“Journey Before Destination”: Redemption in Stormlight Archive
Redemption arcs not only serve to create a realistic cast of morally grey characters, but also lend validity to the hopeful idea that nobody is beyond saving and that there is a seed of goodness in everyone. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, Dalinar’s redemption arc is told backwards. He is introduced as one of the most noble and honorable characters in the series, and readers learn to love a virtuous highprince fighting a seemingly justified war against the people who assassinated his brother, the king. However, as memories Dalinar repressed long ago and glimpses into the heinous actions of his past begin resurfacing, it creates an interesting dynamic where the reader gets to explore Dalinar’s past alongside him, and assess whether he deserves to be redeemed at all. He must come to terms with his long history of bloodlust, accept that he has grown and changed as a person since then, and determine if he has done enough to atone for his past. Dalinar’s progression from a bloodthirsty warrior to a leader of renowned integrity displays a masterfully crafted dynamic character who is unwilling to let his past define his future.
In the first book, Dalinar is introduced as a noble highprince and admirable soldier. The other highprinces are portrayed as greedy and selfish; they have long since abandoned the codes of the war camps, concerned only with looting gems in their exploits. Dalinar contrasts them in every way; he is the only one who has upheld the war camp’s codes: refusing to duel, always appearing in uniform, and even forcing his sons to adhere to the set of codes. He seems to be the only one who cares about winning the war, refusing to participate in petty skirmishes to gain advantages against the competing highprinces, and instead strategizing to win the war in the long term. In addition, not only does Dalinar not support the other highprinces’ cruel practice of using bridgemen, but he demonstrates compassion for the bridgemen at the end of the first book; he trades his shardblade, a mythical blade worth more than kingdoms, to one of his worst enemies in return for the freedom of a squadron of enslaved bridgemen. When questioned about his motives, Dalinar asks one of the bridgemen what a life is worth. The bridgeman responds that a life is priceless, and Dalinar replies, “coincidentally, that is the exact value of a shardblade. So today, you and your men sacrificed to buy me twenty-six hundred priceless lives. And all I had to repay you with was a single priceless sword” (The Way of Kings 1196). This memorable line proves that he values human life, and has no taste for needless violence. In a video analyzing Dalinar’s character arc, reviewer Daniel Greene points out that knowing Dalinar’s backstory “makes this current version of Dalinar an entirely different character… He is cautious about violence or making his men commit into battle… he’s terrified of maybe feeling bloodlust again” (“Dalinar”). He is portrayed as one of the few honorable men in the war camps, someone tired of violence and bloodshed, but perhaps he is just frightened of who he used to be. Some of the other highprinces and soldiers in the warcamps seem to fear him. He has holes in his memories, unable to remember even the name of his deceased wife. Although he appears to take great pride in both of his sons, their dialogue suggests that this has not always been the case. Dalinar is desperately trying to be a better person than who he was, but neither the reader nor Dalinar know just what he has done. Regardless of his past, according to Dalinar, “no accomplishment has substance nearly as great as the road used to achieve it… It’s the journey that shapes us. Our calloused feet, our backs strong from carrying the weight of our travels, our eyes open with the fresh delight of experiences lived” (The Way of Kings 1020). No matter where he began, it is the journey, the path that connects his past to his future, that determines who he really is.
The third book gives way to flashback chapters; memories of Dalinar’s past slowly resurface and the reader finally gets to see the man he used to be and bridge the gap between his past and his present. When his brother was still king, their kingdom’s armies proved almost unstoppable as they expanded their borders and conquered more and more land. Dalinar was one of the most ruthless and merciless warriors. With his shardblade he was almost unstoppable, and he left bloodshed in his wake, pillaging and killing innocents, regardless of whether the town they were conquering had already surrendered. A brutal and cruel fighter, he longed for battle and violence. His wife Evi, the result of a political marriage, was his opposite in every way. She was gentle, caring, and peaceful by nature. No matter how hard Dalinar pushed her away, she wanted only the best for him and their family, giving their two children an abundance of love and attention. Dalinar, on the other hand, did not care about his family, neglecting his children, showing contempt for Evi, only concerned with his conquests. However, one kingdom, the Rift, was not meant to be conquered; Dalinar was meant to make an example of it for other kingdoms that thought of resisting. As Dalinar’s armies mounted to capture the Rift, Evi went down to negotiate with the Rift’s king and plead for him to surrender. Built of wooden structures that crawled down the face of a chasm, the Rift’s design was easily used to Dalinar’s advantage. He dumped oil on the kingdom and burned it from above, saying, “I intend to so thoroughly ruin this place that for ten generations, nobody will dare build here for the fear of the spirits who will haunt it. We will make a pyre of this city, and there shall be no weeping for its passing, for none will remain to weep” (Oathbringer 742). All the civilians were still inside: innocent men, women, children, and most notably, Evi. In a video discussing redemption arcs, videographer Red points out, “there are a ton of reasons for villains to turn good but they’re almost always highly personalized because they have to arise from the character of the villain themselves” (“Trope Talk”). When Dalinar learns that Evi was in the Rift when he burned it, it is a tipping point for his character, a point where the magnitude of the atrocities he has been committing seems to snap into focus for him. He finally recognizes the pain he has been causing when his actions hurt somebody he loved, somebody he did not realize he had loved until she was gone. This was more than a single bad decision, he had gotten to this point because he was simply a bad person. What follows is a long cycle of guilt, drinking, and trying to forget the things he had done. The way it is written prompts repulsion for Dalinar, and induces sympathy for Evi. The Dalinar of the past looks nothing like the Dalinar that the readers came to love, and Dalinar and the readers both have to ask themselves if he has really done enough since then to be redeemed for his actions.
