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On Comic Myth II: Sandman Mythology

Written by Keb Ellis on Wednesday, November 29 2006 and posted in Features
  We’ve heard about it, read about it, and read it.  But do we understand it?  That depends on how many times we’ve read it.  I’m talking of Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece The Sandman, a series layered with both intellectual goodies and comic book intricacies.  So what is so appealing in the mythological sense of [...]

Sandman series?  It’s a good question to ask, and I’d like to look at the mythological aspect of it in a deeper sense of the word myth.

We’ve established in the previous column what a myth is.  We tell them to explain the way things are.  Kephra, the sacred beetle carries the sun across the sky in Egyptian mythology.  Poseidon causes the seas to become disturbed when he’s angry in Greek mythology.  There is an explanation for every fact of life that can be turned into a myth.  Even parts of the bible, especially those in respect to creation are considered by many as myth.  But what makes these so special to the Sandman?

Well, for one, Gaiman set out to create a character “who’s the personification of dreams and rules the place where we spend a third of our lives.” (The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender) Instantly we are presented with a myth!  Our dreams are unexplainable, and are often related to the subconscious, but instead Gaiman puts a magical twist on what dreams are.  He creates the Sandman, or Morpheus, as a character who controls those sneaky thoughts in our head.  He is being attributed to something unexplainable.  He has created the myth of Morpheus.

The Endless by Frank QuitelyIn addition to that, he creates Morpheus’ six siblings, The Endless: Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium.  He places them in roles similar to Morpheus and allows them to be part of the reasoning for what humans are.  Destiny walks in his garden and knows what happens; Death comes to meet us when we die, to take us to the next plane of existence, and so on.  Each character has a specific role, but in the final chapter of the series “The Wake”, it’s revealed that these characters are a representation of ideas.  Thus, Gaiman’s heavy personification of human emotions and experiences attempts to balance or justify these notions and by doing so Gaiman has created a contemporary myth.

I think one of the most important elements to The Sandman is the use of stories.  Gaiman is a master storyteller, and has proven so not only with The Sandman, but with his other works.  It’s important to note not just the use of stories in the series, but also the use of story elements, particularly those of other mythos, in the series.  The first instance where we see the inter-twining mythology is in issue 4, when the Sandman travels to Hell to regain his stolen helmet.  In the issue we see some splendid Sam Keith adaptations of Milton’s Hell from Paradise Lost.  We also get another myth incorporated in issue 17, Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry.

The definitive convergence of mythos would be in the fourth volume of the series, “Season of Mists”.  At first, the story returns to the Miltonian Hell, where Lucifer hands the key to Hell to Morpheus, then leaves.  Then come all kinds of mythological beings to curry favour with Dream and win dominance over Hell.  We have Norse gods, Egyptian gods, even Japanese gods, as well as Miltonian demons and angels, and the notions of Chaos and Order.  There is a sort of magic that Gaiman adapts to the series by bringing all these mythological characters together and putting them into a room.  Where else are you going to see all the great mythological gods in the same room except the great hall of the King of Dreams?

Along with these notions, it’s most important to note the way Gaiman can take a myth (or even a historically rooted story) and add Morpheus into the mix and make it believable.  A good example would be the story of Orpheus, as told in the series.  For those unfamiliar with Orpheus in Greek mythology, he is a musician with a lovely voice, the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.  Instead, Gaiman supplants Apollo with Morpheus, factoring him into the myth and allowing it to develop around the series.  It’s a cautionary move in some respects, as those who are unfamiliar with the myth may wind up confused, but for the series it’s an absolutely brilliant idea.  It allows Gaiman to work the myth into the story and to also introduce a very important character in the Sandman series.  Thus, Gaiman develops the mythological aspects even deeper by borrowing from other myths.

Other instances of indoctrinating mythological aspects of Sandman into the world we live in include stories featuring the first Emperor of the United States, Norton I, the explorer Marco Polo and Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid.  One of the most fascinating stories in the series would be the story “The Heart of a Star” in the Endless Nights collection, going back long before human civilization, to ancient Oan civilization, where at a council of stars and the Endless, our very own sun (called Sol) is seen as a young, clumsy child trying to find his own way amongst red giant and white dwarf stars.  It brings attention to the notion that the Endless are as old as time, and the way Gaiman writes them in their past history, we understand that things happen between siblings over time that allow the characters to have such deep histories.

The series is quite a wonderful read, if not just for the mythology but for the characters and stories that Gaiman manages to tell.  As I mentioned before, Gaiman is a master of stories, and crafts his mythological masterpiece so intricately that it leaves readers awestruck.

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Posted originally: 2006-11-29 23:52:28

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