Our assignment was to read the first couple of issues from The Doll’s House: Tales in the Sand and the eponymous The Doll’s House. KatherineMW did the recap this week.

Preludes and Nocturnes recaps here: Glyph and Patrick tackled the first four issues, I tackled the fifth, Glyph recapped six and seven. Mike Schilling recapped number eight.

It’s very difficult to discuss this book without discussing the next one (or the one ofter that, or the one after that), if you want to discuss something with a major plot point: please rot13 it. That’s a simple encryption that will allow the folks who want to avoid spoilers to avoid them and allow the people who want to argue them to argue them.

We good? We good! Everybody who has done the reading, see you after the cut!

This book is the first one of The Sandman which I read, so I’ve got a particular attachment to it.

Tales in the Sand

We open in Africa, with two men in a desert and a musing on the nature of myth. It’s a highly stereotypical Africa, but the writing and the art are spectacular nonetheless; this chapter hooked me into the story immediately. The cadence and phrasing on the first page is perfect. There’s a sense of mystery about “the tales the women tell” woven through the whole tale-telling, which is poetic but also rather male; it’s a lot harder to view women as mysterious when you are one. Still, it succeeds in making me highly curious about how the women’s version of this tale goes; nygubhtu yrff phevbhf abj, nsgre ernqvat Frnfbaf bs Zvfgf, juvpu gryyf hf ubj gur gnyr raqrq. Obviously, we can fill in the ending from what we saw in “A Hope in Hell”; but I hadn’t read that the first time I encountered this, and that actually gave the story more power by leaving it open-ended.

We are watching an initiation ritual – the telling and hearing of a story, revolving around a blue glass-shaped shard found in the desert. The telling of the story is not situated in time – it could be anytime from a few thousand to a few hundred years ago. The precise time and location are somehow immaterial. It is the ritual of it that matters.

The story is of love, and destruction. A queen, the most beautiful woman in the world (it works here, and I do not complain, by why is a woman always the most beautiful? Men are rarely described as such – the bravest, the cleverest, the strongest, the best warrior, but not the most beautiful) rules over a city of glass, but does not marry, for there is no man worthy of her. Then she sees a strange man, and falls in love with him in one glance. From the description of his eyes – “stars in deep pools of black water” – we know his identity. He disappears, and she sends people to search for him, and enlists the King of the Birds in her search. As ever in myth, it is the least of the birds that is able to offer help – not only knowledge of the man, but a way to find him. And the weaverbird brings Nada a berry of flame, to take her to the side of her love. And into the great story is mixed a lesser one, a how-things-came-to-be story of the weaverbird.

Nada sleeps, and enters the Dreaming. We know it is the Dreaming from the reference to Cain and Abel, who we met in the previous book. And in a beautiful statement of unreality, Nada asks the place’s name from “the brother who was dead”, and he tells her what we already know. When she learns that her love is Dream of the Endless, she becomes terrified. (We also learn that in the universe of The Sandman gods exist, and are mortal unlike the Endless.) In the next sequence, where she flees him, Nada, human and mortal, shows more wisdom than Kai’ckul, though he is immortal and ageless; clearly, their age alone does not bring discernment and restraint.

The line “desire is always cruel” becomes important immediately after this prologue; the use of all caps in the narrative text disguises that we are talking about an entity, not merely a concept.

And so at last Dream captures Nada, and they make love, and the city of glass is destroyed and shattered into heart-shaped shards, strewn through the desert that was once a fertile land. And Nada kills herself, but the story does not end, and Dream meets her on the borders of death.

The references here to “Grandmother Death” are notable, as we have just met Death at the end of “Preludes and Noctures”, and she was a young woman. Thus, though the Endless may be immortal, this implies that they change, and may be different people in different eras. Whether Kai’ckul is in some respect a different identity than Morpheus, or simply the form in which he chooses to appear to Nada, thus becomes a question; though his meeting with Nada in Hell suggests they are the same person.

Dream, showing again a remarkable lack of concern with human values and lives, shows no interest in or acknowledgement of the fact that a realm has been destroyed and thousands of people killed because of him, and that the destruction of her kingdom and people might affect Nada’s attitude toward him. And he continues to ask her to become his queen, and she continues to refuse…and we know from “Preludes and Nocturnes” what the outcome is.

