Our assignment was to read the third and fourth issues of Fables and Reflections (issues 38 and 30… yeah, the numbers get all wacky in this book… the stories, respectively, Convergence – The Hunt, and Distant Mirrors – August). Mike and Jaybird (Mike the first, Jaybird the second) will be doing the honors this week.
A Doll’s House recaps here: KatherineMW took on the first two issues, then the next two issues. KatherineMW and Jason Tank then reviewed the fifth and sixth, respectively. Mike Schilling reviewed the final two issues.
Dream Country recaps here: Glyph reviewed Calliope then Jaybird and Maribou reviewed Dream of a Thousand Cats in the first review post for Dream Country. Alan Scott reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream then Mike Schilling reviewed Façade in the second.
Season of Mists recaps here: Jaybird reviewed the first two in this post. Jason Tank reviewed the next two here. Boegiboe reviewed the next two after that here and here. Ken reviewed the final two here.
Fables and Reflections recaps here: Ken and Jaybird reviewed the preview plus the first two issues here.
It’s very difficult to discuss this book without discussing the next one (or the one after 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!
We begin with a grandfather trying to tell his granddaughter Celeste a story, though she’d rather watch TV. He cajoles her to listen, in his kindly, grandfatherly way, by making vague threats about serious consequences. He also invokes the quaint, old-world custom of cutting people’s heads off and their hearts out, and burying the two separately. We get the impression that, even though they share speech patterns, he’s not exactly Peter Falk. But, annoying as he can be, she loves her grandfather so she agrees to listen, asking really nicely to soothe his hurt feelings.
He starts with some color about the deep, dark woods, but she interrupts, telling him to get to the plot. And this is pretty much how it goes: he tells, she interrupts, he grumbles at her and eventually continues.
It was a deep dark woods in the old country, where life was very hard. The animals are all described as “true”: true bears, and true wolves, and the people who lived there were the true folk. (That might be important: make a note of it.) The story is about a young boy named Vassily, which is also the grandfather’s name, though, as he points out, it was a common one there. One day he met a woman peddler …
Celeste interrupts to ask if she was “one of us”. No, she was a Romany. It’s one of the few interruptions that the grandfather doesn’t object to.
The woman asks for food, and Vassily brings her rabbit he’s killed. She shows him the magical treasures she has for sale. He is amazed, never having seem anything like them. At this point his father comes along, and tells the woman to leave. He warns Vassily against speaking to strangers who are not “of the people”, but Vassily hardly listens. He goes to confront the woman, telling her that his father says that all her wonders are fake. She tell him that it doesn’t matter — their value is in what people dream they are. As payment for the rabbit, she gives him a cameo of the Duke’s daughter. She also offers to tell his fortune, but when she takes his hand and looks into his system, something about him terrifies her, and she runs away. Like a rabbit. Vassily returns to the hut he shares with his father, and often looks at the cameo of the beautiful girl.
Celeste asks “What did she look like?” Like a fairy-tale princess, of course: the bluest, goldenest, whitest, and reddest of everything. This dissatisfies her, they bicker a bit, and the story continues.
Young Vassily has grown restless, so one day he packs up his meager possessions (which include a small bone carved into the shape of a small bone. A different small bone.) and goes off to seek his fortune. He comes across the peddler’s body. Her throat has been torn out, but she hasn’t been robbed. He takes her things and keeps walking, leaving the forest, until he finds an inn, where he introduces himself as a traveling peddler. The innkeeper is amazed that Vassily made it through the devilish haunted forest safely. When Vassily asks for directions to the Duke’s palace, the innkeeper remarks on what devilishly fine treasures he must have to interest a Duke. (The innkeeper says “devil” as often as an HBO character says “fish”.)
In Vassily’s room at the inn, the bed is bolted down and cannot be moved. This makes him suspicious, so he sleeps on the floor. Sure enough, in the middle of the night the innkeeper enters via a secret door and, with an axe, splits the pillow where Vassily’s head would have been. Vassily extinguishes the candle that the innkeeper had lit to search the room, and the room goes dark.
The next day, Vassily leaves the inn, taking his things and the coin he had paid for his lodging, and walks off towards the castle. He meets, of all people, Lucien, who is looking for a lost book. Vassily’s price for it is the girl.
