Neil Gaiman 1960-
(Full name Neil Richard Gaiman) English graphic novelist, novelist, short-story writer, editor, children's writer, television writer, radio play writer, and screenplay writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Gaiman's career through 2004.
Gaiman is a central figure in the emergence of the “graphic novel,” a genre which combines novelistic storylines with comic-book graphics. Gaiman has won numerous awards for his bestselling, critically acclaimed graphic novels and illustrated prose novels that combine elements of science fiction, Gothic horror, dark fantasy, age-old legend, ancient mythology, and biblical allegory in modern-day settings. His stories have been hailed as myths for the modern world, exploring with sophistication, complexity, and a postmodern sensibility the enduring power of dreams, storytelling, and the imagination in life at the turn of the millennium. Gaiman is best known for his epic graphic novel series The Sandman (1990-97), depicting episodes in the adventures of Morpheus, the Dream Lord, a mythical character who rules over the realm of human dreams and nightmares. The immense popularity of Gaiman’s works has earned him a cult-like celebrity status among his many adoring and enthusiastic fans and spawned a host of product tie-ins, such as T-shirts, posters, calendars, and toys. Jeff Zeleski quotes Gaiman’s film agent, Jon Levin, as saying that Gaiman “is able to synthesize ancient mythology with the current zeitgeist. His characters, no matter how fantastical the world, are essentially human.”
Gaiman was born November 10, 1960, in Portchester, England. His father owned a vitamin-pill factory and his mother was a pharmacist. As a child, Gaiman was a voracious reader. “I loved comics when I was growing up,” he told novelist Steve Erickson in an interview, “and I never saw any reason why they should be considered inferior. I thought they could have as much power and passion and elegance as any other medium.” While influenced by British fantasy novelists such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Gaiman found American comic books more compelling than their British counterparts. As a teenager, he became disillusioned with the comic book medium as a whole, feeling it had nothing new to offer. However, with the emergence of the graphic novel form in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gaiman was inspired by the possibilities of this new development in the comic book genre. He was especially influenced by the comic book series The Swamp Thing, written by Alan Moore and published during the mid-1980s. Gaiman graduated from Whitgift School in 1977, at age sixteen. Intending to one day become a comic book writer, he decided to work first as a journalist, in order to learn more about the publishing industry. During the 1980s, he lived in London and worked as a freelance journalist and editor. Before making a name for himself as a graphic novelist, Gaiman wrote several nonfiction books on commission, such as Duran, Duran (1984), a history of the popular rock band of the same name, and Don’t Panic (1987), a companion guide to the satirical science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. He collaborated with his friend Dave McKean, an artist, on Violent Cases (1987), his first comic book publication. Violent Cases was soon published as a graphic novel, and Gaiman was invited by DC Comics, the purveyor of many of the twentieth-century’s classic comic book heroes, to write a comic book based on one of their already-created superheroes from the 1940s. Gaiman thus wrote an updated story based on the classic comic book heroine Black Orchid. He next turned to the little-known DC Comics character of the Sandman, completely reinventing this classic superhero on his own terms. Gaiman has since authored numerous graphic novels, short stories, prose novels, and children’s books. He served as Chair of the Society of Comic Strip Illustrators from 1988 to 1990 and sits on the advisory board of the International Museum of Cartoon Art. He is a major contributor and active fundraiser for the Comic Legal Defense Fund, an anti-censorship lobbying organization. Gaiman lives in Minnesota with his American-born wife and their three children.
The Sandman series comprises seventy-five volumes, totaling over a million words of text, which were originally published as individual comic books between 1988 and 1996 and republished in ten multi-volume hardcover books. The eponymous hero of the Sandman series, who is also called Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming and the Prince of Stories, is a member of a family of seven supernatural beings, known collectively as the Endless, each one representing different states of mind: Death, Delirium, Desire, Destruction, Despair, Destiny, and Dream. The figure of Death is depicted as a good-natured young woman dressed in the fashion of punk-rock, while Delirium is depicted as a loquacious girl with green and pink hair who walks around with a pet fish on a leash. The Sandman himself, called Dream, is depicted as a scrawny, sallow man with deep sunken eyes and a shock of black hair. Dream rules over The Dreaming, a fantastical realm which humans can enter only when they sleep. The accoutrements necessary to his powers include a pouch of magical sand, a helmet, and a ruby dream jewel. Gaiman informed DC Comics that he wished to end the Sandman series while it was at its height, rather than continuing it indefinitely. He thus describes the death of the Sandman in issue sixty-nine, although the series continued for six more issues before the epic tale was complete. Gaiman has since published several spin-off graphic novels that feature the Sandman but are separate from the storyline of the original series. One such spin-off is Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999), which is based on a Japanese folk tale and features a badger, a monk, and a female fox. The fox falls in love with the gentle monk, and she enters the realm of the Dreaming ruled by the Sandman in an attempt to save the monk from harm. Sandman: Endless Nights (2003), another Sandman spin-off graphic novel, comprises seven tales, each focused on one of the seven siblings in the Endless family, with each tale illustrated by a different artist. In addition to the Sandman opus, Gaiman has authored numerous other graphic novels. Violent Cases chronicles episodes from the nightmares of a young boy and is based on tales he heard of the Depression-era gangster Al Capone. The adult narrator of Violent Cases looks back on these childhood dreams in an attempt to make sense of the adult he has become. Gaiman won the 1988 Eagle Award for best graphic novel for Violent Cases. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994), another stand-alone graphic novel not part of the Sandman opus, is the coming-of-age story of a young boy, chronicling his encounters with a mean-spirited puppeteer of the classic Punch & Judy puppet shows and a woman costumed as a mermaid. 1602 (2003), planned as an eight-issue graphic novel published by Marvel Comics, is a science fiction story about mutants living in Elizabethan England.
Gaiman has authored a number of fantasy/science-fiction/horror novels that place mythological characters and stories in settings familiar to contemporary life. Some of these works, though written in the prose form of the novel, are accompanied by extensive illustrations by some of the same artists with whom he has collaborated on his graphic novels. Good Omens (1990), co-authored with Terry Pratchett, is a satire based on the biblical prophecy of Armageddon, the apocalyptic battle described in Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Gaiman’s story concerns the fate of a reluctant child Antichrist at the hands of Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demonic serpent, who battle over his soul. Gaiman offers humorous juxtapositions of biblical mythology and modern society in Good Omens, with such elements as the Four Bikepersons of the Apocalypse, a riff on the biblical figures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere (1996), adapted from his teleplay for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television miniseries, concerns the adventures of Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who helps a bizarre homeless girl and is subsequently drawn into “London Below,” a fantastical underworld that exists beneath the city of London. Stardust (1998), written by Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, is an adult fairy tale narrated in the manner of British children’s stories published during the 1920s. Set in Victorian England, Stardust follows the adventures of seventeen-year-old Tristran Thorn, who journeys to Faerieland on a quest for a fallen star which he hopes to bring back to Victoria, the girl he is in love with. Gaiman received the 1999 Mythopoetic Award for best novel for adults for Stardust. American Gods (2001)—at some 450 pages Gaiman’s longest and most novelistic prose novel—follows the adventures of Shadow, a man who is released from prison only to find that his wife has died in a car accident. Shadow aimlessly takes a job as a bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday with whom he sets out on a road trip across the American Midwest. Mr. Wednesday eventually reveals himself to be the Norse god Odin, while his companion Nancy is revealed to be Anansi, a trickster spider from African mythology. In their company, Shadow finds himself in an alternate reality where he is drawn into a war between the old gods of mythology and religion and the modern gods of technology and mass media. Gaiman’s American Gods was the first work ever to win all four of the major “speculative fiction” awards for best novel: the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award.
Gaiman has published several picture books for young children, such as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1996), The Wolves in the Walls (2003), and a short illustrated novel Coraline (2002), aimed at young adult readers. Coraline has been compared to the classic children’s story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and relates the adventures of a girl who discovers a magic door in her house, which at first opens onto a bricked-up wall but later allows her to step across its threshold into an alternate reality. In the world inside the door, Coraline finds that she has two creepy alternate parents, with pale complexions and black button eyes, who wish to keep her. She struggles to escape back through the door and into her house but finds that her real parents have been taken into the alternate world, and she must go back in to save them from the nefarious alternate parents. Gaiman received the 2002 World Science Fiction Society Bram Stoker Award for best work for young readers and the 2003 Hugo Award for best novella, both for Coraline.
Gaiman’s graphic novels and prose novels have been almost universally acclaimed. Many reviewers applauded Gaiman’s inventiveness as well as his skill at maintaining complex, multi-layered storylines throughout the Sandman series. Gaiman is further credited as having a significant impact on the elevation of the comic book genre to the status of serious literature. As Frank McConnell noted, “What [Gaiman] has done with Sandman is establish the fact that a comic book can be a work of high and very serious art—a story that other storytellers, in whatever medium they work, will have to take into account as an exploration of what stories can do and what stories are for.” Steve Erickson noted that Sandman is “literate and sophisticated by any measure, let alone that of comic books,” as well as being “complex to the point of labyrinthine, non-linear to the point of vertiginous.” In portraying the narrative breadth and wide-ranging complexity of Gaiman’s tale, Erickson described the Sandman series as “an open-ended epic[;] the narrative, and the stories within it, and the stories within the stories, move from the atriums of ancient Greek myth to the veldt of African folklore, from the French Revolution to modern-day Manhattan, from the tale of a man who has decided never to die to the bodiless head of Orpheus begging someone to kill him, from Shakespeare making the terrible bargain that will transform him from hack to genius, to Thomas Paine muttering in his jail cell about the ideal that betrayed him, from a novelist who locks his muse in his attic, defiling her for black inspiration, to a convention of serial killers in the American South with a guest of honor who swallows peoples’ eyes.” In his book Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell (2003), Stephen Rauch drew on the theories of mythical archetypes put forth by Joseph Campbell (in his 1949 study The Hero with a Thousand Faces) to demonstrate the ways in which the Sandman series is a work of modern mythology. Rauch argued that in Sandman Gaiman draws on existing mythological concepts to create a new mythology which speaks to modern experience. Rauch asserted that the Sandman series ultimately fulfills Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth as serving four main functions: “First, Sandman is full of wonder, both overt and subtle. Second, it tells us about the structure of the macrocosm, what the universe is like and who rules it. Third, it provides a sociology, telling us how to be good, or human, to each other. Finally, fourth, it tells us how to move through the stages of our lives, from birth to the various rites of passage of puberty, marriage, and old age, and finally death.” Gaiman’s construction of The Sandman as a meta-narrative, commenting on the role of storytelling in modern society, has also been widely praised. McConnell observed that the Sandman series as a whole represents “the history of western storytelling altogether, and especially of the stories we like to call ‘modern,’” adding, “it is simply magnificent metafiction, a story about story.”
