Fear of Falling
I’ll admit it: I’m cheating. This iteration of the Sandman Meditations will discuss two Sandman episodes instead of the regular one.
Fables & Reflections collects a group of Sandman stories that appeared in a variety of venues over a fairly wide range of time. Having read only the first two at this point, I don’t know if there are linking threads, themes, or threnodies among the stories, but we can revisit the idea at the end of the book.
The reason I’m tackling two stories today is that the first, “Fear of Falling”, is very short. If I wanted to get all deconstructive (sometimes, after all, I do…) I could perhaps write 800-1,000 words on the implications and imbrications of particular words and panels within this one very short Sandman story, but sometimes restraint is an desirable quality in a writer. Perhaps if I practice restraint, one of these days I’ll get it right.
“Fear of Falling” is placed as a prologue in Fables & Reflections; it is followed by a table of contents. It’s a nice little story, which perhaps sounds condescending, but I mean it in a purely descriptive way — as per this volume’s title, it’s a fable, complete with a moral at the end (to risk failure is to avoid defeat). What I most like about it is the art by Kent Williams and Sherilyn van Valkenburgh, which has a beautiful roughness rare to the series so far. The pages depicting Todd’s dream are particularly powerful, full of empty backgrounds and figures that look like they’ve been drawn with an ink-soaked razor blade.
I’m amused, too, by the sly reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the beginning (the reference to Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak) — particularly clever given that this story first appeared, at least according to the table of contents, in the first Vertigo Preview, which, I assume*, gave readers in 1992 a preview of what to expect from D.C.’s new Vertigo imprint.
Hitchcock’s film is one of his greatest, a cinematic poem of color and menace, one of the strangest films he ever made and, in some ways, one of the strangest films anybody has ever made. It’s a movie about dreams and obsessions, reality and fantasy, and so an ideal item to enter the Sandman universe.
Three Septembers and a January
“Three Septembers and a January” is a more substantial story than “Fear of Falling”, and seems to me more reflection than fable, though Dream does suggest to Delirium that the events have provided a lesson. The art in this issue is quite different from that of “Fear of Falling”; Shawn McManus’s work is detailed and evocative, and while lines and shapes and shadows crowd each panel, it all feels full, not cramped, because each line and object is carefully placed in relation to the others. They are panels full of movement, gestures, countenances, color (the red clothing on the King of Pain is thrilling, and the muted hues of the pages after he leaves convey as much emotion as the words). Even in some of the smallest panels, there are not just foregrounds and backgrounds, but midgrounds. Like the vasty sea, these are panels to plunge into.
The content of the panels is as rich as their forming. For instance, our introduction to Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in this story is amusing not just because of the particular historical personage portrayed, but because of the manner of the introduction: Clemens founding an entire language by repetition of the word “damn”. (The panel showing the Morning Call’s headquarters with a series of “Damn” bubbles bounding down the stairs is among my favorite single panels in any Sandman story yet — simple and efficient in conception and execution, and all the more amusing for it.) This use of a single bit of vernacular to utter a world of emotions reminded me of that marvelous early episode of The Wire where Detectives McNulty and Moreland conduct a crime scene investigation entirely in the key of “fuck”. Great writing does not always require a lot of words.
The realms of Dream and Delirium seem to overlap a bit in the character of Joshua, the first Emperor of the United States. Dream saves Joshua from Despair first by walking with him in his dreams, then by giving him a new dream: a dream of being a ruler, the most significant man in the country. Delirium shows up eventually, but she doesn’t really know what to make of all this: “He’s so sane,” she says. “Except about being emperor, of course… And I’m not even sure about that.”
What was perceived as madness, then, saved Joshua from despair, but it was more dream than delirium. He gains adventures in life, and his dream serves to protect him from some of the more painful realities of his existence. Dream says to Desire, “He has his dignity, sister-brother. He is, after all, an emperor.” But Desire will have none of it, calling Joshua “a crazy man with a cockeyed fantasy.”
Death, once again, is the sibling most on Dream’s wavelength. She suggests he was of the Tzaddikim, a living saint, one of the 36 people whose existence allows the world to exist. And she likes him. He was, perhaps, a sort of holy fool. A sane man in an insane world.
The story ends with a historical note, one that exudes an air of fact, and so brings us to question which side of reality we want to fall on. Joshua Norton achieved fame in death, and “his burial was marked by an eclipse of the sun.” Even the stars wanted to pay their respects, it seems.
For the terminally despairing, dreams (however mad) may be the richest source of life. And as Emperor Norton’s friendship with Mark Twain shows, dreamers and storytellers have copious qualities in common: they are holy fools who keep the world alive.