In a concluding note, I have to mention the art again. In the book as a whole, the art quality can be a little uneven; but in “Tales in the Sand” all of it is spectacular. I’m particularly fond of the pictures of Dream as Kai’ckul. He’s drawn as attractive, in a eldritch sort of way, in his usual form, but it’s got nothing on this one. Nada is also incredibly well-drawn; the panel where the weaverbird is talking to her is one of my favourites. The panel of her face when dream is offering to make her his queen is also excellent. I’m no art critic – I can’t draw out everything that makes the chapter’s drawing so good – but it’s clear, evocative, uses light and dark dramatically, and the shift to a more vague and crude style “on the borders of the realm of death” works perfectly. The bookending with footsteps – walking towards and away – is excellent. The only thing that feels a little off is the king of the birds; perhaps because I’m used to the idea of an eagle or raptor of some kind in that position a giant goose comes across as faintly ridiculous – particularly in the close-up panel of his face.

In the context of the wider Sandman – clearly, this tale does not make Dream look good. When we first saw Nada, we did not know what she had done to offend him, though ten thousand years in Hell seems excessive for pretty much anything. Now that we hear that he condemned her to Hell eternally (and how can he do that? what gives one of the Endless the power to send a person to Hell?) simply for refusing him – not because she didn’t love him, but in spite of loving him, and for very good reasons – well, our Dream does not seem overly concerned with people other than himself, and is not at all inclined to give up aught that he wants, and he does not take defiance or rejection well.

The Doll’s House

In a fascinating piece of worldbuilding – though perhaps with rather too much blue – we are introduced to a second of the realms of the Endless, that of Desire, and to two more of the Endless themselves – Desire and Despair. That makes four that we’ve met so far, along with Dream and Death. We can pick up by now that alliteration is their thing.

Immediately, we can see from Desire’s residence that s/he is more than a little self-obsessed. The most egomaniacal of human dictators are content with building large statues of themselves; Desire lives within a colossal one.

From the sequence of panels on the chapter’s fourth page – which is excellently minimalist – we learn that the Endless can “call” each other using their symbols, of which we see four. The helmet is for Dream, the ankh for Death – we saw her wearing it in the previous book – a ring that appears swan-shaped is Despair’s, but whose is the book? We’ll find out later. In addition, three of the Endless are “the Elder Three,” and it sounds like Dream is one of them. More mysteries.

For the moment, though, our concern is Desire and Despair. Desire seeks to have Dream fall in love with a woman who is a vortex – and Desire is also apparently the one responsible for Dream’s obsessive interest in Nada. Why does Desire want Dream to fall in love with mortals? Is s/he just being dickish, or is there some larger goal here?

We then turn to the story of Rose, who is on a mysterious all-expenses paid trip to England and is dreaming of the Dreamworld.

Lucien, apparently the bureaucrat of the Dreaming, is cataloguing its entities, checking whether any have disappeared, or appeared, in Morpheus’ absence. The art throughout this section is wonderful: the ridiculous amount of cute that is Goldie, the tall panels of Lucien moving through the dreaming, and finally, the most superlative panel of The Sandman yet…

Morpheus, looking particularly eldritch, stands in a building open to sky. In some ways the building recalls a cathedral, particularly in the use of stained glass (whom does it depict?), but it also contains statues uncannily similar to Desire’s, and the stained-glass window is topped by an ankh, Death’s symbol. It’s completely stunning. This is as good a place as any to say that it seems almost unfair that Gaiman alone is given as author of The Sandman, as the art plays as strong a role in the storytelling as the actual words do.

The next page, of the four “major arcana” we learn are missing from the Dreaming, is also artistically excellent. Brute, Glob, the Corinthian and Fiddler’s Green are their names. It’s clear by now – though we could have surmised it earlier from Cain – that the dreams Morpheus creates are not necessarily pleasant. The Corinthian, in particular, is “not the most social of nightmares” which sounds ominous. And Gaiman manages to stump me with the use of the word “vavasour” – which the OED, being wonderful, informs me means “a vassal of vassals”; in other words, Fiddler’s Green, while subordinate to Dream, had dominion over his own section of the Dreaing.

In addition, Morpheus is also aware of the vortex, and the vortex is in fact Rose. Rose is the granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, one of the victims of the “sleepy sickness” from the previous book, who was raped and bore a child as she slept.

Rose meets the three Fates, which seems unusual. Even Dream, one of the Endless, had to collect a set of objects in order to summon them, yet here they are showing up to talk to Rose of their own accord. They don’t actually tell her anything, though, aside from a lot of cryptic statements. It’s a scene were some of the little details in the writing are notable: the Fates call Rose by different names – “sister” for the Maiden, various motherly endearments as well as “daughter” from the Mother, and “child” from the crone. The owl and the cat…can the Fates appear as animals if they wish? That’s what I’m going with.

One thing that I only just picked up now – the panel of Rose, her mother and Unity in the mirror, two pages before Rose meets the Fates, is intended to mirror the Maiden, Mother and Crone.

The titular doll’s house is in Unity’s room, and in a strange sort of inversion of scale, Morpheus is inside it looking out one of the windows at Rose. Make of that what you will.