Duran, Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five (nonfiction) 1984
Violent Cases [illustrated by Dave McKean] (graphic novel) 1987
Don't Panic: The Official “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” Companion [revised with David K. Dickson and republished as Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,” 1993] (nonfiction) 1988
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch [with Terry Pratchett] (novel) 1990
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes [illustrated by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg; originally published in The Sandman, issues 1-8 in...
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Steve Erickson (essay date 3 September 1995)
SOURCE: Erickson, Steve. “Dreamland.” Los Angeles Times (3 September 1995): 14.
[In the following essay, Erickson discusses Gaiman's career as a graphic novelist and the development of the Sandman series.]
Neil Gaiman never remembers his dreams. They are devoured by his imagination before consciousness can reach them. If he has one recurring dream, it's of a house. “I think it's always the same house,” he says, “but I don't think I've ever visited the same room twice. And the house continues for practically forever, and it's, you know, not really a house at all—it's a life.” It doesn't seem to be the house of Gaiman's childhood in England, or the...
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Frank McConnell (essay date 20 October 1995)
SOURCE: McConnell, Frank. “Epic Comics: Neil Gaiman's Sandman.” Commonweal 122, no. 18 (20 October 1995): 21-2.
[In the following essay, McConnell assesses the Sandman series as a whole and discusses Gaiman's central thematic concern with myth and storytelling.]
A few years ago I wrote a column for Commonweal (February 28, 1992) on comic books and how they had become a refuge for some very fine, and very serious, storytellers. And I signaled that Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman, was not only a wonderful comic but one of the best bits of fiction altogether being produced these days.
Now I have to make a correction....
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Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 22 July 1996)
SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil S. Review of Sandman: Book of Dreams, edited by Neil Gaiman and Edward E. Kramer. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 30 (22 July 1996): 231-32.
[In the following review of Sandman: Book of Dreams, a collection of short stories by various authors inspired by the Sandman series, edited by Gaiman and Edward E. Kramer, Steinberg asserts that the book includes some powerful writing about the realm of dreams, but that the quality of the collection as a whole is uneven.]
Though he won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 1991, Gaiman is best known as the writer who transformed the WWII-era DC Comics character the Sandman from a...
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Charles De Lint (review date April 2000)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of Sandman: The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano. Fantasy & Science Fiction 98, no. 4 (April 2000): 32-3.
[In the following review, De Lint asserts that the graphic novel Sandman: The Dream Hunters is an exquisite and evocative story by Gaiman which meshes perfectly with the illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano.]
It strikes me that writing an illustrated book presents a real risk for the author, something that requires a certain measure of bravery to undertake. The reason for that is simple.
The illustrations have the potential to undo the compact between author and reader inherent in a...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Kurt Lancaster (essay date fall 2000)
SOURCE: Lancaster, Kurt. “Neil Gaiman's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’: Shakespeare Integrated into Popular Culture.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 23, no. 3 (fall 2000): 69-77.
[In the following essay, Lancaster discusses Gaiman's award-winning story “A Midsummer's Night Dream,” based on the play by William Shakespeare, in terms of cultural divisions between “high” and “low” art. Lancaster asserts that Gaiman's story successfully integrates the mythic qualities of Shakespeare into a popular modern medium.]
How this particular man produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world almost four...
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Kera Bolonik (review date 29 July 2001)
SOURCE: Bolonik, Kera. Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. New York Times Book Review (29 July 2001): 16.
[In the following review of American Gods, Bolonik asserts that Gaiman is a masterful storyteller.]
Neil Gaiman's new book is a noirish sci-fi road trip novel in which the melting pot of the United States extends not merely to mortals but to a motley assortment of disgruntled gods and deities. Early in American Gods we are introduced to Shadow, a man who has been released from prison only to learn that his wife has died in a car crash. With nothing to return home to, Shadow accepts a job protecting Mr. Wednesday, an omniscient one-eyed...
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Neil Gaiman and Linda Richards (interview date August 2001)
SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Linda Richards. “January Interview: Neil Gaiman.” January Magazine (online magazine) wysiwyg://119/http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/gaiman.html (August 2001).
[In the following interview, Gaiman discusses the comic book industry, his development as a writer, and the significance of the Sandman series to his career as a whole.]
There's a boyishness about Neil Gaiman that makes you doubt the 40 years he claims. A bad boyishness, complete with a mop of unruly dark hair and—on the day I met with him—a black leather jacket. He wears sunglasses the whole time we speak: modishly pale ones that only just mask the...
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Charles De Lint (review date September 2001)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 101, no. 3 (September 2001): 97-8.
[In the following review, De Lint offers high praise for Gaiman's American Gods, calling it a wonderful, superbly written novel that effectively balances the light and dark elements of the story.]
Let's get this out of the way first: I'm sure a large number of Gaiman's fans (who came to his prose by way of his excellent work on The Sandman and other comic book projects) are otherwise unfamiliar with the fantasy field. They'll think that the underlying conceit of American Gods—that immigrants, however...
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Neil Gaiman and Ray Olson (interview date August 2002)
SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Ray Olson. “The Booklist Interview: Neil Gaiman.” Booklist 98, no. 22 (August 2002): 1949.
[In the following brief interview, Gaiman discusses whether his stories may accurately be categorized as horror fiction.]
English fantasist Neil Gaiman's big breakthrough was the spooky graphic novel series Sandman, one of the most lauded works of its kind. He spent eight years writing it, and it keeps on selling—all 10 volumes' worth. It often looks like horror fiction, and so, at times, do Gaiman's novels Neverwhere, Stardust, and American Gods. His new book, Coraline, is a children's novel about a girl who...
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Tom Easton (review date October 2002)
SOURCE: Easton, Tom. “The Reference Library.” Analog Science Fiction & Fact 122, no. 10 (October 2002): 130-35.
[In the following excerpt, Easton provides a brief overview of Adventures in the Dream Trade, a volume of miscellaneous writings by Gaiman.]
Neil Gaiman established himself with remarkable graphic novels (Sandman). In February 1991, I reviewed favorably his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Last year, he published American Gods to an excellent reception, and this year he was guest of honor at Boskone, the Boston-area SF con. To honor the occasion, NESFA...
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Neil Gaiman and Joseph McCabe (interview date October 2002)
SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil, and Joseph McCabe. “Hanging Out with the Dream King: Neil Gaiman on Comics and Collaborating.” Science Fiction Chronicle 24, no. 10 (October 2002): 42-6.
[In the following interview, Gaiman discusses the process of collaborating with other artists and writers on his graphic novels and illustrated novels.]
[McCabe]: I'd like to talk a little bit about your collaborations. You've worked with numerous individuals over the years, and the breadth of your collaborations is very impressive: artists, writers, musicians, and even, with the film Princess Mononoke, animator Hayao Miyazaki. I'd like to begin by just naming some of your...
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Anita L. Burkam (review date November-December 2002)
SOURCE: Burkam, Anita L. Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 755, 757.
[In the following review, Burkam asserts that Coraline is an amusing story, but comments that it could be strengthened by more backstory and greater character development.]
Out of sorts in her new home, Coraline finds a bricked-up door in the drawing room and, when her mother is out for the afternoon, discovers the bricks have gone and she can pass through to a very similar house with an “other mother” and an “other father.” These two creepy specimens (with paper-white skin and black button eyes) want her to stay and be...
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Charles De Lint (review date February 2003)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 104, no. 2 (February 2003): 30-1.
[In the following review, De Lint asserts that Coraline is Gaiman's best work of children's fiction yet, and comments that the story is enjoyable for adults as well as children.]
Is there anything Gaiman doesn't do well?
Coraline isn't his first foray into children's fiction, but it's certainly his most successful. In fact, it's astonishingly good—an instant classic, if you'll excuse the hyperbole—and one that I can imagine both children and adults reading a hundred years from now with the same...
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Jeff Zaleski (essay date 28 July 2003)
SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. “Comics! Books! Films!: The Arts and Ambitions of Neil Gaiman.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 30 (28 July 2003): 46-57.
[In the following essay, Zaleski provides an overview of Gaiman's writing projects in the media of comics, books, and film. Zaleski includes interview material with Gaiman, his agent, and his publishers.]
LOS ANGELES: CHA CHA CHA!
It's a warm L.A. night and Cha Cha Cha! is jumping. The staff of DC Comics and their supporters are crowded into the trendy restaurant on this first night of BEA [Book Expo America] 2003. Everyone is talking, laughing, sometimes shouting....
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John Giuffo (review date 17 September 2003)
SOURCE: Giuffo, John. “Re-Enter Sandman.” Village Voice 48, no. 38 (17 September 2003): 48.
[In the following review, Giuffo offers high praise for Gaiman's Sandman: Endless Nights.]
Neil Gaiman's improbable recipe for delicious literary success: Take one young British journalist disillusioned with the comics he loved as a teen, introduce an issue of Alan Moore's early-'80s boundary-expanding Swamp Thing, stir in a formerly cornball but reclaimed Golden Age DC Comics character called Sandman, season liberally with history, myth, and biblical allegory, stir in generous helpings of word of mouth, and simmer for eight years. Let congeal, then cut into 11...
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Charles De Lint (review date December 2003)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Fantasy & Science Fiction 105, no. 6 (December 2003): 26-7.
[In the following review, De Lint describes The Wolves in the Walls as “a splendid foray into the dark and strange mind of Gaiman.”]
I'd been looking forward to this book [The Wolves in the Walls] ever since I first heard Gaiman talk about it on a panel at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention. Gaiman, it turns out, is one of those rare writers who can make a work-in-progress sound really fascinating. Usually, listening to that sort of thing makes for more tedium than I care to experience...
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Stephen Rauch (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Rauch, Stephen. “‘Dream a Little Dream of Me …’: The Relationship of Dreams and Myth in Campbell, Jung, and Gaiman's Sandman,” and “The Role of the Artist and the Art of Storytelling in The Sandman.” In Neil Gaiman's “The Sandman” and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth, pp. 22-37; 117-37. Holicong, Penn.: Wildside Press, 2003.
[In the following two essays, Rauch discusses the relationship between dream and myth in Gaiman's Sandman series, drawing on the theories of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell to demonstrate the ways in which the stories function as a modern myth. The second essay focuses specifically on the role of stories and storytelling in the Sandman stories.]
“‘DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME …’: THE RELATIONSHIP OF DREAMS AND MYTH IN CAMPBELL, JUNG, AND GAIMAN'S SANDMAN,”
“A dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society's dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.”
“Dreams are weird and stupid and they scare me.”
