Hello out there, all you fans of The Stormlight Archive! Welcome to a new series of articles here on Tor! As we eagerly anticipate the release of the fourth book, Rhythm of War, it seems a good time for a brief summary of what we know about various aspects of this epic series. This week, we begin with an overview of the history, so far as we know it, of the planet Roshar and its inhabitants.
Upcoming topics will include the Heralds, the Unmade, the Knights Radiant, and so on. (Hopefully, the rest won’t be quite as lengthy as this one!) My intent is to be careful about what we actually know, but also to include some of my personal speculations—carefully identified—in case you care to speculate with me. (Also, if you can actually disprove my speculations, please comment and we’ll discuss it!)
Warning: This series will contain spoilers for all of The Stormlight Archive published so far, and will occasionally draw on Words of Brandon for supporting information. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for other series, or to mark them if they really need to be included. I make no promises about the comment section; however, I’d request that if you want to include spoilers in a comment, please try to white-text them or at least tag them as spoilers so people can skip your comment.
Ahem. History class is about to begin. Settle down and pay attention, now. There will be a quiz.
The Creation of Roshar
Roshar was created, personally and intentionally, by Adonalsium, prior to the Shattering. We currently have no knowledge of whether this same is true of most other planets, though we know at least one he didn’t create. Mistborn Spoiler (highlight to read): Scadrial—and its inhabitant species—was created by the Shards Ruin and Preservation.
The Planet: The main landmass, where the primary action of the series (so far) takes place, is a single super-continent. Its shape is based on a specific Julia set, which I’m not nearly mathematician enough to explain. You’ll have to ask Google about that; I’m just an engineer. We don’t know whether Adonalsium was having fun with maths and did that on purpose, or if it was just Sanderson looking for a cool shape. This continent and its attendant islands are the only significant land on the planet; though it’s possible there is something else out there, there isn’t another continent.
Flora and Fauna: Along with the planet itself, Adonalsium formed a variety of flora and fauna suitable to the living conditions. Most of the flora have some ability to protect themselves from the highstorms which sweep the land at regular intervals. Some pull into holes in the ground, some have strong trunks or branches but pull their leaves inside, some pull into a firmly-anchored shell called a rockbud, and some form tangles of growth sufficient to hold together. The native fauna likewise are well adapted to survive the storms, mostly with strong exoskeletons which protect them from objects carried by the stormwinds. These generally seem to have gemhearts, giving them the ability to absorb Stormlight and in some cases form some level of bond with spren.
Sapient Species: One sapient species is clearly native to the planet. The people known as the singers, later called parsh by the humans, have gemhearts which allow them to take on different forms when activated by different kinds of spren. Many of the forms include some kind of carapace exoskeleton, as well as differing strength, skills, and even mentality.
Two more sapient species took up residence on the island of Aimia, though we have no knowledge yet as to whether they are native to the planet, or emigrated from some other place in the Cosmere. If the latter, we also have no knowledge where they originated or when they arrived. Personally, I’m cautiously of the opinion that they came from somewhere else, but it’s a very loosely-held opinion.
The System: In addition to the primary planet, the Rosharan system contains ten gas giants in the outer reaches, two other planets in the habitable zone, and three moons orbiting the planet Roshar. At some unknown point, humans arrived on the planet Ashyn, the one nearest the sun.
The Arrival of Shards
Some time after Roshar was created, Adonalsium was Shattered—which is a whole story I’m not going to get into here. (Drew McCaffrey will be writing a Cosmere 201 kind of article for you sometime in the near future; maybe he’ll go into it a bit.) Suffice it to say that after the Shattering, the two Shards known as Honor and Cultivation made Roshar their home. It’s not known at this time whether they claimed the entire system, or only the one planet. They made themselves known to the singers, and became their gods, adopting the extant spren Stormfather and Nightwatcher as their representatives. The Vessel of the Shard Honor was a man named Tanavast; we don’t yet know the name of Cultivation’s Vessel. We do know that they were romantically involved. (We also speculate, some of us, that Cultivation’s Vessel is a dragon; in the Cosmere, they’re able to shape-shift.)
