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.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.