To associate myths and dreams with one another is hardly a new enterprise. Religious traditions going back thousands of years have viewed dreams as a source of knowledge and intuition, and have connected this information with the central narratives of their traditions. If myth is to be seen as a living phenomenon that connects to all aspects of people's lives, then dreams cannot be ignored—after all, we spend a third of our lives in the realm of dreams. Modern psychologists tell us that dreams are essential to mental and physical health, but they are only telling us what we knew all along. Still, in modern times, the connection between myths and dreams has come even more into the fore. In the early twentieth century, doctors began to notice that the dreams and visions of their patients bore a striking resemblance to the motifs and narratives of various religious traditions, traditions with which the patients often had no familiarity. With the advent of Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, a new era of relationship between myth and dream was ushered in. The claim was that not only do myths and dreams share material and patterns, they come from the same place: the human psyche. This theory was developed even further by later scholars, such as Joseph Campbell, who drew analogies between the dreams of an individual, and the myths of a people.
Campbell's theory brings us to the matter at hand: what is the relationship between myth and dream in The Sandman? Certainly, this is at least a good place to start, as the series is a myth that in many places is about dreams and how they affect the lives of dreamers. Of course, the connection is even stronger than that. The central character in Sandman is Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. He presides over the Dreaming, the collective realm where dreams do not merely reflect reality; they are reality. Simply put, he lives in dreams, and as a constituent of consciousness, he is the psychological function of dreaming. Beyond Dream (the character), the structure of Sandman reflects the kinship between myths and dreams. The Dreaming is inhabited by characters taken from myth, most notably Eve, Cain, and Abel. The Dreaming itself, I would argue, is a dramatization of Jung's “collective unconscious,” making concrete what he perceived in metaphor. Finally, according to both Gaiman and Campbell, the gods themselves come from dreams, and are born and nurtured in dreams (of course, there are also other characters in the Dreaming besides gods). And in The Sandman, dreams are respected as their own form of reality. While some theories reductively pigeonhole dreams as reflections of neuroses, in Gaiman's universe, dreams are real, and this fact points to another theme in Gaiman's work, respect for inner realities. It is never “just” a dream. Rather, it is a dream, but dreams have a supreme importance. What better place, then, to start with a series about how myths are made, born, and die, than with an examination of the role of dreams. Thus, we take a ride into dreams. Pay no attention to the man in black.
One of the key principles of the relationship between myths and dreams is that they are somehow connected. Campbell says that “indeed, between the worlds of myth and dream there are many instructive analogies. When we leave the field of our waking lives … we descend into a timeless realm of the unconscious” (Transformations 206). He continues, that in dreams, “the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times” (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 4). Gaiman takes this idea to the next level, and in doing so makes a pronouncement about the nature of the gods themselves: that gods are in fact magnified dreams. With a psychological interpretation of myths, such as that used by Campbell and Jung, saying “the gods” does not refer to some outer reality, but to an inner one. Campbell says “the archetypes of mythology (God, angels, incarnations, and so forth) … are of the mind” (Masks 583). He also refers to the transformative power of religion as leading “not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within” (Power 56). In a similar vein, the gods become metaphors of inner “potentialities;” thus, myth, at its heart, is about people, and their inner worlds. Campbell asks, “What is a god? A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and the universe—the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world” (Power 22). Thus, myths are metaphorical of a deeper truth. Elsewhere, Campbell states that “gods are all metaphors of this ultimate mystery, the mystery of your own being” (Transformations 155). Beyond the fact that the gods are metaphors lies a second point, that gods are only as valid in that they reflect some aspect of our being. We care about gods not because they control fire or water or lightning, but because they are a part of us. Campbell also says that “all the gods are within: within you—within the world” (Masks 650). Put another way, “the source of the gods is in your own heart” (Hero's Journey 128). Thus, ultimately, myths are about us. And the realization of this fact is an important step for more than one character in Sandman. Of course, although dreams and myth are related, there are important differences between them, as we will see.
With this shift, from gods as physical beings to gods as metaphors of aspects of ourselves, the relationship of myth to dream comes into focus. Just as gods can function as symbols, so can elements from our dreams. The next step, then, is to identify the gods with dreams. Campbell says that “all the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs in conflict with each other” (Power 39). Then, he states that “the myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth” (40). Elsewhere, he says “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche” (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 19). At this point, if we are to accept Campbell's psychological reading of myth, the relationship between myth and dream seems well-established.
In the Power of Myth videos, Campbell also says that “myths and dreams come from the same place” (Tape 1). Of course, exactly what that “place” is may be a matter of debate. For Campbell (as for Jung) it was the unconscious, or at least the psyche. For Gaiman, it is the Dreaming. From Campbell's discussion, the most important concept in relation to The Sandman is that of gods as magnified dreams. At first glance, however, such a reading might seem as reductive as those against which Campbell rails. After all, if the gods are all metaphors, then they do not really exist. However, with The Sandman, we are dealing with a myth, a work of art, in which such beings can exist without our having to worry about whether or not they exist in the real world. In fact, one of the lessons of Sandman is that inner, imaginary worlds are just as real and valid as the solid, “real” world, and that each one of us has not just one inner world, but many.
Returning to Campbell, then, the flip-side of the gods' status as metaphors and magnified dreams, (the other side of the coin, if you will) is what happens after the gods have left the realm of dreams. In Gaiman's work, this stage is eloquently described by Ishtar, once Astarte, a goddess, now working in a seedy strip club, just before she goes off to her death: “I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there's no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams … And what comes after, not even we know” (Sandman 45:20). This quotation is filled with implications. First, of course, is the association of gods with dreams. Gods and goddesses start their journey in dreams. From one dreamer, they can spread to others, until an entire people believes in them. And one day, after being nurtured in dreams, they step out into the world, becoming gods in their own right. The immediate implication of this journey is to confirm Campbell's notion of gods as magnified dreams. However, Gaiman's treatment of the subject also runs much deeper. One implication of this is that gods, often said to be immortal, are in fact very mortal. They depend on people's worship for their very lives. Sandman is full of stories of gods who have been forced to deal with the loss of worship. For some, their time has passed, while for others, the modern “demythologization” has taken its toll. And without worship, they will die. The character Death, at one point, tells us that this process takes a while, but it is bound to happen, as “Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country” (Sandman 20:21). This “dream country” is the province of the Sandman. And while religious traditions are filled with accounts of the gods “needing” the sacrifices that people make to them, nowhere else is the gods' dependence identified with belief to the degree that it is in Sandman. And this need for belief works in both directions. Just as gods need us, so do we have a need to believe in them.
As Destruction tells us, there is no such thing as a one-sided coin. And the flip-side to the gods' needing people for worship is that we need them just as much. Frank McConnell, in his preface to the Sandman: Book of Dreams, asks the question, “How do gods die? And when they do, what happens to them then? You might as well ask, how do gods get born? All three questions are, really, the same question. And they all have a common assumption: that humankind can no more live without gods than you can kill yourself by holding your breath” (2, emphasis mine). Just as gods need us, so do we need them. Since the time of the Enlightenment, people have moved further and further into secularization. If we take Freud as the high-water mark of demythization and post-Enlightenment positivism, then his Future of an Illusion epitomizes the already existing argument that religious belief is, in fact, an illusion, and an illusion that mankind can and will (even must) learn to live without. However, we now stand almost a century later, and whether the loss of religious belief has truly helped us is a dubious claim indeed. In other words, we have killed the gods, and are only now beginning to wonder whether doing so was a good idea. For many, the loss of religion has meant the loss of meaning and purpose in life.
Like others, Gaiman understands this situation, what has been called “the spiritual problem of modern humans.” Destruction's formulation of this problem led him to abandon his realm (albeit for slightly different reasons—see part 4). Still, the point here is not simply that the increasing march toward rationality has taken a toll in our spiritual lives. It is that people who think they are living in a world without God (or gods) are really just fooling themselves. If the old gods are lost, we will simply invent new ones. The central point here is the importance of belief. It is belief that is central to keeping gods alive, and it is belief that is equally important for people. McConnell continues his discussion, that “We need gods … not so much to worship or sacrifice to, but because they satisfy our need—distinctive from that of all the other animals—to imagine a meaning, a sense to our lives, to satisfy our hunger to believe that the muck and chaos of daily existence does, after all tend somewhere” (Preface 2). This kind of belief is born of a need for meaning, and it powers the “gods as magnified dreams” dynamic. And this sense of meaning is what makes life worth living.
The second major point in the relationship between myths and dreams lies in the psychological background of both. This background, quite literally, is Carl Jung's idea of the “collective unconscious,” which shows a strong kinship with Gaiman's “Dreaming.” It is from the collective unconscious that both myths and dreams spring. According to Jung, this layer of the unconscious is “not individual but universal,” and “more or less the same in all individuals” (Jung, Archetypes 3-4). Jung agrees with Campbell, that gods and heroes “[dwell] nowhere except in the soul of man,” and that “the psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths” (Archetypes 6-7). It is this part of the psyche that is the source of the images and stories that so captivate us. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is inherited biologically, “[owing its] existence exclusively to heredity” (42). And although the collective unconscious is the source for myths as well, it is dreams that are the “main source” of knowledge about it—being unconscious, dreams are “pure products of nature not falsified by any conscious purpose” (Jung, Archetypes 48). Thus, this layer of the psyche is passed down through the generations biologically, and is the result of the same process of evolution that produced our other forms of instinctive behavior.
The second major point about the collective unconscious, after its residency in the psyche, is that it is the same in all people. Jung says that “from the unconscious there emanate determining influences which, independently of tradition, guarantee in every single individual a similarity and even a sameness of experience, and also of the way it is represented imaginatively. One of the main proofs of this is the almost universal parallelism between mythological motifs, which, on account of their quality as primordial images, I have called archetypes” (Archetypes 58). Under this scheme, the archetypes are the inner psychic images that we form instinctively, and which are the precursors of the religious and mythological images we create. Although I am not qualified to address the veracity of this claim, it might well be that, as other theorists do, Jung overestimated the similarities between mythic traditions and ignored their differences, as some critics have claimed. Still, it is important to note that Jung is not saying that all mythologies are the same. Archetypes are not the images of myth themselves; “it is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas, but of inherited possibilities of ideas” (Jung, Archetypes 66).
