Posted by: Kristen Hicks | December 26, 2012

On The Sandman

Martin Tenbones The Sandman Although he spends a fairly small amount of time in the Sandman series, Martin Tenbones steals my heart.  In a journey of just a few pages in The Game of You, he shows so much heroism, devotion and sweetness that when he dies within moments of reaching his goal — I bawl, every time.

And there will be many times, because The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman is one of the most re-readable pieces of literature I’ve yet to encounter in life. It’s hands down my favorite world to get lost in for a few hours. It’s as rich and layered a work of art as anything I’ve picked up by Dickens, Dostoevsky or Steinbeck, and could give book groups or lit classes at least months of idea rich discussion topics.

Alright, so you get that I like it a lot. The great challenge of writing about the Sandman is figuring out how best to narrow down the many amazing stories, brilliant ideas and endless internal discussions it addresses and inspires into a few key, meaningful paragraphs. Wish me luck.

Some notes on the world of the Sandman:

Largely inspired by the world Gaiman presents in the Sandman series, I made a decision some years ago to base my worldview on the power of stories. In many ways, reality and fact matter much less to me than the meaning and truth that can be gleaned from fiction and insofar as we all choose to see the world through a certain lens, I’ve chosen the religion of story. To say “the world of the Sandman” isn’t exactly accurate, but even to call it a “universe” feels too small, maybe “reality” works best?

The Endless: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Delirium

From The Sandman: Endless Nights

The main characters of our stories, and the main constants in the reality of the tales, are the Endless. The siblings (in order of age): Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delirium, have existed longer than anything else we can conceive of. They interact with humanity, gods and goddesses, angels and demons, fairies and all manner of creatures from the world that we the reader know, and those beyond.

In the universe reality of the Sandman, any fictional character or creature that people have thought of or believed in exists. Stories have a reality all their own. When belief begins to die and the stories stop being told, the reality of the stories gets weaker.

Some story highlights:

The Song of Orpheus/A Midsummer’s Night Dream

I’m lumping these two together because they’re both exceptional examples of something great art has been doing for as long as it’s been around: taking the thread of older stories and weaving it into something new and uniquely meaningful. The Sandman Orpheus

The Song of Orpheus takes the already familiar and heartbreaking story of Orpheus, and makes it all the more powerful by tying it into the larger mythology of the series through the addition of the Endless. They all come together to celebrate their nephew’s wedding – in Dream’s case, his son – and each play their role in his tragic fate.

The saga of the now immortal Orpheus and his complicated relationship with his father becomes an important part of the series’ larger arc, but through this story we get a new telling of an old myth and a chance for richer characterizations of the powerful and often flawed siblings at the series center.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream envisions a special performance of the play of the same name, put on by Shakespeare and his players at the bequest of Dream. In an earlier story, we see Dream make a deal with a young playwright whose ambitions outweigh his talent, for greater skill in exchange for two plays devoted to the subject of dream.

For a performance for the first of these plays, he invites many of the same fairies who help make up its cast of characters. While Titania, Puck, Peaseblossom and the others watch people playing versions of themselves, slight glimpses of their own dramas and desires play out in the audience. Gaiman makes real Shakespeare’s characters and lets them comment on their depiction according to Shakespeare.

It’s a fun, artful representation of something I adore in art: the ongoing conversation between great minds. Like Dante’s incorporation of Virgil into his Divine Comedy, using his writing as an opportunity to have a conversation with his literary hero, Gaiman’s able to honor the influence of Shakespeare on his work while producing a result altogether his own.

Three Septembers and a January

In one of the most charming, moving stories in the series, we spend some time with the one and only Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton. Pulling from a strange, enchanting story from our nation’s past, Three Septembers and a January starts with a figure belonging to Despair – a man who has lost his fortune and can find little left to live for. Despair summons Dream and offers a proposition: take this man into your realm, see if you can save him from his misery.

From this proposition, Joshua Norton becomes the Emperor of the United States. With a steadfast conviction in the reality of his position, and a sense of civic responsibility too often lacking in our country’s actual leaders, the Emperor charms San Francisco and its tourists. Local businesses begin taking the currency he creates, tourists purchase it from him as souvenirs and locals (including Mark Twain) treat him to meals as a form of paying their “taxes.”

He never regains the wealth he’d once had, but he finds happiness and honor instead. As Delirium proclaims, “His madness keeps him sane.” The story ends with a man whose dream has become so meaningful to so many people that over 30,000 people attend his funeral.


Ramadan is all about images. It’s most effective feature is the contrast between the image of the mythical ramadansandmanBaghdad as it was under Harun al-Raschid, and the war torn modern day Baghdad (torn from a different war at the time of the story’s publication – but feeling just as fresh as ever based on events of recent years). This time drawing both from a mix of history and the magical stories described in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, the tale takes the time to wander through the wondrous streets of a truly great city.

