Every Wednesday we’ll be running a piece on a volume of Sandman.
You can find Jason Sacks’s introduction to the series here.
You can find Mark Stack’s overview of “Preludes and Nocturnes” here.
You can find Kyle Garret’s reading of “The Doll’s House” here.
You can find Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva and Taylor Lilley’s conversation about “Dream Country” here.
You can find Michael Bettandorf and PJ Hunsicker discussing “Season of Mists” here.
You can find Ray Sonne and Alexander Lu discussing “A Game of You” here.
You can find Jason Sacks’s take on “Fables and Reflections” here.
You can find Ray Sonne and Daniel Elkin talking about “Brief Lives” here.
You can find Kyle Garret delving into “World’s End” here.
In considering “The Kindly Ones,” the penultimate arc of Neil Gaiman’s epic series, The Sandman, I find myself flirting with the idea of memories. Memories are inherently flawed objects— broadly remembered strokes of events that once were. In Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Mlodinow elucidates just how flawed memories can be. He ultimately posits that while human beings as a species are capable of remembering the broad strokes of things, we tend to quickly lose sight of the fine details. When asked to recall specific moments in time, we cheat. We fill in the gaps with false memories that we insist are true. When we make decisions, our reasons are rarely one dimensional, but everyone, including us, loses track of those myriad of reasons as time goes on. The reasons we do things become unclear to us. Perhaps we didn’t consciously understand them at all. Thus, when we consider “The Kindly Ones,” in which Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, dies and is reborn, we must consider every facet of his decision to die.
“Decision” is a dicey word to assign to Morpheus’ death, as it implies consent. How much did Morpheus play a role in his demise at the hands of The Furies? This is the question that critics and readers have grappled with for a very long time. Morpheus himself seems conflicted about his desire to live or die throughout the series. Even as early as Preludes and Nocturnes, when he sees his sister Death for the first time in over half a century, he ponders whether it’s all worth it. At the time, she throws bread at him and tells him to snap out of it. He is Dream of the endless. He has an eternity to change.
Unfortunately for Morpheus, change takes time, and he’s made eons worth of mistakes already. To right all those wrongs would take a very long time indeed. A long time ago, he imprisoned Nada, a lover that scorned him. He ignored Orpheus, his own son, in a time of need. He’s made countless enemies and his prideful, rule-bound nature limits his circle of true friends. Those enemies, and yes, those friends, have been falling into place throughout the previous nine volumes of The Sandman, and they have all been orchestrated by Dream to play a role in the end to come.
In broad strokes, the plot of “The Kindly Ones” is this: after mercifully killing his son Orpheus, Dream finds himself dutifully attending to the realm of dreaming, taking care of long sidelined tasks such as recreating the Corinthian, who was last seen way back in “A Doll’s House.” Another character from that arc, Hippolyta Hall, who was trapped in a dream for a lengthy period of time while pregnant with her son, Daniel, seeks vengeance upon Dream after Daniel is kidnapped. Dream laid claim on Daniel after he freed Hippolyta and her son from their imaginary prison, and Hippolyta believes Dream has come to collect. She invokes The Kindly Ones, also known as The Furies, who are authorized to take vengeance upon those who spell family blood, as Dream has. They tear apart the Dreaming but do no real damage until Morpheus leaves his domain to grant the faerie Nuala a promised boon. With the Dreaming torn asunder and under extreme mental duress, Morpheus allows himself to be taken by his sister, Death.
Many characters from throughout Sandman make a reappearance in this run. They range from the major (Rose Walker, Nuala, Loki, and Thessaly) to the minor (Fiddler’s Green, Alex Burgess, and Zelda). In this regard, “The Kindly Ones” feels more like a wake than the next and final arc of the series, “The Wake.” Contained in these thirteen issues are many final interactions between Dream and the people that made his last few years so memorable. Interestingly, regardless of whether they come to Dream in his final days as friends or foes, their encounters with him seem orchestrated. Throughout The Sandman, Dream has been unconsciously, but intentionally, sowing the seeds of his own destruction.
Consider Hippolyta Hall, who acts as The Furies’ catalyst. She is definitively Dream’s enemy. She makes this clear to him as far back as The Doll’s House. As Dream tells Hippolyta, one day, he will come for Daniel, two year gestated in the world of dreams, as he has been “carried so long” in Morpheus’ domain. As Morpheus leaves, Hippolyta proclaims “you take my child over my dead body, you spooky bastard…over my dead body.” Dream is not emotionless, but is generally portrayed as aloof; he is beyond typical human affairs. He is bound by “rules” to not take life, but he can when it threatens The Dreaming. He does so when he kills Unity Kinkaid, the “dream vortex” in “The Doll’s House.”
