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Alicja Przybylska
Literary Postmodernism of Neil Gaiman's Sandman

 

.....In my article I would like to write about the postmodernism of 'Sandman' - a fantasy graphic novel created by Neil Gaiman along with talented drawers. By postmodernism I mean eclecticism and interference between genres. Since it would be impossible to present all of the connections and references in detail, I'll focus on just a few of the most classical ones.
Sandman is both a masterpiece of the graphic novel (which is a type of comic book) as well as a postmodernist product. It has been written by Neil Gaiman, an English author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels, graphic novels, comics, and films, who takes a handful of inspiration of the classics, he has been inspired by stories of classical mythologies, various religions, legends, fairy tales and products of popular culture.
The author drifts between realism and fantasy, consciousness and dream,imagination and reality in a very dexterous way and very smoothly. Sometimes he borders on grotesque, horror fiction or drama. Sometimes there is a reference to biblical tales, mystery story, medieval Arabic folk stories as well as Gothic fiction, legend, thriller or other literary genre. Having copied well known stories, schemes or motifs Gaiman merged them into a brand new quality, giving them new significance and meaning.
Sandman's protagonist is the Lord of Dreams who is the anthropomorphic personification of dream. Morpheus, Dream-Weaver, Dream Lord, Dream-Shaper, Lord Shaper are among the various forms whereby Dream is identified. Lord of Dreams is a force which creates, shapes and oversees mankind's dreams and nightmares. This enigmatic character is central point around which Gaiman has created an extraordinary story by skillfully interweaving legend, poetry, humor and mystery, madness and real eeriness.
Traditionally Sandman is a character from folk tales, where he is believed to sprinkle sand into the people's eyes to make them sleep. Gaiman kept Sandman's legendary and distinguishing attribute - the pouch, which holds the sand of dream. The magical sand is essential to shift between dream's realm and reality.

The protagonist of the series is often called Morpheus – who originally is a character from Greek mythology, where he is the god of dreams, figure of great wisdom and ability to change his form and shape. His father is Hypnos - the god of slumber, and his unkle is Tanatos the god of the death. In the realm of Gaiman's 'Sandman' one of Dream's siblings is Death.
The Sandman's universe is constructed as a place where Lord Shaper is the creator of the dream world itself. The journey through this universe takes place both in reality and in the dreaming and sometimes somewhere thoroughly separate. In fact sometimes the reader can be confused whether action is taking place in a dream or consciousness - or maybe even in a nightmare.
At the beginning of this unusual story we are shown a scene similar to one from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. After being imprisoned for decades Dream Lord must reclaim his objects of power: a pouch of sand, a helm and a ruby. To reclaim one of them he's forced to undertake a journey through the Inferno. In the Hell Dream he is led through the Wood of Suicides. He travels the same route Dante once did in The Divine Comedy. This central epic poem of Italian literature contains a scene in which Dante breaks a twig off one of the trees, which causes the tree to bleed. A voice comes from the tree and Dante hears the tale of Pier delle Vigne. He was a noble man that, in a moment of weakness of will, took the irreversible action, and after a life of noble service, he had been condemned forever.
Gaiman recalls this occurrence – the Dream Lord breaks a branch of a tree making it bleed. Condemned one feels grateful to the Dream for the only way to relieve suffering in the inferno leads through pain.

