Sunday, September 12, 2010

Preludes and Nocturnes: Sleep of the Just

I have a ritual I perform every year in the fall. I reread Neil Gaiman's Sandman in its entirety. It's a very autumnal sort of story, and, well, there's another reason, too, that I'll get to soon.

This year, I've decided to blog my rereading. The ACLS fellowship that I hold right now is a research fellowship, which means it would be good if I had a book length project at the end of it. That book is going to be a study of Shakespeare and Sandman and dreams, and is tentatively titled Kings of Infinite Space. Writing down my thoughts here is a way to begin the thinking out loud process that will eventually turn into the book.

Because this is a scholarly project, and I am reading for certain things, I may not blog every issue, and I will highlight the details that are important to my project, perhaps to the exclusion of things you think are interesting. (If you want to read someone who is doing that, I highly recommend Matthew Cheney's elegant "Sandman Meditations" over at Gestalt Mash.) I may sometimes talk about themes, or characters, or how the project is being shaped (oh, Lord Shaper, watch over me as I write) rather than what happened. Because I have read this, lo, many, many times, I may will talk about things that happen at the end even at the beginning. (Guys, Sandman first came out over 20 years ago. I'm not so much worried about spoiling things right now. And if you haven't read it, for the love of God, why are you reading this right now instead of that?)

I'll be reading in the order they were published in the trades, because that is the order I first read them in, and ritual ought to count for something. And this is a reread, not a review. Do you want to know my review of Sandman? Here it is: It is a complete and utter masterpiece, and it would be my desert island book. My love for it, however, does not mean I am not going to read critically. 

Okay? Okay. 

"Sleep of the Just"

For all that I feel that Sandman as a work doesn't really find its voice until "The Sound of Her Wings," "Sleep of the Just" is a pretty fabulous open. Beginnings matter (see the opening line of Hamlet: "Who's there?" two words that ask one of the largest questions of the play) and in the opening panel of Sandman, we get a date, June 6th, 1916, and an opening line: "Wake up, sir. We're here." Dream's story, which concludes with "And then they woke up" begins with a command to do exactly that. 

One of the things I love about Sandman, is that it's sort of the literary equivalent of an Easter egg hunt. The first named character is Hathaway. William Shakespeare was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway, and while her father was Richard, not John, it's one of those moments in the text that lets me wonder. 

Events begin to unfold. The ritual is performed, Dream is imprisoned, and the sleepy sickness begins. Dates continue to show up in the panels, marking the passage of time. Time, and the manner and direction of its unfolding is something else I am very interested in here.

We see Roderick Burgess' headstone, another marker of time's passage, but also important for its epitaph: "Not dead, only sleeping." There is, of course, a relationship between sleep, and dreams, and death - "To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub" - and this is one of the first places that triangle is made explicit in the text. There is also a relationship between Dream and Death.

And then there is one more date, on a newspaper, the day Dream escapes from his prison: September 14, 1988. Seventy-two years in prison. Or was his prison just shaped differently, then? 

The other reason I always reread Sandman in the fall: 14 September is my birthday. I asked Neil if the date had significance, and he said it was probably the publication date of the issue.

Dream steals sand from the dreams of one of his guards and escapes. The victims of the sleepy sickness begin to awake, and the universe begins to set itself right. Dream ponders his confinement, and in his hesitation - "I was... I am.. the Lord of this Realm of Dream and Nightmare" - we see the beginning of his wrestling with his own role, and what it means to be His Darkness, Dream of the Endless.

In talking with the son of one of his captors, Dream quotes Puck, from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Lord, what fools these mortals be." (And my scholar's heart does a little dance.)

The issue closes with a plea: "Please wake up. Please?" But the dreaming has just begun.


  1. It's always so refreshing to read somebody else's point of view of one of my favorite "desert island books". Thanks for that.

    Be sure that I will follow your reading waiting for new insight of Sandman. I may reread it myself, why not?

  2. agree about the easter egg hunt. One of my favourites is the bit about the original Piglet in Ashdown Forest in the Kindly Ones, which ends up in Roderick Burgess's bed.

  3. Mr. Ruben: Thank you. I definitely think you should reread it yourself. One of the reasons I do is that I find new things in it every time.

    Richard: I think my favorite is the Porpentine. Not as subtle or elegant as Piglet, but definitely the point on first reading where the top of my head sort of blew off.