Elsewhere, Jung calls the archetypes “primordial,” at least as old as the human species. He also says that “they are the ‘human quality’ of the human being, and the specifically human form his activities take” (Archetypes 78), thus forming one of the things that define us. He claims “the true history of the mind is not preserved in learned volumes but in the living mental organism of everyone” (Psychology and Religion 41). It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these phenomena; Jung says, “I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life” (Archetypes 116). He also says that “psyche is existent, even existence itself” (Psychology and Religion 12). Elsewhere, Jung lays out the psyche as consisting of both the conscious mind and “an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche” (Psychology and Religion 47). Finally, Campbell has commented on Jung's ideas, as he was influenced by them was well; “The psyche is the inward experience of the human body, which is essentially the same in all human beings … Out of this common ground have come what Jung has called the archetypes, which are the common idea of myths” (Campbell, Power 51). Here, we have an etiological explanation for Campbell's statement that dreams and myths come from the same place; that place is the collective unconscious. And although dreams and myths have important differences, they are inextricably linked.
In another work, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung discusses the collective unconscious further. In particular, the production of dreams is important, as “dreams may give expression to ineluctable truths, to philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, [etc] … One thing we ought never to forget: almost half of our lives is passed in a more or less unconscious state” (Modern Man 11). In arguing for the importance of the unconscious, he says “When we see that at least a half of man's life is passed in this realm, that consciousness has its roots there, and that the unconscious operates in and out of waking existence, it would seem incumbent upon medical psychology to sharpen its perceptions by a systematic study of dreams. No one doubts the importance of conscious experience; why then should we question the importance of unconscious happenings?” (15). Later, he tells us that “the collective unconscious, moreover, seems not to be a person, but something like an unceasing stream or perhaps an ocean of images and figures which drift into consciousness in our dreams …” (Modern Man 186). And connected with dreams, always, is myth, and while this connection was made more forcefully by later theorists like Campbell, Jung still makes the connection, as “myth for Jung is the naked expression of the unconscious” (Segal, Jung on Mythology 25-6). At one point, Campbell quotes Jung as saying “the typical motifs in dreams … permit a comparison with the motifs of mythology” (Masks 644). Jung also says that “man has, everywhere and always, spontaneously developed religious forms of expression, and that the human psyche from time immemorial has been shot through with religious ideas. Whoever cannot see this aspect of the human psyche is blind” (Modern Man 122). Commenting on this idea, Anne Ulanov says that “operating in us, independent of our will, [the religious instinct] is a capacity for and urge toward conscious relationship to transpersonal deity” (18). The idea of the psyche as being naturally religious also opens a dialogue between Jung and scholars of religion.
While some depth psychologists have tried to explain religion away as a relic of a past age, and to envision myth as a “quaint” but outmoded system of belief, Jung saw religious experience as an integral part of psychic life, and began to study religion in order to more fully understand the psyche. In Psychology and Religion, he calls religion “one of the earliest and most universal activities of the human mind” (1). In particular, Jung focuses on what Rudolf Otto calls the “numinosum,” which Jung defines as “a dynamic existence or affect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will” (4). In light of this, he defines religion as “the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (Psychology 6). Anne Ulanov comments on Jung's interest in religion, that he “valued the numinous above all, and he conceived of health as finding life's meaning” (Ulanov 1). Ulanov also sees the need to “humanize archetypal symbols into livable forms in our ordinary lives” (2). As we will see, one of the ways of looking at Sandman is as a story of the humanization of myth. Again speaking of Jung's impact on religion, Ulanov says that he “works to reconnect religion to its archaic instinctive roots, from which the symbols of theology and ritual spring. When we reach and link ourselves to the primordial religious experience deep within us … Religion ceases to be merely an intellectual activity or a systematic exploration of abstract principles of being. Instead, it reaches into our hearts, our souls, our bowels” (23, emphasis mine). It is exactly this immediacy of experience that is missing in many people's lives today. Thus, while he wrote in the field of psychology, Jung was intensely interested in religious experience. It is perhaps his greatest expression of humanity's religious impulse that Jung says “one could almost say that if all the world's traditions were cut off at a single blow, the whole of mythology and the whole history of religion would start over again with the next generation” (Jung on Mythology 211). Under this scheme, it is indeed appropriate to speak of a religious instinct. Asking these kinds of religious questions is as much a part of what it means to be human as anything else.
Having established the relevance of Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious to religion, we can look at these ideas' relevance to The Sandman. First and most apparent is Gaiman's formulation of “the Dreaming,” Morpheus's realm. Essentially, the Dreaming is a place that contains everything that has ever been dreamed or that has been produced in dreams. As Campbell says about dreams, “it is the realm we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever … All the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of oneself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 17). Everything is there, and more than once Dream moves between people's dreams, taking items as he needs them, or moving through them to where he needs to go (Sandman 1:31 and 5:18, respectively). It is in dreams that Dream's power is paramount, and he has the power to influence them, even as they happen to people.
Another example of the collective unconscious in Sandman is Lucien's library. The library, maintained by Lucien, one of Dream's most conscientious helpers, is unusual indeed, as “somewhere in here is every story that has ever been dreamed,” including stories that were only finished or written in dreams (Sandman 22:2). Elsewhere, Lucien says “the library of Dream is the largest library there never was” (Vertigo Jam 2). It contains “every book that's ever been dreamed. Every book that's ever been imagined. Every book that's ever been lost” (Sandman 57:12). One major divergence between Jung's theory and the Dreaming might be that dreams are (for Jung) to a large extent unstructured, while the Dreaming is somewhat ordered (at least the parts inhabited by Dream). There are other areas of the Dreaming, however: lands and skerries that operate largely without Dream's control (one example being the land in A Game of You). Still, this difference could be attributed to a small scope of vision. At best, in our dreams, we only manage to experience aspects of Dream, and of the Dreaming. But if we were able to see both in a more systematic manner (as we do when we read Sandman), then perhaps our vision would look more like Gaiman's vision. Still, it seems that at least a rough approximation can be made that “the Dreaming” is essentially the same as Jung's collective unconscious, or at least an artist's interpretation of it. The rest comes rather quickly. If we know that there are certain images and motifs that are embedded in our consciousness, then what would happen if they existed with some systematicity or purpose? It might look like the Dreaming.
Another point of dialogue between Jung's theory and The Sandman is the presence of archetypes in the Dreaming. If the archetypes are the way in which the collective unconscious expresses itself, and the Dreaming is the collective unconscious, then one would expect to find the archetypes in the Dreaming. And, in fact, many archetypes do “live” in the Dreaming. Cain and Abel, the first pair of brothers, live next to each other as the keepers of the houses of mysteries and secrets, respectively. And in typical archetypal form, the pair act out the primordial fratricidal killing over and over again (Sandman 2:15). After being killed by Cain, Abel revives, picks himself up, and continues with his duties (Sandman 2:22). Moreover, the archetypes of brothers in conflict and fratricide, represented by Cain and Abel, are revealed to go back even farther than the Jewish and Christian Biblical story we know today. In “A Parliament of Rooks,” Abel reveals that when they came to inhabit the Dreaming, they lived in another world, and did not look even remotely human (Sandman 40:21). This and other passages have led to a mini-controversy among Gaiman's readers. Some have supposed that Gaiman privileges Jewish and Christian mythologies over other systems. Gaiman, however, denies this. The figures these readers point to—Eve, Cain, and Abel among them—are, for Gaiman, part of a pattern much older than the Bible. Eve, who lives in a cave on the borders of nightmare, is there less as the Biblical Eve than as the archetypal mother, and as an expression of the archetypal female, as when the Furies (or the Kindly Ones) visit the Dreaming, they do not attack Eve because “she is an aspect of ourselves” (Sandman 65:14). This is not to say that the characters do not borrow aspects of the Biblical accounts; one of the joys of reading Sandman is to watch Gaiman interweaving different mythologies. Essentially, all the myths are true, in one form or another, in that they coexist in the world of Sandman. Other “archetypal” but less famous characters include the Corinthian (nightmare par excellence), Brute and Glob (force and cunning), Fiddler's Green (who is somewhere between a person and a place) and Mervyn Pumkinhead, the comic relief of the Dreaming. And of course, many other gods and archetypal figures may not live in the Dreaming, but visit there, as in the case of A Season of Mists, or Odin in The Kindly Ones.
After familiarizing ourselves with Jung's ideas concerning the psyche, Campbell's formulations make more sense. Just as the psyche contains a hidden level behind the conscious mind, so Campbell interprets myth as establishing an invisible plane of support for our lives in the world, as “I would say that is the basic theme of all mythology—that there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one” (Power 71). Also, he says that “there are dimensions of your being and a potential for realization and consciousness that are not included in your concept of yourself. Your life is much deeper and broader than you conceive it to be here” (Power 58). Similarly, in Sandman, at the end of The Doll's House, Rose Walker writes that “If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think we know is a lie. It means the world's about as solid and as reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water that goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don't even want to think about. It means more than that. It means we're just dolls. We don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives” (Sandman 16:17-8). What Rose is grappling with is the idea that the world has hidden depths, very similar to Campbell's “invisible plane of support.” Still, Rose also comes face to face with the fact that pure, unadulterated religious experience can be scary as hell. She finds it in herself to regain hope and move on with her life. Campbell also speaks of mythology as going “down and down and down” (Power 39). The theme of hidden depths runs throughout the series.
And at the same time Rose uses the metaphor of the Doll's House to describe the influence of unseen archetypal forces, Dream makes a similar claim about the gods, or even the Endless themselves, being influenced by men and women. As he tells Desire, “We the Endless are the servants of the living—we are not their masters. We exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. And we do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will” (Sandman 16:22). Here, we have, perfectly balanced against Rose's claims of powerlessness in the face of the gods, a contrasting assessment from Dream, that the gods and even the Endless exist because people know they exist. Thus, not only the world, but individual people too have hidden depths to them. Here, we connect with the earlier formulation of the gods' owing their existence to belief on the part of the people who worship them. Without the belief of humans, the gods wither and die. And again, we have the mutual dependence between deities and people, a dependence that is mediated by inner worlds. The concept of inner worlds also surfaces at the end of A Game of You, as the positive, inner side to Rose's lament. Barbie says at Wanda's grave, “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds … Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe” (Sandman 37:19). This means that no matter how people appear, they all have unexplored, hidden depths inside them … secret worlds.
