The ninth collection of The Sandman sees its hero hounded by vengeance personified

The ninth collection of The Sandman sees its hero hounded by vengeance personified

Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Sandman trade paperback #9, The Kindly Ones, covering issues #57-69.

The Kindly Ones plot summary: When Lyta Hall’s son Daniel is kidnapped by Loki and Puck under mysterious circumstances, she slips into madness. Believing that Morpheus is behind her son’s abduction, she eventually hooks up with the Furies, who are empowered to enact vengeance on Morpheus in retribution for him killing his own kin, Orpheus. They tear a path of destruction through the Dreaming, which Morpheus is forced to leave when Nuala—who has returned to Faerie with her brother Cluracan—summons him away to profess her love for him. He returns to find his realm in shambles, but also to discover that the re-created Corinthian has fulfilled Morpheus’ order that he rescue Daniel, who is now safe in the Dreaming. After having a conversation with Daniel, Morpheus goes to face the Furies’ wrath. Morpheus sends his helm and bag of sand back to the castle to be bestowed upon their new owner. Then he speaks with his sister Death and succumbs to the inevitable, and Daniel takes over the form of Dream. Meanwhile, Rose Walker journeys to England and says goodbye to an old friend, Lucifer tickles the ivories in a nightclub, Thessaly protects the unconscious Lyta, and nearly every other character in the Sandman universe makes an appearance. 

Genevieve: It’s all been leading to this. Though the final, climactic moment of The Kindly Ones was telegraphed pretty clearly in the funeral procession seen at the end of the previous Sandman volume, Worlds’ End, this collection of 13 issues lays out the steps that led there—and there are a lot of steps. Steps that trace back to the very first issues of the series. Steps that take us through the Dreaming, Faerie, and the waking world, and past nearly every major character we’ve met so far in this series. 

It’s a whole lot of book, comprising more than a year’s worth of storyline, and it’s hard to know where exactly to begin unpacking all of this. We could talk about the structure, which takes the form of a Greek tragedy. We could talk about the feminine aspect of the Furies and how they relate to the maiden-mother-crone triad of Nuala, Lyta, and Thessaly/Larissa. We could talk about Marc Hempel’s art, which is decidedly different from most of what we’ve seen thus far in the series. We’ll hopefully talk about all those things and more in this discussion (and in the comments). But before we do that, it seems logical to start where most stories, and journeys, do: at the beginning, specifically at “The Castle,” the issue that serves as a prologue to The Kindly Ones.

“The Castle” sticks out from the rest of this collection not just in its visuals—Kevin Nowlan’s art is much less stylized and graphic than what will make up the majority of this book—but also in its straightforward summarization of the state of the Dreaming and its inhabitants, which is presented as a sort of guided tour given to a dreaming human who strays into Lord Morpheus’ castle. The Sandman usually doesn’t do much in the way of hand-holding, so this stuck out to me a bit on my first time through The Kindly Ones. But after finishing the whole story, its foreshadowing becomes more apparent, especially the sections focusing on Matthew and Nuala, who proves integral to the eventual fate of Morpheus and the Dreaming. 

Tasha, what do you make of these introductions and allusions, particularly the introductory dream of being ripped apart by faceless women, which both calls back to the first demise of Orpheus at the hands of rampaging Bacchae and seems to comment on the events of The Kindly Ones? And what do you think overall of “The Castle” as an introduction? Has its effect changed for you at all after multiple read-throughs of the series?

Tasha: Technically, “The Castle” isn’t an introduction to The Kindly Ones—it’s a stand-alone story from “Vertigo Jam” #1, a promo comic that included mini-tales from Sandman, Hellblazer, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and other Vertigo comics of the time. The idea was presumably that fans of any given Vertigo comic might pick this up out of curiosity or a collector’s urge, and get exposed to other titles, and start reading them as well. As such, it doesn’t really belong with The Kindly Ones—it’s here for completism and preservation, I assume—and it doesn’t add much for me, apart from underlining a few significant character facets that become important later, like Nuala’s melancholy, and Mervyn’s acerbic attitude. I like the parallels you draw between the nightmare women and the Furies and the Maenads, but visually, it reminded me more of the zombie-baby nightmare in A Game Of You, where the dead child tears the living one apart.

But what I find most interesting about “The Castle” is that while it’s bookended by first-person bumpers identifying the man who’s dreaming this story, most of it is in second person, addressing you, the reader, as though you’re the one meeting Lucien and Morpheus and the like. Making the reader part of the story is an appropriate way to get at Sandman’s importance-of-story themes in just a few pages, and makes for an interesting rhyme with the funeral in the final book, The Wake, which again addresses you, the reader, and talks about what you saw and felt at Dream’s funeral. But now I’m definitely getting ahead of myself.