*Yes, I could look it up, but I’ve been trying very hard throughout this series to resist the urge to look up even the most humdrum of information, because once you start, where do you stop? Part of the experiment of these meditations is to see what happens when a particular consciousness (mine) encounters The Sandman more or less blind, and so I shall continue to stumble through the labyrinthine corridors of my mind’s darkness.
The last time I remember meeting Lady Johanna Constantine was in the fourth part of A Doll’s House, “Men of Good Fortune”, where Dream said: “Her kind walk amidst the flotsam of lives they have sacrificed for their own purposes, till friendless and alone they needs must make the final sacrifice.”
Now, in “Thermidor”, The Sandman revisits Lady Johanna, who lives in Wych Cross, England, the place, in fact, where we first saw Dream, for that was the home of Roderick Burgess in “Sleep of the Just” and the place of Dream’s imprisonment.
Constantine, of course, is a name familiar from as far back as “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, when John Constantine helped the newly-free Sandman find his lost pouch of sand.
What do these clues mean? That there are connections throughout time and stories and dreams. They are not clues that add up to a single, simple pattern, but instead clues that suggest networks and webs; palimpsests, resonances, echoes. In its early issues, The Sandman created a sense of depth through allusions to an array of cultural and, particularly, comics figures, but now we are far enough in that the series itself lends its own recursive depth.
History, too, offers echoes and allusions. In “Thermidor”, the French Revolution provides the setting, but it is a French Revolution into which a bit of Greek myth has been inserted.
The great revelation of this issue is not Johanna Constantine or the Reign of Terror, but Orpheus’s head. It is what Dream has sent Lady Johanna to find, and the revelation is the reason: Orpheus is The Sandman’s son.
This would have surprised the Greeks, I expect, for though both Orpheus and Morpheus come from their tales, Orpheus’s uncertain parentage was not, as far as I know, ever ascribed to the dream god. It’s a nice touch here, and makes at least as much sense as saying Orpheus’s father was Apollo, as some storytellers did. Orpheus’s songs could dazzle anyone who heard them — a power not so far outside the power of dreams.
Tennessee Williams described his 1957 play Orpheus Descending as “a play about unanswered questions that haunt the hearts of people and the difference between continuing to ask them … and the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all, but expedient adaptations or surrender to a state of quandary.” That’s a fine description of what The Sandman is up to now and then; there is much, even at this point in the story, that we do not know, and at least some of the answers that have been offered through the series have turned out to be hollow. The most compelling unanswered questions in the story, as in nearly every story, are the ones that haunt our hearts.
For instance, while “Thermidor” is, on its surface, a sort of horror comic about a misplaced head, it’s actually about much more — Orpheus and his father, certainly, but also the Reign of Terror and the excuses that powerful people make for their atrocities. “Thermidor” gives us a supernatural explanation for the end of the Reign of Terror, and in doing so trivializes the actual history, but the purpose and import of the tale lies elsewhere. It is no accident, for instance, that we get a glimpse of the imprisoned Thomas Paine, the rebel conscience of liberty who was so often disillusioned (and abused!) by the actual revolutions he lived through. Johanna quotes Paine to Orpheus on the last page of “Thermidor”: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly” (a statement from The Crisis, which began, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”). She tells him this to comfort Orpheus about the unanswered question of his father’s love. The personal and political reflect each other, and the dramas of history play themselves out in miniature within even the most immortal families. All hearts, it turns out, can be haunted.
One of my favorite plays of the last decade or two is Sarah Ruhl’s lyrical and surreal Eurydice. Early in the play, Orpheus writes a letter to Eurydice in which he says, “Last night I dreamed that we climbed Mount Olympus and we started to make love and all the strands of your hair were little faucets and water was streaming out of your head and I said, why is water coming out of your hair? And you said, gravity is very compelling.”
Telling stories of the past, we find the gravity in history — we let its force bring order to all the long-lost yesterdays. We know from primary sources that the past is a place of revolution and mass murder, of corrupted ideals and shattered hopes, where rulers walk amidst the flotsam of lives they have sacrificed for their own purposes. But with imagination, the old world can also be a place for a lost head to ache for a father’s care. History is a dream, and the gravity of its unanswered questions is very compelling.
Stories and their tellers, dreams and their dreamers; history, myth, overlapping realities — “The Hunt” is in many ways a prototypical Sandman story.
The layers of storytelling in “The Hunt” are numerous, with nearly every character at least briefly a teller or receiver of tales. The frame story gives us the grandfather as narrator and his granddaughter as audience. She’s not really a stand-in for us, as I expect most readers will not be as impatient as she, for, unlike her, we’ve come to this story deliberately.
I was struck by the granddaughter’s surprise at the end that her grandfather was, apparently, telling a story about himself. I thought she’d figured this out. On the third page, she expressed surprise that the character in the story was named Vassily. “But that’s…” she begins, and we can fill in the rest of the sentence easily enough. Her grandfather responds, “It’s a pretty common name, anyway…” and continues on with his story.
