Lord, What Fools

Roderick Burgess, the antagonist in Sleep of the Just, personifies humanity’s foolishness when it comes to tampering with things it doesn’t fully understand.

The first volume of The Sandman has been titled Preludes & Nocturnes, and the first issue of that volume is Sleep of the Just. At Wych Cross in England in 1916, Dr. John Hathaway meets with Roderick Burgess, a fairly (in)famous wizard. Hathaway’s son has just died in World War One, which has caused him to reconsider Burgess’s request of him. Within the pages of the Magdalene Grimoire are the secrets to capturing Death, and Hathaway hands it to Burgess. Perhaps Hathaway hopes that Burgess can bring his son back from the dead.

The scene then cuts to various people throughout the world. Ellie Marsten’s mother is reading her Through the Looking Glass, which terrifies her. A Lewis Carroll reference seems to be a common theme in books and movies about dreams—who can forget that another Morpheus delivered the line, “…you take the red pill: you stay in Neverland, and I show you just how far down the rabbit hole goes”? The direct quote Gaiman uses is by Tweedledum, “When you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real,” once again embracing the semi-cliché inquiry “How does one define ‘real’?”

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all.

At his father’s inn in Jamaica, Daniel Bustamonte is dreaming of a castle in the clouds. To most, this may seem fairly original, but the scene immediately struck me as reminiscent of the crowded, dirty inn of Les Miserables. This is especially so considering Cosette sings the song Castle on a Cloud within that inn. In some modern Arthurian legends, the mystical realm of Avalon is also said to be a kingdom above the clouds. Perhaps both of these connections were unintentional.

Unity Kinkaid, a character who will become important in the second volume of The Sandman, appears in these scenes dreaming of a “tall, dark man” whose “eyes burn like twin stars in her head.” We are, of course, receiving our first description of Dream of the Endless, though we have not met him yet. Abruptly, we return to Wych Cross where we learn that Roderick Burgess’s “waking dreams” are of power, glory, and especially death.

Then it is midnight of the full moon, and the summoning ritual is prepared in the cellars of Burgess’s mansion. As Burgess talks to his son, Alex, it becomes blindingly obvious that, by imprisoning Death, he hopes to rule the world. Burgess’s incantation, according to Gaiman, is completely original, but goes to the rhythm of “The Magic Wood” by Henry Treece. Burgess invokes the following mythological beings in his incantation:

  • Namtar—an evil god of ancient Mesopotamia and servant of Ereshkigal. He is the personification of the negative aspects of fate and the bringer of disease and death.
  • Allatu—also called Ereshkigal, she is the Sumerian/Akkadian goddess of the underworld. Allatu is the consort of Nergal and the sister of Ishtar. Like Persephone and Hades in Greek mythology, Ishtar would have to return to Allatu in the underworld once every year.
  • Morax—a Great Earl and President of Hell, he is said to have thirty-two to thirty-six legions of demons under his command. He is depicted as a big bull with the face of a man.
  • Naberius—a demon first mentioned by Johann Wier in 1583. He is supposedly the most valiant Marquis of Hell, and has nineteen legions of demons under his command. He is said to cause the loss and restoration of dignities and honors. He appears as a three headed dog or a raven. He has a raucous voice but presents himself as eloquent and amiable. Wier considered Naberius to be the same demon as the Greek Cerberus.
  • Klesh—this means “snake” in Navajo.
  • Vepar—usually depicted as a mermaid, Vepar is a Great Duke of Hell, and rules twenty-nine legions of demons. He apparently has the power to control waters and make ghostly ships appear. He can also cause wounds and sores that worms breed in to appear and disappear on anyone he chooses.
  • Maymon—Here we get some confusion. There are two deities in mythology who go by the name Maymon/Mammon. Maymon is an angel who is the chief angel of the air and the ruler of Saturday. Mammon is a fallen angel in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It could be that Gaiman saw both spellings and didn’t think it mattered which spelling was used.
  • Ashema-Deva—Ashema-Deva is a Persian god or devil in the Zoroastrian pantheon. He is also called Asmodeus.
  • Maborym—I honestly haven’t been able to find any information on this deity. I doubt that it’s an original Gaiman idea, considering the others are references, but it must be a very obscure reference.
  • Horvendile—both Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell have used the name Horvendile. Dunsany’s stories portray Horvendile as a god. Cabell refers to him as a demiurge, a being who is above the story and probably pulling the strings. He also keeps swine that feed on human flesh (Mason Verger in Hannibal, anyone?). In Scandinavian mythology, Horvendile is a king with a story similar to Hamlet’s.

For all his invocations, Burgess’s spell fails, and he imprisons Death’s younger brother, Dream.

As is told later in the series, all of the gods began as concepts in the dream world, and Dream is a being much more powerful than a god. Yet these beings invoked by Burgess are

An artist's rendition of Dream's imprisonment within the cellars of Wych Cross.

enough to imprison Dream within a magical orb; it is the combined power of these deities along with the fact that Dream is already weak that leads to his capture. If Dream had not already been weak, it is quite possible that the spell would have failed completely.

Dream’s clothing and possessions are stripped from him, which is the first major symbol we receive in the story. He lies naked within the orb, much like a baby within the womb. Such symbolism is always a sign of change; of the death of the old and the birth of the new. Here we are presented with the reason why Dream comes off as so human to us: he doesn’t want to change, and indeed there are limits to how much he can change.