Finally, just as myth and dream are linked, and just as we have seen “the power of myth” (from Campbell), so in Sandman we see the power of dreams. One example of this is the “Dream of a Thousand Cats.” In it, we are told the tale that cats were once the dominant species on earth, but that one day the humans rose up, as a leader said, “Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night” (Sandman 18:17). The humans began to dream of a world in which they were the dominant species, and when enough of them (say, 1000) did so, they changed the world. However, they did more than change the world as it was. Dream (as a cat) tells a cat leader that “they dreamed the world so it always was the way it is now … There never was a world of high cat-ladies and cat-lords. They changed the universe from the beginning of all things, until the end of time” (Sandman 18:19). The issue ends with the cat urging her fellow cats to join together and dream of the world in which they were the lords of it. And although one cat doubts whether you could get a thousand cats to do anything together, the fact remains: dreams have the power to change and shape the world. In theory, there is no telling how many times this has happened, as each time it occurs, the world is changed so that it always was the way it is now. This shows the tremendous power of dreams, as they can recreate the entire world. Here, we see an example of Gaiman's statement that the business of fantasy is to make metaphors concrete. In this case, dreams literally change the world. Further, from this principle, we can accept any number of alternate worlds and histories, places in which things happened differently. Such a system is hinted at in “The Golden Boy,” as different Americas are mentioned according to who was elected president, but the possibilities for dreams to change the world are endless. Put another way, the world we know is but one of many, or even infinite worlds.
Also, there is the episode in which Dream goes to Hell in search of his stolen helmet. After he regains it, Lucifer threatens not to let him leave, and asks what power dreams have in Hell. Dream responds “ask yourselves, all of you … What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” (Sandman 4:22). The demons are unable to meet his challenge, and he leaves unscathed. Thus, even in Hell, dreams have power, and as in “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” they can change worlds.
Finally, one last qualification must be made concerning the relationship between myths and dreams. Although many useful parallels can be drawn between the two, there are key differences between the two classes of phenomena. Campbell says that “we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources—the unconscious wells of fantasy … but [myths] are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns are consciously controlled” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 256). Likewise, Jung says that “strictly speaking, a myth is a historical document. It is told, it is recorded, but it is not itself a dream. It is the product of an unconscious process in a particular social group, at a particular time, at a particular place” (Jung on Mythology 107). While myths are consciously shaped and created, dreams are the raw product of the unconscious mind. Analogous to the split between dream and myth, Gaiman speaks about the difference between “dream-logic” and “story-logic,” as the contents of a dream often do not translate to making a good story. With dreams, “for you it was interesting and fascinating; but it's not a story. And dreams very, very rarely contain stories; but they will contain images” that you can pull up from the depths (Sound & Spirit interview). Thus, crafting stories (or myths) is a very different process than dreaming. It is easy to overlook in one's enthusiasm that dreams and myth are not identical; however, similarities do exist, and both are rich worlds into which we can delve.
At this point, the kinship between dreams and myths should be apparent. Both spring from the biologically-ingrained collective unconscious, and “live” in what Jung called the “vast hinterland of the psyche.” In addition, gods can be seen as magnified dreams, as has been pointed out by both Campbell and Gaiman, revealing a two-way process, in which people need to believe in something to bring meaning to their lives, and gods need people to believe in them in order to survive. On both sides, belief is the key step. The Dreaming can be seen as an approximation of the collective unconscious, and it not only contains many archetypal figures, but also reveals a hidden plane of existence behind the visible one. We spend a third of our lives in Morpheus's realm, and dreams, whether true dreams or waking dreams, have the power to change the world.
Given the relationship between myths and dreams, it makes sense that a modern myth, one that recognizes the “inner” religious life, should be concerned with dreams. By setting so much of The Sandman in dreams, Gaiman is able to weave his own myth with characters from the full body of world mythology. Jung says that the modern gods “are as powerful and as awe-inspiring as ever, in spite of their new disguise—the so-called psychical functions” (Psychology 102). Of course, the formulation of “new” gods coincides exactly with the Endless, who are manifestations of consciousness. What Gaiman adds, though, is that the Endless are so much more than gods; they provide the background and the secret cause by which the gods exist. Gaiman then crafts a new mythology around the existing mythologies. And, as with the older myths, dreams are key in shaping these mythic narratives. We will return later to what exactly is meant by “myth.” In terms of an overall study, Gaiman's use of the Endless and incorporation of many mythologies constitutes what Campbell calls the cosmological function of myth. And the important lesson to take from this discussion is that the myths (and dreams) are real.
“THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST AND THE ART OF STORYTELLING IN THE SANDMAN.”
“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”
“I learned that we have the right, or the obligation, to tell the old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories, and they must be told.”
We have been exploring what is old and new about the modern myth, and have seen the delicate balancing act that is creating such a work. However, this duality of new and old also exists for a final important theme in The Sandman: the art of storytelling. Of course, the act of telling stories is as old as the human race, but there is something new about the way that the modern storyteller is placed in the role of mythmaker. And if myths are gone, then what we have to replace them is stories. David Miller, in his discussion of the form of the next spiritual movement, remarked that the new theology would be a theology of stories and narrative (75), and this seems to be as good a guess as any. We have already examined various aspects of myth, and although we have alluded to it a few times, there remains one final step: for what are myths, if not stories? Myths are important stories, even central to our lives, or just, as I would suggest, the big stories. Still, if we are to believe the critics of modernity, then those of us who can claim to live with a story, to feel it in your bones (or as Delirium would say, in your socks), are the lucky few. You may remember from childhood a state somewhat similar to this, of being gripped by tales of fantastic and far-away worlds, or the inspired lunacy of a beloved children's writer. In this age of instant publishing, it seems that anyone can be an author, but only a few can truly be called “storytellers.” For what is mythmaking, if not storytelling? Campbell, who seems to have foreseen so much of Gaiman's work, was far from the first to note that the storytellers are the mythmakers of today, when he said that mythology is “the homeland of the muses,” the motivating force behind literature and art (Power 55). And if the storytellers are “the new mythmakers,” this arrangement is hardly new—good storytellers have always been held in high reverence. Put another way, the death of wonder, or of meaning, which people have referred to is in many ways a death of storytelling. Of course, nothing as central to human existence as storytelling could ever truly die, but we do have to ask the question: when was the last time a story held you in full aesthetic arrest, unable to think about anything else but to marvel at its composition and fluidity of movement, as it unfurled itself across the room?
The point of all this, of course, it that Gaiman is just such a storyteller. It has always been a truism of the writing world that writers love to write about nothing more than the process of writing. So it seems fitting that a master storyteller would have lots to say about the art of storytelling. And Sandman is filled with all facets of storytelling: people telling stories, writing stories, listening to stories, living stories. Frank McConnell, speaking of the story about stories (in his introduction to The Kindly Ones) says “this is the kind of writing literary critics like to call ‘postmodern:’ letting the reader know you're conscious of what you're doing at the very time you do it. And a writer like Gaiman is smart enough to realize that kind of performance is about as ‘modern’ as the Divine Comedy. The great storytellers have always wanted to tell us as much about the business of storytelling as about the stories themselves” (4). And as we will see, Sandman also takes us into the mind of storytellers, both mundane (the doomed waitress Bettie in “24 Hours”), fanciful (the tricksterish faery Cluracan), and masterful (the Bard himself), for a “behind the scenes” look at the creative process. In a sense, Sandman is what might be called a “metanarrative,” a story about stories. In addition, Sandman emerges as a hybrid text, with oral and written elements, in a blending of myth and folklore. More than that, Dream is, simply put, the reason we tell stories. Both oral and written storytelling are explored, and it seems that oral storytellers are somewhat privileged, at least in places. Still, both media are vital to the process of mythmaking. However, first we will examine the role of the artist in fashioning the modern myth. And just as we have an instinct for religion, so do we have one for storytelling. Stories are also capable of evoking Campbell's first (mystical) and fourth (psychological) functions of myth.
The strongest statements about the artist as mythmaker come, fittingly (because of his artistic temperament) from Campbell. In The Power of Myth, he writes “Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world” (85). Later, Bill Moyers asks Campbell who are to be the shamans of today, and Campbell answers “It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn't simply a sociologist with a program for you” (Power 99). It should be apparent by now that Gaiman has a firm grasp of the world's mythological traditions. And an understanding of human nature is critical to any artist's success. But Campbell's words hold another implication; if the artist is the one who creates the new mythology, then he or she holds a vital importance to the mind and soul of a society. In a sense, for those with the talent to do so, being an artist is the highest good one can achieve. Campbell speaks of mythology as “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (Hero with a Thousand Faces 3). It is the role of the artist, then, to take this experience and translate it into a form that people can comprehend. In this sense, the artist and certain kinds of mystics have something in common: both experience something available to only a few and bring it back to the people as something they can understand.
It might also go without saying, but Campbell also lists myth as being behind the work of artists, even if they are not consciously seeking to create the new myth. He says that “mythology teaches you what's behind literature and the arts, it teaches you about your own life” (Power 11). He also states that “I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what myth does for you” (Power 55). Campbell also lays out the connection of the artist to mythology as: “it's to see the experience and archetypology of a living moment. What the artist must render is a living moment somehow, a living moment actually in action or an inward experience” (Hero's Journey 184). One might take issue with Campbell's admittedly quite elastic definition of mythology, but the spirit of his remarks is important. One of the qualifications of a myth, then, is for a narrative to grip you, so that you see it as a part of your life, or see your life as a part of it. Campbell said that “When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what's happening to you” (Power 4). Later, we will address some of the criticisms of Campbell, but for now it is enough to note that, at heart, he was more artist than academic. He had a reverence for the creative life that I have not found an equal to anywhere else. Elsewhere, he writes: “[the] personal creative act is related to the realm of myth, the realm of the muses, because myth is the homeland of the inspiration of the arts. The muses are the children of the goddess of memory, which is not the memory from up there, from the head; it is the memory of down here, from the heart” (Mythic 151).
So far we have encountered many descriptions of being gripped by a story; to this we would add “Proper art is static. It holds you in ecstatic arrest … Because the rhythm before you is the rhythm of nature. It is the rhythm of your nature … And why is it that you are held in aesthetic arrest? It is because the nature you are looking at is your nature. There is an accord between you and the object, and that is why you say, ‘Aha!’” (Campbell, Mythic 154). Elsewhere, Campbell says, “that Aha! That you get when you see an artwork that really hits you is ‘I am that.’ I am the radiance and energy that is talking to me through this painting” (Hero's Journey 38). What we have seen, then, are various ways to describe a narrative's resonance with the reader (or listener). It may require a leap of faith to accept, but what is being argued for the magic of storytelling, and the transformative power of mythic narratives. As Bender says, “transforming lives is what stories are for” (178).
Like Campbell, Jung also recognizes the role of the artist in shaping myth. And he presents a corollary to Campbell, that the arts, mythology included, come from the psyche. He says that “the human psyche is the womb of all the sciences and arts” (Modern Man 152). Nancy Mellon adds that “a treasure-trove of imaginative powers lives within us all” (1). Jung also makes a distinction between psychological and visionary art. While psychological art involves the realm of human life, with the visionary, “the experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind—that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience … It is a vision of other worlds” (Modern Man 156-7). For Jung, the “primordial experience” is essential, as “we must admit that the vision represents a deeper and more impressive experience than human passion … we cannot doubt that the vision is a genuine, primordial experience” (162). He also writes that “It is therefore to be expected of the poet that he will resort to mythology in order to give his experience its most fitting expression” (164). As strange and unusual as this sort of art may be, “it is not wholly unfamiliar. Man has known of it from time immemorial—here, there, and everywhere” (163). This kind of implicit knowledge and memory, then, is built into our very psyches.