On the last page, as the grandfather makes his way out of the room, he finishes his tale with some first-person pronouns, and the penultimate panel shows the granddaughter’s face in an expression I read as surprise while she says, “Grandfather?” (with the letters in bold). Of course, this could mean many things, as we do not have enough information to interpret her response definitively — it could be that she wants to talk to him about how his medications are interacting with each other, and if any of them have a known side-effect of delusions; or perhaps she wants to warn him about an impending full moon; or maybe she wants to apologize for having been rude and impatient. To my mind, the most likely interpretation, though, is that she is expressing surprise that this story is, to her grandfather at least, more than just a story. She had, at the top of the page, said, “Give me a break,” when her grandfather insisted it was a true story, but it is the personal perspective that seems to throw her into reflection at the end.
Most of the last page is devoted to the granddaughter interpreting her grandfather’s story as a warning to her about a boyfriend her parents apparently don’t approve of, a boyfriend who is not one of them, however they (“the people”) are defined. The grandfather has suggested that the story reveals “where you come from” and “who you are”, but the granddaughter doesn’t see it that way: “It’s sexist,” she says, “it’s insular, and the moral is that The People are happy with The People. Big surprise.”
She has quite fully missed the point.
The granddaughter spends the first half of the story annoying her grandfather by interrupting him (even calling his tale “suspiciously post-modern”) until he threatens to rip her throat out with his teeth the next time she interrupts. She interrupts only once more, with a clarifying question about the realness of the emerald heart of Koschei the Deathless, a moment that allows the grandfather to insert more ambiguity into the story’s realities: “You shouldn’t trust the storyteller,” he says. “Only trust the story.” (And he doesn’t rip her throat out with his teeth, proving that, indeed, he is not entirely trustworthy.)
Within the story itself, ideas of value are of much importance. The old woman in the woods tells Vassily, “Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.” A few pages later, Lucien, who is himself quite literally in dreams most of the time, says to Vassily, “Value’s in the mind of the buyer, not the peddler.” These ideas resonate with ones we’ve encountered in other issues of The Sandman, particularly those concerning the destination of souls after death and the power of the Endless over mortals: both are contingent upon human belief and desire, at least to some extent. The old woman is right that value is in what people think (and believe, and want), but she’s wrong that it’s not in what’s real: separating reality and belief is, in the world of The Sandman, a perilous, and likely impossible, task, and what is believed quite often creates what is real.
When Dream discovers Lucien and Vassily in the library, he pays Vassily’s price for book, delivering him to the bedroom of the beautiful maiden. Vassily gives her her portrait and leaves, which causes the grandfather to say, “The Lord of Dreams knew that wishes are sometimes best left ungranted…” Desire is often more pleasurable, more invigorating, than its fulfillment. Reality has a hard time competing with dreams.
All of which brings us back to the value of stories, to their interpretation and meaning, to their power.
The granddaughter’s interpretation of the tale at the end calls to mind something the great satirist Tom Lehrer once said: “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” The same is true of stories (no surprise there; life and stories are seldom separable). Desire, too, is a necessity for pleasure — the granddaughter clearly didn’t desire her grandfather’s story, and so had no way to value it. Perhaps it was a story she needed, but we often don’t desire the stories we need until too late; thus, we value the stories we need quite wrongly, and miss their points. Without a desire for the story, the granddaughter could never give herself over to it completely, could never find real pleasure in it. Real sympathy with a story requires pleasure as a gateway.
And so she is left to stare into the darkness as her grandfather closes the door for the night. Perhaps she will think about the story more, perhaps she will gain some insight from it now that she has a new way of sympathizing with it. Perhaps she will just go to sleep … and dream.
We, the audience beyond the audience, desired this story, and so it repays us with pleasure.
A week or two before I read “August”, I watched Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane, supposedly the first feature performed entirely in Latin. St. Sebastian, the subject of Jarman’s movie, lived two hundred years after Augustus Caesar, the subject of this issue of The Sandman, and I mention it only because both items reminded me of what a terrible student of Latin I had been in high school. I’d taken the language because I’d been told it was an excellent way to learn more about the English language, and to some extent I suppose this is true (when grammarians eventually decided to try to tame the wild English tongue, they applied the rules of Latin grammar, since Latin was respectable; this is the source of some of the most ridiculous crotchets of pedants, such as the command to never split an infinitive — infinitives in Latin are one word, so can’t be split. But I digress…)
I found Latin, though, immensely boring, because memorizing declensions and conjugations is only slightly more appealing to me than doing math, which is only slightly more appealing to me than sitting in the hot sun while buried up to the neck in a manure pile. My most persistent Latin teacher finally gave up and just showed various episodes of I, Claudius to our class, but I think I napped during them, because I have no memory of the show whatsoever. Perhaps he should have shown us A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which at least has the virtue of amusing and eminently memorable music.
