I hope you brought your lunch! We’re going to be discussing Sandman Special – The Song of Orpheus, The Parliament of Rooks, and Ramadan. Glyph, Ken, and Russell, respectively, will be doing the honors for these.
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!
The Song of Orpheus – Chapter One
Oy. Brace yourself, kiddies; this one hurts.
We open on Orpheus’ head, floating on a “wine-dark” sea and fruitlessly, repeatedly calling for Eurydice, and crying. Dream shows up and confirms Orpheus’ intuition that this is, in fact, a dream; but whether it means anything Dream refuses to (or cannot) say, because Orpheus is his son.
(Spoiler: It means something, but “forewarned is seldom forearmed”, right?)
Orpheus is awakened from this dream, to his wedding day, by his satyr friend Aristaeus, who reveals that he lost a wife many years before (“It was a long time ago. People die. You get over it. It’s part of life.”) Orpheus reveals that there will be no wedding sacrifice because he does not believe in animal sacrifice (uh-oh, ask Cain how THAT usually goes), an omission which troubles the satyr, who also comments repeatedly on the beauty of Orpheus’ intended.
(If you’re thinking by now that while having a satyr at your bachelor party is maybe awesome, one at your wedding is probably less so, well, read on.)
They arrive at the wedding and are greeted by Orpheus’ folks: a short-haired Calliope and Dream. We also meet bride-to-be Eurydice, who appears to have had her hair highlighted at the Bride of Frankenstein* Salon. Aristaeus reflects that Eurydice reminds him of his own wife; and suddenly, hey hey hey, The Endless are ALL here and it’s introduction time: there’s all the ones you know, introduced by their Greek names, and THE MISSING ONE!, a huge guy named “Olethros” and wearing elaborate armor.
Destiny proves, as if there were any doubt, that he’s no fun at parties; he won’t wish the couple well, because Destiny does not wish, he knows.
The ceremony concludes, the bride is kissed, and it’s time for drink and dance. The Endless save one leave, claiming other engagements; but Death stays, also softly claiming an engagement.
(And if here you are thinking geez, lay it on with a trowel why don’t’cha, remember that in fiction, tragedy is all the more tragic when it is spotted a mile off.)
Not that Orpheus spots anything: not Aristaeus luring Eurydice away from the party on a flimsy pretext, and not his parents’ obvious estrangement; stick-in-the-mud Dream won’t even dance with his own wife.
Having lured Eurydice away from the party, a drunk and leering Aristaeus attempts to rape her; she knees him in the “wine grapes” and flees, but is bitten by a serpent.
And Death steps up to do her job.
The Song of Orpheus – Chapter Two
Orpheus is skipping the funeral; he uses his voice and lyre to travel to see his father, who remonstrates him for not saying his goodbyes to Eurydice. Dream attempts to be comforting – as much as Dream can – but his blunt sentiments, delivered from an Endless perspective, such as “She is dead. You are alive. So live.” perhaps unsurprisingly do not do much to help.
The sort of help Orpheus requests – that Dream assist Orpheus in retrieving Eurydice from the underworld – Dream categorically refuses to provide. Orpheus appears to be as prideful and stubborn as his father, and storms off saying that he is no longer Dream’s son, and fully intending suicide.
However, Orpheus is approached his cheerfully-gregarious uncle Olethros before he can jump from the cliff; after gently mocking Orpheus’ self-centered romanticism and comparing Orpheus to his father Morpheus, Olethros tells Orpheus that his aunt, Death, may be able to help him, with conditions (always, conditions). He sends Orpheus to Death’s comfy and tattily-lived-in house (though sadly, we do not get to see her “floppy hat collection”, which according to Olethros is epic).
After changing her outfit and surroundings to better match Orpheus’ expectations (and disabusing him of any romantic notions of that lying drunk, Herakles, ever having visited the Land of the Dead) and against her better judgement, Death gives in to Orpheus’ request to send him to the underworld, with the condition that she may never take him now. She tells him where the Gate may be found, and sends him home, no doubt hoping against hope that he won’t follow through with what she and her brothers clearly feel is a foolhardy plan.