Celeste asks whether Lucien is a fairy, and they bicker some more. We find out their ages: Celeste is 15, and her Grandfather is something north of 150. (He says it as part of a joke about believing in fairies, but he’s not joking about that.) Celeste objects that the story sounds post-modern, probably because fairies came before England but after cough drops. Once more he threatens her to be quiet and listen in his grandfatherly way, specifically that if she doesn’t, he’ll rip her throat out with his teeth. It must be one of those old-country expressions.
Meanwhile, Vassily keeps journeying towards the castle, and meets Lucien again. Lucien offers Vassily a large pile of gold, nut he’s not interested. He wants the girl. This is above Lucien’s pay grade, so he’ll need to escalate the matter. Continuing in by moonlight, Vassily smells a deer
“Smells”, not “sees”? Interesting.
and gives chase to it, but a young woman gets to it first and snaps its neck. She boasts that she outhunted him, calling him “kinsman”, as she is also one of the people, and allows him to follow here to her camp, answering his request with “If you wish”, which is not quite “As you wish.” But they’ve just met.
And who should he meet there but Baba Yaga? The Baba Yaga. She helps him to get to the Duke’s castle, accepting in payment one of the peddler woman’s treasures, the emerald heart of Kochei the Deathless, who was as as real a Slavic folk character as she is.
Now Celeste and her grandfather bicker about why Baba Yaga would accept a treasure that’s clearly a fake. He answers very much in character:
Maybe I was mistaken.
Maybe Baba Yaga was mistaken.
Or maybe the horse will learn to speak.
OK, I made that last part up. But he does say something very interesting:
You shouldn’t trust the storyteller; only trust the story.
Vassily knocks at the door of the castle and is met by a butler, who snarks about the full moon and leads Vassily downstairs. He tracks Vassily into entering a cell made of cold iron, which nullifies the powers of, umm, whatever Vassily is. And just as Vassily gives up completely, Lucien magics his way into the cell, offering Vassily his freedom for the book. Still no sale: Vassily wants the girl. In rejecting the offer, he finally says straight out (or close enough) “I am a werewolf!”
Lucien still can’t sign off on that deal, and brings Vassily to the Dreaming, where he attracts the attention of Morpheus, who wittily asks Lucien when he started bringing home strays. Morpheus is quite happy to trade the book (which turns out to be the little-known (because it was never written) comedic sequel to Marlowe’s Faust) for the girl. Next stop, her bedchamber, where she is asleep. She is as beautiful as we’d been told. Vassily’s response is to return the cameo, and tell Morpheus that he is hungry and would like to go.
Because someone like that has only one role in a story about a werewolf, and it’s not as his girlfriend.
They return to the Dreaming, where Morpheus feasts Vassily on all sorts of game. Vassily wakes up back in his home forest, where one day he turns into a wolf, finds the young woman who’d beaten him to the deer, and they fall in love, get married, and stay together until death did them part.
Celeste is very unhappy now, convinced that the whole point of the story is to make her break up with her non-the-people boyfriend. Her grandfather is no longer bickering, but truly hurt. He was trying to share something real with her, the story of how Vassily abandoned the false dream of the duke’s daughter for the true woman of his dreams, the one who beat him to the deer. Celeste’s grandmother, who’s gone now, whom she never knew. Celeste finally understands this, but too late. He simply tells her “Good night” as he leaves her room and closes her door.
Note: While it’s true that one of the central (if brief) scenes in the issue is a hunt, it’s also true that “hunt” is Yiddish for “dog” (which, as Sergeant Angua often reflects, is the correct term for a domesticated wolf.)
The boy is sixteen and he is not crying.
(The Part of Lycius was not originally played by Peter Dinklage. However, in 2013, he will be.)
We read a bit of Diary telling us that the young Lycius we see is a memory and this is a story that is remembered (with, granted, a couple of flashbacks of Augustus that we couldn’t know)… let us remember a day when Lycius went to visit Caesar Augustus. We see a cute little meeting with Livia (Caesar’s wife, thought by some to be the reason of Augustus’s death), before we see The Man Himself.
“Dwarf? Have you brought everything?” The dude is all business. We see Lycius call him “sir” a couple of times before The Man Himself corrects him. Today, The Man Himself will not be “sir”. He will, instead, be “Caius” (I thought it was “Gaius” but… I ain’t gonna correct Gaiman).