In college, I did not take Latin, but I did take an art history course focused on ancient Greek and Roman art. I nearly failed it, because the class was taught by a woman who was only a few years younger than Augustus and who was convinced that all students are lazy idiots. She sought to prove that conviction by showing us 500 identical slides during every class and then giving us quizzes on their differences. I discovered that memorizing all the minutia of Greek and Roman architecture was only slightly more appealing to me than memorizing declensions and conjugations.
Thankfully, we do not need to know any Latin or anything about Roman art to be able to enjoy “August”, which offers an interesting take on the idea of a ruler pretending to be a commoner, and finishes with a tidy explanation for why Rome fell. (Now, the writings of Edward Gibbon are things I can enjoy; his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire contains many delights, even if you are as indifferent as I to the actual history of the eponymous empire. His explanation for the decline and fall is somewhat more involved than Neil Gaiman’s, but Gibbon needed to get six volumes of complex sentences out of his explanation, so we shouldn’t be too hard on him about it.)
In “August”, the emperor has banned all acting (except for the performances of Lycius) and says, “I don’t like actors. It’s a profession based on lies and disrespect. Pretending to be what you are not.” Such a belief is a cousin to Plato’s argument that poetry is by its very nature a dangerous falsehood, and the argument is a cousin to any suspicion of stories that depict impossible events and characters. And yet here is the emperor, pretending to be something he is not (a beggar) in a story that is at least slightly fantastic.
He doesn’t know it’s fantastic, though. He believes in gods and dreams, as any sane character in The Sandman should. And he nurses a hatred for Julius Caesar, his uncle and adopted father, who raped him repeatedly. Caesar wanted the prophecy of Rome’s eternal power to come true, and so Augustus set in motion all that would lead such a prophecy to prove false, for, as the old Lycius writes, “…in his will Augustus also appointed Tiberius as his successor: our divine rulers have, since then, been successively evil, mad, foolish, and — now — all three.”
Yet this, too, is a story — one told by Lycius. He is established as the narrator, although Augustus’s memories (which provide an answer to why Rome suffered so much evil, madness, and foolishness, and which appear on a black background with black as the dominant hue in the panels) are outside that narration. Or is it? Acting, after all, is a profession based on lies and disrespect, and Lycius is first an actor. There is no command that we must trust him to be a reliable narrator.
Part of Plato’s objection to poetry was that it is based in mimesis, imitation: a poet creates a persona and speaks through a character’s voice, and the audience suspends disbelief and thinks the character speaks rather than the poet. This is not, according to Plato, a healthy path to truth.
It can make for good storytelling, though. There’s probably not much literal truth to the idea that Augustus doomed the whole Roman Empire, or even to the idea that he was raped by Caesar, but it makes for a good story, and it suggests truths about rulers and their all-too-human lives, about stories, about power, about history.
Jarman’s film Sebastiane is no more literally truthful than “August”, but it, too, shows the value of mimesis as a path toward truths accessible only via falsehoods — it is a vivid representation of various eroticisms and violence among Roman soldiers at a distant outpost. It contains a rapturous and tender scene of love between two men, a scene that lasts almost ten minutes, as well as powerful scenes of violence, jealousy, and obsession. To watch it as a historical documentary would be to miss the point spectacularly, and yet the use of Latin and the at least vaguely historically accurate sets, costumes, and props allow us some necessary distance from the present — a distance necessary because our brains like to make leaps.
We watch Sebastiane, we read “August”, and we encounter representations of sex and violence, religion and politics — the stuff of stories and life, the stuff of dreams. The setting is essential to the specific tale being told, but it is not essential to the ideas. The falseness of the tale fuels the truths our minds will mine from it. “August” is not a history of Rome, but a story set in something created from the signs and traces of “Rome”, and so it is a story that is about people who happen to be placeable in that place, not a story of the place itself. This is the way stories suggest a certain universalism from their specific details — we know this is not really Rome (any more than a street sign with a picture of a pedestrian is a pedestrian), and the mimesis allows us to extrapolate from the world of the story to our own world in a way that the most literal truth, leaden with facticity, can not.
And so, whether filled with Latin or not, our delighted brains leap.
Marco Polo makes a perfect Sandman character because the book by which we know him best, The Travels of Marco Polo, does not exist in a definitive edition, and was first written down by Rustichello da Pisa, who was jailed with Polo in Genoa at the end of the thirteenth century. No definitive edition of the book exists, nor does it even have a stable name — it’s been published as Description of the World, Books of the Marvels of the World, and Oriente Poliano, among other titles.
