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.
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.