Note from G4 – the content below was originally divided into two posts, published on August 14th and August 21st, 2011. They were among the posts we lost due to database issues in early September. Therefore, they are best read after the post covering A Game of You and before Brief Lives and World’s End. Also, please be forgiving if we missed any typos as we hurriedly recreated this particularly long post! Enjoy!)
This week, we decided to ask three of our most vocal participants to do commentary on some of the issues collected in Fables and Reflections. Therefore, we will not be discussing them in the order they are presented in the novel.
First, Mark D. discusses Fear of Falling and Three Septembers and a January
|When Bex and Proffitt asked which two stories out of Fables and Reflections I’d like to write about, I instantly answered,”Fear of Falling”, and “Three Septembers and a January” Out of the entire run of The Sandman, these two stories are my favorites, for they both have (moderately) happy endings, a rarity in this collection.Fear Of FallingOriginally published in Vertigo Preview #1 (1992) , this story was the first Sandman story I had encountered. It is rather short, at just seven pages, and depicts an evening, the following day, and the dreams in between of Todd Faber, a writer/director about to open his first play Off-Broadway (but not off-off-broadway as one of his actresses points out.) The story opens as he has come to the decision that he is leaving the production. One of his cast stops by to ask some questions about her character’s motivations, and Todd reveals to her his decision. She asks the tried and true question, That night, he dreams of climbing a cliff face, something he’d be too terrified to attempt when awake, being afraid of heights. At the summit, he meets Morpheus, and a Raven, who I assume to be Matthew. After asking Morpheus if he is “interested in dreams”, Todd related the cause of his fear of heights to Morpheus.
This part of the story was instantly relatable to me. Todd, as a child, had a dream where he was trapped in a house, being chased by witches. in the dream, he was able to escape through a window onto the roof before falling off. Before hitting the ground though, he was able to force himself out of the dream, essentially being awake in a sleeping body. Long ago, this was know as “old hag syndrome”, and is presumed to be the basis of many pieces of folklore. Relatable, as this has happened to me on more than one occasion, and can be quite terrifying. In this state, you can be completely aware of your surroundings, and if your eyes happen to be open, be able to see what is directly in your line of vision, but are completely unable to move.
Matthew asks Todd if he is running away from something, Todd answers that he is feeling out of his depth and he is afraid of doing something stupid. Todd asks Morpheus if he is not afraid of falling, to which the following is given as a reply:
Todd asks what the third alternative is, but is alone on the summit. Which almost immediately crumbles beneath him, leaving him to find out on his own.
The following day, at rehearsal, Janet is about to announce that Todd has quit the production when he shows up, having learned what it was.
One of the most interesting aspects of this short story, in my eyes, is that it shows, in 3 pages, what a strong and powerful character the Sandman actually is. In those three pages (one of which a splash page) he did next to nothing, said almost as much, and still puts the lives of this director, and by extension, his entire troupe back on course.
Three Septembers and a January
This story starts, as quite a few interesting stories do, with a bet between siblings. A “mostly true” account of the life of the only emperor of the United States, the story begins with Joshua Norton, having lost all of his money in a Peruvian rice venture (side note: if your life story includes the phrase “Peruvian rice venture”, you are eligible to take over from the Dos Equis guy as the most interesting person in the world) is, under the supervision of Despair, contemplating suicide. She calls to her brother, issuing a challenge. Can Morpheus keep Norton from the realms of Despair, Desire, and Delirium, until Death comes to claim him.
Dream initially balks at this challenge, until Despair blames him (not for the first time, one gathers) at being the reason Destruction left. Dream follows Norton into his dreams, and, once there, gives him one. Once Norton awakes, he drafts a proclamation declaring himself “NORTON I, Emperor of the United States”, which is reprinted by San Fransisco Bulletin.
September 1964, Five Years into His Reign
Emporer Norton, becoming well know around the city, takes a lunch with Samuel Clemens, and is observed by Delerium and Dream. Delerium, not even really wanting to take part in the challenge, or at the very least not seeming a bit interested in it, notes:
To which Dream replies, “And do you think he’s the only one, my sister?”
September 1875, Year Sixteen of The Reign of Emperor Norton I
Norton is now a fixture in San Fransisco, and makes a living trading Imperial notes for US currency. Called to the Cobweb Palace, he meets with the King of Pain, a dead snake oil salesman, who offers him a deal. A bride, and a palace to match, and the only stipulation is, Norton must want it. The proud Emperor replies,
Emperor Norton dies on the streets of San Fransisco. Despair shows up to acknowledge that Dream has won the challenge, Dream offers her a statuette of Norton as a souvenir. When Despair asks if she should thank Dream, he replies “For the lesson perhaps, if for nothing else.” Despair, as with most of the Endless, has issues learning lessons, replying “What lesson?”, but Dream has left already. Death comes to collect him, noting that he is her favorite out of all the Rulers she had met.