For a cliffhanger ending, we meet the Corinthian, and the ominousness of Morpheus’ statement regarding him appears entirely justified.


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


    • It’s a doozy. I flipped back through it and had a quick intake of breath looking at it again… and looking at it, instead of reading the words.

      • It is beautiful. One of my delights in my Mindless Diversions induced discovery of Sandman is that the work are so mature now that I will be able to horde my resources and the first copy of the series I buy will be the complete one with all the bells and whistles with the extra content and background and highest quality color work available.

      • I know I am commenting very late on this one, but last weekend was a crazy one and I just haven’t had time to sit down until last night and get properly caught up.

        For some reason it tickles me that Desire/Gaiman pun with Orwell (“Big Brother…I’m watching you.”)

        I also looked closely at that panel that Katherine calls out, maybe for the first time; even more so than JB, I have a tendency to focus on the words. That, along with the ‘tales men tell/tales women tell’* dichotomy in “Tales in The Sand” got me thinking about how the thing I am enjoying most about this re-read is doing it with other people.

        Because even though we are all reading the exact same story, we all experience it very differently – some of us are male, some female, some gay, some straight, some newbies, some experts. Visual/language-oriented. Right-brained/left-brained. We each belong to multiple tribes, and each tribe has told us its own stories, and the stories don’t always go the same way – and even when they do, we each hear them differently.

        And so when you guys comment on things like this, I see things I have never seen before, in a story I have read multiple times. It just keeps opening up, and out.

        And that got me thinking in turn about (and sorry to veer into politics ever so slightly JB, though I promise to stay general) how it is not surprising, at all, that humans spend a huge chunk of time arguing about the world we live in – we were, each and every one of us, told different stories about how things are, and why. Not just history’s biggest game of “Telephone”, but an infinite cacophony of them.

        Given this, the real wonder is that we ever understand each other at all; that we don’t just blankly stare at our fellow humans as though they are completely alien beings, completely unable to relate to each other.

        Great art and literature, and “no politics” spaces like this one, should serve to remind us of the universal truths; one of which is that no one of us has a handle on Universal Truth; and this, more than anything, is what binds us together.

        So when you are outside this space, and you find yourself getting hot under the collar with someone, try to remember – they were told different stories than you were.

        * Over at the AVClub writeups (beware spoilers, they are well beyond where we are), this was mentioned:

        Oliver: In The Sandman, Gaiman alternates between “male” and “female” stories. The former put a heavier focus on power and mythology, while the latter emphasize family and identity. (It’s fitting that the Desire-fueled The Doll’s House straddles both genders.)

        I had never noticed this, and will be on the lookout going forward.

  1. Minor note: we’ve already met a fifth D-guy, who happened to be holding a book.

    I also love how, as Rose dreams of the Dreaming, the panels immediately tilt sideways and stay that way for several pages until Rose wakes up with a right-side up speech box.

    As for the Fates, I don’t understand the owl/cat thing, except that maybe they were going for a witch theme, cats and owls being typical servants of a crone/witch? (Did you notice each woman answered one question? They only answer three, again.)

  2. This is a lovely recap.

    I got overexcited and read the whole book, and I remembered that this is the volume that pushed me from “huh, this is neat” to MUST READ ALL VOLUMES NOW NOW NOW, back in the day.

  3. There’s something I find interesting about Dream’s treatment of Nada, but I’m not sure I can raise it without violating the “no religion” rule.

    • Hey James, in the early going JB gave permission to dance around that line a little bit, since Sandman deals pretty heavily with mythology/religion, so it may be sometimes unavoidable. If it seems like the kind of thing that might raise somebody’s hackles, rot13 it with a warning.

      Katherine, this is a really nice writeup, and I will respond more substantially than that when I have time – things are crazy busy right now.

    • Rot13 it if you think it might hurt the feelings of someone genuinely devout… if you’re merely treating religion in general as an anthropological phenomenon, I’ll probably respond and then say “no religion” the way I do.

    • Well alright then, here goes:

      It seems to me that what Dream does to Nada is condemn her to hell for failing to obey and love him. We are invited to conclude (not unreasonably) this is a bad thing for Dream to do.

      There are of course entities in major religions worldwide who behave similarly, though they are not often called out for it, at least by their followers.

      • I didn’t see it that way, though I totally see how someone could. Dream wanted to make Nada more of a peer than sycophant (though, I’m sure, he’d still be The King and she’d be his Queen, rather than The Queen, if you see what I’m saying) but that seems a different dynamic than, say, mumble mumble has with the mumble mumbles.

        • Yeah sure perhaps he desired her as a partner rather than a possession. But his reaction to her rejection was devastating. Particularly when you consider how massively rational, moral and indeed laudable her decision was.

