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Thoughts on “Sandman: The Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman

This book feels like an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale, but as artist P. Craig Russell points out in the Afterward, it was all a creation of Gaiman’s imagination, so well executed that even Russell believed it was a traditional Japanese tale when working on the illustrations.

The story is about a fox who falls in love with a monk, and while it is not possible for them to consummate their love, their feelings for each other cause each of them to make sacrifices for the other. It is a wonderful and moving story, and one can read it without knowing the background mythology of the Sandman. So without spoiling the story for those who want to read it, I figured I’d share a few passages that stood out for me.

The monk unfolded his token to show it to them, and it was then that he knew for certain he was dreaming, for he could read the characters on the paper he carried. They were simple characters and they described one who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real world would have no meaning.

(p. 72)

This is the way in which art is created, particularly stories and poetry. The mind taps into the vast sea of the subconscious and draws from the wellspring of inspiration. As the story takes shape and becomes an expression of the collective consciousness, it evolves into something that is not “real,” but expresses what is real about the human experience. In other words, stories provide life with meaning. A world without stories would be meaningless.

I serve the king of dreams … and I do his bidding. But you are correct … once I was a poet … and like all poets … I spent too long in the kingdom of dreams.

(p. 79)

I totally relate to this passage. As someone who has written poetry, I know that, for me, poetic inspiration comes from going deep into my subconscious, to draw on the symbols and metaphors that express that which is impossible to convey through plain language. But, there is a risk of spending too long in the realm of inspiration. One can become ungrounded, and that can lead to its own set of personal difficulties.

But dreams are strange things. And none of us but the king of all night’s dreaming can say if they are true or not, nor of what they are able to tell any of us about the times that are still to come.

(p. 125)

Dreams are strange things, but what would life be without them? Our dreams and stories and creative expressions are what define us.

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Symbols in “Hansel & Gretel” by Neil Gaiman: The Forest, Hunger, and the Trickster

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I first heard about this book in an article published by Brain Pickings and knew I would have to read it soon. I am a big fan of Gaiman’s work and I was very interested in discovering how he would rewrite the classic fairy tale. My expectations were high, but I was certainly not disappointed. I was hooked at the opening paragraph.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

(p. 8)

The forest or wilderness is a symbol that has always fascinated me, probably because as a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. It was a place of mystery, adventure, and danger. As I got older, I began to understand the forest as a symbol for the darker, uncivilized regions of the human consciousness.

When Hansel and Gretel’s parents decide to abandon them because they can no longer feed them, it is very symbolic that the children are abandoned in the forest. They are thrust deep into the woods and left alone. Essentially, this signifies a sort of rite of passage to adulthood, where they are forced to face the shadowy aspects of themselves and human nature, which can be dark and terrifying.

Gretel woke Hansel the next morning. “It is going to be a good day,” she said. “Our father is going to take us into the forest with him, and he will teach us to cut wood.” Their father would not ordinarily take them with him deep into the forest. He said it was too dangerous for children.

(pp. 16 – 17)

After they are abandoned in the woods, they succumb to the darkness which lies hidden in the subconscious. This is represented by shadows which grow and overwhelm the senses.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddle and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

(p. 20)

Another symbol that figures prominently in the tale is hunger. Hunger is the most basic of instincts and drives the actions of all living things, even more so than sexual desire. Hansel and Gretel’s parents forsake their children because of hunger. It is a primordial need that can overpower all sense of reason and humanity. When the children discover that the breadcrumb trail is gone because the animals of the forest have eaten the crumbs, Gretel comments that “The creatures of the forest are hungry too.” (p. 28) And of course, it is hunger that drives the children to the old woman’s house in the woods.

They walked towards the smell: honey cake, and ginger and spices, a glorious sweetness that stole over them. Now the children ran toward the source of the smell, impelled by hunger, going in a direction they had never been before, unitl, in a clearing, they saw a tiny house, even smaller than their own.