Very often 'Sandman's' reader can encounter characters known from the world's literature along with popular culture. In Hell we come face to face with one of the most inspirational figures amid the biblical ones.
Being an unwanted guest but also a monarch of his own realm, Dream is led to the presence of Lucifer – the fallen angel and the Lord of Hell. He was also known as Light Bearer, Morning Star or Bringer of the Dawn. According to the Christian mythology he was the highest Archangel in heaven, but motivated by pride and greed of knowledge he decided to rebel against God and was banished from heaven by Archangel Michael. Gaiman's Lucifer is based on both biblical picture of the rebellious angel and the main character of John Milton's most famous masterpiece - Paradise Lost.
Milton presents Satan as an ambitious and proud entity who defies his creator, and who conducts war in Heaven, only to be defeated and cast out. Lucifer presented by Neil Gaiman is a former ruler of Hell, an attractive, delightful, intelligent, and completely ruthless fallen angel. Gaiman has his Lucifer quote Milton's Satan: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven". He is one of the most powerful beings in existence, he could have been transcended only by his creator.
During his journey through hell Dream encounters more beings of biblical provenance. Azazel is a demon that appeared in both Hebraic and Muslim mythology. According to Jewish beliefs he seems to be a fallen angel that departed heaven to join Lucifer's followers. This character is presented and interpreted in world's literary very eagerly, just to mention the most significant examples: John Milton's 'Paradise Lost', 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov, 'Azazel' by Isaac Asimov, 'The Satanic Verses' by Salman Rushdie, 'The Sleepless' by Graham Masterton. In 'Sandman' he is a former ruler of Hell banished from his domain. He appears as a twisting mass of black flame filled with numerous eyes and mouths.
Belzebub, correctly Baal-Zevuv (hebr. Lord of Flies) is Hebraic name for demon, mentioned in the Gospels. Beelzebub is believed to be guardian of Hell's gate in Christan demonology. In Gaiman's masterpiece along with Lucifer and Azazel he was the third King of Hell. In reference to his name he appears as a gigantic green fly, or a fly's head on two short human legs.
There is also Choronzon in the 'Sandman', a demon that firstly appeared in writing with the 16th century occultists Edward Kelley and John Dee within the occult system of Enochian magic. Four centuries later he became a significant figure within the mystical system of Thelema, founded by Aleister Crowley.
The reader also encounters an angelic character based on a biblical one. Remiel is the angel of hope, he is responsible for divine visions, and he guides the souls of the faithful into Heaven. Angel called Duma is known from Jewish mythology where he is the angel of silence and death's stillness. It occurs for Remiel and Duma are to receive an uncharacteristic task - they are to watch over Hell. Remiel attempts to redesign Hell, transforming it from a place of punishment to a place of rehabilitation for lost souls, but Duma keeps silent, doesn't give his opinion on any matter. Doing this both angels keep their most significant features, which were given to them by their original creators.

Story contains other characters of biblical provenience like parents of mankind Eve and Adam and the first murderer and victim Kain and Abel. Eve is one of the many representations of the triple nature of womankind - maiden, mother and crone in The Sandman. She is based on the three distinct "Eve"s in some versions of the Genesis story: the arrogant Lilith, an unnamed virgin, and Eve herself. The Trinity as a represents the Mother, the Maiden, and the Crone, the three aspects of the Triple Goddess in many mythologies. There are Norns, three goddesses of destiny who are spinning fate in the Norse mythology; there are Moirae and Parcae - three sisters spinners of thread of human life in Greek and Roman mythology. This enigmatic figure fluently shifts between its three aspects in the Sandman's world. Three-Who-Are-One become the Mother, the Maiden, or the Crone and does prophesy helping other powerful characters capable of summoning them like Morfeus or witch Thessaly.
Kain and Abel are inhabitants of the Dreamworld and fulfill unexpected comic function in 'Sandman's' story. By repeating the act of homicide on and on every time we see these brothers together, we can be sure that Abel will be dead. Ironically that act of violence is grotesque and funny in some way.

There is set of inter-textual references to William Shakespeare. The Sandman series features Shakespeare twice, first he creates A Midsummer Night's Dream, and at the end of Morpheus's life, The Tempest. In Gaiman's Midsummer Night's Dream and Tempest, he interrogates much of the mythology which surrounds Shakespeare and the artistic impulse in general when he reveals the work or labor of writing popular plays, and the corresponding lack of acceptance of plays as real art by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries.

I could not miss out such an essential influence as horror, which prevails over the whole story. The Sandman's world is nightmarish and horrific. Dreaming interferes with reality and there is nothing too terrible in the dreamworld. People are just puppets controlled by inconceivable forces. People are physically and mentally helpless facing unfeeling and eternal powers. The gloomy mood of each story is deepened and intensified even further by graphic side of the series. The horror extracted from huge number of plots, references or playing with the reader is illustrated by amazing drawings. Because of this the word and the picture create a perfect unity.

Being typical postmodernist Gaiman transgresses all of the boundaries – not only a unity of genre but also cultural integrity, so in his graphic novel Odin - the chief god in Norse paganism encounters fairies from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

 

 

 

 

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