Neil Gaiman (text), with Mark Hempel, Daniel Vozzo, D'Israeli, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, Teddy Kristiansen and Richard Case (artistic rendering), The Sandman: The Kindly Ones (DC Comics, 1996)
Neil Gaiman (text), with Michael Zulli, Daniel Vozzo, John J Muth and Charles Vess (artistic rendering), The Sandman: The Wake (DC Comics, 1997)
If you haven't read The Sandman, if you don't know what happens at the end of this story, if you want to be surprised, then stop reading now. Because there is no way to review the final two volumes of The Sandman without spoilers. Sorry about that.
The Kindly Ones
All around me darkness gathers,
Fading is the sun that shone;
We must speak of other matters:
You can be me when I'm gone.
Flowers gathered in the morning,
Afternoon they blossom on,
Still are withered by the evening:
You can be me when I'm gone.
When Hippolyta Hall's young son Daniel is kidnapped, she slips slowly into madness. Assuming that Dream has taken him, she goes searching for the goddesses who loaned her their name when she was a superhero: the Furies. These three ancient figures of vengeance prefer to be known as the Eumenides, here roughly translated as the Kindly Ones. Though the Ladies cannot avenge the supposed death of Daniel, they can, and will, avenge Dream's mercy killing of his own son, Orpheus. The Eumenides are not empowered to kill Morpheus, but to drive him to suicide....
Many characters from the run of The Sandman make a reappearance or get a reference somewhere in the course of this book or the next, right down to a pair of dreamers who served at the feast in Season of Mists. In a symphony, the last movement draws on themes from all the previous movements, and so Gaiman does here.
So here is Rose Walker, once a vortex, who was baby-sitting Daniel when he was kidnapped. Here is Zelda the Spider Woman, facing her own transience. Here are Thessaly, and Hob Gadling, and Alexander Burgess, Mazikeen and Lucifer, Clurican and Mab, Loki and Puck, and a new Corinthian. Like Delirium when Orpheus was about to go to his rest, they pop in long enough to say "hello" and "goodbye." Some do a little more....
The Kindly Ones is a tragedy. My Theater History professor used to say (quoting, I assume, but I don't know whom) that a tragedy is where everybody who needs to, dies by the end. And, depending on your definition of "needs to," I suppose that happens. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Endless Nights, says that he was asked to summarize the plot of The Sandman in twenty-five words or less. This is what he came up with: "The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision." And, in the end, that's why he needs to die. He needs to shed his life and move on, because he can't change enough. Partially for himself, and partially to make way for a new Dream, one who can change, and who can be what dreamers need him to be.
This is the longest of the ten volumes of The Sandman, comprising thirteen monthly issues. The story is intricately constructed, echoing other stories and itself again and again. It was never really designed to be read as a monthly, and so upset a lot of readers at the time, with its iconographic, impressionistic style of art (provided by Messrs. Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D'israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, and Kevin Nowlan), its peculiar continuity, and its lack of reintroductions. Gaiman knew when he wrote it that it would be collected, and he wrote for that book.
If you've read far enough in The Sandman to read this book, then I have no doubt that you'll enjoy The Kindly Ones. But be ready to cry.
"Somewhere in the night, entities bigger than storm-clouds are building a house of remembrance.
The people on the ground are waiting for the building to be finished before they go inside.
They wait awkwardly, shuffling and making small-talk, in the wasteland that was once the heart of the Dreaming.
Attend now the wake of His Darkness Lord Dream of the Endless. Spend the night swapping stories with dreamers and dreams, gods and monsters, from everywhere. Drink the wines that you find in dreams. Celebrate, and mourn. And, in the morning, attend the funeral service, and speak what is in your heart.
Months after the funeral held in dreams, Robbie Gadling attends a Renaissance Festival, and is offered a choice.
In the Desert of Lop, an old man meets both Dreams, the old and the new.
And, finally, we see the second of the two plays Will Shaxspar once promised Dream. The earlier was for Morpheus' friends, Auberon and Titania. This one is for him. When asked why this tale, Dream replies, "I wanted a tale of graceful ends. I wanted a play about a King who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom. About a magician who becomes a man. About a man who turns his back on magic."
If The Sandman has been a symphony, then this is the coda. It is sweet, and sad, and ultimately it allows us to move on. We say goodbye to Dream, and to the characters we've enjoyed, and we say hello to the new Dream.
Because, of course, there is a new Dream. "How," as Cain rhetorically asks, "can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an action?" So whom do we mourn? "A puh-point of view," stutters Abel.
The three issues which show the rituals of grieving for Morpheus give us glimpses of still more characters before the series ends, and allow us to mourn. Matthew the Raven speaks for us, and shows our anger at losing the Dream we know, and our resentment of his replacement.
"Sunday Mourning" shows us that life does go on, and how to heal, and gives us a bit of humor before we go. "You should spray 'em all with shit as they come through the gates," rants Hob Gadling on how inauthentic the Renfest is. And he still thinks death is a mug's game.
"Exiles" bridges the chasm between the old Dream and the new, and ties off an old subplot, and lets us visit the soft places one last time.
"The Tempest" shows us that Dream has been thinking about how to escape his responsibilities for a long, long time.
Read The Wake, and round your trip through Dream's lands with waking.
A few final remarks on The Sandman:
Gaiman's series has provided us with a modern mythology. There are many college students wandering around today who are a little fuzzy on Zeus and Athena, but they can name all seven of the Endless, and quote Gaiman as if he were Euripides (mind you, they'll be able to name Loki's first wife, but only because she's in Sandman, and they'll be surprised to hear that he had another). The Sandman is slowly sinking into the consciousness and unconscious of a generation, and providing them with a framework for examining themselves and their worlds. And I think that's a good thing.
When you're reading Sandman, read the introductions (though, often, you want to read them after you've finished the story), as they all say something interesting or insightful about the books. Some really rather illustrious folks have written introductions to Gaiman's work. And read the biographical miscellania at the back. They're pretty much always amusing.
I started reading The Sandman while The Kindly Ones was being published as a monthly. The first issue I read was #59, The Kindly Ones: 3, and it was an incredibly confusing place to come in. But that issue contains a quick survey of what the other Endless were doing, and I fell in love with Delirium and her singing fish. It took me something like two years to track down all of the volumes of The Sandman after that (particularly on a high school student's small amount of pocket money), but the characters and the stories haunted me until I'd filled in all the gaps.
I've now been immersed in Sandman and Gaiman for a solid month. Reading and reviewing all ten volumes, plus one, doing my research in The Sandman Companion and on Neil's Web site, picking up Jill Thompson's Death manga digest, finally reading Adventures in the Dream Trade and watching Neverwhere (and, apparently, volunteering to review it), and participating in collaborative fan fiction (and Neil points to the ongoing saga there when he's asked about good fanfic), I feel a bit like the narrator at the end of Milne's Once on a Time. Now I can take all of those volumes off of my desk, where they've stood as a rampart between me and the world, behind which I've lived in far-off lands and days, surrounded by dreams.
Songer est mort, vive le songer.