(p. 29)

They are then captured and are faced with the terrible realization that humans, like animals, are meat and can be eaten. Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of the dark, primordial state. It represents the animal instinct taking complete control of one’s psyche, where hunger overpowers all human reason.

The old woman was stronger than she looked—a sinewy, gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars. She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.

“Meat,” she said, happily.

(p. 36)

The last symbol I would like to look at in this tale is the trickster. Hansel and Gretel embody the archetype of the trickster as symbolized by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus, who also plans on eating all of them. Odysseus uses trickery to outwit the Cyclops and escape. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel do the same. First, Hansel uses a bone to trick the old woman into thinking he has not gotten fat enough to cook yet.

In truth, Hansel grew fat, but the old woman was too blind to see it. Each day, she reached for his finger, but instead he would hold out a bone he had found in the straw. She felt the bone and, thinking it was the boy’s finger, left him for another day.

(p. 40)

Finally, Gretel also uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not to understand the woman’s instructions. This leads the old woman to open the oven door and lean inside in an attempt to show Gretel how it is done, providing the opportunity for Gretel to shove her captor inside.

“See if it is hot enough to roast your brother yet,” said the old woman. “Climb inside and tell me.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel, and she stood where she was, making no move to open the oven door.

“It is easy. Simply open the door, and lean in, and feel if it is hot enough yet to roast flesh.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel again.

“You are a slattern and a dolt!” exclaimed the old woman. “Idiot child. I will show you.” The old woman hobbled over to the oven, leaning on her stick. “Learn from me.” The old woman opened the oven door.

(p. 41)

There is a bit of irony here. Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house.

I’d like to close with a little bit about the artwork in this book. All the illustrations are done by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and seem like they have been carved out of the darkest reaches of the mind. The black and white prints are so dark and shadowy, just looking at them gives you anxiety. It is the perfect visual representation of exploring the darker regions of the subconscious, of getting lost in the forest of shadows that symbolizes our hidden animalistic urges.

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Neil Gaiman on the Importance of Darkness

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It’s no surprise that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. There is no one who taps into the darker realms of the subconscious quite like he does. For this reason, I was mesmerized when I read an article from Brain Pickings talking about Gaiman’s reimagining of Hansel and Gretel. It is a dark tale, to say the least, and in the video clip that is embedded into the post (which I encourage you to watch), Gaiman points out that reading the story as a kid was the first time he realized that people are meat and that some people could eat you. It was a terrifying realization which I believe influenced his artistic direction.

Gaiman points out that being exposed to the darkness is important for young people, because ultimately it will empower them to face the darker aspects of life when confronted by them.

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

I recently watched “Alien” with my daughter, and while she was scared, she saw that people can be resourceful when confronted with something terrifying, and if they remain calm and keep their wits, they can overcome that which terrifies them. It is an important lesson. My wife questioned why we would watch something that was so scary. Gaiman answers the question much more eloquently than I ever could.

I encourage you to read the article on Brain Pickings. It is short and also includes stunning illustrations from the book, done by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti. Also watch the short video that is near the end of the article, which has Gaiman and Art Spiegleman discussing the importance of dark tales.

My reading list just got one book longer!

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“The Color of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

ColorOfMagicThis is a book that I had heard about often but had never read before. It is the first book in the Discworld fantasy series, a series that is comprised of an astounding 40 books (which means my reading list has just increased by 39). In fact, this is the first actual Pratchett book that I’ve read. I did read Good Omens, but that was a collaborative book written by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

I loved this book!! It worked on multiple levels for me. As a work of fantasy, it was extremely imaginative, weaving together magic, science fiction, mythology, and fairy tales. But it is also a very funny book, overflowing with puns and satire. I literally laughed out loud during certain sections of the book. Finally, Pratchett’s writing is impeccable. There was never a moment when the characters and the fantastical realm did not come to life for me.

