Looking back at Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – part 10 of 11, The Kindly Ones

Eight years ago, Stephen Segal, then creative director at the legendary Weird Tales magazine, asked if he could use some modest writings I had been doing on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for a 20th anniversary retrospective he was putting together. Naturally, I said yes. Sadly, the series was lost in a website revamp. Not wanting it to disappear into the ether, I’m now presenting it on my site in 11 parts (alas, without the benefit of Stephen’s editing; these are pre-publication versions). Hope you enjoy.

Recurring Dream: An Anniversary Re-reading of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

Part 10 of 11, The Kindly Ones

Originally published on the Weird Tales website, January 2009

We make choices. With those choices come consequences. Some unforeseen, some inevitable, some just, some unjust. The fates do not care about human concerns of “justice” and destiny is no more predictable than my cat’s moods.

Morpheus, the King of Dreams … he made choices. Consumed with a profound sense of duty and pride and to some extent even an aloof sense of arrogance, he did the things he thought he had to do. His ends were not necessarily noble, but nor were they evil. They just were.

Yet we’ve all got to face the consequences of our actions, even Dream of the Endless. So it is that all roads led him to The Kindly Ones, a tale in which Dream’s choices bring pain, death, and ultimately the change in himself he could not admit to or accept in Brief Lives. He resisted it. Denied it. Brushed aside his brother’s comments. But Dream was changing. It all comes to roost here.

In Season of Mists, Dream made the mistake of letting Loki, God of Lies, go free. Loki, ever a maker of mischief, steals the child of Hippolyta Hall, whose husband Dream killed in The Doll’s House. Hurt, angry and on the verge of lunacy, she seeks out the Furies of Greek myth, who are empowered to take revenge upon anyone who has spilled family blood. Dream, of course, did exactly that in Brief Lives when he granted his son’s wish and gave him death. All this is complicated by the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), who protects Hippolyta Hall from Dream, thus preventing him from breaking the cycle of violence the Furies are bringing upon the Dreaming. We initially assume Thessaly is simply bitter about Dream’s curt treatment of her in A Game of You, but we later learn (in The Wake) that Thessaly was, in fact, the unnamed lover who had scorned Dream just prior to the start of Brief Lives. She had not forgiven him for being so cold.

No matter our intentions, our choices can come back to destroy us. And when lives are as complicated as Dream’s, many are the opportunities for things to go ill.

If The Kindly Ones is the largest and slowest moving Sandman arc – and it is undeniably both – it’s easy to understand why. It serves as the culmination of all that came before. A trial of sorts. A purging by fire. An ending. In addition to the stories cited above we also see the continuation of the Puck’s tale (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the culmination of Nuala’s story (the fairy gifted to Dream in Season of Mists) as well as her brother, Cluracan’s (from the same arc, as well as from World’s End), along with Rose Walker (The Doll’s House), Lucifer and Mazikeen (a tale that spins off into Mike Carey’s acclaimed series, Lucifer), and others.

Most of all The Kindly Ones serves to bring into focus just how much we’ve come to like the characters in the Dreaming. Fiddler’s Green, better known to us as Gilbert. Mervyn, the pumpkin with an attitude. And most of all Matthew the raven, who is the heart and soul of this tale and, to a greater extent, The Wake. He is the human element of these otherworldy tales. As we watch the chaos brought upon them, we can’t help but feel as if we never spent enough time with these “people”.

Scan by Onion A/V Club

As the Furies tear apart Dream’s realm and lay to waste all he has created, Dream himself is strangely calm. To the end, he remains near emotionless. By now, though, we know much of that distant demeanor is a lie. Not a lie to us as much as it is to himself. So married to the idea of his responsibilities is he, so driven by the notion of being the aloof Lord of Dreams, he cannot allow himself to do as he truly wants. To despair of the pain being caused. To desire a different end. To destroy those who attack him. To seek refuge in delirium. To bring death to the Furies. To change his own destiny.

He is Dream. And even if it means the destruction of all he is and all he created, he will be Dream until the end. Stubborn. Resolved. Proud.

And so he accepts his fate, knowing he cannot change it, knowing what is done is done and that the choices he made he would make again. And maybe somewhere in his heart he also knew he was not strong enough to accept the changes he must undergo, and so he allowed them to be forced upon him by the only means possible.

Dream dies.

Scan by Onion A/V Club

And Dream is reborn.

I can still remember that mix of being stunned and relieved and befuddled and more when I first read the end of this tale. To kill off your main character is a bold move, especially when the death is not predicated on shock value but is instead the natural place the story needed to go. At the time I also wondered if maybe Neil Gaiman wasn’t trying to have it both ways; if giving birth to a new personification of Dream wasn’t something of a cop out. The old comic book, “He’s dead. Wait, just kidding!”

Yet no, it’s not a cop out. It was the end Sandman was fated to have. Sandman is layered with themes. Among them is that of change. Of transformation. The unchanging and the changing; the ceaseless tides of lives come and gone; the way in which people’s choices dictate who they are and who they can be. How even the most unmoving stone can be worn away over the course of long years by the soft kiss of wind and water. The Kindly Ones is the culmination of that theme, the slowest to take root and flower of all the themes Sandman gives us.

But then, the most important changes do not happen overnight.