The Myth of Schaffa’s Redemption

Grace Lapointe
11 min readNov 14, 2019

A redemption narrative for The Broken Earth’s Schaffa, a violent, insidious oppressor and abuser, would contradict the series’ plot, characterization, and power structures.

Content note: this essay discusses child abuse, racialized oppression, genocide, murder, reproductive coercion, and enslavement, all in an SFF setting. It also contains spoilers for N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, obviously.

I wanted to elaborate on my own Book Riot article saying that Nassun and Schaffa have a dangerous trauma bond in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. By considering these characters’ psychology, I began to understand their story better and clarify my interpretation. Schaffa becomes less violent but still is an abuser. I noted his emotional abuse even when writing the shorter article, but I want to explicate it. Readers might initially favor a redemptive character arc for Schaffa, but a close reading of the text and its power dynamics belies this. Even if he wants to break the cycle of abuse and become a loving father figure to Nassun, the history of oppression precludes this between a Guardian and an orogene.

On p. 121 of The Obelisk Gate, Nassun and Schaffa first meet. He smiles and shakes hands with Nassun only, not with Jija, perhaps because he knows she’s such a powerful orogene or she resembles Damaya. Moments later, Schaffa first steals energy, magic, or “silver” from her when he “presses two fingers to the back of her neck” (123). She feels violated and “defensive.” Nassun “can feel a bit of damp on her neck, probably a smear of blood” (123). She’s actually not bleeding but misinterpreting the filament of silver that he takes from her as blood. Still, this is an intimate, violent assault, and she can’t understand or consent. The description continues on p. 124, with the narrator saying that she won’t understand this until she’s older.

The energy transfer is intimate. In the novels, orogeny comes from organs at the base of the brain called sessapinae. It’s also where Guardians’ implants are and a way for them to control orogenes without brute force. Schaffa takes her energy in moments when they both feel vulnerable. He’s often comforting Nassun or sitting her on his lap. Schaffa is a tall, incredibly strong, violent man who’s actually 4,000 years old. He snaps adults’ necks, pulls implants out of their skulls, and breaks children’s bones without even trying. Nassun has amazing powers to defend herself against most people, but not him. The image from the books of her trusting Schaffa to touch her neck makes the skin on MY neck crawl.

I decided not to describe this process in my BR piece because it’s too complicated, and easy to misconstrue as sexual abuse. On a literal level, I think it isn’t. One of the few awful things Schaffa is NOT shown doing is sexual abuse. Nassun’s real dad, Jija, was a murderer but also much more affectionate than her mother, Essun. So, Nassun craves physical affection from a safe father figure. She’s also probably near the upper age limit of finding Schaffa’s behavior sweet, not infantilizing or creepy. (Nassun is age 10–11 when she knows Schaffa, but I think he treats her as if she’s much younger.)

There’s a possible metaphor for every form of real-life abuse here, but it’s not needed to understand the text or find Schaffa creepy. If you do, you’re probably picking up on the poor boundaries, power differential, and his manipulation. Guardians use mind control and brute force on orogenes, so their gentler moments can come across as grooming. He also appears to fetishize Damaya and Nassun in several scenes — not necessarily in a sexualized or racist way, but enjoying his power over them.

Taking silver from Nassun’s body is also abusive in itself, so it can be read on several levels. It just takes longer for us readers, myself included, to understand in a fantasy context. When I think of signs and definitions of abuse, it obviously fits. Stealing someone’s power or magic, especially a child’s, betrays an intimate bond. Guardians have no concept of orogenes’ bodily autonomy, so Schaffa might not realize that he’s still being violent. He’s become less overtly violent out of a desire to protect Nassun. Ultimately, this is a subtler way to exploit, control, and entangle her. We can hope it’s not painful, but she perceives the first time as an attack. “Symbiosis” is too benign a word for whatever is happening here.

In Found Moon, Nassun also notices other Guardians stealing silver from their charges. So, maybe it doesn’t necessarily make her special or represent her closeness with Schaffa. Maybe it’s just something Guardians do to orogenes. Of course, that he both adores and abuses her can also be true. Guardians view orogenes, philosophically and legally, as objects, not humans. He tells her this to her face. Before setting out alone with Nassun, Schaffa abandons the other orogene children in his care — probably to die.

Schaffa and Nassun share many affectionate moments, but these can be deceptive. When Nassun calls herself a monster, and Schaffa calls her “my monster,” there’s nothing cute or innocent about that. She’s just connected to an obelisk and used her powers to kill Eitz accidentally, because he startled her. Eitz, an older orogene boy, was the only person she loved in Found Moon — except Schaffa, of course. She’s traumatized. Nassun really is asking Schaffa if she’s a monster. So, I think his implication is possessive, like: “I own you, and only I can love you.” Nassun “is so low and horrified that this actually makes her feel better” (TOG 198). The narration asks us to read between the lines and notice Schaffa controlling Nassun, trying to supplant every other person she loves.