The basic plot is that a failed wizard named Rincewind grudgingly accepts the responsibility to guide a “tourist” named Twoflower around the Discworld, a flat, circular world that rests upon four giant elephants who ride through the universe on the back of a gigantic cosmic turtle. The two characters move through a series of adventures and interact with an array of interesting beings. That’s all I’ll say—you know how I hate spoilers. I will include a few quotes, though, and share my thoughts on them.

There is a great paragraph early in the book where Twoflower is trying to explain to Rincewind the logic of insurance, a concept that is foreign to Rincewind. Twoflower, who is from a different world, works calculating insurance risk. The passage has some great puns and pokes fun at the insurance industry.

Inn-sewer-ants,” repeated Rincewind. “Tha’s a funny word. Wossit mean?”

“Well, suppose you have a ship loaded with, say, gold bars. It might run into storms or, or be taken by pirates. You don’t want that to happen, so you take out an inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea. I work out the odds against the cargo being lost, based on weather reports and piracy records for the last twenty years, then I add a bit, then you pay me some money based on those odds—“

(p. 45)

I can’t help having an image of an insurance company as a hive of sewer dwelling insects, racing around like worker ants.

Another scene that stands out for me is the depiction of the gods playing a game of dice. It is a great metaphor for human existence being a strange blend of chance and fate, where anything can happen. During the game, which is played by the god Fate and an unnamed goddess who is only referred to as the Lady, there is a great interaction between the two about the desire cheat one’s fate.

Fate raised an eyebrow.

“And no cheating, Lady,” he said.

“But who could cheat Fate?” she asked. He shrugged.

“No one. Yet everyone tries.”

(p. 98)

The following passage is one of the most resonant symbolic scenes for me.

On either side of him, two glittering curtains of water hurtled toward infinity as the sea swept around the island on its way to the long fall. A hundred yards below the wizard the largest sea salmon he had ever seen flicked itself out of the foam in a wild, jerky and ultimately hopeless leap. Then he fell back over and over, in the golden underworld light.

(p. 222)

I see the water here as symbolizing both existence and the collective unconscious. Every drop in the ocean is an individual thought, or an individual being, all swirling together in this existence before rushing over the edge in a waterfall to become part of the ineffable and the infinite. The salmon represents an individual, caught in the currents of life. With a hopeless futility reminiscent of Sisyphus, the salmon tries to challenge Fate, to go against the flow, but fails. Ultimately, Fate always wins in the end and you become part of the greater mystery.

I’d like to finish up with one last quote, which I think beautifully sums up life. There is so much to do, to see, to experience, that it is impossible to do everything that is on one’s bucket list (especially if you accept the idea of parallel universes). I know that I will never do all the things I want to do, visit all the places I’d like to see, or read all the books I want to read. But I won’t despair; I’ll just make the best of the time I have and enjoy as many of life’s wonders as I can.

“Sometimes I think a man could wander across the Disc all his life and not see everything there is to see,” said Twoflower. “And now it seems there are lots of other worlds as well. When I think I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel,” he paused, then added, “well, humble, I suppose. And very angry, of course.”

(pp 230 – 231)

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Unknown Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale Discovered

HCAndersenThere is no way that I can ever be in denial about the fact that I am a lit geek. This was proven once again when I found myself getting excited by the fact that a previously unknown fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen was discovered. (Click here to read the article.)

The story is entitled “Tallow Candle” and tells the tale of how a candle seeks help from a tinder box to be able to ignite itself. The handwritten, six-page manuscript was discovered at the bottom of a box in Denmark’s National Archives by historian Esben Brage.

Reading this makes me wonder how many more undiscovered literary treasures lay buried in boxes somewhere in a basement or attic. I think I share the same fantasy as others, walking into a yard sale where boxes of books and manuscripts are out on the ground. Leaning over and inhaling the musty odor of old paper, I begin to rummage through the boxes, when something catches my eye…

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