The Song of Orpheus – Chapter Three
Orpheus journeys epically to Mord-I mean, the Gate to the Underworld. (En route, we get a nod to Ms. Thessaly, as that same-named place is described as one where “witches gnaw the flesh from men’s faces for their spells,and pull down the moon for their own purposes”). Orpheus enters a gloomy cavern, and is ferried across the River Styx; the ferryman asks for a song and Orpheus obliges, its beauty causing the ferryman to cry.
Orpheus sneaks past Cereberus, the three-headed hellhound seen only in shadow, and makes his way through a vast, seriously-eerie cavern thronged with multitudes of disembodied pale souls, toward two distant massive obsidian obelisks that turn out to be the thrones of King Hades and Queen Perspehone. The monarchs of the underworld greet him and ask for a song, and he obliges.
Orpheus sings a lament of his lost love, and a request that she be returned to him; his song is so beautiful and moving that the dead cry, and time stands still for those in torment, and The Furies weep (Perspehone notes The Furies will not forgive him for this). Hades ultimately agrees, with conditions (always, conditions): Orpheus is to leave the underworld by another path, never once looking back until he reaches the sunlit lands, and Eurydice shall be returned to him. Orpheus leaves (and for some reason this departure seems to echo a bit to me his father’s exit from Hell after regaining his helmet).
Orpheus walks, and walks, and walks – leagues in total silence and darkness, doubt gnawing at his mind – increasingly convinced he’d been tricked by Hades, and Eurydice does not follow. Just as he is about to reach sunlight, he caves to temptation, and looks back (shades of Lot’s wife and the pillar of salt)-
And Eurydice is lost to him all over again.
The Song of Orpheus – Chapter Four
Years have passed and Orpheus lives in solitude – his clothes are ragged, he’s scruffy and gray at the temples, and he now has the earring that he’ll later briefly lose during his Revolutionary adventures with Lady Johanna Constantine.
He plays and sings for the animals alone now, his only friends.
Calliope comes to see him – her hair is longer – and tells him that the fight she and Dream had after Orpheus went to the underworld (she feels Dream could have used his influence on Orpheus’ behalf there) was the final straw for their marriage, and she has left Dream. They confirm again via their commiseration that Morpheus is a stubborn, prideful SOB. Orpheus admits he’s tried to kill himself, unsuccessfully (as per his bargain with Death).
Calliope tries to get Orpheus to return to human fellowship, but he won’t; she also warns him the Bacchante/Sisters of the Frenzy are coming, and he says he does not care. She sadly bids him farewell.
The Bacchante arrive, and now Orpheus looks like he’s having second thoughts – he does seem scared, and well, he should be – the Sisters of the Frenzy are wild, armed, wine-drenched, clad only in vines and animal skins, and are suckling animals. They command him to join in their worship and revels; when he demurs, they eviscerate, disembowel and dismember him in an orgy of violence that’s more than a little disturbing.
They sever his head with their teeth, smash his lyre, and after a good, deep tongue-kiss (and is the blood from his neck dripping into the eager and open mouth of that girl?!) pitch his head into the river, where it floats to sea calling for Eurydice, just as we saw in Chapter One.
The Song of Orpheus – Epilogue
Orpheus’ head has washed onto a beach, where a boot stops another serpent from biting it. The boot belongs to Dream, who has come to say goodbye to his son, per protocol – living by protocol is what Dream DOES, after all.
Dream tells Orpheus “You were unwise to seek favors of Death. But you have made your own errors. It was your own life.” Dream has arranged for Orpheus’ care by priests, but tells Orpheus he will not see him again. Orpheus pleads with Dream (“Please, father”) to end his life; but Dream reminds him that Orpheus renounced his paternity; and so Dream forsakes his only-begotten son.
Orpheus watched as his father walked away; unable to turn his head, even had he wanted to.
His father walked away slowly, pace by pace, through the sand and foam.
Orpheus watched through tear-stung eyes until he was out of sight.
His father never even tried to look back.
