who cared about how humans acted. Regardless of how accurate her position is, I admire the courage and commitment it takes to be a lone atheist in a community of scholars, all the rest of whom ascribe to the same faith.
Commentary: So much is happening in this chapter! First is the secret society of the three triangles, who are menacing Shallan’s poor, helpless family of misadjusted criminals. When this society gets a name later in the book, we will come to know them as the Ghostbloods, but for now they’re just another aspect of a dizzyingly precarious political situation threatening to ruin Shallan’s life. Her family’s problems have so many different angles, almost none of which Shallan has the knowledge or capacity to do anything about, and that’s even before we get into her guilt.
Things would probably be easier for Shallan if the person she was trying to rob didn’t merit so much respect, but that’s totally not happening. Jasnah is brilliant, which Shallan can’t help but realize, and also sees potential for greatness in her young ward, which Shallan could never have expected. Jasnah’s praise is rare and hard-won, so it’s no surprise that Shallan is growing to crave it. When Jasnah compliments her rhetoric at the end of their argument of religion, Shallan practically glows, despite just having watched her mentor disbelieve and attempt to disprove her deeply-held convcitions.
I really like Taravangian. He dodders a bit, sure, but he really is trying to do good in the world. I wonder why he seems so gloomy and self-hating sometimes, though. Ah well, surely it will all turn out for the best.
That was foreshadowing.
Sanderson drops a number of off-handed references to how difficult it was to grow up in the Davar household, and how much that’s screwed up Shallan and her siblings. He builds this up slowly, and it pays off well. It also colors how I read every comment on Shallan’s “natural timidity,” or every reflection she makes about how much freer she feels now that she’s out of her childhood home. That being said, as much as I’m glad that Shallan is opening up in her newfound freedom, her quips remain equal parts endearing and irritating. Errorgance is not the kind of portmanteau that makes me exult in the boundless possibilities of language, and it gets a lot of attention here. After all, it’s the title of the chapter. But hey, I also wrote a number of thesis papers on cheesy topics, and occasionally indulged in a truly ill-advised turn of phrase, so who am I to judge?
Okay, I’ve waited long enough. Let’s talk about the symbolheads. These are in the top three or so for weirdest spren ever, so the easy money is on me having all kinds of crackpot theories. Symbolhead is my personal favored terminology, by the way, so feel free to call them something else. I’ve heard “truthspren” and “secretspren” bandied about as well, and both have a certain validity.
Why can Shallan see these things? I think this question brings us closer to understanding how her “Memories” work. She has a weirdly specific kind of photographic memory, which is in fact more accurate to that term than normal. She can take a mental picture of something and then reproduce it unerringly, but once she has a Memory down on paper, it fades in her mind. Once she draws something she has to take another Memory before she can draw it again. It’s through these Memories that she starts to see the symbolheads. I think that when she records a Memory she captures something essential about her subject, makes a true recording of what she’s seen, and in doing so looks in on a world that is normally beyond her perception.
Spren are able to hide from people they don’t want seeing them, even when they’re around, so it makes sense for these things to be invisible to almost everybody. I’d argue that their appearances in Shallan’s drawings point to them being present even when no one can see them, though.
So, why does she start to see them now? Well, let’s assume that they were often there before. They might have been in plenty of Shallan’s other Memories, but she never drew one. There’s something different about this drawing, though; Shallan wasn’t paying attention to her work as she drew. She was focusing entirely on Taravangian’s argument with Jasnah. I think that, because she wasn’t paying attention, her common sense wasn’t able to filter out the impossible things that were hiding from her. If the symbolheads are relying on human disinclination to see what can’t possibly be there, that explains why Shallan’s automatic and unthinking recreation of her memories would still show them.
I have so much more to say about these things, but that will have to wait for them to be more fully revealed later in the book. For now, I’m just going to luxuriate in how nice it is to be back in the warm, cozy Palanaeum, instead of the harsh Shattered Plains. This lovely reprieve should last at least until the next reread article. But let’s just all relax and curl up, surrounded by a nearly infinite number of books. Aaaaaah.