Among psychologists, the term for such an art is “fantasy,” which is also one of the genres into which Sandman is placed. Of course, as a genre, “fantasy” has garnered its share of critical disdain. However, to call it fantasy is not necessarily to deprecate it, as Jung tells us, “Truth to tell, I have a very high opinion of fantasy … When all is said and done, we are never proof against fantasy … All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to deprecate imagination? In the ordinary course of things, fantasy does not easily go astray; it is too deep for that, and too closely bound up with the tap-root of human and animal instinct” (Modern Man 66). He closes his statement by saying “As Schiller says, man is completely human only when he is playing” (66). Among psychologists, especially David Winnicott, playing, far from being a waste of time, is vital to establishing a person's relationships with others and the world. To identify fantasy with children, as many critics do, is really a backhanded slight (as being “childish” has become in our society a criticism) that reveals a deeper truth. For it is with children that we identify the feeling of wide-eyed wonder and mystery, the same kind of wonder that comprises Campbell's first function of mythology. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be like children (Matthew 18:3). Finally, as a caution, it is important to note that for Jung, the “primordial experience” is unconscious and inexpressible to the conscious mind, while for Campbell, the process of fashioning myth is a conscious act. And while I lean towards the latter view, Jung is helpful in recognizing a level deeper than consciousness at which a narrative can grip a person. And if the old mythic forms are gone, then the modern situation is that our storytellers must find a way to replace them. Put another way, we can only create myths if we dare to tell stories.
Having thus established the role of the artist in fashioning myth, and as our greatest hope for creating a distinctively modern myth, and having seen how a story can grip a person below the consciousness, we are ready to examine the role of stories and storytelling in The Sandman, with which the series is filled. And although Dream is the “Prince of Stories” (Sandman 2:3), and himself the reason we tell stories in the first place, it is often when the focus shifts away from Dream that the theme of storytelling moves to the forefront. At this point, Dream becomes a facilitator for the stories; we have already examined the relationship between myth and dreams, so it should seem fitting that the King of Dreams is also the Prince of Stories.
We have already alluded to the idea of claiming a story of one's own, and interpreting one's own life through that story. This is what it means to live a myth. In theology, there is a movement called “narrative theology” that proposes we do just this. Speaking of narrative theology, George Stroup says that “every philosophical anthropology … must come to terms with the narrative structure of human identity” (87). Using the example of Christian narratives, he says that “to understand Christian narrative properly is to be able to interpret one's personal identity by means of biblical texts” (96). Next, he adds that “it is no accident that when they are asked to identify themselves most people recite a narrative or story” (Stroup 111). Furthermore, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to every person than meets the eye (111), a theme picked up on in Barbie's “secret worlds” speech. The more artistic side of these ideas is the fact that “if we experience the reality of each part of the story as an aspect of ourselves, no matter how grand or dilapidated, or fantastical it may be, it will be an enlivening experience” (Mellon 2). For us, the impact of these ideas is that stories and storytelling, of both the secular and sacred kind, are vital to our collective and individual identities. This is why I am spending so much time discussing the art of storytelling. Again and again, we see the importance of living a story.
While The Sandman contains examples of both oral and written stories, perhaps it would be advantageous to begin with written tales, since they are the closest to what Gaiman is doing, and since, after all, we live in a culture of the book. The key writers to appear in the series are Richard Madoc in “Calliope” (issue 17), the waitress Bettie from “24 Hours” (issue 6), the playwright in “Fear of Falling,” … and an aspiring poet and playwright named William Shakespeare.
The story of the writer in “Fear of Falling” is perhaps the simplest of the accounts of storytellers. One reason for this is that it did not occur in a regular issue of Sandman, but in a publication of shorter stories by many of the artists on Gaiman's Vertigo label. Still, Gaiman saw fit to include it in one of the short story collections. It involves a playwright named Todd Faber, who is in the middle of directing a play he wrote. He is afraid, either of failure or of success, or of both, so he decides to abandon the production and run away. That night, he has a dream in which he is climbing up a cliff, and when he reaches the top, he encounters Dream, who questions him. Todd answers “It's all getting to be too much for me. I feel I'm out of my depth. I'm scared. I'm scared I'm going to do something stupid” (Fables & Reflections 7). Dream answers, “And if you do something stupid, what then?” Todd says that he is afraid of falling, to which Dream replies, “It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt … If you do not climb you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative” (7-8). At this point, Todd falls, and we do not find out what happens until the next morning, when he returns to the rehearsal, and says, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly” (11). This story is the least complicated, and the most straightforwardly romantic, of the author narratives. It is addressed to anyone trying to find the courage to create, to take that great risk of putting oneself on the line and coming up with something no one has ever produced before. The falling, of course, is symbolic of a great many fears of failure. Everyone falls at one time or another, but sometimes, the result of the fall is that you learn how to fly. As Dream says, it may sometimes be a mistake to climb, but it is always a mistake not to try at all. If we are to continue to have myths in our world, then we must have men and women who are brave enough to risk failure and create them. Also, the story underscores the point that dreams, like myths, can be filled with wisdom and guidance.
The other narratives of writers involve, in one way or another, cautions about the dangers of writing. The second story (and the first chronologically) is of the waitress Bettie in “24 Hours.” The narrator tells us that “On her days off, after she's tidied the house, Bette Munroe writes stories. She writes them in longhand on yellow legal pads. Sometimes she writes about her ex-husband Bernard, and about her son, Bernard Jr., who went off to college and never came back to her. She makes these stories end happily. Most of her stories, however, are about her customers” (Sandman 6:1). Although the stories might not be much as far as the craft goes, they add meaning to Bette's life, as “They look at her and they just see a waitress; they don't know she's nursing a secret. A secret that keeps her aching calf-muscles and her coffee-scalded fingers and her weariness from dragging her down … It's her secret. She's never shown anyone her stories” (6:1-2). Her dreams become all the more poignant as we begin to see through them. She dreams of sending her stories to a famous writer, who would publish them, of becoming famous, even being interviewed by Johnny Carson: “But you're a writer,’ Johnny Carson will say to her, ‘How do you know what it's like to be a waitress?’ She'll smile. She won't tell him. It'll be her secret” (6:2). She does not seem to realize that almost all writers start out working day jobs; however, the important thing for her is the dream. We have already seen how dreams can change the world, but for Bette, it is enough that her dream keep the monotony of working in a greasy spoon at bay. Gaiman also uses Bette to show the contrast between people's appearances, or the way we want to see them, and the harsh realities of life. In her stories, everyone gets a happy ending, as “All Bette's stories have happy endings. That's because she knows where to stop. She's realized the real problem with stories—if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death” (6:4). Besides almost tipping Gaiman's hand for what he has planned for the whole series, with the death of Dream, it shows her blind optimism, and what happens when you refuse to see reality.
“24 Hours” is also one of the truly horrific tales in Sandman; everyone ends up dead, either by his or her own hand or each other's, because of the machinations of John Dee and Dream's stolen ruby. Over the rest of the story, we find out the customers' stories. There is Judy, who just has a fight with her girlfriend, Donna (who later appears as Foxglove). Bette feels “sorry” for them, and in her stories marries them off to “fine young men” (6:3). She describes the Fletchers as “like lovebirds,” but he dreams of having sex with a prostitute in his car and then beating her up, while she dreams of putting his head on a platter (“no more infidelities”). Marsh confesses that he “as good as killed” his wife by giving her, an alcoholic, a crate of vodka and going out of town for a week (6:18). Moreover, we learn that Bette's son ended up in prison after getting into prostitution. The whole story is shocking in its visceral nature, so it is somewhat difficult to know what to make of it all. But one thing is that Bette does not see the truth, and in her quest for happy endings, ignores reality. She is surely not a mythmaker, then; however, she does have the dream of being a writer, and for someone with her station in life, it is enough, until supernatural forces intervene. As an episode in the greater myth, “24 Hours” is also about the problem of evil, and the failure of moral and ethical systems to address it. For this slaughter has no meaning, no higher explanation of why God would allow such a thing to happen. It is as senseless as it is sudden, and there is no one to stop the madman with the ruby. Although Bette is flawed as a writer, she does not deserve what happens to her (neither do most of the rest of them), but such is often the way with cautionary tales, in which the protagonists come to a gruesome fate they did not deserve. After all, their story is also a plot device, in showing the twisted mind of John Dee when he takes hold of Dream's stolen ruby. A bad guy always needs victims.
Only slightly better off than Bette is Richard Madoc, the main character in “Calliope.” The author of a successful first novel, he is nine months overdue on his second, and has been unable to write anything. As a result, he makes a deal with Erasmus Fry, an aging author, for his special “property:” the Muse Calliope who he had imprisoned years ago while in Greece. His treatment of her is horrific, as “His first action was to rape her, nervously, on the musty old camp bed. She's not even human, he told himself. She's thousands of years old. But her flesh was warm, and her breath was sweet, and she choked back tears like a child whenever he hurt her. It occurred to him momentarily that the old man might have cheated him: given him a real girl. That he, Rick Madoc, might possibly have done something wrong, even criminal” (Sandman 17:8). The irony compounds as the tale continues, as Madoc becomes wildly successful. He keeps Calliope until Dream shows up and gives him an excess of ideas that overwhelm him (reminiscent of the “ironic punishment” division of the Greek Hades), until he lets her go. The tale might also work as a way for Gaiman to assuage his conscience as a writer, as it may seem that all authors are “raping the muse,” figuratively if not literally. Thus, it may have been a Gaiman-style autobiography. At a party, Madoc is praised for transcending the bounds of genre fiction—enough to be nominated for a mainstream literary award. Gaiman won the World Fantasy Award for the “Midsummer Night's Dream” story—making it the first and only time a comic has won a mainstream award. In the same panel, a female fan praises him for the strong women in his work, to which he responds “Actually, I do tend to regard myself as a feminist writer” (17:12). I do not know if Gaiman has made any such claim himself, but his work has been praised by many as containing strong female characters. The tale ends when Madoc lets Calliope go, and he says “it's gone. I've got no idea any more. No idea at all” (17:24). Even if Madoc is not some kind of twisted alter-ego of the writer, it reveals what some people will do to avoid or get rid of writer's block. On theme here, that we have seen elsewhere, is that people are capable of committing terrible wrongs, and that we should try to reduce people's suffering whenever we can. With Madoc, the problem is not that he is a monster, but that he is very human; as he does something terrible, he is a reminder of the evil that exists around and especially within us.