Lycius then teaches Caius “The Scaldrum Dodge”. This involves smearing soap on your skin, letting it dry, then sprinkling it with vinegar. It bubbles up and looks like your skin has been burned and ulcerated. SO THIS CALLS FOR A TRIP TO THE KITCHEN!!! I grab a bar of soap from the bathroom, wash my hands and get up a really, really good lather and let the lather dry on my left hand. I then looked through the kitchen and found some apple cider vinegar and some balsamic vinegar. The balsamic was expensive and the apple cider was cheap so I used the apple cider. I poured it on my now dried hand and… well… nothing. Bummer. (By the way, the line “Quick as boiled asparagus!” is a reference to I, Claudius. That’s one of the lines given by Augustus.)
Anyway, Caius explains to Lycius that, today, they will be a couple of beggars in the town square… and, as they walk, The Man Himself gives one of several small speeches that Gaiman crafts to explain to us that, seriously, Augustus was *ALL THAT*. “I found it in brick and I have left it clad in finest marble.” Within a couple of panels, another one. After explaining that he broke his fast with some dates, raisins, some watered wine, he was good until tonight. Lycius says what I imagine many of us would say in his sandals: golly… I thought you’d eat rich people food. That’s what *I’D* eat if I were emperor! Augustus breaks it down for him: But you are not emperor. (And an interesting followup: and, until sundown, neither am I.)
Augustus does some very interesting things in this story. He manages to come across as alternately A Great Man and, hey, just this guy. He sits and talks with Lycius as if he were talking to… well, to a peer. Sharing his opinions, listening to the opinions of Lycius. Asking questions, listening to the answers… he even says, early on in the story, “my apologies”. It’s like he’s compartmentalized one heck of a lot. Of course, in the story, he has… but this is masterfully done. Lycius explains that you never put down an empty bowl (in the restaurant, I learned to never have an empty tip jar by the register) and this segues into a discussion of actors, how Caius doesn’t like actors and legislated against them (but, today, he is one) and that segues into Lycius ribbing (!) Caius about Pylades. Caius takes this in stride and explains that Pylades was a dolt and was lucky that “I didn’t have him killed” (this is something that happened, by the way) and Lycius says another interesting thing: “I’ve heard people be rude as shit to you, you didn’t bat an eyelid.” Caius, again, explains it all: “I am a man. I matter little.”
The marketplace bustles around them and Lycius’s curiosity gets the better of him. Why are you doing this? Caius answers that he had a dream. Lycius then interrupts (!) Caius and starts babbling about a dream that he had that turned out to be folly and Caius, once again, takes this in stride and explains the universe to the guy sitting next to him. There are dreams that come through the gates of ivory and they are lies. The dreams that come through the gates of horn are true. (This is also a thing.) Lycius interrupts *AGAIN* and they start talking about Julius Caesar, the adopted father of Caesar Augustus.
The boy is twelve and he looks upon Julius Caesar. His Uncle. His Hero. His God.
The conversation wanders, as conversations do, through thoughts of family and, when a passerby says that he’s not going to help a beggar because beggars are beggers through the will of the gods… and Lycius gives the guy the finger (that hand signal goes back a loooooong way!) and notes, as we do, that he’d piss himself if he knew that he just said that to The Man Himself… ah, but Augustus is the man because he sees that, hey, the guy has a point. You can’t defy the gods… and that conversation wanders, as conversations do, to theology. Lycius expresses his doubts about the existence of the gods to The Chief Priest of the Empire and, yet again!, The Man Himself takes it in stride. He explains, gently, that not only are there gods but the gods themselves have entities to whom they must bow. Terminus, which is a very good point, and “the seven” which is… well. That’s Gaiman. Gotta remind the audience that they’re reading Sandman, I guess.
Anyway, Caius explains to Lycius the silly stories that they now make up about him that will follow once he dies and, like Julius Caesar before him, becomes a God Himself… and that, yes, these stories are very silly indeed… and yet, he’s looking forward to being a God. Lycius, still the agnostic, asks what’s the difference? I mean, Caesar Augustus rules the civilized world. He brought order to chaos. He can tell anybody to do whatever and they will do it. What do the gods have that Caesar doesn’t have right now?
Which, now that I think about it, is a very modern question that seems out of place in the mouth of someone sitting on the steps of the Temple to Mars.
