Welcome back to the Stormlight Grimoire, my in-depth exploration of the many kinds of magic practiced or forgotten in Roshar, the land of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Since I laid down the basics in Part 1, I think we’re ready to move on to some of the specifics. Want to know how to run up walls, fling heavy objects across the room, and reverse the flow of gravity itself? Then you might want to be a Windrunner! Join me as I discuss them, Surgebinding, and the Knights Radiant.
Like all chapters of the Stormlight Grimoire, this article draws freely on information from throughout The Way of Kings, other books by Brandon Sanderson, and answers the author has given in interviews. Spoilers may follow.
Magic used to be a lot more common on Roshar. Surgebinders fought in every Desolation, and were well known in the time of Nohadon, author of the in-universe text The Way of Kings. When Dalinar meets Nohadon in a vision, the king had recently been disappointed by someone he had relied on: “Alakavish was a Surgebinder. He should have known better. And yet, the Nahel bond gave him no more wisdom than a regular man. Alas, not all spren are as discerning as honorspren.” We know from this that at least some Surgebinders have established Nahel bonds, some with honorspren, and some with spren that were less selective. Ominous!
While most knowledge of Surgebinding has been lost to mortals, it is preserved by some groups and in some cultures. Szeth, the mysterious and deadly Assassin in White, calls himself a Surgebinder, and it seems the Shin have maintained their knowledge of the past far better than others. This doesn’t surprise me; being sheltered from the constant highstorms is a good way to maintain a clearer historical record, as far as I’m concerned. There are also the Envisagers, a secret society of people who worshipped the Knights Radiant, mostly wiped out by Teft’s betrayal.
But what do Surgebinders do? Well, if you want the absolutely unhelpful answer, they bind surges. A “surge,” so far as I can tell, seems to be a force of nature or the universe, and most Surgebinders have access to exactly two, which they can control and alter by consuming and expending stormlight. Kaladin and Szeth both have access to the surges of gravitation and pressure.
Through a combination of fan dedication and careful study of Brandon Sanderson’s interviews on the subject, the community has determined that the end papers to the hardcover edition of The Way of Kings constitute a diagram of the ten surges and their linkages. The black symbols in the middle ring represent surges, which are linked to each other and also to the interior and exterior colored symbols. Pressure and gravitation are the two symbols in the upper right, the ones linked to the blue symbol that looks like a heron (other Rorschach interpretations may apply.)
While this suggests that Surges come in pairs of two, it’s not necessarily a definitive proof that all Surgebinders access two Surges, no more and no less. When Nohadon sought to impose order, honor, and discipline on the world, he divided Surgebinders into ten orders, and began to call them the Knights Radiant.
The Knights Radiant
It seems very likely to me that Nohadon arranged the orders of the Knights Radiant around the existing categories of Surgebinders. He took these mages, some naturally honorable and some not, and bound them to codes of conduct. They were charged with defending the human kingdoms and preparing for the Desolations. The resurrection of the orders of the Knights Radiant is likely to be a central arc in the Stormlight Archive, if not the indisputably most important arc, so it’s worth speculating about what those orders were, what the Knights could do, and what they were like as a social force.
We know from Dalinar’s visions that the Knights Radiant were capable of many things that warriors of the modern era cannot achieve. They were all Surgebinders of great skill. Many could fly, travel great distances near-instantaneously, and more. We’ve surely only scratched the surface of their capacities, and even those put Szeth, the most skilled Surgebinder we’ve seen so far, to shame. They also had great facility with Shardplate and Shardblades, before surrendering both when they turned their backs on the kingdoms they’d sworn to defend. We see Knights in Dalinar’s vision burning Stormlight and binding Surges even when wearing full-plate, which Szeth says is impossible for him, and the plate they wore glowed brightly and radiated Stormlight. I believe that something about them made the plate more permeable.
The thing that separated Knights Radiant from the Surgebinders who came before, I believe, were the Ideals they held to. The First Ideal, which Kaladin learns from Teft, is “Life before death, strength before weakness, journey before destination.” It seems that every order held to these words, and also upheld a second ideal. Kaladin, an incipient Windrunner, holds to what he and Sylphrena call the Second Ideal: “I will defend those who cannot defend themselves.”
It seems like every order has the First Ideal, a kind of philosophical core, and then a second ideal that acts as a focused application of those values. And while it seems weird to number the ideals, and it must suck to be whatever order of Knights is stuck with the 11th ideal, if any ideal is going to be Second, I’m sure it would be the Windrunners’. In the Ars Arcanum, at the back of The Way of Kings, there are a number of delicious hints, starting with a table of “The Ten Essences and their Historical Associations.” I strongly suspect that Jes, the first essence, was associated with the Windrunners, since it is associated with the color blue from Sapphires, its Essence was “Zephyr,” and its primary/secondary divine attributes were “Protecting/Leading.” So, it makes sense they’d get the Second Ideal.