Full of color, great riches, magic and beauty, the Baghdad of this time is the travel destination of an intrepid voyager’s dreams. Harun al-Raschid recognizes that his city is exceptional, that it’s the best possible version of itself, and can’t maintain this special spark forever. Disheartened by thoughts of a grimmer future for the city he loves, he summons Dream and offers the city to him in exchange for its living forever as it is.

While the deal leaves reality with a Baghdad minus the magic and some of its charm, the story of Baghdad in its greatest era persists and serves to give its current residents something to dream about.

Some idea highlights:

1. The Dream Library

“October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or shutting a book, did not end the tale. Having admitted that, he would also  avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: It is simply a matter of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.”

The Man Who Was October, G.K. Chesterton (in the Dream Library)Dream Library: The Sandman

When I die, I’d like to go hang out in the Library of Dream, with Lucien. Made up of all the books people have dreamed, but never written (or finished), I could read all the great, lost works of the writers I already know I love and the many I’d be discovering for the first time.

The library is massive – its contents must come pretty close to the size of Borges’ Library of Babel, and yet they take up a space manageable by one hyper-competent librarian. This is possible, of course, because things like space and time work differently in the dream realm than in the one we humans inhabit during waking life.

For a semi-relevant tangent, check out this list of massive libraries in popular culture or this post about all those stories we’ll never hear beyond our own imaginations.

2. The Truth in Stories

As described in the notes on the world of the Sandman above, the Endless interact regularly with characters, concepts and religious icons that are all real – even though many would consider the possibility of their co-existence contradictory.

Best represented by the collection of gods, goddesses and incarnated ideas that show up at Dream’s door in Seasons of Mist. Dream has dinner with ancient Norse gods, Egyptian gods, a Shinto (Japanese) god, biblical angels and demons, order (who shows up in the form of a box and a representative of chaos (who shows up as a strange little blonde girl with a balloon), amongst a few others.

Sandman Gods and Ideas

It’s suggested that all these entities exist for as long as people believe in them (which reminds me of some characters I left off above: fairies). When belief in gods get weak, they must find a way to adapt. Ishtar, a goddess of love and sexuality (and former lover of Destruction of the Endless), becomes a stripper to find continued strength in the worship of men.

If we want to take this idea to its logical conclusion, it suggests that there’s a truth in powerful stories that goes beyond the all reigning, one and only truth that many of the religious seek and insist upon. It’s not uncommon to gain understanding and meaning from fiction that rings truer than knowledge insisting to be factual. Which brings us to…

3. Reason as a Flawed Tool

“They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear”

–Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well

“They are using reason as a tool. Reason. It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream, but it has the potential to be far more dangerous” —Destruction
“Reason is a flawed tool at best, my brother” — 

Perhaps a slightly more controversial extension of the idea expressed above (although, I guess the level of controversy in each would depend on who you’re talking to), the Endless, who have lived longer and seen more than any other entity in this reality, consider reason to be a weak way to understand the world.

In a discussion between Dream and Destruction in the 19th century, they bemoan that reason is supplanting other forms of belief and thinking in the minds of humanity. Rather than supposing that reason is actually truer than, say, mythology; in the reality of the Sandman, it’s just one of many ways of understanding the world, and far from the best. But, in taking over how a majority of modern society understands reality, it edges out and weakens other, also true and valid, ways of thinking.

4. The fascinating multitudes inside all of us

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull or 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.”

This line is best expressed in my two favorite volumes: The Doll’s House and A Game of YouIn the former, Rose Walker falls asleep one night and discovers she has a power in her dreams she’d never imagined. The dreams of her sleeping neighbors all begin to converge and everyone gets a glimpse into the secret worlds inside their lovers’ and acquaintances’ minds.

Some of the dreams are beautiful – a woman dreams of falling in love with a sentence. Others are disturbing – a man who uncannily resembles a Ken doll fixates on images of money and power. All of them reveal greater depths to the characters than Rose’s earlier interactions with them show.

One of Rose’s neighbors, Barbie appears especially boring in her initial appearances in the story, alongside her equally dull fiancee Ken. Her dreams are a special surprise. She enters a rich fantasy world filled with endearing characters, expansive landscapes and the ongoing drama of an important quest. The aforementioned Martin Tenbones belongs to her dream world.

Barbie loses access to her dream world after the night that Rose causes the dreams of the building’s tenants to bleed together. She leaves her disturbing fiancee and starts a new life, less intent on normality. This is where we return to her in A Game of You, in which we learn her dream world has continued to exist in spite of her absence.

Her dreams very literally begin to interact with her waking life, starting with Martin Tenbones’ heartbreaking foray into New York and leading into an adventure that plays out partially in Barbie’s sleeping mind, and partially in the parallel adventure of her new neighbors that venture into the dream realm to help save her.

The story serves as a reminder of something that most of the human characters of the Sandman reality demonstrate at some point – there’s more to people than we see of them in our waking interactions. We all have stories beyond the main one we star in from day to day.


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