At some later point, not yet known to us, a third Shard called Odium arrived in the system. He seems to have laid claim to the planet Braize, which Sanderson has stated is “nine-centric” as opposed to the rest of the system, which is all “ten-centric.”
Speculation: (Some of this is really shifty stuff. I have little to no evidence, okay?) There are good indications that each Shard has a number of particular significance to itself. It appears that ten is Honor’s significant number, and that nine belongs to Odium and its Vessel Rayse, also a human male. (My personal theory is that Cultivation’s number is three, but that’s not terribly relevant here.) I’ve recently developed a set of theories, which may all hang together or may turn out be true in some pieces and false in others. I’ll just go with the extreme version that hangs them all together, here, and include my ideas in the relevant sections.
According to the first part of my theory, the entire system was claimed by Honor & Cultivation, with its ten gas giants and three terrestrial planets (one of which has, notably, three moons). They brought a contingent of humans with them, but since Roshar was already inhabited by the singers, they placed the humans on Ashyn, an eminently habitable planet and more conducive to human life than Roshar. I’m not guessing much about Cultivation, but by my theory, Honor was known to the humans of Ashyn as the Almighty.
At some later point, having destroyed the Shards Ambition, Devotion, and Dominion, Odium came to the Rosharan system intending to destroy Honor and Cultivation. He took up residence on the virtually uninhabitable Braize, making it into his home and twisting its magic (assuming there is inherent magic) to his nine-centric theme.
More speculation upcoming, as the history progresses…
Humans Come to Roshar
Although we don’t know for sure when, how, or whence humans arrived on Ashyn, they were apparently well settled there long, long ago. It’s possible that Adonalsium placed the humans on Ashyn at the same time he populated Roshar; it’s also possible that they arrived independently by whatever means humans normally spread throughout the Cosmere from their origin on Yolen. (But I have A Theory!) In any case, the people of Ashyn learned to manipulate the basic forces by which the world operates, known as Surgebinding, and things got out of hand. They ended up damaging their planet to the point that it was nearly uninhabitable, and fled to Roshar by means we do not yet know. (There sure is a lot we don’t know, isn’t there?)
Arriving on Roshar with what plants and animals they were able to bring along, they initially settled in what is now known as Shinovar, on the far western edge of the continent. Sheltered from the highstorms by mountains, and by virtue of the storms weakening as they cross the entire planet, this was an eminently suitable place for them—or was made so by the Shards—with a biome very similar to Ashyn. The flora and fauna they brought with them, while they may not be exactly the same as the Earth varieties we know, are close enough: horses, pigs, various birds (a.k.a. chickens), mink, rats (hopefully by accident!), wheat, grapes, grass that doesn’t run away… that’s not all of them, but you get the idea. All these, along with the humans, found their new homeland much to their liking.
Initially, the singers and the humans seem to have gotten along reasonably well. For one thing, we know that there are two people groups—the Herdazians and the Horneaters—whose ancestors are from both species. (We don’t know exactly where in history this blending happened, but “early” seems reasonable.) We also know that Hoid was on the planet in these early days, mingling with the singers and getting along well with them, though he was clearly human. (See the Epilogue to Oathbringer.) Clearly, the two peoples were not completely separated, as there was plenty of socialization. Hoid recalls dancing with a singer who is now one of the Fused; how many of the Heralds did so as well?
More Speculation: (Remember, this is concocted out of thin air and the frailest of logical connections!) To continue from the previous section, my theory is that from Braize, Odium was able to reach out and affect the humans on Ashyn, influencing their nature and magnifying their lust for power. Eventually, they went too far in their striving, and damaged their planet to the point that it could no longer sustain them.
Despite the influence of Odium (or perhaps unaware of it) Honor & Cultivation decided to move their humans to Roshar. (This fits better than anything I’ve heard yet about the mythos of the Voidbringers pushing the humans out of the Tranquiline Halls: the humans who accepted and used Odium’s power, a.k.a. the Void, were the ones who caused the destruction and made it impossible for humans to live there.) The Shards prepared Shinovar as a homeland for the humans, where they and their animals could prosper. Unfortunately for Roshar, Odium slipped in too—either by sneaking in some of his own Investiture in whatever process Honor used for the transfer, or by means of individuals who held some of his power in secret.