Learning and speaking these words has been shown to have real, magical importance and efficacy. Kaladin unlocked a massive surge of power when he spoke the Second Ideal of the Knights Radiant. I don’t yet know why or how that works! I look forward to your theories.
“What would these men say if they knew that the man who emptied their chamberpot was a Shardbearer and a Surgebinder? A Windrunner, like the Radiants of old?” –Szeth, Assassin in White, Emptier of Chamberpots
“This is pointless. I need to find out how to get rid of this light, not study it.”
“And why,” Syl repeated, “must you get rid of it? Kaladin, you’ve heard the stories. Men who walked on walls, men who bound storms to them. Windrunners.”
The prologue to The Way of Kings features an extended action sequence showcasing Szeth’s facilities with Lashings. He uses his Surgebinding to run along walls, throw tables across rooms, and destroy wooden platforms, fighting harder and moving faster than any human could unassisted. He shows how helpless normal people are to combat a trained warrior who has control over the Surges of Pressure and Gravitation. And we have every reason to believe that, eventually, Kaladin will outstrip Szeth in power and skill. Windrunners: they’re awesome.
Since we have two viewpoint characters who are either Windrunners or possess Windrunner powersets, we know a lot more about this order of the Knights Radiant than any other. Let me quickly list what we currently know with decent certainty:
- They hold to the Second Ideal: “I will protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
- They ingest Stormlight by inhaling.
- They can bond with honorspren.
- They have access to the Surges of Pressure and Gravitation.
- They have a close thematic affinity with the wind.
- Their powers take the form of the Three Lashings.
Now, to explain the Lashings. I’ll be making heavy use of the Ars Arcanum in this section, since it’s generally folly to ignore prior scholarship.
Basic Lashing: Gravitational Change
The Basic Lashing allows a Windrunner to change the gravitational pull on an object or being. Szeth commonly uses this technique to lash himself sideways, allowing him to run on walls, or upwards in various degrees, making himself much lighter or totally weightless. It’s possible to layer Basic Lashings to pull objects in a direction with several times normal gravity, crushing an object under its own weight or sending it flying wildly across a room. It’s a simple power, in that it does a single, simple thing, but it’s also incredibly versatile.
The Ars Arcanum describes the mechanism of a Basic Lashing in a very peculiar and interesting way. “A Basic Lashing involved revoking a being’s or object’s spiritual gravitational bond to the planet below, instead temporarily linking that being or object to a different object or direction.” Whoa now. Things have SPIRIT BONDS to the gravity planet? What the heck? Now that we know that THAT’S a real thing, we can be pretty sure that Stormlight allows Surgebinders to simultaneously alter the Physical and Spiritual Realms, which is a pretty big deal.
Full Lashing: Binding Objects Together
The Full Lashing causes two objects to adhere to each other, sticking together as if they are one object until the Stormlight connecting them runs out. Windrunners create Full Lashings by infusing an object with Stormlight. Once the object is infused, a second object can be placed on it, and the two objects will bond. While the Basic Lashing uses Gravity, the author of the Ars Arcanum speculates that Full Lashing’s use Pressure instead.
Szeth uses Full Lashings in a variety of ways. When hunting Gavilar, he Lashed a door to its doorframe to keep it closed. Later he laid down a Full Lashing across a stretch of hallway, binding the feet of his pursuers to the ground. Kaladin uses Full Lashings less frequently, but he did at one point Lash a collection of secret supplies to the underside of a bridge to keep them safe for later.
Reverse Lashing: Giving an Object Gravitational Pull
The final type of Lashing turns an object into a center of gravitation. Objects that come close enough to an object that has been Reverse Lashed will be pulled towards it as if it were down. According to the author of the Ars Arcanum, Reverse Lashings require the least amount of Stormlight of any Lashing. The Reverse Lashing is the power Kaladin uses most instinctually. His facility with Reverse Lashings is a huge part of his ongoing reputation as a blessed, unkillable soldier: while fighting on the battlefield or running bridges, he would create Reverse Lashes on his shield or bridge, attracting incoming arrows and keeping him safe from harm.
It’s possible that Reverse Lashings are just a variation of Basic Lashings. The author of the Ars Arcanum suspects as much. Since he characterizes Basic Lashings as causing objects or beings to be drawn towards a different object or direction, Reverse Lashings might be a half-version of that. I think this is more probably because, like Basic Lashings, Reverse Lashings seem to rely only on Gravitation.
What I don’t understand, and what I suspect will be the key to the next evolution of these powers, is why there isn’t a basic technique that uses both Gravitation and Pressure for the same effect. Basic and Reverse Lashings use Gravitation, and Full Lashings use Pressure, but nothing uses both. Dalinar’s vision show us Windrunners who are capable of essentially flying. Could this require both Surges? I look forward to finding out.
I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Stormlight Grimoire. In my next article, I plan to lay out a proposed guide to becoming a Windrunner, step by step. In the meantime, I look forward to reading your comments.