Sometimes money is power, but sometimes power is money—especially in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. When we look at the various currency systems within Sanderson’s worlds, we find that he often inextricably fuses each economy to its local magic system. It makes sense, of course, from a magical perspective: if Apple makes money off of iPhones and other devices, why shouldn’t Garrick Ollivander profit from his abilities as the greatest wandmaker in the wizarding world? If a pawnshop or a bank in Southern Illinois uses the American legal system to gouge poor families with high-interest loans, why shouldn’t Devi do the same to Kvothe to gain access to arcane knowledge?
But Sanderson takes it a step further: starting with the assumption that money is power, he retroactively anticipates the corollary: that power is money. Anyone remotely familiar with American politics expects this. We seldom expect it, however, with magic.
On Roshar, they trade in a representative currency named “spheres” that hold stormlight. Each sphere is basically a glass marble encompassing a gemstone (often flat on the side so when you pull out money to pay at the checkout counter, it keeps you from losing your marbles). The gemstones themselves are valued by type (in appreciating order: diamond, garnet, ruby, sapphire, emerald) and by karat (in depreciating order: broams, marks, and the little bitty chips). That makes an emerald broam worth the most and a diamond chip worth the least.
They’re worth the same with or without the light, but the light determines authenticity, therefore if you don’t want to leave your dragon hoard out in the middle of a thunderstorm in order for the light of heaven to go back into them, them you’re going to have to pay a fee to exchange your “dun” spheres for “infused” spheres. Therefore there’s an implied value to the ones with power.
Power that surgebinders draw on in order to do great and terrible magics.
And therefore some of the wealthiest people in the story (the Kholins) are also the most powerful.
Then on Scadrial, the number one thing Mistings and Mistborn need is precious metals to ingest and burn in their bodies and, if they can shoot or pull a metal, coins to shoot. Some of the most powerful people on that planet literally burn money while others kill people with money. Money is literally power: the power of life or death. Money is ammo.
On Nalthis, everyone’s born with one breath which can be willingly transferred or given away. The breath is basically the soul of the person that endows them with a sort of sixth sense to see things other than color on the wave spectrum including the harmonics of color. Some people have thousands of breaths which is, essentially, thousands of souls. People hoard them, blackmail for them, and offer up human sacrifices so that the most powerful can have the souls of the poor.
The funny thing is that bad things tend to happen to magic hoarders. The Lord Ruler. Several foes of Waxillium. Vahr (although his aims were more sympathetic). It didn’t end well for them because it never ends well for hoarders and that includes the most notorious hoarders of all—the most magical creatures imaginable—dragons. We all, like the boy who almost deserved being called Eustace Scrub, have slept on the hoard of our power and our money with greedy, dragonish thoughts in our hearts until we become dragons ourselves.
But Tolkien taught us as snow comes after fire, so dragons have their endings.
Sure, power is money in Sanderson and every character has this inclination to hoard both magic and money like the European dragons of old. But what’s interesting is that Sanderson never stops at the power is money idea. In every story you have people giving up color, giving up metal, extinguishing their powers, gifting stormlight to heal. Over and over and over again, the most powerful people in the stories are the ones who give away their magic. They empty themselves of power in order that others might live and thrive, which as a consequence makes them not only often blind or sick or exposed or dead, but it actually makes them poor. Economically poor in worlds that thrive off of this consistent power-is-money dynamic.
It’s the Highprince who, knowing that the value of a human life is beyond measure, trades his priceless Shardblade for the freedom of bridgemen who fought for them (and calls it a bargain), recognizing the value, honor, and loyalty of men who had been treated as slaves
It’s the smiling man who dedicates all of his energy, wealth, and even his life to show that tyrants must be challenged and Steel Inquisitors can be killed, giving up everything, but sparking a revolution for the poor and oppressed.
It’s the Returned god who gives up thousands and thousands of Biochromatic breaths to heal another, higher god’s impotence, healing him and preventing a war. Becoming weak, and giving up his life to save thousands of others’ lives.
It’s the girl-turned-god who literally empties her entire being, taking on (and giving up) the awesome power of Preservation in order to destroy Ruin and sacrificing her life in the process to save the world and its people.
Again and again. I would love to see your examples in the comments—where else does this trope show up in Sanderson’s writing?
But here’s my larger point for us, today, here and now: I’ve been working on a documentary about wealth distribution IRL—it’s still in the early stages, but my colleague and I have interviewed several Alaska Natives and Native Americans who keep teaching us more and more about the native idea of potlatch: of two chiefs challenging one another to a duel to the gift. That is to say, the chief who gives away the most and encourages the most generosity in his tribe wins the duel. Not the guy who brags about his billions. Not the guy who buys his fourth yacht. The guy who gives the highest percentage of his wealth. And mind you, this is before people leveraged their power in foundations and tax-deductible gifts—they literally just gave it all away to the poor. It’s curious. And it seems very much in keeping with this idea that we encounter again and again in Sanderson’s work—that when we empty ourselves to the point of vulnerability, so that we can truly sympathize and stand in solidarity with the poor and the least of these, then we are strong.
It’s a particularly fitting message to consider this time of year, with the holidays and a brand new year almost upon us –perhaps this year we should all consider giving just enough that it hurts a little, enough that it stretches you beyond your comfort and status quo, because the status quo of many of our global neighbors is going to bed hungry and sick. There’s nothing more magical than giving away a stampede of money in one giant nerd herd (not to be confused with a nerf herd). Because in our world, as in Sanderson’s cosmere, ‘tis more magical to give than receive.
Lancelot Schaubert has written hundreds of stories, articles, and poems for markets like The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest, and The World Series Edition of Poker Pro. The Missouri Tourism Board also commissioned him to reinvent the photonovel through The Joplin Undercurrent with Mark Neuenschwander. You can go to his website to get a free ebook on how mythology gave his life bliss and meaning, to read his offensively verbose Kingkiller reread, to sit at the feet of nonconformists who changed their sector of society, or to have him read you a bedtime story. If you’d like to ask him about the time the world’s largest hippo shat all over his grandma, email [email protected]