* Because this story utilizes so much material from the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, other literary or cultural references are a bit thin on the ground, save perhaps a few echoes to my mind with the Frankenstein mythos (and of course the religious metaphors therein) – if Eurydice’s hair is intended to recall the monster’s bride, then that makes Orpheus the monster – and like the monster, Orpheus is certainly callously abandoned by his father.
There’s also a bit in here about the recurring storytelling idea that “what is dead should stay dead” – no good ever comes from amateur resurrection efforts, you need to be a god or a superhero for that stuff – and the imagery of a severed head is of course a big part of Frankenstein’s monster’s appearance.
From the wikipedia plot summary of Bride of Frankenstein:
The Monster tells Henry and Elizabeth “Yes! Go! You live!” To Pretorius and the Bride, he says “You stay. We belong dead.”
“She is dead. You are alive. So live.”
Parliament of Rooks
So here we are, all three of us. Just like the old days. And we’ve even got an audience. Let’s tell stories.
Lyta Hall, last seen in Season of Mists, finishes telling “Goldilocks” to her son Daniel. She puts him down for a nap, wishing him pleasant dreams. Daniel’s now at the walking stage, and both Daniel and Lyta are at the babbling stage. She needs some adult conversation, and calls her friend Carla to unwind. She can’t imagine how difficult it will be when he can climb out of his crib.
Meanwhile Daniel has climbed out of his crib.
Wait, no he hasn’t, he’s still asleep in it. But the dreaming part of him is toddling around the nursery, wandering along the alphabet wallpaper past zed to letters even Emperor Claudius never thought of, where he finds the tail of something large and scaly and green. Dog-gie!
Wrong, but fortunately Gregory the gargoyle is friendly and tags along with Daniel. They’re greeted by Matthew the raven (Bir-die!), and then by Eve. Matthew’s surprised to see her, but as she says, although there are plenty of rules here (it’s part of his nature to make them), there’s none that says she has to stay in her cave of nightmares.
Eve picks up Daniel and carries him up the steps to the House of Secrets, where they are greeted by Abel. This is indeed an honor, he says, but whether he means Daniel or Eve isn’t obvious. Once everyone’s in the parlor, Abel offers refreshments. Matthew asks for a dead rat, explaining that although he was human once, he really is a raven now with the diet to match. There are worse things to be among the Corvidae. Crows are dumb. Rooks are weird.
Daniel plays with Goldie, Abel’s baby gargoyle, while Matthew and Eve go through a version of the magpie counting rhyme. Abel returns with the tea things in time to finish “Seven for a secret, never to be told,” and they all sit back to gossip a bit (oh-ho, Morpheus has taken up with someone) and enjoy the company.
Which isn’t that easy once Cain turns up.
Since an audience isn’t to be wasted, Cain proposes they tell stories. Eve demurs, saying she’s stopped telling them, and Cain scoffs. Story-tellers who stop telling stories are nothing at all. Matthew sticks his beak in, and Cain grabs the bird, offering him a mystery. And since they were talking about rooks earlier…
Rooks are the most social of the corvids, building rookeries with hundreds of nests to a tree, and among the most intelligent of birds with a recognizable language. But rooks also have a mystery, which is the source of their collective noun, “parliament”. Sometimes hundreds or thousands of rooks will gather in a field, leaving a small clear space in the middle. One rook is in that space, and for some hours that rook will caw and caw, and the others sometimes caw back. Then one of two things happens: they all fly away leaving the single rook in the middle of the field, or they all set upon that rook and peck it to death.
Why? Matthew demands. It’s a mystery, Cain says. Maybe someday he’ll peck Abel to death, ha-ha.
That remark leaves Abel unable to speak, so Cain turns to Eve for the next story. She again tries to avoid it, and Cain plays his first trump: Surely she’ll tell a story to a human child, a son of Adam. Then, when she says she knows no stories, he plays his second: Everyone has one story. So Eve shares her story.
Adam had three wives. The first was Lilith, co-created with Adam as an hermaphrodite: “male and female he created them.” And God divided them into two, and Lilith became Adam’s first wife. But she insisted on being equal to Adam, and was expelled from the garden, and went on to have many children, the offspring of demons or of the sons of God.