And there’s more to come!
The Rise of Conflict
While the singers initially welcomed the humans in accordance with the instruction of their gods, this happy concord didn’t last very long. We don’t know the exact timeline, but it couldn’t have been more than a few decades before things went pear-shaped in a big way. (Word of Brandon tells us that the humans who later became Heralds, with the possible exception of Jezrien’s daughter Shalash, were born on Ashyn and were part of the migration to Roshar. That seems to indicate that it was likely somewhere between one and four decades from the arrival of humans to the escalation of conflict.) What caused the initial conflict is unknown. It may be that some humans got too greedy, or some singers disliked the changes, or even that some of them had been displaced when Shinovar was adjusted to suit the humans.
The Fused: In any case, there was discord. Some of the singers, believing that Honor had betrayed them by bringing and assisting the humans, turned to Odium for aid. He granted them the power to become “Fused”—both the ability to Surgebind, and to become Cognitive Shadows upon their death, able to take over another body at will. Thus they truly became Void-bringers, as they brought Odium’s Investiture to bear in the conflict. (It is possible, of course, that some of the humans had also been using Odium’s Investiture; we have no way of knowing that part.)
The Heralds: To counter this new threat, ten humans—five men and five women—went to Honor with a proposal, which he accepted. Thus was born the Oathpact, intended to end the war completely. These Heralds were given swords which granted paired Surgebinding abilities (“and more” is hinted, though not clarified) and the ability to also become Cognitive Shadows when they died. Moreover, under the new pact, the Heralds went to Braize when they died and bound the Fused there by their unanimous accord. Unfortunately, despite their oath to bind the Fused, the Heralds were only human, and even as Cognitive Shadows they were susceptible to torture.
Thus began the cycle of what came to be known as Desolations. Realizing that the humans could be made to break their oath under sufficient duress, the Fused searched out the Heralds on Braize and tortured them until one finally agreed to let them pass. When this happened, the Heralds all returned to Roshar together… and so did the Fused. The Heralds and the Fused each rallied their people for war: the Fused, determined to destroy the human invaders, and the Heralds, determined to survive on this planet they’d come to. The first time this happened, it must have been quite a shock to both the singers and the humans; it had been hundreds of years since the Fused and the Heralds left, and they had probably settled into some kind of functional coexistent culture.
In any case, world-wide devastation came, likely sending both cultures into a complete tailspin, until finally both Heralds and Fused died and returned to Braize, to start the hunt and the torture again. The timeline of the early Desolations is not entirely clear, nor is the actual number of Desolations, but there were between fifteen and fifty. While at first the Heralds were able to maintain the seal on Braize for hundreds of years at a time, sharing the pain through their bond, eventually their endurance began to diminish.
Knights Radiant: Meanwhile, the humans had either retained or regained the ability to Surgebind. On Roshar, unlike Ashyn, the ability to manipulate the Surges was enabled by spren who would form a bond with the human, mimicking what they had seen Honor do for the Heralds. Despite the Desolations recurring every few centuries, humans began to fight for power among themselves, with Surgebinders quickly becoming the most powerful of the lot. During one Desolation, the Herald Ishar found a way to impose a structure on the spren and their Surgebinders: he defined the orders of Knights Radiant, by which the spren would only form bonds with mortals who could truly speak certain Ideals. He modeled them after the powers granted to the Heralds, using the same Surge pairings and following the nominal roles of the Heralds.
Regals: Somewhere along the line, earlier or later we don’t know, the singers also began to take on new spren bonds—Voidspren bonds. These spren of Odium granted new forms of power to the singers who accepted them, who became known as Regals. They didn’t necessarily have Surgebinding ability, but they were able to manipulate lesser natural phenomena such as lightning and wind, and it seems some forms grant access to Connection and Fortune. These are mostly still a mystery. (The origins of the Unmade are also still a mystery, but they predated the Knights Radiant in some form. Yeah, we’ll have a whole ‘nother post on the Unmade. Not going there right now.)