Some interesting tidbits gleaned from this issue:
1)Despair blames Dream for Destruction leaving. This leads into the events of “Brief Lives”.
2) I find it very interesting that none of the Endless, with the exception of Morpheus giving Norton the dream at the beginning, actually interact directly with Norton.
3) Norton influencing Twain to write “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. In reality, by this point in time, Twain had come up with two drafts of this story, neither of which focusing on the frog, that he did not think were good enough for publication.
4) Desire taking offence when Dream calls into question the lack of subtlety in her plan. This is where she comes up with the plan to make Dream, “Spill Family blood” to call down the Kindly Ones down upon him. This is my primary reason for thinking that it is Desire in the dolls house in “The Dolls House”, making sure her plan is going on track. (Another guest is working on “Orpheus”, but I would like to ask, wasn’t Desire integral in the loss of Orpheus’s wife, leading to the later events in “Brief Lives”?)
Next, Rachel O. discusses August and The Hunt
Vassily, on the other hand, is ostensibly an old foreign man being teased by his worldly, Americanised granddaughter as he tries to tell her an old story. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is in fact the protagonist of his tale. Furthermore, his references to being one of “the people” are not a mere attempt to keep his identity separate from that of his adopted countrymen. Vassily is, in fact, from a tribe of werewolves. I love the foreshadowing of this in his references to “true wolves”; his dealing with the dishonest landlord; the pedlar woman’s horror when she attempts to read his fortune; and Vassily’s threat to rip out the throat of his own granddaughter if she carries on interrupting him!
Interestingly, family and nationhood are central to both Augustus’ and Vassily’s respective identities. Augustus’ relationship with Caesar and the Republic (and later the Empire) define the course of his whole life, whilst all the characters in Vassily’s tale are defined as one of “the people” or “gaje”. Indeed, his granddaughter suspects it has been concocted solely to dissuade her from continuing her relationship with Christopher (“…The moral is that the people are happy with the people”).
Mutations and Transformations
Both Augustus and Vassily make temporary physical transformations – Augustus once a year into a beggar, and Vassily into a wolf (presumably every full moon).
In both cases, however, the eye of the beholder is essential. August and The Hunt both take the form of narrated stories (August doubly so – Augustus to Lycius and Lycius to us). The passers-by in the Forum see Augustus as nothing more than a beggar man covered in running sores, and the gods themselves – including Caesar – make this same mistake for one crucial day a year such that they do not watch him. This subterfuge frees Augustus from Caesar’s divine scrutiny and Rome from Caesar’s dreams of ultimate power.
We ourselves stand in the shoes of the granddaughter in The Hunt and share her scepticism at his tale and his motives in telling it (“Mm. It all sounds suspiciously post-modern to me”), until the last frames where he reveals the identity of his wife and himself.
Dreams come true – or not
Vassily subverts the usual fairytale tradition of happily-ever-after by deciding not to go further than to return the miniature to the Duke’s youngest daughter. He leaves his dream untouched and returns instead to find the woman he ultimately marries, recalling the words of the old pedlar – “Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy”. The cameo by Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus –by reference to the dream book Lucien needs to get back – reminds us that in so many other stories, the protagonist will sacrifice everything, even his soul, to achieve his or her dream.
Augustus, meanwhile, destroys the writings which prophesy a finite future for Rome, but in reality decides to shed the burden of Caesar’s dreams. His own dream is to escape the cycle of conquest and violence necessary to maintain the empire.
Although the majority of the characters in August and The Hunt are male, the
threefold woman makes an intriguing appearance in The Hunt – maiden (“Natasha”), crone (Baba Yaga), and mother (obliquely, via Vassily’s wife). Livia’s brief pair of frames in August left me wishing she got a story all to herself, although I like how faithful the story we do have is to Suetonius’ account of Augustus’ life and personality – right down to his favourite phrase “quicker than boiled asparagus”. I also, as a Briton, love Lycius’ anachronistic reference to Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”!
