Author: Neil Gaiman, with artists
Publication Date: 1993
LC Call Number: PN6727.G35S26
Sandman has never been a single coherent narrative; there is an ongoing story into which many smaller stories have been woven. Fables and Reflections is one of the volumes which presents a collection of shorter stories that don’t necessarily have much to do with the larger narrative or with each other. There is a theme among the stories in this volume, however; except for the short prologue, “Fear of Falling” and one other story, they are all historical or mythical in nature. There isn’t a huge distinction made here between history and myth; both are kinds of stories, after all. “Three Septembers and a January” is a story about the self-styled Emperor Norton of the United States (he is also of interest to a certain brilliant cartoonist with an interest in history). “Thermidor” continues the story of Johanna Constantine, whom we’ve seen a couple times before, and who is now living through the French Revolution. “The Hunt”is a supposedly Eastern European folktale told by an old man. “August” focuses on the Roman Emperor Augustus. “Soft Places” is something of a ghost story about Marco Polo (and an old friend from Volume Three turns up here). “The Song of Orpheus” is a retelling of the story of the mythical Greek bard, Morpheus’s son. “A Parliament of Rooks” is the oddball story, set in the future, but with a visit to the Dreaming, where we catch up with Cain and Abel again and consider the nature of storytelling. “Ramadan” is set in the quasi-mythical Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid and is drawn in a completely different style.
Oh, and from here on out, there may well be spoilers, but they don’t much damage the experience for this.
Time is an interesting consideration in these stories. The observant reader will have noticed that most of them are named after months: not just months in the Western calendar such as September, January, and August, but also Thermidor, which was a month in the revolutionary calendar, and of course, Ramadan, a month in the Muslim calendar. It’s curious to place this much emphasis on time, because while Dream and the other Endless are not time-travelers, they show up so casually at so many different historical moments that it’s sometimes hard to remember that they aren’t, especially since the series moves so freely from one time in history to another. But this volume isn’t really about Dream; it’s mostly about mortals, although Death is very important in “The Song of Orpheus.”
The two stories that are put most in dialogue here are “August” and “Ramadan.” Both are about very powerful men who rule impressive empires, and in a way, both are presented with the same choice. In “August,” Augustus is very careful to distinguish between his public self and his personal self. He reminisces with an actor about another actor whom he had killed due to an insult to Rome; personal insults are not important to him. He does so while disguised as a beggar; that is, he is abandoning his official identity for one day. Eventually we learn that Dream advised him to do so, after speaking with Terminus, god of boundaries, so that he can make decisions not observed by the Roman gods and in particular the newly-divine Julius Caesar. He is free, under these circumstances, to intentionally make decisions which lead to the fall of Rome, apparently as a form of revenge for the abuse he suffered at the hands of that same Julius. Ultimately, the boundary between his personal and official identities does not survive—but then, it is of course Julius who began by violating boundaries. Contrast with “Ramadan,” in which Haroun al-Raschid lives in a fantastical version of Baghdad in which everything is apparently perfect. Foolishly, he summons Dream, because he wants to ensure that his kingdom will live and be remembered forever. He has apparently been reading “Ozymandias” (well—figuratively!), or at any rate he has been seized with the fear that not only will his empire fall, it will be forgotten. His deal with Dream is that Dream will take the city, so that it will be permanently remembered in its perfect state. Dream complies, so that Baghdad becomes a dream-city and the real city is reduced to a place you wouldn’t want to live. So—one of these rulers chooses to think of the city and attempts to preserve it for the future, but does so in a way that destroys it in the present. He overlooks his personal well-being and that of everyone else, and gets a story in return. The other acts out of anger; when he is not observed, he chooses to pursue his own goals rather than enriching the empire he rules, chooses to break it down. Either way, these cities are impermanent; when these decisions are juxtaposed in this way, it becomes clear that whatever decision people make will lead to destruction. So the emphasis on time is perhaps an emphasis on the way that mortals occupy a particular, fixed moment.
At the same time, the reader is not encouraged to invest particularly in the survival of either empire. Both already belong somewhere in the past in the mind of the reader. “August” emphasizes how difficult it is for Augustus to rule over Rome and the sometimes unjust decisions he has ended up making (there seems not to be a right of free speech in Rome). There is a sense that the Roman empire is a great achievement, but it is certainly not inviting and there is not much sense of loss in its fall. “Ramadan,” features a less introspective character and must find another way to do this; it achieves distance from the reader by means of a less realistic art style and the use of formalized language as one might find in a fairy tale. The ultimate fate of Baghdad justifies these stylistic changes, but again, the reader never feels that perhaps Baghdad will survive forever.
There may be something intelligent to say about choosing a different and more mystical style for the one story in the book that takes place in a non-western setting, but I’m not the one to say it. The same is true of casting Augustus Caesar as a rape victim—what does this do to the story, and is it an ethical use of that particular storytelling element? These things should be addressed, but I don’t feel able to evaluate it.
