Neil Gaiman is a doyen of English letters. As he celebrates his 60th birthday today, he can reflect not just on his role in the development of genre fiction, but also his role in making genre fiction central to contemporary literature.
Throughout his career, Gaiman has explored themes of imagination and myth. His work is full of allusions to other cultural references. His go to genre is a kind of fantasy version of the real world, which is sometimes very gritty but also imbued with a readerly elegance.
His work draws thematic parallels with Sir Terry Pratchett. They collaborated on Good Omens in 1990, but similar ideas crop up in their books. Both writers have an interest in the boundary between imagined worlds and real worlds. In Brief Lives, the goddess Ishtar is a go-go dancer, surviving on the adulation of her customers. This is a similar theme to Pratchett’s Small Gods, where a god’s power grows in proportion to the level of belief. Gaiman returned to the theme of ancient gods in modern settings in American Gods.
Gaiman is best known for The Sandman series of comics, published between 1989 and 1996 (with some later volumes and spin offs).
The Sandman centres on Morpheus, the manifestation of dream, who has returned to his realm after many years of absence. Published across 75 issues (later collected into ten books), the series tells of his coming to terms with his past actions.
The world is dark. One early comic is set in convention of serial killers. The stories are sometimes also a little puerile. An elderly woman nurses her child who died decades before as a stillbirth, but has now returned to the world of the living.
It is also of its time. At times, this is quaint. Death is a young white female often portrayed as a “Goth” with the same ironic detachment which was endemic amongst a certain strata of young, educated and largely white Americans and Europeans in the 1990s. The figure of Morpheus, dresses in a similar style to Neil Gaiman. It is nevertheless also noticeable that characters are largely white or enact particular contemporary values as if they were universal values. This is particularly telling in a series which ranges over different cultures and many centuries.
Perhaps, we can say Gaiman was writing contemporary history at a period when history had ended (according to Francis Fukyama) or even in a post-post-modern period when grand narratives were both doubted but also valued as the source of some external truth.
The stories display a high level of psychological realness, often narrating flawed characters navigating a world full of desire and fear, in which they have both agency and none and in which they are simultaneously powerful and weak.
The themes of myth are predominant. Characters from both The DC Universe and classical myth crop up. It is clear that both are seen as equal.
Gaiman knows his classical sources well (he was privately educated). In one novel, Morpheus is hunted by the furies, the Kindly Ones and in another, the Emperor Augustus retells his story in terms that draw on Suetonius (Graves told the artists to use the TV of series I, Claudius as inspiration).
Season of Mists
It is worth focusing on one book. Seasons of Mists collects issues 21-28 and was published 1990-91.
Morpheus is given the keys to hell by Lucifer, who has abdicated the throne of hell and closed hell. The dead return to earth and haunt the living. Hearing of this several gods from various traditions travel to Morpheus’ kingdom to claim Hell for themselves: the Norse, Japanese and Egyptian amongst others.
Like all of Gaiman’s work this is very allusive making references to both obscure Gnostic cults (like the Cainites, mentioned by Ireneus), Paradise Lost and comic book heroes.
It is the Egyptian gods who are most interesting. The gods who travel to Dream are Anubis, Bastet and Bes. Visually these are the classic Egyptian gods, more likely to spring to mind than say Atum or Khnum.
Yet it is important to note that these three gods became popular during the Late Period. One character (possibly Merlin) tells another, that all the Pantheons were represented with the exception of the Greek gods who spend all their time focused on internal politics. Yet the three Egyptian gods were popular during the Ptolemaic period. In the cases of Bastet and Bes, they were more popular during the Greek Age then in the preceding period.
Anubis is portrayed as a devourer of human hearts, perhaps based on the iconographically dominant depictions on the Book of the Dead papyri. This is very far from the dapper gentleman in his linen suit described by Lucian or the friendly psychopomp portrayed on Greek and Roman period gravestones (stele).
Bes is a white dwarf, similar to a figure from Tolkein. In ancient times, Bes was often portrayed as a fierce lion or wearing a lion skin. The bodacious little dude known from numerous terracotta statuettes is very different to this silent guy.
Bastet is the most interesting. She is portrayed as a most comely cat with sensuous curves. A flirtatious spirit, she is made to sit next to Thor, a rippling but boorish figure who ends the night vomiting in his own beard.
Although the cat has become a symbol of Ancient Egypt, worship of Bastet was in fact quite late. The 22nd Dynasty pharaohs are believed to have come from the city of Bastet in the Delta. They supported the local cult linked to the goddess of the city. Around this time, Bastet became associated with Sekhmet the fierce Lioness in Memphis, while in Heliolpolis she was regarded as the daughter of Atum and elsewhere she was associated with Mut, Hathor and Isis.
Herodotus described the festival of the goddess as a period of lasciviousness: a kind of carnival by river. In his Histories, he reports that women on boats exposed themselves to people on the riverbanks.
It was in the Ptolemaic period that the cat-godess became more prominent. The majority of bronze statuettes and cat mummies come from this period. Although the most famous cat, the Gayer-Anderson Cat held by the British Museum dates from 600 BCE.
Cats are a subject close to Gaiman’s heart. In one standalone story, Dream of a Thousand Cats (issue 18, later published in Dream Country), cats gather to hear the words of a travelling cat prophetess. She tells a story that once cats were the dominant creatures on earth. Humans were small and groomed the cats and were hunted. One day a blond man realised that if all the humans dreamt it, they would become the dominant species. The rest is history. Although Bastet is not named in this story, the cover image shows a Late Period or Ptolemaic cat statuette implying her beneficent influence pervades over this realm.
Like Asterix, the artists explores language through lettering. Each group has their own way of “speaking”. The Egyptian deities speak in an almost Greek-script.
The story abounds with various intrigues and romances within and between the different groups. One love affair between Cluracan, a lord of Faery and a member of the Egyptian enourage ends after a night of sweetness. Reflecting on whether they will stay in touch, Cluracan thinks it’s unlikely because he will not be able to read the letters.
Until this time they have been able to communicate. Is this because they are in the realm of dream or something more complex?
The Sandman comics are an interesting way to re-engage with both classical myth and to explore how this played out in the late Twentieth Century. Gaiman has become a major figure in literature and these works must be compared to other works. A profound body of work, this does not mean that they transcend the contemporary assumptions of their time. It is important to engage with these works within their historical contexts, but they can also be read for entertainment or enlightenment. Highly recommended.
What’s your favourite character or story from the Sandman series? Let us know in the comments below.