Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 264 pages
Genre: fantasy/magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This collection has some really great stories, and some that I find rather unengaging. As with Dream Country, there’s really no through-line here, so it’s probably best to take each story individually.

Fear of Falling– The opening story, which, honestly, I find a little pedestrian. It’s the sort of thing every writer indulges in sooner or later, I guess: a story about creation, a story about when it fails, a story about fearing success. The best thing in this episode is the advice Morpheus gives to the struggling writer/director in his dream: “Is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative.”

Three Septembers and a January – I love this story to bits. It is the true tale of one of history’s quirks, Joshua Abraham Norton, the First Emperor of the United States from 1859 until his death in 1880. As Joshua is contemplating suicide, Despair tempts her older brother Dream into a bet: to see if Dream can claim and keep him, rescuing him from Despair, without his falling into Desire or Delirium. Against his better judgment, Dream takes the bet, and gives Joshua a dream of being Emperor — and so he becomes. What follows is an incredibly charming story of how he sets himself up in imperial majesty, never mind his actual poverty. He becomes a beloved local celebrity in San Francisco, cherished for his eccentricities, protected from persecution, selfless and benevolent in all his dealings. Desire cannot tempt him, and as Delirium notes, “His madness keeps him sane.” The best thing about this story is that, as I said, it is entirely true — or, given that (as we learned several volume ago) things need not have happened to be true, I should better say — it happened, it is historical reality, well-documented. It’s a wonderful inspiration, a testament to the power of a dream to sustain a life, to keep someone going. Cocooned in his perfectly sane madness, Emperor Norton is inviolable.

Thermidor – Lady Johanna Constantine, who we met back in Hob Gadling’s origin story, is on a mission from Morpheus in the fading days of the Reign of Terror. An Englishwoman, undercover in Paris, steals the head of Orpheus, the Dreamlord’s son (the head, incidentally, is still alive and talking, which we’ll learn more about later) and take it to safety. Robespierre, we learn, seeks to destroy the head, as he seeks to destroy everything he dismisses as superstition, sacrificed to the altar of Reason. The story progresses through several philosophical tangents, exploring the nature of liberty, the double-edged sword of revolution, and the place that the mystical and the impossible have in a post-Enlightenment world (a thread which the series will pick up again later). I like this story a lot, largely for that mix of historical reality and the fantasy of the Dreamworld. I also loved seeing Johanna Constantine in action, and I always wished she would have become a more regularly featured character.

The Hunt – In the modern age, a grandfather tells his reluctant granddaughter a story of their people. In the Old Country, a young man named Vassily meets a gypsy woman, who in exchange for dinner gives him a chain with a picture of a beautiful duke’s daughter on it, and he decides to set out in search of her. From there, it becomes largely an Eastern European/Russian fairy tale — with a couple of notable diversions. For one thing, the thin veil over the story is that “the people” are werewolves. For another, Vassily runs into Lucien, Dream’s librarian, who has misplaced a book that has fallen into Vassily’s hands — and thus, when Vassily most needs assistance, Lucien becomes the unlikely fairy godmother to help him out of trouble.

August – Late in the reign of Emperor Augustus, formerly mere Caius Octavius, the emperor disguises himself as a beggar for a day and discusses the world he rules with an actor named Lycius. I really enjoy this story in some ways, and it irritates me in others. It’s incredibly inactive — most of the panels are Augustus and Lycius just sitting on a stoop, talking. Some of the history is good, but a lot of it is completely wrong, the stuff of popular misconceptions about Roman society. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed in Gaiman for shoddy research, when he’s usually so precise about it, or if I should let it slide on the basis of this being 20 years old and thus an entire generation of scholarship behind. The most interesting part is the explanation of why Augustus set the boundaries of the Roman empire where he did — and, historically, the Empire’s swift decline began when they over-extended themselves. By Gaiman’s account, this had to do with a prophecy, that Rome would either flame and sputter for a few hundred years, or else spread to the ends of the earth and rule for ten thousand years. (Personally, I’d give quite a lot to see a graphic novel series on that version of history). Overall, this one somehow falls flat for me, which is odd, since the material should’ve been a gimme.

Soft Places – A young Marco Polo gets lost in a desert sandstorm and finds himself stumbling through the veils of time and reality, meeting with people from the past and the future, as well as our old friend Fiddler’s Green. I like the inherent concept behind this one — the very idea of “soft places” where reality thins, time bends, and the mystical collides with the mundane — but somehow this is an issue that never sticks with me. Somehow the characters just don’t reach out and grab, and while the art pretty perfectly reflects the story, that also means it ends up a whitewash in my mind. So, Soft Places is effective in weird ways, but not one of my favourites from this volume.

Orpheus – This is a good if not particularly inventive retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the musician whose bride dies on their wedding day, who goes to the Underworld to find her, only to lose her through his own lack of faith before he reaches the realm of the living again. The best thing about this storyline, which spans several issues, is the integration of the Endless into the tale. Orpheus is, in this version of the tale, the son of Calliope and Morpheus — an interesting twist, since most versions put him as the son of Calliope and Apollo, and in “August”, Augusts mistakes Morpheus for Apollo. That’s one of those little ways Gaiman twines his stories together, that you might not appreciate on the first or even the fifth read, but which curls there, underneath, waiting for you to notice it. Anyway — we meet, for the first time, the entire family of the Endless gathered for Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice, including the missing prodigal, here called only Olethros — which translates as “Destruction”. When Eurydice dies, as in the myth, Orpheus wants to go to the Underworld for her; here, the decision involves the Endless. Dream initially refuses to help, and father and son quarrel, but Uncle Destruction sends Orpheus to talk to Death — who says the way to get in and out of the Underworld alive is for her to agree not to perform her function on him. The myth progresses as we know it, all the way through the less-often-told story of Bacchantes tearing him to pieces (in a few rather gruesomely detailed pages) and his still-sentient head floating down the river.

The Parliament of Rooks – Another one that fails to impress me. Of all the elements of the Dreamworld, the Eve-Cain-Abel part always seemed weird and out of place to me. They always seem like they’ve come in from a very different kind of storytelling, and so I never much enjoy their presence. The best note in this story is Eve’s tale of the three wives of Adam, from the Jewish apocrypha.

Ramadan – This story has some of the best art in the series, though I find the tale itself somewhat lacking. The sultan of Baghdad believes that he is living in the most glorious city in the most glorious time ever created, and he strikes a deal with Morpheus to keep it so forever, in the Dreamworld. And so Morpheus locks the city in a magic ball, removing its glory from the real world but preserving it forever in fantasy. The story ends in what was then modern Baghdad, in 1993 — eerily similar to what is modern Baghdad in 2012, war-ravaged and destitute, but still a place where a young boy might dream of a golden past.

Overall, there’s a lot in this volume about the place where dreams and the mundane world collide, and that’s a theme I really enjoy. There are also a lot of threads, less pronounced, about family, other relationships, and their value. From Vassily’s choice to prize a soulmate above wealth and carnal delights, to Augustus’s pronounced familial disappointments, to the amazing love that wraps Emperor Norton, to, of course, the tangled web of the Endless. It centers, ultimately, on Morpheus’s fraught relationship with his son. Orpheus disowns him in a moment of despair, and unyielding Morpheus refuses to reconcile even after tragedy befalls his son. If you know where the story’s headed, you can feel what it’s beginning to spin to in this volume, as certain aspects of the story pick up more energy and as more information falls into place. Fables and Reflections is thus oddly situated between plot-advancing and ponderous, displaying both the overall arc of the series and the imaginative exploration at which Gaiman excels.

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