Though Rustichello had written an Arthurian romance before he collaborated on the Travels, and though certain episodes in the book resemble certain episodes in that previous volume, and though there is good reason to disbelieve some of Polo’s adventures — nonetheless, the book seems to have been based on notes Polo took, and some of its descriptions of people and their lands are vastly more accurate than just about anything we know to have been published in Europe up to that time.
With Marco Polo, then, we have a character who represents myth and reality, fiction and truth, and, most of all, the intersections of storytelling and life. All of which, of course, are among the major concerns of the Sandman series as a whole.
The story begins in A.D. 1273, early in Polo’s trip with his father to China, a trip that would last about twenty years. In “Soft Places”, Marco gets separated from his father’s caravan while crossing the Lop Desert and slips into Dream’s realm. The first page of this issue is scored with diagonal lines and panels that sit like shards on the background, giving us a sense of the wind Marco pushes against, but also a sense of worlds separating.
Soon enough, Marco meets Rustichello, who regales the young man with some of the words that will later represent Marco’s travels. The words tell of crossing the desert, of hearing sounds and voices in the wind and sand and darkness, of needing to stick close to companions. Marco has moved from a reality into a dream world and in that dream world he encounters the words that decades hence will be made from his reality, creating a dream for readers and affecting their own perceptions of reality long after Marco himself has died. The storyteller gives the protagonist the story that will be lived and later told. Reality dances with its representations; the world makes dreams and dreams make the world.
Who dreams, and who is dreamed? Rustichello and Marco both try to figure this out, but they lack the vantage and context that we (and the Dream King) possess. Thus, the curse of subjectivity: we are always the protagonist of our own story, always the dreamer and never the dreamed.
Fiddler’s Green comes in and adds complexity to it all, for though he looks like a nice old man (one who resembles G.K. Chesterton, in fact), he is actually a place, as we know from the time we spent with him through The Doll’s House. He listens to Marco’s stories, and he tells stories, too: stories of other places that are other times. (A person is a place, a place is a time.) Ghostly travelers pass by; they have spent a millennium seeking “the true world”, but they can find no answer to what world is true from anyone here.
When Rustichello asks the young Marco, “Who’s dreaming you?”, Marco begins to answer with the same answer he gave before, that nobody’s dreaming him, but before he can get all the words out, Rustichello is gone, and Marco is alone again in the strange and empty realm, until Dream himself appears. It’s the Dream we knew from the first few Sandman issues, the Dream who was captured for so long and who has only just escaped, weak and disoriented. We have now moved back (or sideways) again in time — back to a story we know, but Marco does not.
Marco shows Dream some compassion and offers him a bit of his precious water, a gesture that saves Marco, for Dream overcomes his weakness just enough to send the traveler back to the world he thinks is true and real. There, Marco’s father finds him and brings him back to the caravan. The tale ends with words we know are from the book that will be produced decades in the future from Marco’s travels: “Thus it is that the desert is crossed.” The truth is always only meaningful when it becomes a story.
“Soft Places” was published a few years before The Matrix hit movie theatres, but that film’s iconic phrase lets us know just which desert Marco has crossed: the desert of the real. The philosopher Slavo Žižek has employed the phrase provocatively, describing contemporary life as a search for the Real, but the Real is indicated and recognized only through excess and spectacle. Unlike fiction, in which techniques of verisimilitude make readers accept the unreal as real, “the Real itself, in order to be sustained, has to be perceived as a nightmarish unreal spectre.”
Marco has no need of nightmarish unreal spectres at the end of “Soft Places”; his father’s presence is enough to convince him he is no longer dreaming. His later stories, though, will share such spectres, and some of those spectres will even haunt later realities, as explorers and diplomats shape their worlds from Rustichello’s representation of Marco’s words. Nightmarish or not, globally spectacular or intimately ordinary, the real and unreal rely on each other.
Who is the dreamer, who the dreamed? Who tells the story, and who lives it? Often, it is impossible to know.
What we can know, though, is that it’s a good idea to share water with the travelers we encounter in the desert of the real.
The Song of Orpheus
Hearing the same story over and over is tedious, but hearing variations on a familiar story can be fun, as we’ve seen many times in The Sandman. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the best-known of the Greek myths, and in a first reading of “Orpheus” (or “The Song of Orpheus” as its chapters are titled) the interest lies in comparing our knowledge, however vague, of how the traditional story progresses with our experience of how it takes shape here. Will Eurydice die and enter the underworld? Will Orpheus seek her? Will one of them turn around and thus cast Eurydice back into eternal death? How will the old myth mix with the new myth?
He looked back. That is the defining moment, the moment when Orpheus and Eurydice lose each other. This particular version of the story gives us not only the fullness of the love that impells Orpheus to glance back, but also a connection between that glance and another one yearned for and not received. In The Sandman, Orpheus suffers two losses: Eurydice and his father. The last three panels depict the father walking away from the last remnants of his son and refusing to turn around, refusing a final glance — refusing any indication of love.
