Our assignment was to read the first two issues of Fables and Reflections (the story from the Vertigo Preview issue as well as issues 31 and 29… yeah, the numbers get all hinky in this book… the stories, respectively, Fear of Falling, Distant Mirrors – Three Septembers and a January, and Distant Mirrors – Thermidor). Ken and Jaybird (Ken the first two, Jaybird the third) 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.
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!
Fear of Falling
Todd is watching Vertigo when Janet knocks on his door. In a few panels we economically learn that she’s in a play which Todd wrote and is directing – was directing, he’s planning to back out tomorrow because he’s scared. Scared of failure, or scared of success, Janet asks. Todd sends her away and falls asleep.
And dreams, a strangely realistic dream in which he’s climbing a rock spire, up and up and up to the very top. And at the top, well, we know who’s at the top.
Todd tells Morpheus about a falling dream he had when he was young, one that has left him scared of high places ever since. Morpheus and Matthew repeat Janet’s question, and this time Todd can’t shoo them out. Yes, he’s afraid of messing up, of falling. Morpheus says it’s true: if he climbs, he may fall, and if he falls he might wake, or he might die, or he might…
And Todd falls.
Janet arrives at rehearsal the next day, braced to tell everyone about Todd, but he’s there and still directing. Because when you fall, sometimes you fly.
Three Septembers and a January
Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and so far only Emperor of these United States, proclaimed himself in September 1859 and ruled benevolently for over twenty years. The Emperor issued his own currency, ordered construction of a bridge and tunnel across San Francisco Bay, abolished the U.S. Congress and directed the Army to arrest the sitting representatives, and eventually assumed the title “Protector of Mexico”.
The odd thing is that people accepted him as Emperor – well, not the abolition of Congress, and it did take another fifty years to build the bridge. But local businesses honored his currency and proudly displayed “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty” plaques, the city supervisors provided his wardrobe, and the citizens of San Francisco addressed him as Emperor and saluted him in the streets – even the police. He ate at the finest restaurants, he hobnobbed with the wealthy and famous, and he broke up at least one anti-Chinese riot by his mere presence. People came from across the country to meet the Emperor.
A strange story, and strange stories are the province of Dream of the Endless.
We meet Norton in September 1859, shortly after some bad investments bankrupted him. Despair is there, vaguely wondering if Norton will kill himself, or if he’s sunk too deep even for that. She calls on Dream, and poses a challenge: Can he and his dreams keep Norton out of her domain? And those of Desire and Delirium, who stand with her? Dream first refuses the challenge, but Despair accuses him of rejecting the family and being to blame for their brother’s absence.
Dream explores Norton’s dreams and his past, trying to understand him. Despair scoffs, but Dream counters that without dreams there is no despair. Dream takes the challenge, and gives Norton a new dream. That afternoon, Norton drafts his first proclamation declaring himself Emperor and delivers it to the newspaper. The editor decides to print it.
Death and Dream speak while Norton declaims on a street corner. She is disappointed with Dream; the elder siblings don’t play the games of the younger ones. Even when provoked.
Five years later, Sam Clemens invites the Emperor to lunch. The Emperor refuses charity – but remembers that Sam has not paid his taxes, which coincidentally equal the price of lunch. They eat, and talk about Sam’s frog story, and the Emperor’s order that a bridge be built across the Bay. The Emperor knows that some people think he’s mad, but it doesn’t bother him if they laugh because he’s still their Emperor. He appoints Sam the official spinner of tales of the United States.
Dream has been observing them. He is joined by Delirium, who has spent the day among the discarded, opium-addled Chinese prostitutes. She is puzzled, because Norton should be hers, but he isn’t. He’s perfectly sane, except about being Emperor, and even that’s not as clear-cut as it should be. “He’s not mine, is he? His madness keeps him sane.”
Eleven years later, Emperor Norton has become one of the sights of San Francisco (never Frisco). After selling a family some of his currency, the Emperor is greeted by a Chinese man who requests his presence at the Cobweb Palace (another San Francisco tourist attraction, a restaurant and museum of oddities). The proprietor, Abraham Warner, greets the Emperor respectfully. He has another guest, the King of Pain. Who happens to be dead, having killed himself with an overdose of his own patent medicine after losing his money at the gambling tables.
The King makes an offer on behalf of his “principal” (let’s see: Despair, check; Delirium, check; …). The Emperor needs an Empress, to ensure his imperial line continues, and he can have his pick of any of five beautiful women, plus a grand mansion to live in. All he has to do is want her (check).