  4. Lrf, Anqn’q gnyr znqr n uhtr vzcnpg ba zr jvgu Qernz. Senaxyl V jnf ybbxvat ng uvz jvgu engure haflzcngurgvp tvzyrg rlrf evtug guebhtu gb gur pbapyhfvba bs Frnfbaf bs gur Zvfg.

    Naq lrf, gur dhrfgvba bs Qernzf cbjre vf bar V rfcrpvnyyl svaq vagrerfgvat. Jura Yhpvsre pyrnerq bhg Uryy jr yrnearq gung gur fbhyf jub qjryy gurer jrer va rffrapr gur phfgbzref; gur pyvragf naq nyfb gur thneqf sbe vg jnf gurve bja qrfverf gb or chavfurq gung obhaq gurz va Uryy. Ubj, gura, jnf Anqn frnyrq gurer sbe fur jnf/vf pyrneyl n fgebat jvyyrq jbzna naq xrrayl njner bs gur vawhfgvpr bs ure bja vzcevfbazrag. Jnf fur culfvpnyyl pbafgenvarq be pbagnvarq? Jnf Qernzf cbjre fbzrubj noyr gb frny ure njnl? Be qvq fur ba fbzr yriry srry fur qrfreirq guvf sngr (V pbafvqre guvf ynggre gur yrnfg yvxryl puvrsl qhr gb ure nggvghqr nsgre ure eryrnfr juvpu V sryg jnf fcbg ba naq, senaxyl, znqr zr ybir ure n ovg zber).

    • Dude, sorry, your comment got chewed by the spam-catcher.

      You raise an interesting point.

      Jura Qernz jnyxrq cnfg Anqn va obbx… svir? Ur cerggl zhpu vaqvpngrq gung ure orvat gurer fgvyy jnf qhr gb uvz ba fbzr yriry. Juvyr Uryy unf n terng znal erfcbafvovyvgvrf, bar bs gurz frrzf gb or “n cynpr jurer tbqf znl fraq gur crbcyr jub qvfcyrnfr gurz”.

      • I’m inclined to agree with you on this. My own rationalization:

        Anqn jnf obhaq va Uryy ol Qernzf cbjre/jvyy. Jura Yhpvsre qrpvqrq gb inpngr gur uryy ur vffhrq uvf qrpynengvbaf gryyvat rirelbar va rffrapr “guvf gjvfgrq cnegl vf bire, urer’f gur gehgu, abj fpenz” naq 99% bs gur qravmraf jrer tvira gur urnir ub. Gura bapr gung jnf nppbzcyvfurq Yhpvsre jrag nobhg inpngvat obgu gur fghoobea ubyq bhgf naq gubfr jub jrer fcrpvny pnfrf yvxr Anqn;gur Tbqf phefrq jub jrer obhaq gb uryy ol na bhgfvqr cbjre. Qernz rfgnoyvfurq rneyl ba gung Yhpvsre jnf cbjre cbjreshy guna Qernz vf fb birecbjrevat Qernzf phefr (vs lbh jvyy) gung uryq Anqn va uryy jbhyqa’g unir orra n fgergpu sbe Zbeavatfgne.

        Gung’f zl vagrecergngvba bs ubj guvatf jvgu Anqn’f cerfrapr naq gura nofrapr jrag qbja.

        • I’ll throw in my interpretation:

          Abjurer va gur fgbel qb Qernz be Anqn hfr gur jbeq “Uryy”. Gurl hfr gur cuenfrf “rgreany cnva” naq “rgreany fhssrevat”. Gb rapebnpu fyvtugyl ba gur eryvtvbhf nfcrpgf, V srry gur Noenunzvp Uryy fbegn hfhecrq guvf avpur, vzcbfvat vgf bja ehyrf ba gur cynpr. Anqn jnf tenaqsngurerq va, naq guhf abg fhowrpg gb gur fnzr erfgevpgvbaf bs gur bgure vaunovgnagf. Rira vs nyy gur Uryy-oryvriref inavfurq, Anqn jbhyq fgvyy or yrsg bire va fbzr cnva/fhssrevat cynpr.

          • Fur qvq tb fgenvtug sebz Uryy gb Nmnmry… naq vg jnfa’g hagvy Qernz “jba” ure onpx gung gur gbezrag raqrq.

  5. One of the minor things that tickled me was Dream getting back home and having to check an account of everything that happened after he was gone.

    “Okay, I’m back, let’s do an inventory.”

    “We’ve got the things, the other things, and the other other things. Oh, there are four things missing. This guy, these guys, and the (shudder) Corinthian.”

    And then Dream said, after his own fashion, “Ah, crap.”

    That’s one heck of a setup for a “*NOW* you should feel your heart sink into your stomach” sensation.

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