Welcome back to the Words of Radiance Reread on Tor.com! Last week, Carl finished off the last chapter in Part 2 and waved a sad farewell to a sinking ship. This week, we’ll wrap up Part 2 briefly, and then flail around in a confusion of Listener songs as we examine the epigraphs.
This reread will contain spoilers for The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. The index for this reread can be found here, and more Stormlight Archive goodies are indexed here. Click on through to join the discussion.
Part 2: Winds Approach
Epigraphs, from the Listener Songs
IN WHICH the Listener forms are explained, leaving us more confused than ever.
Quote of the Week:
The spren betrayed us, it’s often felt.
Our minds are too close to their realm
That gives us our forms, but more is then
Demanded by the smartest spren,
We can’t provide what the humans lend,
Though broth are we, their meat is men.
But it is not impossible to blend
Their Surges to ours in the end.
It has been promised and it can come.
Or do we understand the sum?
We question not if they can have us then,
But if we dare to have them again.
—From the Listener Song of Spren, 9th and 10th stanzas
We learned in the first interludes that there are different forms the Listeners can take, and that it depends on bonding with a particular type of spren. This song implies that there is—or was—a sort of competition between the Listeners and the human Surgebinders for the highest orders of spren. I have to say, though, that “their meat is men” gives me the shudders; it sounds much more sinister than anything I normally associate with spren bonds. On the other hand, many of these verses are full of references to the old gods, which the Listeners have been avoiding at great cost for thousands of years, so sinister isn’t exactly in short supply here.
Commentary: Wow. So Part 2, titled “Winds Approach,” has concluded with a bang. There was a lot of approaching up in here, y’all. Each arc has been pushing forward in its own way. The Kholins are moving (very slowly) forward with their two-pronged effort to unite the highprinces, either by persuasion or by winning all their Shards; so far, the latter seems to be the more successful of the two. Kaladin is moving—likewise slowly—toward becoming a true Radiant, hindered by his attitudes toward Amaram and Elhokar. He’s moving somewhat more rapidly toward using his skills, at least, but he’s clearly got a long way to go, as evidenced by the confrontation with Szeth. He only came out of that alive because Szeth was so wigged out by an apparent Surgebinding. Shallan is quite literally moving forward, as she nears the warcamps; she’s also made a lot of progress in leadership, and some (half of it unconscious) in Lightweaving. The forced recollection of her Blade, once again in defense of her life, brings her another giant step toward understanding who and what she is.
Now, about those epigraphs. I could almost wish we’d dealt with them chapter by chapter, because there is so much fragmented information in this set. But not really; now we can look at them as a group. Or several groups. Whatever. One thing I have to note before I dive in, though; there are several forms that seem to correspond to certain aspects of our budding Knights Radiant. I’m wondering about something, and I’d like y’all to consider and respond. It seems that the Listeners bond a spren with a single function, one of the “simpler” spren, so to speak, and it gives them a form and a skill set. Radiants bond (so far) a single spren, but a complex one, which allows them to manipulate two of the ten Surges. Is there an inherent parallel between the Radiants and the Listeners, with a sort of half-overlap? Like Artform can access one half of a Lightweaver’s skill set , and Nightform can use half of a Truthwatcher’s skill set? Or is it far more complicated than that?
Okay. Epigraphs. Here goes nuthin’.
This set of epigraphs contains stanzas from seven different Listener Songs: Listing, Winds, Secrets, Histories, Wars, Revision and Spren. In them, we get hints and bits about twelve forms, of which we’ve seen five in action and heard about two others from Eshonai’s interludes. These are but a small fraction of the number they once had, but the ones we’ve seen on the page so far had the advantage of being freely chosen by the individual rather than forced upon them by the gods. So far.
Positive: The verses regarding Mateform, Workform, Dullform, Scholarform, and Artform are the only ones which don’t refer to the gods directly; with the exception of Scholarform, they seem to be wholesome, useful, and benign forms. Mateform is (as near as I can tell) the only form which allows for procreation of the species, and is intended to bring joy; it requires empathy to achieve. Workform is just plain practical, and apparently this group took the song seriously when it said “Seek first this form.” Workform and Mateform seem to be the most needful for survival, and have kept their people going for a lot of centuries. Artform is arguably a form to be greatly desired, in order for the species to do more than merely survive; I found it highly intriguing that it needs creationspren, which keep popping up around Shallan these days. It seems Significant. Dullform, on the other hand, is arguably a form no one in their right mind should want, except as a means to avoid one of the dangerous ones; I hope it was merely a stepping stone from Slaveform to Workform.
Ambivalent: Warform and Nimbleform are both seen in the first set of Interludes; neither seem to be tied directly to the old gods, though both of their verses imply that the gods used them a lot in the old days. These two fall into a kind of ambivalent set; I’ll add Scholarform, Mediationform, and Nightform to this section. The Scholarform verse, while not mentioning the gods per se, does contain some warnings about ambition. At one point, Eshonai thought that Scholarform would have been helpful for her sister, but she had to make do with Nimbleform; the bits about “beware its ambitions” and “loss of innocence” make me wonder if Venli had succeeded in finding it after all. (I’m pretty confident that she found some of the more dangerous ones, anyway, besides the Stormform.) Mediationform was made for peace, but when used by the gods, it becomes a form of lies and desolation. Nightform seems to predict, to foresee—apparently those who once wore Nightform had seen the coming of the Everstorm, as well as “future life, a challenged champion, a strife even he must requite.” At first I thought Nightform should be in the “inherently dangerous” category, but I changed my mind. Clearly, it is somehow akin to a Truthwatcher.