In any case, we do know what Death thinks of these rulers by her words to Emperor Norton: “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors, and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I’ve met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.” This isn’t a surprise; Norton, despite his grandiose ideas about himself, is infinitely more likable than either of them, but there’s a bit more of an explanation of it in “The Song of Orpheus.” As in the myth, Orpheus is unable to accept the death of his wife, Eurydice. Unlike the myth, he goes to speak to his aunt Death about it. (Incidentally, the scenes where he wanders bewildered around Death’s place, which she keeps like a twentieth-century suburban house with goldfish and tacky teddy bears, is possibly my favorite thing ever.) She tells him, “It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.” She does help him, but she doesn’t approve. She believes in the universality of endings and dislikes the struggle for immortality. She tells him, in fact, “I don’t need to know the future. When the future’s over, then it’s me…”
…yes, there is really no contest over who is the best character in Sandman.
So there’s a lot here about power and mortality. Orpheus, of course, actually becomes immortal as a result of his failed attempt to recover Eurydice. We see him in “Thermidor,” which, curiously, is actually placed before “The Song of Orpheus” in the book. Thus, we already know that he will become immortal, and that this will not be an ideal situation for him because he is carted around as a head after his encounter with the Bacchae. Even before that, he has sunk into a deep depression following the loss of Eurydice. We’ve seen another immortal human in this series, Hob Gadling, who seems to rather enjoy it, although he has his ups and downs. Orpheus is different; he is punished quite severely for his presumption. Partly this is because he was in a fight with Dream, who subsequently abandoned him. As readers, we are not surprised; Dream is not an especially forgiving person. But there’s also a sense that he should have known better. In “Thermidor,” he is something of a MacGuffin for a while; Johanna carries him around and protects him from the powerful, at Dream’s behest. So there is still a connection between them. In fact, when Johanna offers to visit him again, at a later point in her travels, he tells her, “I do not think that would be a good idea, Johanna.” This precisely echoes Dream’s words to Calliope when she asks, after he rescues her, whether she will be able to see him again. The implication is ambiguous, but Orpheus is speaking on that very page of his desire to be reunited with his father. Well, now that Dream has forgiven two of his exes, maybe his son is next?
So, there is a thread about time and mortality running through this volume. There is also a thread about storytelling, and it should be clear by now that some of the stories I’ve already mentioned touch on this themselves. The most explicit stories in this regard, however, are “The Hunt” and “The Parliament of Rooks.” “The Hunt” features an old trope: an old man tells a story to his unappreciative granddaughter. She isn’t sure she wants to hear it, interrupts several times, and criticizes the story at the end. Curiously, it’s really a story about a book, which Dream’s librarians Lucien (a fine comic character) wishes to retrieve from him. The storyteller knows exactly what the story means to him. He expresses irritation at the interruptions of his granddaughter and expounds on his meaning when she argues with him. But, her objections are also valid. She points out certain ambiguities and inconsistencies in the story, and has her own reading of it which the text doesn’t appear to invalidate. She raises an eyebrow at the assertion that it is a story of the old country, complains that it is a sexist and insular, and, because she understands that stories are told in a particular context, suspects that it is aimed at her. Are we supposed to see her as wrong? We do have sympathy for the storyteller and we see that she is missing what he thinks is the point, but I don’t know. She’s pretty smart, and stories don’t necessarily belong to the teller.
We see a similar dynamic in “The Parliament of Rooks,” in which Cain, Abel and Eve come together to tell their stories to a human child (Lyta’s child, who has wandered into their world). Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, and she provides several readings of this story, explains their uses, and refuses to privilege any one of them. Abel tells his own story about his conflicts with his brother and how they came to live in Dream’s country, but he is aware of the context in which he is telling it and makes it into an especially bizarre children’s story. This involves a picture of young Dream and young Death which may be my other favorite thing ever. In any case, Cain constantly interrupts him this story in a rage at his attempt to make it appropriate for children: “What are you trying to feed the child—sanitized pablum? Li’l Death? Li’l Morpheus? Revolting!” He doesn’t approve of the cuteness of it, and he certainly doesn’t approve of the glossing over of the nature of the sheep as a sacrifice. Ultimately, Abel makes it seem as if he was happy to live with Cain forever, which we’ve seen in prior volumes is certainly not the case. Where is Gaiman’s sympathy here? Wellll…. Okay. So the deficiencies of the story point up some of the things that Gaiman tries to do both here and in other works, in showing that the gods are not nice. (Exhibit A: American Gods.). So Cain is certainly correct on those grounds. The ending of the story, too, makes the reader feel deeply uneasy because it’s simply untrue. At the same time, however, Cain is being a jerk by interrupting the story and attempting to wrest Abel’s voice from him, and as Eve notes, when he is telling the story, Abel does not stutter as he usually does.
So this is ambiguous again. Telling a story is not an innocent act. Both Abel and the grandfather of “The Hunt” have an agenda. And in both cases, I’d argue that reading the story critically characters within it do is legitimate. However, they don’t read all the agendas as well as they think they do. So, while Fables and Reflections isn’t exactly an argument against criticism, it casts a wary and slightly amused glance at it.