The Start of a Journey: Dalinar Kholin

This is the first post in a three-part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


A linear journey story is easy to follow and sells well because it satisfies our need for simple, straight-forward solutions, but it often doesn’t accurately translate our life experiences within a complex reality. In our last post, we considered some recent Academy Award Best Picture winners that feature incomplete, unorthodox, or aborted journeys. In this post, we will examine the Stormlight Archive books, an epic fantasy series in which  one of the main characters goes through the stages of the Heroine’s Journey three times and the Healing Journey twice before reaching a satisfying, integrated healing and wholeness. 

The epic fantasy genre is best known for its classic Hero Journeys. Epic fantasy novels and series usually feature vast worlds that differ from Earth and contemporary civilizations in key ways, magic systems, fighting and warfare, and heroes that elevate their kingdom’s status or achieve grand solutions. However, in the Stormlight Archive, author Brandon Sanderson takes the genre built for a Hero’s Journey and twists readers’ expectations by introducing more complex journeys that can speak to the reality we inhabit. The Stormlight Archive series takes place a world called Roshar, which includes a multitude of human kingdoms and the native non-human population, the Parshendi. Many of the main characters come from Alethkar, a kingdom whose territory is divided and ruled by Highprinces. Although the books involve many characters and sub-plots, the series broadly follows the refounding of the Knights Radiant, a mythical group of protectors who guard Roshar from magical destruction. In exploring the human condition, Sanderson places many of the characters under great stress and has them struggle to make sense of past traumas. Here, we will consider only one of the main characters, a man named Dalinar Kholin. Although introduced in the first book of the series—which currently includes The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer—much of Dalinar’s story is not revealed until the third book.

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A map of Roshar found within the front cover of Oathbringer.

Dalinar Kholin is an unlikely candidate for the Heroine’s Journey. As a young man (before the start of the first novel) he is already a conventional Campbellian hero. He is privileged by his inherited nobility as a Highprince and by being the younger brother of the king, Gavilar. He is also an established and terrifying fighter, known as the “Blackthorn,” who becomes even more powerful and lethal due to his possession of a rare sword called the “Shardblade” that can sever the soul from the body, and of Shardplate, magical armor that enhances his strength and speed. Dalinar’s fighting abilities are also heightened when he is in thrall of the Thrill—the force that many men experience in battle (but rarely explicitly discuss) that gives them a lust for killing and enables them to continue fighting despite their injuries and exhaustion. At the same time, Dalinar is also a tool. He follows his older brother’s orders without question and without understanding his brother’s overall plan. This all changes when his brother, King Gavilar, is assassinated (in the prologue of the first book), leaving his unprepared son as heir in a kingdom intent on vengeance and divided by greed and internal fighting. No longer able to simply wage war when and where his brother tells him to, Dalinar must finally figure out for himself who he is and who he wants to be.

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Depiction of Dalinar’s first journey through the stages of Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey arc.

Prior to Gavilar’s assassination, Dalinar exists in his Illusion of the Perfect World. As the Blackthorn, Dalinar fits into the world he inhabits, and his skills are exactly what his expanding kingdom wants. This illusion is punctured when Dalinar cannot protect his wife, or later, his brother, and both die violent deaths. Dalinar is disillusioned with the world he thought he knew and his place in that illusionary world. He turns to alcohol when he isn’t fighting and does not have the Thrill, and eventually he does not experience the Thrill on the battlefield. Instead of experiencing glory and hazy euphoria, he sees and feels pain, death, and destruction. Dalinar begins to grapple with is the idea that the valorization of war and high masculinity may bring humanity closer to disaster, not deliverance.

Readers are introduced to Dalinar as he enters step three of the Heroine’s Journey– Preparing for his Journey. He reads the Way of Kings (a philosophical book in Roshar that the first book in the series is named for), and reconnects with an ancient set of honor codes called the Alethi War Codes. He uses these texts as guidance to try to reorient his life away from disorder, selfishness, and gratuitous violence. Dalinar is still seeking knowledge outside himself, but he is trying to find a new way of living that works for him. He is no longer content, nor wants, the heroic warring role he has always had.