In the seventy years before Dream is “reborn,” a lot of events take place in our world. People either succumb to encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”), or cannot get to sleep. After coming under suspicion of stealing items from the Royal Museum, Dr. John Hathaway kills himself. Stefan Wasserman, who enlisted in the army at fourteen and cannot get to sleep, kills himself at sixteen. Unity Kinkaid is raped while sleeping, and has a child. Her family attempts to hush it up, and places her within a nursing home.

Though their relationship is lacking at best, Roderick and Alex Burgess discover that they have ensnared Dream rather than Death. Ruthven Sykes, once an associate of Roderick, begins an affair with his mistress and leaves with Dream’s helm, pouch of dream sand, and dream ruby. When she leaves and takes a protective amulet with her, Sykes is killed by one of Roderick’s spells.

Neil likes it. You should, too.

Wesley Dodds, realizing that something is missing from the world, seeks to replace it bydressing up in a trench coat, fedora, and gas mask every night. This is a reference to TheSandman Mystery Theater, another comics series by Vertigo that combines the dark horror of Batman with the gadgets and costume of The Green Hornet.

In 1947, Roderick Burgess dies while confronting Dream about the fact that he can’t sleep. Alex Burgess becomes the leader of his father’s Order of Ancient Mysteries. Alex makes Dream the same offer Roderick made: his freedom for power, immortality, and the promise that Dream won’t seek revenge. Dream only scowls at them.

In 1988, a mistake is made. The protective circle imprisoning Dream is smeared by the wheels of Alex’s wheelchair. Though Dream is weak, he manages to trick his captors into believing he’s dead so that they will unlock the orb. He blows sand in their faces and escapes into the dream world. All over the world, those inflicted with encephalitis lethargica wake up…just as Alex Burgess lays down for a nap.

In his dream, Alex walks down a hall of mirrors. As he walks past each mirror, his physical self in the dream becomes younger until he appears to be in his late teens. He follows a black cat up a spiral staircase after crossing paths with it (as Gaiman points out in several interviews, “dream logic is not real world logic,” and therefore Alex might not recognize the black cat as a bad omen).

Alexander Burgess, an example of how sometimes the apple falls a bit TOO close to the tree.

When Alex reaches the top of the staircase, he finds himself within a tower. In the center of the tower is a throne. The cat sits on the throne and, as Alex watches, turns into Dream. Though Alex attempts to apologize for holding Dream captive and lay the blame on his father, Dream silences him and demands an explanation. When Dream learns that they were trying to imprison Death, he can barely believe how foolish humanity can be:

WHAT? You wanted DEATH? Then count yourself lucky for the sake of your species and your petty planet that you did NOT succeed…that instead you snared Death’s younger  BROTHER…you’ll never know how LUCKY you were.”

After demanding to know where his helm, pouch, and ruby are, Dream “gifts” Alex with Eternal Waking—a nightmare from which Alex can never awaken. What makes this scene so horrifying is the fact that many readers have had this experience themselves. As Alex himself puts it, “Have you ever had one of those dreams…where you think you’ve woken up, but you haven’t? It’s just part of the nightmare and you’re still in it…” Directly after he says this, his nurse’s head plops off, stares upside-down at him from his lap, and says, “I can’t say I have, dear. But you know what? I think you’re going to be having quite a lot of them from now on.”

This is a great part of the story, because Gaiman uses realistic experiences to describe to us just how terrifying Dream can be. However, revenge comes at a price, draining Dream of much of his power and presenting the possibility that he might not make it back to the heart of his realm.

One could argue that Sleep of the Just is Gaiman’s comment on nuclear power and weapons. Shortly after World War One, we discovered that certain chemicals once used as toxic gas in the war could be used as pesticides. Not fully understanding the ramifications, we began spraying crops with the chemicals, resulting in the near extinction of the bald eagle.

Similarly, we created the nuclear bomb and are now using nuclear fusion to receive electricity. What many of us don’t realize is that we have nowhere to place the waste of such fusion that would ever be safe, and therefore future generations will have to monitor it for years to come. Thus, the moral of this story is for humanity to be less meddlesome. Until we understand all of the possible consequences of our actions, we cannot act on them.

Next: Murderers and Librarians, Gargoyles and Witches.

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I begin, of course, with some hesitancy and the realization that I am nearly a decade behind the times. Many essays have already been written about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, one of which is Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion, which probably has the largest written interview with Gaiman that I’ve been able to find.

How would my essay be any different from the multitudes of others, then? Well, that’s simple. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about essays written about Gaiman, it’s that people comment only on what inspirations Gaiman has confirmed that he’s had. I believe that there are many references in The Sandman that Gaiman himself may not be aware of.

I’d also like to take a look at the mythological symbolism in The Sandman, because Gaiman and his associates are clever sons of bitches who love to hide the stuff in plain sight. Luckily, unlike a lot of fiction writers in this new age of fantasy, Gaiman knows that one good symbol can say a myriad of things in just a few words. In some ways, my exploration of these symbols might take away from the magic of the story, but my hope is that my analyses will add to the enjoyment of the series.

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