Well, when Caesar is a god, he will no longer be afraid.
The old man wakes from a nightmare and calls for a storyteller. The stories allow him to sleep again.
It’s noon and everybody has gone inside. A squirt of wine to help deal with the heat and they count their coin. They’ve got four asses, a clipped dupondius (worth two asses), and a (probably counterfeit) sestercius (worth two and a half asses). So that’s eight and a half asses. Ten asses gets you a denarius (a day’s wage). So… well, they’re not doing as bad as Lycius seems to indicate. Of course, one of those asses was his. But still. Not bad for beggin’. The day’s only halfway through!
Back to point, after Lycius says that it’s a good thing they’re not doing it for the money, he asks again why they’re doing it. (Maybe don’t interrupt the emperor once he starts to explain it to you, dude.) The emperor goes back to talking about Julius Caesar and, after he explains that, no, he hated his (adopted) father, Lycius begins to understand that he is sitting next to a man who is going to be a god. The conversation about Cicero should have anybody begin to tremble. Two breaths. In the first breath Augustus explains that Cicero was one of the greats. In the second, Augustus explains that he had Cicero killed. Then, again, The Man Himself explains everything to his companion. He is not a king. He’s just an imperator, a leader. And he leads and the people follow, as they’d follow a torch-bearing child in the catacombs. And what do imperators follow?
We’re interrupted by a former slave who has made it big. He gives five asses (WOO HOO! Broke a denarius!) to the seeming beggars as the price of making them listen to his speech about, hey, he was a former slave who made it big… but the wheel of fortune turns and maybe he’ll be begging for copper asses in the marketplace someday. Walk with care… because no man knows the future.
Which brings us to what in the sam hill Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Divi Filius Augustus is doing dressed in rags, stinking of soap and vinegar in the marketplace: Augustus knows the future. How? Well, when he became chief priest, he called up all of the prophecies and saw that there were two futures. One involved Rome sputtering out and dying… one involved Rome going on forever. Roma Eterna. Ten Thousand Years. More. After reading the prophecies, he had half of the prophecies destroyed and edited the others. Of the two possible futures, he, The Man Himself, picked one of them. He talked with Julius Caesar about Julius’s dreams for Rome, of course… and then asks the question that we were asking when Lycius interrupted Caius a number of times. “Are you scared of me?” He then explains why Lycius should be terrified… but Lycius still gots to know: why are we doing this?
Caesar had a dream.
And the Dream explains it all. Augustus, back when he was merely Octavianus, idolized his uncle, his adopted father, his hero, his god… well, Augustus interrupts and realizes, oh, he’s not talking to a storyteller who he can tell what to do, he’s talking to Apollo! (Wait, not Apollo. Dream and Apollo get mixed up sometimes… the fact that Dream is the guy who has Aristeas of Marmora as his personal raven doesn’t help with that either.) Augustus wants to know what the God before him wishes… and Dream explains that he is there as a favor to Terminus, He who walks the boundaries, to give some counsel to Augustus. Since Augustus fears the gods, and since Augustus knows that the gods are watching him day and night, Dream points out that the way to avoid the gaze of the gods is as simple as ceasing to be Caesar Augustus for a day and choosing, instead, to be Caius the beggar.
And Lycius does not really understand… but he understands that he doesn’t understand. Augustus became Caius for a day, so that he might think without Julius Caesar staring over his shoulder. Caius knows that Julius set Roma Eterna in motion… and Terminus is the only god to whom Jupiter must bow.
They walk home and Augustus dismisses Lycius and tells him “you’re never going to talk about this to anybody. Keep the coins.” Caesar is back. And he washes the soap and vinegar away… and gets ready for bed.
And we see that Augustus, back when he was merely Octavianus, idolized his uncle, his adopted father, his hero, his god was raped by Julius Caesar and, in exchange, was given the world.
And we are back to where we began. The memoirs of Lycius who, after years and years, finally speaks of his day in the marketplace with Caius the beggar. He remembers the speech of the prophecies and talks about how the bounds of the empire had been set… no more expansion. Lycius notes that the successors to Augustus have been Evil, Mad, Foolish, and now, All Three. (Tiberius. Caligula. Claudius. Nero.)
And he wonders what Augustus could have been so afraid of.