And of course, not to forget Morpheus himself. What a helpful, friendly chap he is in both these stories! He seems tickled, rather than annoyed, by Lucien’s loss of Kit Marlowe’s dream never-written book, and gives Vassily what he apparently wants without the usual slew of terms and conditions. And he acts as interceding angel on behalf of the (from what I can establish) fictional Terminus. I like to think these stories show a slightly less rigid side to Morpheus, even before the change he undergoes in the course of the Sandman series.
The Soft Places are gently unstuck in place and also in time.
There is a theory that the world used to be chaotic with all sorts of possibilities, and that scientists have gradually closed down these options by discovering the natural laws. In the same way, the theory that Gilbert expounds is that explorers like Marco Polo decrease the uncertainty of the unexplored areas and make the world more constrained, and, in a way, less mysterious and magical.
Lost, Marco hears snatches of songs he could not possibly have ever heard; they are in English and come from further in the future than he could ever hear. And is he in fact stumbling around in the Desert of Lop, or is he dreaming, and in The Dreaming? That is part and parcel of the uncertainty here.
Marco meets Rustichello of Pisa, who he does not meet in the flesh until many years later, in prison together, when Rustichello finally puts Marco’s stories into the famous “Travels of Marco Polo.” Then they meet up with Gilbert, very fittingly; for Gilbert is himself one of the Soft Places; the dream called Fiddler’s Green, a movable vision of paradise for sailors.
Gilbert is playing hooky again. He’s uncomfortable because Morpheus is dating Thessaly in him. Is any part of his discomfort because he knows that love between the Endless and mortals is fraught with peril (because although Thessaly is as immortal as a mortal can get, she is yet essentially mortal) and because like a lot of Morpheus’ friends, he sees disaster? It’s not that Gilbert is against love itself; he felt a kind of love for Rose Walker himself. Gilbert fumbling through his pockets seems to me reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor Who, played by Tom Baker, especially with the jelly-babies. But the wine and tankards are a true Chestertonian touch.
They encounter the travelers I call the Lost Patrol. Like the Flying Dutchman on the sea, they search forever for home, or some way out of the soft places.
On page 140 of the book, or page 16 of the comic, Gilbert explains the idea of the explorers reducing the numbers of soft places. He mentions another explorer he calls Hwen Tsang. Nowadays, he is called Xuanzang. About the year 629 he was a Buddhist priest and travelled to India to get better scriptures than were currently available in China. He wrote an account of his trip. The tale became very popular and many things were added until it became one of the great Chinese classical novels, “The Journey to the West”. In it, Xuanzang has many magical helpers, the chief of which is the great Monkey King, Sun Wukong.
There is no record of Morpheus rebuking Gilbert for his dereliction of duty, as he did earlier in A Doll’s House. Marco himself meets Morpheus, but a previous Morpheus, from just after his punishment of Alex Burgess, while he is still quite weak. Marco shares some of his scant water with Morpheus, and Morpheus shows his growing humanity by returning Marco to his family. Along the way, Marco sees a secret in the patterns of sand; an important secret that he thinks he can never lose; and then, just as in dreams, he loses it when he wakes.
Ramadan is beautifully rendered by the great P. Craig Russell. This is the Baghdad of legend, of the 1001 Nights, when Aaron the Upright (a translation of Haroun al-Rashid) was Prince of the Believers. As Haroun himself seems to know, this is the high point, not only of Baghdad, but of his dynasty and possibly of Islam itself. He is a contemporary and distant ally of the great Charlemagne; but the West is in the Dark Ages, and Charlemagne barely knows how to read and write. Whereas Haroun’s empire is sophisticated and cultured and rich.
So Haroun works his way through his magical treasures, looking for the key to bring the Prince of stories and dreams to him and make a deal. Morpheus does not come when called. So Haroun threatens to shatter a globe of glass containing 9009 ifrits, genies and demons to destroy the dreams of men.
Morpheus catches the globe and deals with Haroun. He is haunted by visions like that of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley: of statues of Rameses II proclaiming his great glory, glory that is in ruins. He wants to somehow preserve this Baghdad by giving it to Morpheus and thus immortalize it.
As he does, the magic goes out of the place, and the magic carpet falls to the ground and becomes a ordinary despised scrap of cloth. Haroun sees Morpheus with magical Baghdad in a bottle, like the bottle city of Kandor; he has no memory of the deal, but is entranced by the city.
In real life, Haroun made the same mistake as his ally, Charlemagne. He loved both his sons, so he divided the kingdom between them; which led to the civil strife and disunity that ended the glory of his kingdom.And now we see that this has all been a tale told by a poor storyteller to Hassan, a lame boy in bombed-out present day Baghdad. But the deal is still good; the magical Baghdad is in Hassan’s mind and in the mind of all humanity.