Blackthorn concept illustration by Randy Vargas.

Dalinar begins his Stage Four Descent when he starts to receive visions during highstorms. These visions supposedly come from the Almighty (a Roshar near-equivalent to God), and show Dalinar scenes of a forgotten past that can be used to understand current and coming events. The highstorms form an intense weather system that brings brutal storms that can last for hours, but the storms are also a source of life because they refuel the gemstones that Roshar’s inhabitants use to power their societies. Dalinar’s near-epileptic fits during these highstorms undermine his authority as a political and military leader, and even Dalinar becomes unsure of whether he can trust his visions. He seriously considers abdicating his role as Highprince to his son, Adolin. His son, instead, convinces him to find a way to test the veracity of his visions. With the help of Dalinar’s brother’s widow, Navani, they record the visions to determine if they offer valuable insights into the past or if Dalinar is going mad.

Navani realizes that Dalinar’s visions provide the key for translating Dawnchant, an ancient language that no one has been able to decipher. Reassured of his sanity, Dalinar abandons his intentions of abdicating, and enters the Eye of the Storm. In his visions, the voice of the Almighty tells Dalinar that he must “unite them,” which Dalinar initially interprets to mean uniting Alethkar’s highprinces to provide a unified front against their enemy, the Parshendi. The Highprinces have, instead, been competing to see whose attacks on the Parshendi are most successful, and, thus, who is most powerful. Dalinar believes he is beginning to successfully unify the Highprinces when he convinces Highprince Sadeas to commit to a joint attack whose goal is to bring  greater peace and cooperation within the kingdom and to defeat those who assassinated his brother.

However, Sadeas betrays Dalinar, withdrawing his troops from the battle and leaving Dalinar’s troops completely surrounded by the Parshendi to face certain death. Dalinar feels that All is Lost. His new attempts to live honorably have not convinced the other Highprinces to trust and work with him. Dalinar and some of his troops only survive because a runaway soldier enslaved into Sadeas’s army, named Kaladin, Supports Dalinar by saving his life (Stage Seven of the Heroine’s Journey). Taking a stance against the current Alethi culture, Kaladin also supports Dalinar’s decision to not kill his enemy while she is incapacitated. In return, Dalinar promises to free Kaladin from his position as an enslaved soldier in Sadeas’ army.

Sadeas refuses to free Kaladin unless Dalinar gives Sadeas a Shardblade. Sadeas assumes this is a laughable proposal that Dalinar can never accept, since Shardblades are so rare, difficult to obtain, and extraordinarily powerful. Dalinar then experiences a Moment of Truth when he is faced with a difficult moral decision of keeping his word to free Kaladin or protecting his own power/identity.  When he hands over his Shardblade to uphold his promise to Kaladin, Dalinar demonstrates that he cares more about human life and his word than he cares about power, prestige, and public opinion. Although the story could end here with an affirmation of a new world order, instead  Dalinar experiences a new betrayal that completely shakes his worldview and launches him back through the stages of the heroine’s journey a second time; Dalinar learns that the Almighty is dead.

To begin a second journey arc and go deeper, a person or character cannot merely face and conquer a new obstacle or set of obstacles. There must be a new betrayal and disillusionment that causes the person to completely rethink everything they thought they knew or had learned. To go on a new journey, you cannot just patch up the problem or work harder to “fix” it. Most importantly, you cannot just do more of what you’ve been doing. Something new is required. In our own lives we may be about to complete a journey and graduate, get married, have a child, get a job promotion, leave home, or finish a long-standing commitment. Then something else occurs that prevents us from completing that journey, which upends our understanding of the world and our place in it. In Dalinar’s case this happens when he learns that the Almighty no longer exists.

The Stormlight Archive: the Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer.

The Almighty has been the external embodiment of a larger moral code and world order. When Dalinar learns that the Almighty can be, and has been, killed, Dalinar questions the source of morality. Instead of being able to rely on external wisdom for how to best live his life, Dalinar must find his own wisdom. In our next post, we’ll show how Dalinar moves through the Heroine’s Journey a second time and then undertakes a Healing Journey in order to find healing and wholeness.