The Emperor refuses. As Emperor, he has all he wants, all that any man could want.
Outside, Desire is in the King of Pain’s coach. S/he can’t understand how Norton could resist, as s/he senses his lusts. Dream explains that the dignity of the Emperor’s office protects him from desires, and criticizes Desire’s unsubtle tactics. Thwarted, Desire rides off in anger, swearing revenge on Dream. One day, s/he will get Dream to spill family blood, and bring the Kindly Ones on him.
On January 8, 1880, the Emperor Norton collapses in the street. Despair is there, briefly, but he never came back to her, even here at the end. Dream gives her one of the dolls of the Emperor sold in the shops; a souvenir, something to remember the lesson. What lesson, Despair wonders.
Death comes for the Emperor then. She asks if he has heard of the 36 tzaddikim, the righteous souls for whose sake the world continues to exist. He doesn’t see the significance, and she says that of all the kings and queens she has met she liked him the best. As they walk off to… to wherever they are going, the Emperor says he has always wondered what comes after life. Everyone does, Death says, and eventually everyone finds out.
It’s late June, 1794 and we’re at the home of Lady Johanna Constantine (last seen here in the 1789 section) in England. He shows up and he asks a favor of her (he can’t get directly involved, you see… it’s a family thing). The usual questions get asked. Danger? Of course. Payment? Of course. Gold? Property? Of course not. What payment then? “I will give you what it is in my power to give you.”
Now that’s an offer she can’t refuse.
So now it’s late July, 1794 and we’re in France.
No longer wearing finery but something more Utilitarian, we see a fairly dishevled woman (carrying a sack) walking down a cruddy road to be stopped (accosted, really) by a couple of The People’s Guards. They stop her and ask her her business which, quite honestly, isn’t any of theirs. They’re hoping that she has dinner in the sack (dinner that they could then “liberate”) and, instead, she’s carrying a head. Like, a decapitated head.
Unsurprisingly, they ask (paraphrased) “what in the heck?” and we hear quite the story. The head belonged to a nobleman who raped this woman’s sister as others looked on and laughed. The sister hung herself but… now our lady here will be taking this “aristo” home to show his head to her momma, spit on it, and place the head on her sister’s grave to rot. She laughs.
One guard asks (paraphrased) “WHAT THE HECK?” but the other notices that the aristo has an earring that can be “liberated”. He cuts the earring off by taking the bottom part of the lobe, notes how much ham, cabbage, and wine it will buy and then says: “Thank you a thousand times, my pretty. The next time you have treasure to donate to the people, please come down this road also.”
The guards wander off down the road singing a famous little ditty:
The lyrics that they sing translate to “Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine! Aristocrats to the lamp-post!” (The wikipedia entry tells me that there are, apparently, several versions of the song. These guys are singing the salty version.)
Our lady, free to go, goes up to her room at the inn and starts talking to the decapitated head.
Of course she does.
And it starts talking back.
Of course it does.
We hammer out that the people’s guard down there will get nothing but misery for his trouble of taking the earring (good!) and that the head’s name is “Master Orpheus” (is it *THAT* Orpheus?). Oh, and they’re looking for a young woman with a head. “With two heads”, she points out… and that shouldn’t be half as funny as it is. Anyway, they’ve got to think fast…
And, on the next page, we see why. She’s being slapped around by some uniformed folks this time. An upgrade from “The People”, it seems. The interrogation is going poorly. “I do not know what you are talking about” is repeated a couple of times. An interesting threat is made: “The crowd will sing the Carmagnole as your face tumbles into the basket.” What’s that, you ask? Well, let’s listen to it:
It’s another contemporary French Revolutionary song.
I have no idea how Gaiman found this stuff without having The Wikipedia. Probably the same places the Wikipedia got it from, now that I think about it. But he’s just one guy!
Where was I? Oh, yes. The captain was threatening some threats that seriously don’t seem particularly French to me but, hey, *I* am not the expert here… when someone with the title of “Citizen” walks into the room and turns everyone’s blood to ice by pointing out that he is on The Committee For Public Safety. He escorts “Jeanne” out to a carriage where we find out that he is Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (guillotined). In his little speech in the carriage, he explains that he is a realist: “I believe nothing.” (Say what you will about Louis XVI…)
We get to the palace where we walk past an imprisoned Thomas Paine who trades words with Saint-Just. SJ throws some of Paine’s words about revolution back in Paine’s face… mentioning how Robespierre is the standardbearer of the New And Even Better Than The American Revoltion French Revolution and Paine comes back with a good one: “When he is toppled, as all tyrants must topple, you will topple with him, St Just, and that is a comfort to me.”