The Heraldic Epochs: With the new structure of Knights Radiant, human civilization changed. While it seems logical that the humans and singers must have shared the land to some degree, it was also divided into the ten Silver Kingdoms. (Who knows—maybe some of the ten were singer kingdoms!) We know very little about the arrangements inside most of those kingdoms, but the human kingdom known as Alethela became the training ground for the Knights Radiant and for all the humans who would be warriors. The intent was to retain the arts of warfare, so that when the next Desolation came, humanity would be better prepared for it.
(Side note: we also have no clue yet as to when the tower of Urithiru was created, by whom, nor why it was placed where it was.)
From that time on, the Radiants were there to assist the Heralds when a Desolation came, and to an extent it worked: humanity survived. But the toll on the Heralds was profound; as the cycle repeated, they were less and less able to withstand the torture once they were found by the Fused. While the first Desolations came centuries apart, over three thousand years or so that gradually reduced to decades. At the last, one Herald broke almost as soon as they were caught and the torture began, with the result that humanity had barely begun to recover from the previous Desolation before the next one began less than a year later.
Aharietiam: In that particular battle, whether through good luck, good management, or sheer cowardice, all but one of the Heralds survived. Realizing that the only one to die was also the only one who had never broken under torture, they came up with a new plan. Hoping that as long as one Herald was bound, the Fused would be bound as well, the remaining nine abandoned their oaths and their Honorblades, each to go their separate ways and not seek out one another. They would tell humanity that they had won and the cycle was over… and hope that maybe it would work. This event became known as the Final Desolation, or Aharietiam. At some level, they were even right.
Even More Speculation! Following on to the previous section… Ultimately, Odium managed to gain a small foothold on Roshar—not enough to take over, but enough to influence some people of both species, fomenting distrust and animosity. As tension arose between them, he influenced certain of the singers to believe that he, Odium, was the god of the humans, and that Honor, whom they thought of as their god, had betrayed them by deciding to help the “invaders” instead of his own people.
He then managed to influence enough of the singers that they turned to him for help against the humans and against Honor, and they became the true Void-bringers—the ones who brought the use of Odium’s Investiture to Roshar. Since Odium’s center of power was Braize, these Cognitive Shadows had to go there when killed, and to be renewed and sent back to Roshar for a new body. They also induced others of their people to form bonds with Voidspren, with the result that more and more, the singers became Odium’s people even though they still revered Honor and Cultivation.
Era of Solitude
After the entirety of the Oathpact was dropped on Taln, the Desolations stopped, and both species had time to recover their cultures and redevelop their civilizations. We know very little about this early time, and it’s possible that it was during this phase rather than three thousand years earlier that the blended races mentioned earlier (Herdazians and Horneaters) developed.
This time of coexistence, known now as the Era of Solitude, lasted for about another three thousand years, give or take a bit. While the Heralds were going around incognito, the Knights Radiant were still very much there, and probably helped the recovery efforts tremendously through healing, Soulcasting, and so on. On the singer side, while the Voidforms were no longer available to them, they still had the full range of natural forms inherent to Roshar, and the Unmade were still present and influential.
Splintering of Honor: Behind the scenes—or above them, or Beyond them—a different drama was playing out. Honor and Cultivation, presumably based on discovering that Odium was going around trying to destroy the other Shards, had found a way to bind Odium to Braize. We know almost nothing of the mechanism that enforced this imprisonment, but Odium was not pleased. Fighting to be free of their containment, as well as to destroy them, he finally managed part of his goal: he was able to splinter Honor, killing the Vessel Tanavast. This probably had some indirect effects on other events, if only because Honor wasn’t around to help, or in his death throes may have hindered his original intent. Worth noting, Sanderson has said that the death of a Shard is a protracted event.
False Desolation: Back on the physical planet… It’s quite probable that there were occasional clashes between the humans and the singers as time went on, and with varied results. Ultimately, one of the more intelligent Unmade came up with a new weapon: Ba-Ado-Mishram figured out how to create Connection between herself, with her Void power, and the singers. Suddenly, the Regals were back. This war, known as the False Desolation, pitted the Knights Radiant and their human armies against the Unmade, the Regals, and the singer armies.
