Brandon Sanderson and magic systems

I don’t mean to harp on Brandon Sanderson, but while writing my previous post on Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic-focused Mormon criticism, the following thought occurred to me:

How do you explain Sanderson’s interest in the robust, rules-based magic systems that have become his raison d’être ? Is a Mormon explanation warranted? Is it sufficient?

I can see at least four explanations — all of them likely valid in varying amounts:

Mormonism as doctrine: in Mormon doctrine spirit is matter more refined and miracles are simply higher order physics. Magic that has rules as physics does and even some cases use physical materials ties very well in to Mormon doctrine.

Mormonism as community: Sanderson has been influenced by the work of Orson Scott Card (the Alvin books, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, etc.) and David Farland (Runelords) and their penchant for rigorous magic systems.

Trends in literature: Sanderson came of age at the tail end of the fuzzy, soft magics found in the derivative post-Tolkien fantasy (Eddings, Brooks) and so, he, like other writers of his generation is both acutely aware of the flaws in soft magic and has the need to differentiate his work from his predecessors (this is oversimplifying the whole magic in fantasy debate/history, but it’s roughly enough true to serve my purpose here).

Trends in pop culture: Sanderson is a known player of role-playing games, including the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. He’s also an inveterate collector of Magic: The Gathering cards. Clearly, someone who grows up with the precise rules and game mechanics and character stats of RPGs is going to be attracted to hard magic systems.

This is a straightforward example, but I think it illustrates well how neither an overemphasis on Mormon themes nor an elision of Mormon themes are likely to be useful in literary criticism of work by Mormon authors. Mormon literary criticism is a hybrid form — just like Mormon literature. Try as we might, when it comes to artistic or creative expression, we are in the world and of the world and yet not quite. We should rightly focus on the not quite — but not at the expense of all the rest.