They leave to take Jeanne to her cell and they do a good job of dismissing Paine once there. Rabble-rousers are needed *BEFORE* revolutions, not after. “Will you kill all the poets, then, St. Just? All the dreamers?” “When they have served their purpose, Yes.”
And now we know exactly how Mister Gaiman feels about Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (guillotined).
And now it is confirmed that our protagonist is, indeed, Lady Johanna Constantine. At this point we know that she knows that she is well past being up the creek without a paddle but she is now down it… but we find out that Orpheus was, in fact, Lady Johanna’s mission and she learned where the head was from Saint-Just himself… where she went to steal it.
As we learn these things, we look out the window and see some headless bodies doctored up to act as marionettes (I can’t find real life evidence that this was done… it reminds me much more of The Grand Guignol than something that actually happened… but, again, I’m not the expert here). This grotesque amusement is interrupted by a short man who gives a short speech about how Jeanne is really Lady Johanna Constantine and breaks down a greatest hits of the last decade or so and finishes up with “you have something that belongs to us”. She doesn’t know what he is talking about… but “he” is Maximilien de Robespierre (guillotined).
Robespierre breaks down all of the evidence implicating her with regards to the “object of superstition”, a young woman asking questions about a head, a couple of guards who saw one with a head, and he intends to find this head, destroy it, and create a France (and a world, for that matter) where the Gods or Kings are not so much as part of the days of the week or of the months anymore (indeed, Thermidor means little more than “the hot month” which replaced “Juillet” which named, of course, after Julius Caesar). He’s going to bring reason and enlightenment to France if he has to kill every man, woman, and child to do it.
And she’s going to help, he tells her, lest something even worse than ending up as a player in a marionette show happen to her.
Robespierre leaves. Johanna sleeps… and dreams.
She and Dream have a tête-à-tête and break down that Johanna is in a tight spot and Dream can’t help, not exactly. His crow Jessamy muses that Orpheus knows many songs… and Dream acknowledges that but knows that Orpheus would need a chorus… he then gives Lady Johanna something to drink from the dream, something that will allow her to not forget their conversation, before we get to the “okay, here’s what you need to do…” fade out of the scene.
And the next shot is of Robespierre who tells us that the answer came to him in a dream. You hide a flower in a garden, you hide a book in a library… and you hide a head in a stinking pile of heads. Wouldn’t you know it, The Revolution has one of those. Robespierre and Saint Just are there as Lady Johanna is brought to the pile and asked to find the right one.
As Johanna begins this gruesome task, she gives Robespierre one last chance. Hey, let me go and I won’t kill you. Me and the head walk and everything is cool. Robespierre laughs this off, Johanna shrugs as she finds the head and gives a speech of her own. “This is the head of Orpheus. Ripped off his body by the Bacchante. They used their bare hands. The Women of the Frenzy. They threw his head into the Hebrus, and it is said that it still called the name of his lost love as it floated down to the sea. This is the head of Orpheus, who bested Death, and who now cannot die.” (I guess it is *THAT* Orpheus.)
Robespierre is unimpressed and demands the head. Johanna tells Orpheus to start singing and she plugs her ears but good.
And Orpheus begins to sing… and the heads in the pile begin to sing with him. They sang of Freedom, of Liberty, and of The Dream… and of The Dream ending. The song ends and Robespierre and Saint Just stand slackjawed. Johanna takes the head of Orpheus and walks out the door. The next day, Saint Just messes up in his speech before The National Convention. Robespierre is laughed at during his. It’s not too long after that that both of their heads end up in the now-silent chorus. (Gaiman goes out of his way to point out that Robespierre died screaming.)
And a final page to act as epilogue. Johanna takes Orpheus to the isle of Naxos where, apparently, he had stayed for many years before he had been stolen. Orpheus asks about his father, who he has not seen in many years (not even in dreams) and asks if Johanna thinks that the fact that he orchestrated his rescue means that, maybe, his father cares. Maybe. Orpheus establishes that he thinks it’d be a bad idea if they ever saw each other again and Johanna’s diary confirms that they did not.
She is haunted by the song he sang, on the other side of her plugged ears and says that there are many in power to whom she would sing it, if she could.