So God tried again, creating a second wife out of nothing. Bones, muscles, organs, skin, all formed before Adam into a new woman. But Adam couldn’t even touch her, having seen her created and knowing what she was inside. The nameless maiden vanished from the story; destroyed, or sent from the garden, no one knows.
Then God created the third wife, making Adam fall asleep and taking a rib from his body, only allowing him to wake when Eve was finished. And Adam took her as his wife, and they left paradise, and stayed together until death parted them.
And so Adam had three wives. Lilith, the mother of the Lilim; the nameless and nearly-unknown maiden; and Eve, who grew old with Adam, although in the end she did not die but lives in her cave.
Cain mocks this bit of family history (although earlier Eve denied being Cain’s mother), then turns to Abel. Tell the boy a secret, he says, and suggests some that sound most intriguing, but Abel doesn’t think those are children’s stories. So Abel tells a children’s story.
Long ago, Death and Dream were walking together. Death was just a little older than Dream, because things can die before they can dream, but they were both still children. They found two brothers, Cain and Abel. They had both given presents to the creator, who had liked Abel’s fluffy sheep better than Cain’s vegetables. That made Cain angry and they started to fight.
When the fight was over, Death went to Abel and said he could come and play in her garden. But Dream said he had a garden too, and Abel could come there instead, and tell stories. Secret stories. So Abel went with him, and got a house and a letter making him the keeper of secrets. But after a while he was lonely, and went to Dream to ask for a friend. When he got home he found a new house next door to his, and his brother Cain was there with his own letter, making Cain the keeper of mysteries. And they lived happily ever after.
Cain has been immensely rude throughout the story, interrupting Abel. Why is he giving the child this, this pablum with “Li’l Death” and “Li’l Morpheus”? Death and Dream didn’t look remotely human back then, none of us did. The creator preferred Abel’s fluffy sheep because it was meat. And as for happily ever after…
But Matthew and Eve both liked the story, and Matthew noticed that Abel doesn’t stutter when he tells stories. But he wonders, just how true is it all? Are these three the Biblical figures? Abel starts to explain that this wasn’t on Earth, and Cain interrupts. Secrets and mysteries aren’t to be shared, it spoils them. Would Abel explain the mystery of the parliaments of rooks?
I could, Abel says.
You won’t, Cain says.
And Cain throws Eve and Matthew and Daniel and Gregory out of Abel’s house. As they leave, Abel calls out the window after them. The parliament is a story-telling, and at the end the rook in the middle finds out if the other rooks liked the story.
Cain is enraged. It was his mystery, and Abel gave it away. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t one of the important mysteries. As long as it was a mystery, it could last forever, but now that it’s been explained it’s nothing. Don’t give away the answer, brother, they’ll peck you to death. Ah, well, see you tomorrow at dinner.
(Oh, yeah, during all that Cain beats Abel to death with a red-hot poker and throws the body into the fireplace. But you knew that. Cain kills Abel, it’s their story.)
Back in what passes for reality, Lyta notices the time and wakes Daniel up. (Diddums have a nice dweam? Yes, yes, yes, oo did!) But yuck, where did this dirty old black feather come from?
There are some things that, for their mere beauty, make this a more joyful world. Even if I’m not hearing it, it makes me happy to know that someone somewhere is listening to the “Ode to Joy.” I’m not standing in front of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” right this minute, but I know it exists and its existence makes this world just a little bit better. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is read and remembered, and the worth of life is improved with every reading.
Some things are prodigal in their beauty. And I would include “Ramadan” in that number.
(“Ramadan” was illustrated by P Craig Russell, a man whose name I bothered to learn because of the unalloyed gorgeousness of this issue. Those who like his work can find other contributions to the Sandman universe in the “Death” part of “Endless Nights” (note: contains Sandman spoilers for books we haven’t read yet!) and in the graphic novel version of “The Dream Hunters.” I highly recommend both.)
“Ramadan” begins with a cover page, illuminated in a Moorish style, proclaiming that the tale is told in the name of Allah, whose prophet Mohammed was. With that, we find ourselves in Baghdad at the time of Haroun Al Raschid, King of Kings. There was no city or court like his.