It seems to have been during this time when one group of singers decided they’d had enough of this everlasting warfare, and they broke off. How they did it we’re not yet sure, but they all took on dullform, broke their Connection to the Unmade, and just left. In order to avoid being pulled back in, they refused all other forms for hundreds of years, living only in dullform and mateform. No longer willing to be the signers, they designated themselves the listeners, and they avoided all contact outside their own group.
Meanwhile, back at the war, things were not going well for the humans. In the end, the Bondsmith Melishi (the only Bondsmith at the time) came up with a plan to trap & imprison Ba-Ado-Mishram; it succeeded, and broke her Connection to the singers, or theirs to her. In what seems to have been an unanticipated side effect, it also blocked their ability to take on any forms—even those natural to their species on Roshar. From that point on, the singers were gone; with no capacity to bond with even the most basic spren, they became nearly catatonic.
We don’t know exactly what came next; obviously, the war was over, since one entire side was now scarcely able to function, in shock, and seemed to be only barely sentient. It’s likely that a large number of the singers simply died for lack of anyone to help them live. In my own (less than humble, okay) opinion, those who survived were probably cared for at some level by humans who couldn’t help feeling sorry for them. Once people realized that the singers, now called parshmen, were able to follow basic instructions, it would have been natural to put them to work at simple, menial labor. At first, and for many, it was likely just a matter of earning their keep. All too soon, though, they became slaves, to be bought and sold, valued for their obedience; they were treated like extra-smart animals who understood language but had no initiative of their own.
The Recreance: The effect on the singers may have been part of what sparked the next major event in human history: the Recreance. It didn’t take place immediately after the end of the war, but the difference is a matter of decades later—not just a few years, but not centuries, either. For reasons not entirely clear to us yet, and I won’t speculate just now, the Knights Radiant decided to quit en masse. With the exception of the Skybreakers, also for reasons we don’t know, the Knights abandoned their Shardblades and their Shardplate, leaving them in heaps and just… walking away. Their Shardblades, which were the physical manifestation of their bonded spren, were locked into those forms, and naturally became prizes worth fighting and killing to possess.
The Hierocracy: Yet again, civilization was thrown into turmoil. We don’t know what happened to the Knights Radiant after that. We do know that subsequently, the Vorin church attempted to step into the power vacuum and take control of All The Things. In their effort to make sure the Almighty was properly honored, they decided that rewriting history was a justifiable effort, and so the Hierocracy was responsible for the destruction of great swathes of information. Fortunately for the world, they only held sway in a few kingdoms, so while Vorin history is still in question—and along with it, much of the history of the Knights Radiant—the larger history fared a little better. Much of the past record was, as always, lost to the ravages of time, but other nations still had their own historical records.
Eventually, the Hierocracy was put down, and the church was placed in an odd position of both authority and subservience. While the church’s influence in matters of the faith was still strong, the individual members of the clergy, the ardents, were not allowed to hold any kind of civil authority, and were in fact a different kind of slave. Side note: it seems that the current date system begins at approximately the time when the Hierocracy was put down.
And on: Since that time, various individuals from several nations have attempted to dominate the world, but each have failed. It’s quite possible, though only speculative, that many of them were recipients of Honor’s visions by way of the Stormfather, but they always interpreted “Unite them” solely as a matter of political and military “unification.”
Well. That was… long-winded and exhausting. Exhaustive… maybe? Sorta? Forget the quiz, though; I don’t have the will to write it, much less correct the papers! Next week, we’ll go into more detail on Everything We Know About the Heralds. Hopefully it won’t be as long as this one!! For now, dive into the comment section with questions, corrections, and speculations! Also, if you have counter-evidence for my theory, please say so!
Alice is a Sanderson Beta-Reader, mega-fan, and occasional theory-crafter. She takes great pride in the moment at Emerald City Comic Con 2018 when, in conversation about some disputed fan interpretation of a scene, Sanderson said, “You’re right. Just tell them I said, ‘Alice is always right.'” She is also an administrator of two Facebook fan groups: The Stormlight Archive (spoilers allowed for Stormlight books only; everything else has to be spoiler-tagged) and the Storm Cellar (Sanderson fans loosely centered around the Tor rereads, spoilers for all Sanderson books allowed).