There are scenes where Nassun gets angry at him, and he stays kind and calm — unlike “the old Schaffa,” who would have been physically brutal with previous children. So, he’s improved exponentially, but he’s still extremely manipulative. I interpret Nassun’s meltdowns as a victim knowing subconsciously that she’s being abused, but being unable to express it. As a traumatized child in a dystopian society where the discipline of psychology doesn’t exist, Nassun can’t express any cognitive dissonance she may feel around Schaffa. Ironically, she can only turn to him for “help.” Articulating this in the text wouldn’t make sense, but we as adult readers can feel unease and point to red flags in his character.

We often have to read between the lines with Schaffa: a glib, (self-)deceptive character, like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. When Schaffa asks Nassun if she’s afraid of him, she says, “Never!” (TOG 179). This touches him deeply. Because of her trauma bonds and youth, that Nassun trusts him doesn’t mean he’s not terrifying. She often, implicitly, IS afraid of him, feeling that he has an urge to kill her but resists. On a surface reading, many scenes can seem sentimental or repetitive. In context, though, they provide a stark contrast to whenever Schaffa shows he’s a killer, abuser, and genocide and slavery apologist — sometimes just moments later.

I emphasize his manipulation because we often read complex characters like Schaffa too literally — not missing plot or symbolism but subtext. I felt manipulated by Schaffa myself while reading and initially writing about him. I’m still unsure exactly how much Schaffa is controlled by external forces, but his actions suggest that he has at least some free will. Insisting on his helplessness and constant agony is yet another of his attempts to elicit sympathy from Nassun and us. Even third-person, omniscient narrators are not necessarily objective. Most chapters with Schaffa are in close third, but they still dip into his thoughts.

Schaffa keeps repeating to Nassun that he loves her and will never hurt her. Nassun internalizes this until she falsely believes giving the silver was originally her idea and that Schaffa never took it non-consensually. This exemplifies gaslighting and how victims repress or revise traumatic memories. With all this repetition, we can also get confused and believe him — unless we find the contrary textual evidence. Weeks after they meet, she thinks he can’t possibly love her yet, but she “needs,” and will do anything for, him. This can be an indicator of love-bombing or insincerity. He doesn’t like when she tells him no.

Here’s another perfect example of Schaffa’s version of love: “You’re my redemption, Nassun. You are all the children I should have loved and protected, even from myself. And if it will bring you peace…” He kisses her forehead. “Then I shall be your Guardian till the world burns, my little one.” (TSS 92) Depending on your personal reaction, this is heartwarming, cloying, or smarmy — maybe all three simultaneously. He spoke to her mother in that sweet, soothing way, too, and thought he loved her. By itself, it doesn’t mean much. Schaffa loves Nassun much more than he’s ever loved anyone else, but that doesn’t make for a safe person or relationship. This is definitely an example of psychological and emotional transference, which I mentioned in my BR essay.

Perhaps only Schaffa, who treats orogene children as his possessions or pets, rather than as other humans, would call this redemption. Schaffa is trying to redo his Guardianship of Damaya and get it right this time, but that’s impossible. Abuse is a cycle. He abused Damaya, who in turn abused her daughter Nassun (Essun broke Nassun’s hand, ironically). The damage is irreversible.

Schaffa tries to change for Nassun, and even I find this poignant. She wants him to change much more drastically than is possible. First, she asks to remove his corestone, but that would kill him. In the last silver transfers, when he’s dying, Nassun gives him enough energy to harm herself — more than he’d take. He tries to stop, but he should never have taken any! It’s possible to feel sorry for him while still considering him unforgivable. Then, she wants to transform him — and everyone else — into Stone Eaters. At the last second, Nassun changes her mind, siding with her mother’s plan instead. The bond to Schaffa, and not to Essun, is the one she must break.

As a reminder: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun are actually three phases, chronologically, in the same woman’s extremely traumatic life. An author and series letting us believe at length that one person is three “different characters,” or that Stone Eaters might not be people, could easily depict a nuanced abuser and his victims, even via subtext. Given this narrative misdirection and power discrepancies in race, gender, and age, why should we trust Schaffa?