Go back now and reread the last page of “Thermidor” and Orpheus’s words to Johanna Constantine gain even more pathos: “Johanna, he must care for me, do you not think so? If my father did not care for me, he would not have had you rescue me.”
His father never even tried to look back.
It brings to mind the famous poem by Philip Larkin that begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”
Are all stories at heart stories of parents and children? Probably not. (All generalizations are wrong.) But many stories that on their surface seem to be about something else can be traced back to those difficult, vexing, ever-imperfect relationships that so deeply shape who we are.
In discussing “Thermidor”, I mentioned Sarah Ruhl’s extraordinary play Eurydice, which in some ways feels like the other half of the tale Neil Gaiman tells here, for among its strands and fragments of story is one it returns to more than others: the story of Eurydice and her father. They reunite in the underworld, and Eurydice faces a terrible choice: between returning with Orpheus or staying with dad. (The Chorus of Stones says, “Father is not a word that dead people understand.” The chorus is wrong.) Something in this tale makes us want to think about the relationships between parents and children.
“Orpheus” is not only the story of a father and son, but of a family. We see the Endless in their Greek personas, and once again see their differences of personality and temperament. Orpheus is a member of an extraordinary family, but perhaps one of the reasons stories of royalty and gods appeal to us is that they offer broad outlines of behaviors and struggles familiar to us. Certainly, there is comfort in stories that show people like us going through life in familiar ways, but there is another kind of comfort in recognizing our own patterns in larger-than-life lives. They fuck you up, your mum and dad, even if they’re eternal gods.
We see these worlds and stories reflected against each other on pages 20 and 21, with the first page showing Olethros (better known among the Endless as Destruction) creating a rift between worlds so that Orpheus can visit his aunt, Death. The next page then shows a modest 20th century room, one with a green chair in desperate need of some new upholstery. There’s a fish bowl on a table and a family portrait on the wall. The effect within the story is very different from the effect for the reader — the first page is fantastical and amazing to us; the second page seems utterly mundane. But to Orpheus the effect is nearly the reverse. A portal between realms is not quite mundane to him, but such magic is not entirely unexpected in his world, and he seems to understand the powers of his relatives. As a man from ancient Greece, however, he is overwhelmed by a very ordinary 20th century room. He has no context for such a place, no way to know what to expect, no method to understand the objects around him.
Expectations and experiences shape our understanding not only of objects, but of life. This is one of the reasons stories so often consider the ways characters were raised, or the people who raised them — many of us shape our lives in reaction to our upbringing. We try to hold onto what seemed good and to discard what did not; we try to differentiate ourselves from our parents only to discover years later that we have circled back to resemble them.
We become variations on the lives that shaped our lives. Orpheus, lacking a body or, apparently, any significant powers, is very different from his many-bodied and ever-powerful father. The Sandman, for all his enigmatic qualities, seems similarly scarred by yearning, and in Season of Mists he made his own quest into a forbidden realm to retrieve a lost love. He himself consigned Nada to her fate, and was more successful at freeing her than Orpheus was at freeing Eurydice, but their pain rhymes.
There is a significant difference, though, between the actions of Oneiros and Orpheus.
He looked back.
His father never even tried to look back.
Sometimes, even in defeat, the son achieves more than the father.
The Parliament of Rooks
Before we get all philosophical and meditative (which we will), let’s begin by considering the many forms of the human and non-human characters in “Parliament of Rooks”. A lot of credit goes, I expect, to penciller Jill Thompson, who moves from the very thin lines of Lyta and her son Daniel, figures in a world of primarily horizontal and vertical shapes, to the rougher, thicker lines and shapes of the Dreaming, where the characters need to align with their representations from previous Sandman issues and from their incarnations in other comics. In addition to all that — enough to give even a talented artist a headache — somebody, most likely either Thompson or Gaiman, decided to depict Abel’s story of the early days of Death and Dream as a mix of anime and what looks to my eyes like some sort of Saturday morning TV cartoon show from the ’80s (it’s the sheep that creates this association for me; I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly why).
For a story about stories, these eclectic representations of characters give a visual correlative to the magpie narrative elements. Even if we don’t pick up on all the allusions, our eyes discern differences. It’s true for Vince Locke’s coloring as well — the soft pastel world of Lyta and Daniel shifts to the stronger, fuller hues of the Dreaming. (Interestingly, the panels depicting the story of Adam and Lilith share some of the qualities of Lyta and Daniel’s waking world.)