Are these “ambivalent” forms more overtly dependent on the character of the bonded individual? There seem to be implications that these forms can be held without necessarily being subservient to the gods, but a weaker character is more vulnerable to having their form twisted and controlled by the gods. I’m guessing a little here; what do you think?
Negative: “Ambivalent” is, of course, by way of contrast to those forms which seem to be wholly subject to the will of the gods: Stormform, Decayform, and Smokeform. These have strong warnings about the associated powers and the end results of accepting these forms; they are to be avoided as being directly tied to the gods and facilitating their return to control the Listeners as a people. Lots of “beware!” and “fear it” and “deny it” going on. Frankly, it makes me dread what may happen to these people (those who survived, anyway) in the next few books.
All of this, of course, dances around the question: who, or what, are the Listeners’ old gods? While we have a lot of theories, we don’t have solid proof of anything. I’ve always felt that the Unmade were pretty good candidates, but the more I look at these Songs the less convinced I am. Primarily, that’s due to the fact that both of the Smokeform verses reference the Unmade directly, and not in a way that equates them to the gods also referenced in the same verses. That implies (I think) that the Listeners know something about both the gods and the Unmade, and that they are not the same thing. So now I’m back to the drawing board on that one. But if the Unmade aren’t the gods, they sure seem to have worked together. And, by the way, we still don’t know exactly what the scoop is with the Voidbringers:
’Tis said it was warm in the land far away
When Voidbringers entered our songs.
We brought them home to stay
And then those homes became their own,
It happened gradually.
And years ahead ’twil still be said ’tis how it has to be.
—From the Listener Song of Histories, 12th stanza
Are the Voidbringers the Unmade? The old gods? … Something else? We have theories, but we know too little.
There are a couple of other verses that need to be looked at.
They blame our people
For the loss of that land.
The city that once covered it
Did range the eastern strand.
The power made known in the tomes of our clan
Our gods were not who shattered these plains.
—From the Listener Song of Wars, 55th stanza
This one doesn’t tell us exactly who did shatter the plains, but it does seem to say that neither the Listeners nor their gods were responsible. That leaves the Heralds, the Radiants, and the three Shards, any of whom might have had the power to do the job.
And this one:
Our gods were born splinters of a soul,
Of one who seeks to take control,
Destroys all lands that he beholds, with spite.
They are his spren, his gift, his price.
But the nightforms speak of future life,
A challenged champion. A strife even he must requite.
—From the Listener Song of Secrets, ﬁnal stanza
One way or another, this seems to be saying that the Listeners’ gods are splinters of Odium. Perhaps they are somewhat equivalent to the Stormfather as he was prior to Honor’s shattering? I’m reaching, here… There are still so many questions. But hey—there’s loads of fodder for speculation!
Lastly, there are just a few notes I wanted to make about this set of epigraphs. One is a quote from the Reddit AMA Brandon did a few weeks ago:
Avatar_Young-Thug: I had a hard time “hearing” the Parshendi’s singing in my head while reading The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Are there any real world examples you drew from you could give me so we have a better idea of what they sound like to you?
BWS: It was tough, as I didn’t want to constrain their language in English to a certain rhythm, as I felt it would be too gimmicky on the page. I used Hindu chants in my head, though, so that might help.
Last week there were a few comments about the poetry; while Brandon didn’t address that directly, this and other comments I’ve seen lead me to believe that he deliberately chose to make it a bit clunky to our ears. Translated poetry IRL is never quite the same as the original; you have to find a balance between the sense and the flow, right? You can either go for the most accurate translation, gaining the most information but sacrificing the poetry, or you can go for the right poetic feel and sacrifice some of the accuracy. So it makes a certain amount of (in-world) sense that it wouldn’t flow quite right for us. (Okay, that, and Brandon freely admits that he’s just NOT great with poetry. But I like good in-world explanations better.)
To go along with that angle, there’s a line from Venli in one of the earlier Interludes: “When those songs were memorized, our people were mostly dullform.” She, at least, didn’t put too much stock in the accuracy of the songs—though I suspect she had more than one reason for that. She has a good point, though; songs that were passed down through generations of Mateform, Dullform, and Workform might have suffered some significant degradation, both in lyrical quality and in accuracy. Make of that what you will.
That’s it for now. I’d hoped to include the first Interlude this week, but it is not to be. Next week, cue up The Doors and Carl will take us to meet The Rider of Storms, and maybe Zahel too. We’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, join in on the comments with your observations and questions, and let’s hash these over, okay?
Alice Arneson is a long-time Tor.com commenter and Sanderson beta-reader. She enjoys literature, music, science, and math; she spends her time reading, writing, doing laundry, driving children to and from school, and homeschooling. She’s also going to be serving on staff at Sasquan/Worldcon this summer, and would dearly love to see you there.