Thermidor not only gives us our first peek at Orpheus, after the terrible events that have left him …well, whatever the opposite of decapitated is (de-body-ated?) and his strained relationship with his father, but also offers us a brilliant and subtle cautionary tale about the dangers of all zealots, not just the religious ones.
Set in France during the Reign of Terror that quickly followed the French Revolution, time and again we are confronted with the corruption of officials who have been warped by power. Their ideology, one of “pure reason and logic” fueled a revolution against the abuses of monarchy, religion and a rigid class system, yet the abuses inflicted in the name of fervent reason are equal to, if not worse than what came before.
Our villains are no fiction in this story, Robespierre and Louis Saint-Just were all too real and viscous. I can only hope that in some universe, somewhere, they really are defeated by a song sung from the mouth of Orpheus. This story is one of my favorites for the ways in which it sends a message about the misuse of ideology without preaching it.
It’s also nice to see Johanna Constantine again, be reminded of the world of deals and rules that rule Morpheus’ interactions with those around him, and see how Orpheus winds up on the island upon which we will find him in Brief Lives.
Song of Orpheus, 1-4 are among my favorite in the series. There are a million tiny touches that give me goosebumps every time I read them. For one this is a great story about acceptance of Death, the futility of fighting it, and the devastating consequences of looking back instead of forward. It also gives us the final pieces we need to set in motion the events that will propel the remaining issues in the series.
It is interesting how jarring it is to see Morpheus so stern and aloof in Song of Orpheus. By this point in the run, in “our” timeline, he has shown more of a “Human” side, so to speak. Not so, here. We can assume he was once in love with Calliope (in fact, we have already seen him rescue her in Dream Country, in the future), but he shows no indication of affection for her now. “I do not dance,” just about sums it up. He’s a gloomy-gus, that’s for sure.
By contrast, Orpheus is SO likable. What a sweet dreamer with a dreamy voice this kid is. We also finally meet “the prodigal” sibling, Destruction and see for the first time a complete family reunion – all seven Endless, and Orpheus and Calliope to boot. Destruction and Death are down right cheery compared to their brother and the role they both play in the events that lead to his, well, destruction just go to show that being chipper doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to go your way. Maybe Morpheus is onto something.
But I digress. There is too much to love in this story, too many details to cover, so let me stick to the father/son relationship. The coldness of Morpheus’ goodbye to Orpheus at the end of the story, after Orpheus has lost Eurydice for good, only after pissing off The Furies enough that they later come and tear him to pieces leaving only a still sentient head behind, seems….a little harsh to say the least. It may be one of his least likable moments, maybe tied with sentencing Nada to an eternity of Hell because she dumped him. But let us not forget, he did try to help his son. His speech to Orpheus after the death of Eurydice is powerful and compassionate, in his own way: “You should have got to her funeral…to say goodbye…You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as times goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.”
We will be reminded of these words later in the series, and they will be even more powerful then. For now, they are among the most sage advice we have seen Morpheus give, and they seem to indicate that he knows of what he speaks. In the next issue, A Parliament of Rooks, we will be reminded that there is a romantic side to our Dream King, one we never see in action (so to speak), but of which we see the repercussions often. In truth, father and son both have a hard time letting go of women. Or holding on to them, perhaps.
It was good advice, and while Death and Destruction are more kind in Orpheus’ eyes, in the end they do him no favors helping him get into Hades. He should have listened to his father. Of course, the punishment he receives not only from The Furies, but from Dream himself seem a bit harsh. In the end, Morpheus walks away, presumably never to see his sone again, seemingly because once again, someone has defied him (although, perhaps there is something here of pain, and the unbearable site of his sons’ never-ending suffering). He does, at least, make arrangements for Orpheus’ care. We’ll pick up that story soon enough.
I have decided to save much of what I have to say about a Parliament of Rooks for the discussion of The Kindly Ones, as there’s a pretty big damn connection there.
For now, let me say that I am sure I am not alone it adoring this story. I don’t like to be a girly girl, but those baby endless and baby Cain and Able are so effing cute I just want to pick them up and pinch their little cheeks! This is also an skillfully put together story about three story tellers, and within their stories are more stories! Outside it all, is our master story teller, Neil himself (Twitter, represent!). Every time I read Cain’s mystery of the Rooks, I wonder if that’s how Neil felt at the time – writing stories and wondering if his audience would enjoy them and fly away (perhaps to tell their friends), or devour him for his efforts?
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