Of course, Damaya’s trauma bond to Schaffa is far worse than Nassun’s. He breaks Damaya’s hand, tells her that he has the power to kill her, and still, she must depend on him to survive. As an adult, Syenite breaks the trauma bond, which is very hard to do. Schaffa has amnesia after almost drowning and remembers Damaya with love. He may not remember that she’s also Syenite/Essun, who now justifiably hates, and tried to kill, him.

There’s a parallel to Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the end of The Fifth Season. Syenite is forcibly mated (!) with Alabaster, a tall, black, high-ranking orogene man. They eventually become close friends and lovers, but not initially. She murders their infant child rather than give him to Schaffa to enslave in a node. The message: enslavement is worse than death. Then she tries to drown the Guardians as they leave the island.

If Schaffa ever loved Damaya, wouldn’t he consider her and her children humans with bodily autonomy for their whole lives? It’s not only in the narrative structure or her own identity that the protagonist (Essun) is compartmentalized into three people. Arguably, she is in Schaffa’s memories as well — long before he develops amnesia. As an adorable, dependent child and brilliant student, she’s endearing to him, as Nassun later is. He even spares Damaya’s life in the Fulcrum. As a woman, Syenite is considered valuable for her fertility — and then becomes useless and dangerous to him, but only at the cost of sacrificing her child.

For me, this was when the racial dynamics of the series really started to click, but they’re present throughout and bear rereading. Many other writers have most likely already analyzed the racial dynamics in The Broken Earth much better than I can. I’ll try, as it’s integral to the social structure and interpersonal power dynamics. Damaya/Essun, Jija, Nassun, Eitz, and many other characters are Black, and Schaffa is white. He has long, straight, black hair, pale skin, and “ice-white eyes.”

With Damaya in the beginning of TFS, there’s this gifted little Black girl whose parents have…sold her? Paid Schaffa to take her away? What’s going on here? I definitely wondered, What’s this guy’s deal? Some type of human trafficker, pedophile . . .? The narrative plays on these expectations. We’re relieved when Schaffa seems so solicitous and nice. And then he betrays her trust horribly!

Orogenes are considered a dangerous, powerful, paradoxically inferior “race.” They’re not legally given any status or rights as human, although of course they know they are. While reading this, I started wondering: Why create a whole class (Guardians) to oppress the orogenes? Why not let the orogenes rule, if they’re so powerful and necessary? To explain why, in books 2 and 3, the many references to enslavement, colonialism, and racism begin to get clearer.

Schaffa rationalizes oppression and his own career and existence as a Guardian. He believes that the Guardians are the only way to prevent “genocide” of all the orogenes because the stills (neither orogenes nor Guardians) fear them so much (TSS 177). He says this to Nassun while holding her and immediately after explaining: “I LOVED the orogenes to whom I was a Guardian” (TSS 177). The personal and ideological are inextricable here. Schaffa relays deeply evil beliefs as obvious, objective facts, in an Althusserian level of interpellation.

An Althusserian reading would help explain these characters and how fully they are interpellated or called into the Stillness’ ideology of racism, oppression, and genocide. This quote from Louis Althusser applies to the Guardians’ indoctrination, with which they then subjugate their charges: “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject. … ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’”

For orogene children, another example of this hailing is the slur “rogga.” It marks them as inferior and they consider it “bad” to say; yet they know it applies to them. Considering that slurs in English can begin as less offensive or co-opted words, we can speculate on how orogene was corrupted into “rogga.” The worldbuilding and parallels to racial subjugation in English/the US are consistent. There’s also a scene where a still says rogga and Essun says, “YOU don’t get to say that word!” (TSS 220) Who can reclaim a slur? Its targets and no one else!

I think some fans are too quick to redeem or idealize abusive characters like Schaffa, even when the text and subtext suggest that they’re irredeemable. If characters keep repeating that they’re reformed, something far more complex, even counterintuitive, is often happening. They could even be lying to themselves, as many dangerous people do. The complexity of some narratives and relationships demands ambiguity and a willingness to deconstruct some apparent, surface meanings. The Stillness lacks the concepts and vocabulary to deconstruct Schaffa’s false narrative of his redemption. Only readers’ interpretations can supply these. Some characters are so steeped in ideology (especially in SFF) that they confound casual readings, which theory clarifies.

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain! . . . That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain — William Shakespeare, Hamlet

It’s not even a TV show yet, and I already see fan art of him. Takes like this one on TV Tropes are presented as facts:

Parental Substitute: Schaffa for Nassun, even more explicitly than in the previous book. Unlike with her mother, he’s actually good at it this time.”

My brain:

IF: Thor squinting skeptically and saying to Bruce: “IS HE THOUGH?”

(GIF: Thor squinting skeptically and saying to Bruce: “IS HE THOUGH?”)

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