At the time, Dalinar could not confront his horrific crimes, but after years of repression, just as he is beginning to think himself a good person again, his memories start to resurface and he has no choice but to deal with the person he used to be. It is rewarding for the reader to switch back and forth between flashback chapters, and current chapters to see how Dalinar reacts and deals with each new piece of a memory that resurfaces. As Brandon Sanderson describes it in an interview, “the back and forth between the person Dalinar is becoming in this book, and the person he used to be, the journey he began when he was younger, and is only now meeting his fulfillment in his middle age, that story paralleled so nicely” (Carmony). These memories begin to resurface at a very inopportune time in relation to the overarching plot; he is finally given an opportunity to end the war for good, but his home kingdom is under siege and he is dealing with political opposition from other countries and religious groups alike. The plot requires him to step up and be a leader, but the trauma of his memories render him useless, forcing him to spend days lying in bed and wrestling with the battle inside his own head. Much of the character growth he exhibits in this book is from introspective realizations rather than external situations. Even when he returns to the action of the primary plot, every time he works to do something good, he feels like a hypocrite, a poser, and a fraud. Other highprinces call him a hypocrite too; how can he act morally superior and condemn the bad things they are doing when he has slaughtered thousands? Although he feels helpless to argue with them, after thought on the matter, his realization is incredibly hopeful, saying, “sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a person who is in the process of changing” (Oathbringer 292). All the mistakes of his past have made him into the person he is. Although it is natural for him to want to distance himself from those mistakes, he not only needs to accept them as part of him, but also needs to realize that he is a changed person from the man who made those mistakes. The people around him prove the validity of his reformation. An assassin who once tried to kill Dalinar ends up pledging his life to Dalinar. His son, who Dalinar neglected and ignored for much of his life, calls Dalinar “the greatest man in Alethkar” (Oathbringer 890). The bridgemen, who were free to go after Dalinar released them, chose to follow Dalinar of their own volition. Despite the person Dalinar used to be, he realizes the person he is now has earned the trust, loyalty, and respect of the people around him. Even if he has not forgiven himself, he has been redeemed in the eyes of the people closest to him. In their eyes, at least, his past no longer defines him. Throughout the books, there is an analogy comparing life to a journey, which is especially applicable to Dalinar’s plotline. One cannot start a journey at the end, without the journey being about regression instead of growth. He realizes that if he started out as a perfect person “it means that I can’t have grown to become someone else…It cannot be a journey if it doesn’t have a beginning… If I must fall, I will rise each time a better man” (Oathbringer 1135). He accepts his past as part of who he is, but also recognizes his future, the direction he is going, his will to do better, as the most important part of his journey.
Dalinar’s journey from a cruel and merciless soldier to an honorable and noble leader proves that no character is beyond redemption. At first, it is unclear that Dalinar’s character arc is even about redemption; he has a presence in the story that exudes compassion and integrity. After learning about the cruel warmonger and neglectful father he used to be, the reader’s perception of Dalinar shifts drastically. It is not a single dramatic act that redeemed his character, but the reminder of Dalinar’s growth since then; how incredible his drastic change was, how desperately he wanted to be a better person, and how much faith the people around him have in the person he has become. His redemption arc proves that regret is a sign of growth, that people can always change, reform, and improve, and that one’s future is more important than one’s past.