The shift from Daniel’s bedroom into the dreaming is beautifully drawn and colored, with the rigid geometry of the room shifting into the irregular lines and curves of the Dreaming and the generally light colors dominating the panels now replaced by the vivid green of Gregory. The continuing alphabet in the third panel is a lovely touch, too — in the waking world, Z nearly touches the wall, while in the Dreaming, the alphabet continues with new symbols.
The dream here is a transfigured Christian one, of course, with Cain and Abel and Eve and Lilith (interestingly, what Gaiman has done here is bring the more-comic-than-Christian representation of Cain and Abel into contact with canonical and apocryphal figures from Genesis — and so there is no hierarchy of canon and apocrypha, whether from the gospel of comics or the gospel of the church, only unity of the story at hand). Reading it made me want to brush up my Christian history, particularly the works of Elaine Pagels, whose The Gnostic Gospels I first read in an undergraduate writing course. (It was paired with The Celestine Prophecy because the teacher said it would show us the difference between good and bad writing, with Pagels as an example of good and The Celestine Prophecy as an example of the hilariously awful.) Pagels’s book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity would be entirely appropriate here, but I haven’t read it, and it’s too late to try to convince Pagels to take over this Sandman Meditation for me. I now have a fantasy of sitting her down, making her read “Parliament of Rooks”, and recording her thoughts on it…
One of the things I remember most vividly about The Gnostic Gospels is that it completely changed my understanding of something I thought I already knew: the Christian origin story. I’d never been particularly religious — indeed, for an assignment for that writing class we were to go to a place we’d seldom, if ever, been before, and I went to church — but I had read a lot of the Bible in a sort of geeky way, trying to see why it was so popular, trying to see into its patterns, and yet despite this reading, I had completely missed the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 until I encountered The Gnostic Gospels. I had previously thought of the Bible as a coherent text, or at least had thought the Old and New Testaments were coherent, and though I knew the word apocrypha, I knew it in a more literary sense, since I probably first discovered it in high school when reading some of the apocryphal Shakespeare plays during a period of intense obsession with all things Shakespearean.
The Gnostic Gospels was an incredibly difficult book for me to read, because it offered so much new information and such a new perspective on a text I’d previously considered pretty stable. My brain just didn’t know how to assimilate what Pagels discussed. It became one of those books that was an important reading experience, but that on a first reading I barely comprehended.
It might have helped if I’d known about The Sandman. I was reading The Gnostic Gospels in early 1995, so “Parliament of Rooks” had been out for a few years, and if I had known of it then, I would have enjoyed it, I’m sure, and would have been better prepared to understand that even the most sacred stories are valuable not because they’re sacred, but because they’re stories. I might have wondered about this Lilith character and these tales of Eves and Adams, and I might have gone back to the Bible and taken a second look at Genesis and discovered what a truly strange and contradictory text it is. Then, when I got to The Gnostic Gospels a few years later, I might have been prepared to do more than just compare its many and complex elegances to the clunky simplicities of The Celestine Prophecy. (It was a great lesson in writing, though.)
Maybe I’ll send Elaine Pagels a copy of Fables & Reflections, its tales as elegantly complex as some of her own work, despite the vast differences in form between scholarly Biblical history and graphic novels.
I wouldn’t be surprised if she sent a note back: “Thanks … I’ll add it to the 20 I already have. They make perfect holiday gifts! Sandman’s pretty great, isn’t it?”
(Yes, this is what I do with my spare time now: Dream about sending gifts of comic books to eminent scholars.)
What do we do with all this, then? All these stories and dreams, speculations and gospels?
What do we ever do with them?
We keep them going, our stories and dreams, we perpetuate them and analyze them, riff on them, blow them up, scream against them, let them into our souls, worship them, cower in fear of them. We may not all be religious, but the one common element of humanity, it seems to me, at least right now, is, as “Parliament of Rooks” and The Sandman as a whole suggest, a certain faith in storytelling. There’s a world out there someplace, but how do we separate the thing itself from the tales we tell about it?
Perhaps somewhere in The Sandman lurks the 17th century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón, whose most famous play is La Vida es Sueño — Life is a Dream.
Dreams are the apocrypha to the canon of the world.
UPDATE: A portion of this essay is based on a misreading. Not just a questionable interpretation or one of my more idiosyncratic reveries — no, literally a misreading, and one I did not learn about until after my mistake was already public. Please see the note at the end.
“Ramadan” is the final story in Fables & Reflections and was originally published as the fiftieth issue of Sandman. Appropriately, it’s a stunner. P. Craig Russell’s art is rich and imaginative, given extraordinarily vivid coloring by Digital Chameleon, and the story itself is one that seems simple for much of its length and then, in the last pages, gains new complexity and resonance.
