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.
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.