We see views of his grand palace, and are told that it was a palace of wisdom, home to scholars from all the People of the Book. His was a palace of pleasure, with a harem of beautiful people, women and boys alike. [Aside: while on the one hand I admire that same-sex pleasure is presented matter-of-factly and grant that it is probably historically accurate to populate the harem with adolescents, on the other hand I don’t totally love that same-sex pleasure is equated with pederasty. Just sayin’.] His was a palace of wonders, filled with magicians and sages and marvels.
Haround Al Raschid rules a kingdom and city of wonders indeed. And yet… yet he is troubled in his soul.
When he is so troubled, he ventures out into the city at night. We see some of the stories and sights he has encountered, as marvelous as anything from the “Arabian Nights.” A beggar made caliph for a day. A dead hunchback with a confusing multitude of murderers. A winged horse, all of glass. These curiosities do not alleviate the King’s troubles.
One such troubling day, the King stood surveying his vast and glorious city. His gorgeous wife cannot comfort him. His friend and vizier cannot comfort him. His greatest poet cannot comfort him. He asks to be alone.
Down through the palace he descends. Past the harem. Past the torture chambers. Past the dungeons. Through a strange carved door, which he opens with a key of gold. Down a stairwell haunted by the King’s loves, whom he has had killed. (It is treacherous to be loved by a king.) Through an inlaid copper door and a labyrinth. Past dangers and treasures beyond any Aladdin ever saw, through a room full of wondrous eggs. Through a door of flame.
In the final room there is a glass ball on a pillow. It is full of mists and set with a seal.
Haroun Al Raschid picks up the ball. Up and up he now climbs, through arcades and a secret passage and out onto the rooftop. He gazes out at a glorious night sky.
He calls out to Dream. He summons him. When he receives no answer, he threatens.
Within the globe are trapped nine thousand and nine demons and other nasty spirits. They were trapped there by Sulaiman Ben Daoud, King of the Hebrews. (I read that as a reference to this surpassingly beautiful short story by Rudyard Kipling about that great king and his jest with a butterfly.) If Dream does not come, Haroun will shatter it and release them.
Dream does not come. And so Haroun casts the globe to the ground.
Dream catches it just in time.
He has come as called, but is not partial to summonings. He tucks the globe away in his robe.
Why has Haroun summoned him? To make a bargain.
He has a box fetched, out of which he takes a magic carpet. King and guest step onto it and fly over the marvelous city.
[Aside – One of my recurring dreams is of visiting a strange, beautiful city, full of tall, ornate buildings. The city varies in its forms, but is always vividly colored and littered with weird temples and monuments and towers. The city in “Ramadan” looks remarkably like what I might see in one of my dreams.]
Haroun talks about his city. He cares for it as only the best monarchs care. They descend to the bazaar. It is packed with the exotic and the banal. And even the lowliest plums have a story. But Haroun has no time for them this night.
He looks with Dream out at this miraculous city, and asks if his guest will buy it. Dream has no desire to rule a mortal land, but that is not what Haroun is offering. No, he has seen the fate of other mortal cities and lands, overtaken by ruin and dust, and wants something more enduring for the perfection that is his Baghdad.
He will sell the city to Dream if Dream will preserve it in its Golden Age for as long as mankind lasts. Dream accepts, and Haroun proclaims the deal to his people.
With that, the carpet falls from the sky.
We find Haroun sleeping on it by a fountain. He is discovered by Masrur, his executioner and traveling companion, who had gone looking for him when he was not found in the palace. Masrur leads the bemused Haroun through the souk, now located in a much drearier, more familiarly run-down Baghdad.
They pass a man in shadows. Haroun stops him to look at the bottle he is carrying, which holds a glorious city of golden domes and light, in which a fountain is seen playing behind a great king making a proclamation. The ingenious city in a bottle is not for sale… any longer. Masrur leads Haroun into a much more humble, much less marvelous palace.
And we find ourselves looking at a young boy with a weak leg, hearing a story from an old beggar. It is modern Baghdad, full of rubble and wreckage. The boy picks his way home. He walks and dreams of a more glorious Baghdad, and prays to Allah that it endures somewhere.
But Allah alone knows all.