From “24 Hours” and “Calliope,” one might think that the outlook for writers is rather bleak. Either they blind themselves to reality and use their dreams to stave off the boredom of a meaningless life, or they will resort to terrible measures in order to ensure that the ideas keep coming. Compared to them, then, the outlook for William Shakespeare is positively rosy. Still, even though Shakespeare makes his deal to become the greatest storyteller of his age (and some would say of any age), in the end, he comes to half-regret his choice. Will's story begins when he and Marlowe are eating in the same inn where Dream meets Hob for their once-a-century drink. At this point, Shakespeare is a hack, who Marlowe encourages to give up writing, and who wants more than anything to become a great writer. He tells Marlowe that “I would give anything to have your gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead. I'd bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon” (Sandman 13:12). Dream overhears the conversation and asks Will, “Would you write great plays? Create new dreams to spur the minds of men?” (13:13). They go off and talk, and although we do not see their exchange, we know that Dream unlocks the doors in Will's mind, to allow him to become a vehicle of the great stories. Will, in exchange, promises to write two plays for Morpheus, celebrating dreams, which turn out to be A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.
The story of “Midsummer” is told in issue 19, as Shakespeare's players perform in front of an audience of faery folk, including Titania and Auberon (the queen and king of Faerie). By this time, we can see the seeds of discontent, even in the face of Will's greatness. His son, Hamnet, traveling with him for the Summer, says “He's very distant … Anything that happens he just makes stories out of it. I'm less real to him than any of the characters in his plays” (Sandman 19:13). He says that his sister Judith jokes that if he died, Will would just write a play about it … “Hamnet.” (Of course, just this happens.) Hamnet ends the exchange by saying “All that matters to him … All that matters is the stories” (19:13). Even Dream begins to wonder if he did the right thing, as he is beginning to ponder his role and influence in people's lives. He tells Titania, “I wonder, Titania. I wonder if I have done right. And I wonder why I wonder. Will is a willing vehicle for the great stories. Through him they will live for an age of man; and his words will echo down through time. But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream … But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted” (19:19). This statement seems pessimistic, that even if you get what you want, you won't be happy because you won't be the same person who wanted it. But, fundamentally, it amounts to another affirmation of change, the radical change that can go on inside each one of us, that we must accept as part of our lives.
Shakespeare's story continues in the final Sandman (issue 75), which takes place as he is writing his second play for Dream, The Tempest, which also happened to be the last play he wrote alone. This time, an older Shakespeare is actively questioning the deal he made with Dream. He talks to a priest, asking how to redeem the magician Prospero, but of course he is also asking about himself. When he meets Dream, he asks him what his life would have been like, had he not made their deal, but then he shrinks away when Dream starts to tell him (Sandman 75:179). He says, “I wonder … I wonder if it was all worth it. Whatever happened to me in life, happened to me as a writer of plays. I'd fall in love, or fall in lust. And at the height of my passion, I would think, ‘So this is how it feels,’ and I would tie it up with pretty words. I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt; but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss” (75:180). Again, here it seems that Gaiman is trying to tell the reader about the mind of the writer, and the terrible price it exacts on those who follow the craft. My brother, who is much more of a writer than I will ever be, tells me that the feeling of watching your own life with detachment, as a way of gathering material, is quite true. Dream reveals to Will that even if he did open the door in the playwright's mind, it was Will who still did the writing, and all the work. Will then asks Dream why he chose The Tempest, and Dream (in one of the series' most heartbreaking moments) tells him that he “wanted a play about graceful ends … about a King who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom. About a magician who becomes a man. About a man who turns his back on magic” (75:181). When asks why, Dream continues, “Because I will never leave my island,” and later, “I am not a man. And I do not change. I asked you earlier if you saw yourself reflected in your tale. I do not. I may not. I am prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever” (75:182). The tale (Gaiman's, that is) also tells about the terrible price of writing by examining the life of one of the great storytellers of any age. Frank McConnell writes that the choice of Shakespeare is especially fitting, as “in [the Renaissance], our myths began to be humanized; beginning, say, with Shakespeare, we began to realize that the gods had not invented us, but that we were in the process of inventing our gods” (“Epic Comics”). Thus, Shakespeare makes an ideal study for Gaiman's purposes, to say nothing of the artistic nerve necessary to take on the Bard, with which fortunately for us, Gaiman is quite blessed. Incidentally, it is worth noting that Gaiman chose Shakespeare's story as the final issue of the series. Thus, the last we see of Dream is (the old Dream) lamenting his lack of story (which is, of course, pure irony: we are reading his story). From this, I believe we can infer that for Gaiman, the storytelling material is an essential part of the series as a whole.
Overall, the depictions of writers depict the terrible price the craft exacts: from them, and from those close to them. How are we to reconcile this with the idea of the storyteller as mythmaker? The answer, I believe, lies in the instances of oral storytelling that appear in Sandman. In a sense, there is something pure about oral narratives, and about people who view storytelling as an art, as opposed to writers, who view it as a profession. And while myths can be oral, more often the oral narratives are folklore, the stories people tell each other. There are even more examples of told stories in Sandman than written ones: the travelers in World's End, the grandfather in “Tales in the Sand,” Gilbert in The Doll's House, and the storytellers of “Convergence” (issues 38-40). The best example of this is in World's End, in which travelers from different worlds are trapped by a storm (a reality storm) in an inn and pass the time by telling tales. The frame of the story, of course, goes back to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. On this choice of models, Gaiman remarks, “I liked the idea of using one of the oldest storytelling devices in the English language. If you're going to steal, you might as well do so from a great source, and Canterbury Tales definitely qualifies” (Bender 176).
The storytellers come from a variety of worlds and races: there are Brant and Charlene, whose car crashes on the way to Chicago, the centaur Chiron, the blue-skinned apprentice mortician Petrefax, the English sailor girl-passing-for-boy Jim, and the wily faerie Cluracan. Chaucer's story used characters from all different walks of life; Gaiman does him one better by bringing together characters literally from different worlds. And as seems to be the instinct, when we find ourselves among strangers for an extended period of time, we tell stories. Another notable feature of World's End is the nesting of stories within stories. In “Cerements,” we have Petrefax telling his stories of life as an apprentice in the great Necropolis Litharge. He tells of attending a burial in which the participants all told stories. One of these tellers tells a story about meeting a traveler (Destruction) who was passing through the city. And the stranger tells his listener the story of the first Necropolis, and how its charter was revoked when its inhabitants became hardened and no longer loved their duties and recognized the importance of the funeral rites. And, at the end of the collection, we find that the whole thing has been a story, of Brant Tucker, our narrator, talking to a bartender. So we have a story, within a story, within a story … within another story. The frame story is a common story device, but to the best of my knowledge no one else has matched this depth of recursion.
Either way, the recursion certainly boggles the mind. Another thing to notice about World's End is the economy with which Gaiman works with elements of the larger tale. In “Cerements,” we learn that one of the Endless has died in the past (the first Despair), and we see the room that holds the materials and the ritual to accompany the death of one of the Endless. Of course, this foreshadows Dream's demise, and the envoy Eblis O'Shaunnesey's (named by Delirium, if you can tell) seeking out the proper materials. Another foreshadowing event takes place in the last issue of the collection, as we see the funeral train going across the sky. We have already discussed this scene at some length; suffice it to say that it makes it clear that mourning is going to be a theme for a while. Overall, the storytelling, both in scope, levels, and humanity (as these are some of the finest examples of stories told for stories' sake), is (not to use a word too much) magical. It transforms the experience of everyone listening, and, just as Bender says, changes lives. After hearing all the stories, Brant's image of the world is shaken, Charlene decides to stay at the inn, and Petrefax decides to seek adventure outside the Necropolis. It is also worth noting that in most of these stories, Dream shows up rarely, if at all. It is as if Gaiman decided to put off the main plot for a while and focus for a while on storytelling, which is another thing that The Sandman is about.
In keeping with the theme, there are other accounts of oral storytelling in Sandman, and they all seem to focus on bringing people of different worlds together. The one that rises to mythic quality comes in “Tales in the Sand,” the prelude to The Doll's House. Here, we see a telling of the foundation myth of an African people, which is also a rite of passage. One of Eliade's criteria for sacred myths is that they are told only at certain times. This story is heard only once in a man's life, when he is initiated, and told only once, when he goes to initiate a relative of his. The story, which tells of Dream's disastrous affair with Nada (minus the condemning her to Hell part), also contains many elements of folklore and myth. In a sense, then, The Sandman is a hybrid text. The people are held to be the first people on earth, as “the first people were of our tribe. That is our secret, and we never tell outsiders, for they would kill us if they knew. But it is the truth” (Sandman 9:5). Campbell and others have noticed that just about every group has some myth in which they were “the first people.” Gaiman's attention to detail is key here; the tale also features animals in important roles and other folkloristic devices. It is the little weaverbird that finds the fruit that will allow Nada to find Dream. However, the trip carrying the burning berry burns it, causing its color to change from white to brown. Also, a prohibition is set against killing the weaverbird, because of its service. All these are standard folkloristic elements. Finally, there is mention made of another version of the tale, in the stories that the women tell, “in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn” (9:24). Here and in a few other places, a distinction is made between male and female stories, and it would make an interesting project to examine the gendering of stories as a greater theme in Sandman. (Gaiman has made some interesting comments about the “genders” of his stories as well.)
Also, with Nada's tale, we see an intact culture, with a living mythology. The uncle telling the story to his nephew shows that his people's religion and rites of passage sustain them in the way that, according to the critics of modernity, modern religion no longer does. If nothing else, this story serves as a reminder that, no matter how much we enjoy stories today, there was a time when people believed in stories completely, and it sustained them. The challenge for the modern myth, then, is to sustain us as traditional myths once did.