All of the Fables & Reflections stories explore the connections between storytelling and dreaming, fantasy and reality; The Sandman as a whole does this generally, of course, but the theme is especially clear in each of the tales collected in Fables & Reflections. “Ramadan” ends the collection by giving us an especially beautiful fantasy and an especially ugly reality.
“Ramadan” is a wordy Sandman issue, but the words are beautifully woven in and among the art to help reflect the centrality of stories to this story (the large text box on page eight is particularly beautiful, and not only because of the lettering; long and narrow, it echoes the many other vertical lines in the panel). The words are elements of the artwork, inseparable from its balance and texture, and yet they also serve a purpose of their own as symbols for communication, symbols of tale-telling.
The central section of “Ramadan”, though, is not primarily about stories, but rather about Haroun Al Raschid’s attempt to preserve Baghdad for eternity in its best form. Through his peregrinations, we see not only the city and its wonders, but also the wonders that Haroun himself has stocked in his palace. He is a waking-world analogue for some aspects of Dream, the king of the wonders of sleep. His offer to give Baghdad to the Dream King if it can be preserved in this, its best form, forever, presents us with one of the problems of utopia — if it is perfect, then it must never change.
Utopia poses a problem for storytelling, because stories about perfection are seldom interesting. Traditional narratives, at least, thrive on change and conflict. Dystopias are appealing because they promise a struggle for change, a rise toward something better, but utopias can only promise a fall from or corruption of paradise.
Haroun Al Raschid gives Baghdad to the Sandman in exchange for eternal life for himself.* It’s not clear why he wants this, but I assume he thinks he’ll remain a powerful Caliph for eternity. Of course, that’s not what Dream has in mind for him.
I must admit, I do not understand the appeal of immortality. Life without end sounds like punishment, not reward. But then, as friends remind me occasionally, I have what seems to other people a particularly bleak view of life and death, though I just think of my view as pragmatic and unsentimental, not bleak. Even the happiest of people feels pain and anxiety now and then, and since I am utterly without belief in an afterlife, I expect consciousness ends at death, which then means the end of pain and anxiety. That seems more like a reward to me than immortality does. If I’d been Haroun Al Raschid, I would have asked Dream to give me a painless death that caused no suffering or unhappiness to my friends and family.
It’s not like my staunchly anti-spiritual view is grotesquely different from the spiritual version, either — if it were, nobody who thinks their view of things is less bleak than mine would say of the deceased, “Now they’re in a better place,” or “Now they can rest,” or something similar. Of course, if you believe in Hell, there’s a bit of risk in death, but who really and truly believes both that Hell exists and they themselves will be going there? (In the world of The Sandman, as we’ve seen, the denizens of Hell do seem to believe they’re getting what they deserve. In the world we live in, I bet such people are rare. Even flagellants, if they’re not merely masochists, think they’re raising their chances of entering Paradise. For masochists, of course, Hell is Paradise.)
As for Haroun Al Raschid, he certainly isn’t a strict believer; again and again he shows himself willing to violate the tenets of Ramadan. Perhaps this is a symptom of his arrogance or a signal of his hypocrisy.
Ramadan takes on a different weight on the extraordinary last page of this issue. Here, the starving boy Hassan in a bombed-to-rubble Baghdad has no trouble fasting, given how scarce food is. He hopes for (dreams of!) the perfect Baghdad preserved in a bottle, the story he has heard, the story we have just read. It’s a pleasant story, a nice fantasy to help him through the misery of his days.
It’s not a fantasy those of us who live in countries that helped destroy Baghdad should be comfortable indulging in, though. When “Ramadan” was written, Baghdad still had a chance of surviving as something other than rubble. There’s a lot more rubble in the city now, a lot more children like Hassan. The last page of “Ramadan” feels sadly prescient now, making the dream of a perfectly preserved, glittering Baghdad the sort of dream a person wakes up from in tears.
* In the third panel of page 28 of “Ramadan” (page 254 in Fables & Reflections), Haroun says, “In exchange, I want it never to die. To live forever.” I read those words many times, and every time I did, I missed the word “it”. I was certain Haroun said, “I want never to die,” and so I thought he was asking for immortality in exchange for giving the city to Dream. I thought Dream would agree to the deal because it would amuse him in some way to watch Haroun get something he thought he wanted, and discover that it’s not nearly as much fun as he expected. And I then assumed the old man on the last page — the narrator — was really Haroun, making his way slowly through eternity. (As the struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels could tell you, immortality doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t age.)
But that’s not this story. Haroun gets nothing but the preservation of the city. That makes him a rather different character from the one I read him to be.
Why was I blind to the actual words? I don’t know. I would normally say it was the result of hasty reading, but I didn’t read “Ramadan” hastily. I enjoyed it a lot and reread it a few times over two days. But because I had let my idea of the story solidify in my mind, I saw what I thought was there — what I expected to be there — rather than what actually was.