Cannonball Read V: The Sandman: Fables & Reflections by Neil Gaiman
Last night I dreamt that I needed to work my way through a zombie-ravaged high school in order to make it on time to my Irish dance recital with Idris Elba. After a gravity-free performance, I did not feel well, and promptly gave birth to a small, wooden sheep. Surprisingly, my baby sheep was somehow animated enough to defecate on my hands while I held it, all while my sour mother looked on and rolled her eyes at me. Maybe this nonsensical construction in my mind is a telling picture as to my internal self. Maybe it is a description of my past, or my fears for the future. Whatever the case, if we are to see it all through Neil Gaiman's eyes, even the most fleeting fragments of our dreams have the ability to affect a person, tell a story, or even alter the course of the world. And so we come to The Sandman: Fables and Reflections, which I saw as an illustration of just that.
The sixth volume of Gaiman's graphic novel series does not directly connect to the overall story-arc of the series, but rather touches on various themes presented throughout the volumes. It does this through a series of nine, individual short stories, spanning across different timeframes and cultures, all of which involve some aspect of dreaming, the Endless, and their various effects on human action.
These include the following tales:
"Fear of Falling" - An excruciatingly brief encounter with a playwright and director, terrified of either the inevitable success or failure of his new play.
"Three Septembers and a January" - One of the more fun stories in the collection, based on the history of Joshua Abraham Norton. Norton proclaims himself to be the first and only Emperor of the United States, as the consequences of a wager between Dream and his sisters, Despair, Desire, and Delirium. The end of the story hints at further, future conflicts between Desire and Dream.
"Thermidor" - A much less playful tale, concerning post-revolution France, and a young woman named Lady Johanna Constantine, who is in possession of the head of Morpheus' son, Orpheus. Definitely the most political of the stories in the collection, though in honesty I was more concerned with the fact that Dream had a son, and that he was nothing but a head at this point in his life.
"The Hunt" - A fairy tale told by a grandfather to his uninterested granddaughter, about a young hunter of "The People", who travels to find a young princess after finding her portrait in an old locket.
"August" - A sad tale about the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, who disguises himself as a beggar, after being told in his dreams that he can hide from the eyes of certain gods who may spy on his plans for the future of Rome. Although the main concern appears to be his plans for the expansion or destruction of Rome (and consequently, the world), it appears that Augustus' past fears of this own uncle may have more to do with his quest to hide from the eyes of gods than is initially understood.
"Soft Places" - A young boy named Marco Polo becomes lost in the desert, only to stumble upon a "Soft Place" of the world, where the boundaries between reality and dreams are much less defined. He encounters various characters from previous installments in The Sandman series, including Morpheus himself.
"The Song of Orpheus" - A retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, and his young wife Eurydice: in these tales, however, Orpheus is learned to be the son of Morpheus. After Eurydice's premature death, Orpheus yearns to rescue her from the underworld, disobeying his father, and essentially alienating himself from his Endless family. We also learn how Orpheus came to be nothing but a head in "Thermidor", after an encounter with some Maenads.
"The Parliament of Rooks" - A fun and mysterious story about stories, all told by various characters that gather together for a storytelling session. After a young child, Daniel (child of Hippolyta Hall from The Doll's House), stumbles into the dream realm as he naps, the destructive brothers, Cain and Abel, the raven Matthew, and Eve, all tell a tale to one another, in honor of their human guest.
"Ramadan" - The last story in the collection, focused on the Caliph Harun al-Rashid who rules over Baghdad, at a time when it was considered to be the most brilliant city in the history of the world. Raschid, however, is fearful of the fleetingness of beauty, and does not want his city to eventually decay. He threatens to shatter a globe of demons in order to call Dream and make a deal with him, so that the city of Baghdad will remain in its brilliant state forever.
Some of the fables included are definitely stronger than others ("Three Septembers and a January", and "The Parliament of Rooks", especially, in my opinion), which fortunately make up for the weaker stories within the novel. It's particularly interesting when Gaiman chooses to re-imagine established ancient myths, with the insinuation that the Dream King had a hand in each of them in some direct or subtle way (see: "The Song of Orpheus"). One definite fault of this volume, however, comes in the form of the text graphics used in the stories "Thermidor" and "Ramadan": it may be aesthetically fitting to put ancient writings into stylistic cursive, but using one that is difficult to read is rarely a good choice.
The great thing about The Sandman series in general is that there is always some mystery present that you want to solve, which keeps you enthralled the whole way through. Therefore, it's easy to breeze through each volume in no more than a few hours. That being said, I quite enjoyed this particular volume, and would give it 4 stars out of 5. Though, as always, if you are a fan of the series already, you are likely to love Fables & Reflections regardless.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)
(Images courtesy fedres: "Death" by Jill Thompson (header); "The Endless" by Andy MacDonald.)