Finally, there are other instances of storytelling in Sandman, with the underlying theme, that stories bring people together. First, there is the mini-story-arc titled “Convergence” (issues 38-40), which features stories being told between generations and across worlds. In “The Hunt,” a grandfather (who is secretly also a werewolf) tells his somewhat unwilling granddaughter about his adventures as a young man. On the theme of Gaiman's self-consciousness, at one point the granddaughter says “It all sounds suspiciously post-modern to me, Grandpa. Are you sure this is really a story from the old country?” (Sandman 38:11). In “Soft Places,” a young Marco Polo meets a friend of his from later in life, and Gilbert, who is trying to get away from Dream and his new love (Thessaly). This story also introduces the idea that there are “soft places,” where the fabric of space and time and reality grows thin and people can encounter others from other worlds and times. In “A Parliament of Rooks” (issue 40), Eve and Cain and Abel set about entertaining a pre-transfiguration Daniel. Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, Abel the story of how he and Cain came to live in the Dreaming (with the cutest Li'l Endless you ever saw). Cain, for his part, sets out a mystery about the behavior of rooks (a type of bird in the same family of ravens). Their plural is called a parliament, because of a strange behavior. They gather in a field in a circle, with one bird in the middle. That bird then begins to chatter for a time, until the group of birds either flies away or pecks the one in the middle to death. At the end of the issue, Abel tells Matthew and Daniel that the rook in the middle is really telling a story, and that the other birds either approve of the story (and fly away), or disapprove (and peck it to death). Thus, if we are to believe Gaiman, even animals have an instinct for storytelling. Again, as with much myth or folklore, a narrative occurs as a conversation between two or more people, including gods or archetypes. There are other instances of storytelling in the series, Gilbert telling Rose the original “Little Red Riding Hood” story, or the cat in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” telling her story, or the interlude of the old women telling Rose the story in the nursing home, but the point is clear: storytelling is the act that brings us all together, and is a part of why we have myths in the first place.
The amount and space and attention Gaiman devotes to storytelling is clear: what remains is to establish why he does so. And here, I can offer some suggestions why. In terms of the modern myth, we have already seen from Miller that the new theology would be a theology of stories. And Sandman is, in many ways, a story about stories. There are too many instances of story-telling, both oral and written, for us to ignore them. Of course, for metanarratives (stories about stories) we can go all the way back to The Odyssey. And the reason the great storytellers have always told us about the business of telling stories (besides a sense of their own importance) is their tremendous importance for the vitality of a culture. What we can get from Jung is that we might even be able to say that we have an instinct for storytelling. Nancy Mellon puts it that “there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in all human beings” (172). And if myths are really about the human condition, then one important aspect of myth should focus on why we tell myths in the first place. It seems to me that myths are an attempt to come to terms with the world we find around us. In our limited understanding, we create. Of course, we know more about the world than we did 3000 years ago, but in the things that really matter: our minds, our souls, our spirits, we still have much to learn. The point here is that Sandman is not only a story about stories: Dream, as the prefect of Dreaming and tales, is the reason we tell stories … and create myths. As Dream tells Titania of Faerie at one point, “Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot” (Sandman 19:21).
Finally, there is another example of the creative life we have yet to mention: Destruction. Since he abandoned his realm, he has traveled far and wide, but eventually came to rest on a small island. There, he engages actively in creative pursuits: he paints, composes poems, cooks, and sculpts. It is not that he is a master craftsman; in fact, if we are to believe Barnabas, he is uniformly terrible at these tasks. But the important thing is that he finds happiness and meaning in the creative life as an artist, albeit a mediocre one.
Yet, if we pay attention to Sandman, then another important feature of myths is that they are, at bottom, stories. Here, we come to an important step in the definition of myth. How are myths different from stories? How are they related? In traditional societies, they seem intimately connected, as stories about people also involved divine beings, and stories about divine beings also involved people. In modern society, however, he have had a clearer line of demarcation. We have myths (which we call “religion”) of our own culture on one level, then stories (which we call “literature”) and other people's myths on another level. Folklore, if given a place, would lie somewhere between myths and stories. Finally, there is a firm line between literature—high culture, and low culture, which includes “comic books.” What Sandman should make clear is that the line between high and low culture is a false distinction. Here, in comics, we have a story that has all the meaning, all the grace, and all the subtlety, if not more, of “high-culture” literature. And if this distinction is false, then maybe the line between stories and myths is too. We have already seen “postmodern” writers taking on elements of the mythic in literature, and of course, literature is filled with mythic elements. Perhaps, then, what we are left with are stories. Myths, after all, have always been stories—what I have called the BIG stories, which ask the big questions of life. Who are we? Why are we here? Who made the world? Why do we die? And so on. Is it not possible that the difference between myths and stories is simply one of quality? That myths are simply well-told stories?
Of course, this criteria opens up the question of what makes a story well-told. Part of it is the emotional appeal, which we will discuss soon. The story must be good enough to become beloved, to reach the point where people order their lives according to it. And here, the criteria seems to be a depth of humanity that we find by feeling rather than reason. For emotional involvement with the characters is the beginning of living your life through a story. The key action here is to read (or hear) a story and see yourself reflected in it. In time, such a story can even provide identity, as myth once did for people. Part of the criteria should be subtlety, something that can be read and reread, and can reveal something new each time. Depending on the book, I have read through Sandman 6 or 7 times, and I have found something new in the stories every time. Finally, there is something hard to define, but I will call “command of the devices of storytelling.” Simply put, Gaiman is a master storyteller: he knows how stories work, how people read them, how to lead a reader, and how to make the story curve at the last minute for maximum effect. Finally, a good story, if it is to rise to the level of myth, should fulfill Campbell's four functions of myth. First, Sandman is full of wonder, both overt and subtle. Second, it tells us about the structure of the macrocosm, what the universe is like and who rules it. Third, it provides a sociology, telling us how to be good, or human, to each other. Finally, fourth, it tells us how to move through the stages of our lives, from birth to the various rites of passage of puberty, marriage, and old age, and finally, death (the BIG change). The point here is that stories and storytelling bring people together. It is for all these reasons that Sandman is a good story. And more important, why it is a myth.
The art of storytelling is, of course, older than anyone can remember. However, it also contains the paradox of the modern myth of being both old and new. Whoever created the original myths, their torch has been passed to the storytellers of today, secular as well as religious. Just like the high-culture/low-culture divide has been broken down, so has that which formerly separated stories from myths proper. We previously spent some time lamenting the loss of meaning and religion in the modern world. And while it is certainly true that the old traditions no longer sustain many of us, we must also not be swept away by pessimism; rather, we must look at what has emerged to take their place. The purpose of the discussion of the role of the art of storytelling in The Sandman has been to emphasize that storytelling is not dead. And just as the mythmakers helped sustain the life of their communities in ancient times, so do the storytellers of today. If one is willing to look, there are many storytellers who incorporate the mythic into their works (Charles de Lint, Garth Ennis, Joss Whedon, to name a few). Furthermore, it is not just on their shoulders that we place the weighty task of creating meaning; the “collective unconscious” and the example of Destruction tell us that we all have it in us to be creative beings. The old ways are gone, just like Dream's Ruby was destroyed by John Dee. And like Dream, we cannot go back to the way it once was. However, the positive side of this is that all the energies we put into them have been freed for our use. So it is that in the modern world, we make our own meanings. And we're doing fine.
Gaiman, Neil. Death: The High Cost of Living. New York: DC Comics, 1994.
———. Death: The Time of Your Life. New York: DC Comics, 1997.
———. “Murder Mysteries.” Angels and Visitations. Minneapolis: DreamHaven Books, 1993, 139-166.
———. The Sandman: Brief Lives. New York: DC Comics, 1994
———. The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York: DC Comics, 1990.
———. The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1990.
———. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections. New York: DC Comics, 1993.
———. The Sandman: A Game of You. New York: DC Comics, 1993.
———. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones. New York: DC Comics, 1996.
———. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1988.
———. The Sandman: A Season of Mists. New York: DC Comics, 1992.
———. The Sandman: The Wake. New York: DC Comics, 1997.
———. The Sandman: World's End. New York: DC Comics, 1994.
Amos, Tori. “Introduction.” Death: The High Cost of Living. New York: DC Comics, 1994, 5-7.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Russell Square, 1963.
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Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: DC Comics, 1999.
Campbell, Joseph. “Editor's Introduction.” The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Books, 1971, vii-xxxii.
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Caputi, Jane. “On Psychic Activism: Feminist Mythmaking.” The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Ed. Caroline Larrington. London: Pandora, 1992, 425-440.
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Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. by Willard Trask. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1957.
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Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Witchcraft as Goddess Worship.” The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Ed. Caroline Larrington. London: Pandora, 1992, 411-424.
Hollis, James. Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1995.
Jaffe, Lawrence. Celebrating Soul: Preparing for the New Religion. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1999.
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Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1959.
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Leeming, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Malinowski and the Work of Myth. Ed. Ivan Stranski. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.
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Mellon, Nancy. The Art of Storytelling. Boston: Element Books Unlimited, 1992.
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Ricoeur, Paul. Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Ed. Mark Wallace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
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Wilson, Terry. “The Big Sleep: Popular ‘Sandman’ Comic Reaches the End of the Line.” The Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1995, section C, page 1.
Charles De Lint (review date February 2004)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy & Science Fiction 106, no. 2 (February 2004): 31-2.
[In the following review of Sandman: Endless Nights, De Lint praises Gaiman as an accomplished storyteller of dark, whimsical tales.]
Has it really been seven years since Gaiman finished off his lengthy Sandman saga? Though I suppose, once you start counting up the projects in between—which include fascinating books such as Neverwhere, American Gods, and Coraline—you start to wonder where he found the time to write the seven stories collected here.
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Bruce Allen (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “The Dreaming of Neil Gaiman.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, 195. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.
[In the following essay, Allen provides a comprehensive overview of Gaiman's career as a graphic novelist.]
THE DREAMING OF NEIL GAIMAN
In a feat of literary legerdemain and metamorphosis that many of his characters and creations might envy, an unassuming Englishman who began his career as a freelance writer edging into the comic book industry has become one of (his adopted country) America's best-loved storytellers.
From a path-breaking graphic novel series through television and film...
(The entire section is 5303 words.)
Kent Worcester (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Worcester, Kent. “The Graphic Novels of Neil Gaiman.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, 195. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.
[In the following essay, Worcester examines the works, life, and career of Neil Gaiman.]
Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) is an imaginative, prolific and highly popular contemporary author whose impact has been felt in a variety of media and genres. He is the author of several fantasy novels (Neverwhere, Stardust, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), and American Gods), and numerous short stories (some of which are collected in Smoke and Mirrors), as well as...
(The entire section is 6829 words.)
Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: DC Comics, 1999, 273 p.
Provides an overview of Gaiman's work on the Sandman series, including plot summaries, interviews with Gaiman, and anecdotes about the stories.
Gaiman, Neil, and George Khoury. “Gaijin Mononoke: An Interview with Neil Gaiman.” Creative Screenwriting 6, no. 6 (November-December 1999): 63-5.
Provides discussion with Gaiman regarding his English language dialogue adaptation for the Japanese animated film Miyazaki Hayao (Princess Mononoke).
Goldweber, David E. “Mr. Punch, Dangerous Savior.”...
(The entire section is 269 words.)