The concept of rules is incredibly ambiguous throughout The Sandman, but they are the creed that Dream, more than any of the other Endless, lives his life by. At one point during “The Kindly Ones,” he does resolve to kill Hippolyta, but does so halfheartedly. When he finds her under the protection of Thessaly, the last of an old breed of immortal witches and Dream’s former lover, he decides to not violate Thessaly’s Circle of Protection because of the rules. These rules, are stated to be older than the Endless themselves, and are in essence, inertia. That slowness to change and adapt is what ultimately dooms Morpheus.
Indeed, his resistance to change is allows Thessaly to create the circle of protection. Back during “A Game of You,” Thessaly traveled to The Dreaming via the Moon’s path. Morpheus deems her a trespasser for taking this backdoor into his domain, and considers killing her. However, Barbie, the protagonist of the arc, demands Morpheus allow Thessaly and her traveling companions to return to the waking world “safe and sound.” Because of the specificity of Barbie’s request, Morpheus restores life to Thessaly’s waking body, which would otherwise have been crushed when the apartment she is in collapses while she is in The Dreaming. Morpheus knows at the time that it is just, perhaps even right to kill the witch, and yet he does not, bound as he is to those he grants boons to.
Nuala, the faerie serves and ultimately falls in love with Dream, is another individual that Dream grants a boon to, and his devotion to his word here is ultimately what seals his fate in “The Kindly Ones.” As long as he remains in The Dreaming, the Kindly Ones can only cause chaos in the realm. They cannot irreparably damage it. However, when Nuala calls to him from the land of Faerie, he answers. He protests, but he answers, knowing full well what it means for him. He blames his fate on “old rules” again, but Nuala is perceptive. She states that Morpheus wants The Kindly Ones to punish him, and in reply he can only stare at her sheepishly. Morpheus once told Ishtar that he did not change after his stint in a magical prison, but now “think[s he] lied to her.” Indeed, subconsciously and consciously, Morpheus has realized he can no longer be Dream.
Consider Puck and Loki, who kidnap Daniel. Loki says refuses to owe anyone anything, and he owes Dream a boon after Dream set him free from an eternal prison sentence. One way of interpreting this is that he is enacting vengeance upon Dream for indebting him. He is Loki, the trickster, the betrayer, after all. Yet, how delicious would it be for Loki to get a chance to fulfill his obligation by taking his revenge? Why would Dream help Loki if he did not plan to hurt himself, knowing full well that Loki can never be trusted? When The Corinthian finally catches up with Loki and Puck, he demands to know who they’re working for. Puck says “I could answer you endlessly,” betraying his allegiance with a winking reference. Puck himself is an avatar of mischief, so the appeal of assisting in a plot such as this one cannot be disregarded.
At one point, after The Corinthian recovers Daniel from Loki, Odin pays a visit to Morpheus. Odin muses on whether Dream is “a spider” or a “deer.” Is he conniving and plotting, or is he dazed and confused?
The question does not have a singular answer, as Morpheus is both of these things. Consciously, Dream is the deer. He is caught in the headlights, knowing that he must change but unsure of how to effectively do so. Subconsciously, Dream is the spider. He knows he needs to die to change– to be reborn as a different “facet” free from the old rules and lifetime of entanglements that bind his actions. Throughout all of The Sandman, he has laid an intricate setup of dominos that all lead to the end of Morpheus.
Two sides to every person. A world of dualities. As much as “The Kindly Ones” invokes trios in The Fates, the gorgons, the Garden of Eden, and elsewhere, the arc is also about the war between twos. The women and the men. Conscious and unconscious at war. Observe the way that Marc Hempel, illustrator of all but two issues of this arc, renders Hippolyta in the scene where she decides to undertake a journey to seek revenge upon Dream. Reality is grey and empty without Daniel. The conscious mind is rendered useless as the internal world takes over, rendered in otherworldly pastels. Logic gives way to emotion. Such is mankind’s animal nature.
And yes, in the end, “The Kindly Ones” is a story about nature. As much as it is a story about women, the triple goddess, death, and revenge, Morpheus’ quest is ultimately a journey to change his nature. When Matthew the raven and The Corinthian are tasked with rescuing Daniel from Loki and Puck, Matthew is reticent to journey with the nightmare that escaped The Dreaming to become a real world serial killer. The Corinthian asks Matthew why he doesn’t stop eating eyes if he’s so upset by the idea of The Corinthian doing it, and Matthew says that it is in his nature, and in doing so clarifies The Corinthian’s point.
Matthew’s issue is not with the Corinthian’s fondness for eyes, but rather with the vile nature the previous Corinthian had. However, that Corinthian is gone. In his place is a new, loyal Corinthian. He is, at heart, still a nightmare, but he is also a loyal servant, and returns Daniel to the Dreaming safe and sound, sight intact. Dream has shone light on a different facet on The Corinthian, and by dying and being reborn as Daniel, Dream hopes to do the same for himself.
Death touches Dream’s hand and cuts the cord. So begins a new thread of life for Dream. A new facet and aspect, free to make his own choices and mistakes. A beautiful end to a blackened soul, cycling back to an alabaster beginning. Tabula rasa.