I agree that it’s hard to know where to start with The Kindly Ones, because there’s so much going on. I’m up for talking about everything you brought up, and I also think there’s plenty to say here about Dream’s real motivations and intentions, and about gender—which yet again, writer Neil Gaiman delineates directly and repeatedly, with lines like “Women aren’t about dreaming. We’re about the real world… Women are about waking.” Much of this book comes down to a conflict between a man who’s an archetype and three women who appear over and over in different aspects as a different form of archetype, and Gaiman never lets us forget that he’s drawing a line between masculine and feminine principles. 

But before we get into all the details, I’m interested in a brief summary of your take on the book as a whole. When I first read The Kindly Ones back in college, I loathed it. I resented watching Gaiman dismantling all these things he’d built that I loved—I basically turned into the little girl in Tarsem’s The Fall, wailing “Why are you making everybody die?” And I hated Marc Hempel’s heavy lines and sharp edges and what I saw as cartoonish simplicity. The Kindly Ones is the only Sandman book I never re-read, and I assigned it to myself for this series suspecting that all these years later, knowing what to expect, I’d appreciate it a lot more, and see a lot more in it. Which I did. But this is your first time at this particular rodeo. How did the book hit you overall, and in particular, what did you wind up thinking of Hempel’s divisive, controversial visual style?

Genevieve: I think The Kindly Ones benefited a lot, for me, from momentum. As you say, this is my first time at this rodeo, so the conclusion of Worlds’ End left me primed and eager to see what The Kindly Ones had to offer, and in general, I wasn’t disappointed. The pallor of death has been hanging over the series since Brief Lives, and given that the next and final collection is called The Wake, I went into The Kindly Ones expecting Gaiman to, as you put it, destroy everything I love—and, once again, I was not disappointed. 

But here’s the thing: I don’t know that I love any of these characters enough to be truly gutted by their demises. I’ve only had a few scant months to get to know the Dreaming and its inhabitants, and while I’ve enjoyed visiting their world, I haven’t really spent enough actual time in it for its destruction to have much emotional impact. Don’t get me wrong, the crumbling of the Dreaming was as affecting as any well-written tragic climax I’ve read, but I didn’t feel betrayed or offended; it felt more like a matter of course, the unavoidable collapse of a towering story that’s grown more and more fragile with the addition of each new layer. I guess that’s the flip side of reading a story like Sandman all in one chunk, instead of over several years and dozens of issues: Reading it all in one go gives you the benefit of momentum and instant gratification (and instant hindsight, as when you connect a standalone issue to material that it apparently wasn’t intended to be connected to, as I did with “The Castle”), but you might not have as strong a connection to the material as if you spent years and years with it. Perhaps that’s why I have such a strong connection to the Harry Potter series, which I spent nearly a decade with, starting as an adolescent. Dumbledore’s death gutted me in a way Morpheus’ never could, simply because I knew the former for 10 years, and the latter for 10 weeks.

But even if I had spent years with The Sandman, the opening pages of Part One, featuring the Furies/Fates in their mother-maiden-crone formation, serves as both a warning and a justification to those, like you, who aren’t ready for this ending. “It’s never what they want,” says Atropos (the crone/cutter of the thread) of the story-scarf metaphor Lachesis (the mother/measurer of the thread) has begun knit-purling. “And if we give them what they think they want, they like it less than ever… I don’t know why we bother,” to which Clotho (the maiden/spinner of the thread) responds, “We bother because we have no choice. Because this is who we are, in this aspect.” Setting aside the “this aspect” thing for the time being, the idea of inevitability, of things following their natural, fated course, runs throughout The Kindly Ones—there are even visual allusions to thread running through the opening panels of many issues, a very neat touch. This plays out most strongly in Morpheus’ behavior, which we should probably discuss next. 

But before we move on to that, I’d like to quickly address your question about Hempel’s art. In general, I prefer the more realistic, detailed style of Michaels Zulli and Allred that we saw in Worlds’ End to Hempel’s more stylized, sketchy work; but once I got used to it, I think it really added to the atmosphere of the story, particularly the heavy shadows and angular, sketchy yet expressive faces. The close-ups in particular are very effective, as when Lyta snaps following Daniel’s abduction and decides to seek vengeance on Morpheus. It’s incredibly unsettling, and very true to the character’s state of mind. 

But back to the Dream King. Morpheus’ behavior—essentially abandoning the Dreaming and opening it up to destruction, and offering himself up to the wrath of the Furies—is true to the character’s journey throughout this series, but it’s also pretty damn frustrating from a reader’s perspective. His slow acceptance of and reconciliation with the mortal aspect of his realm, and his necessary destruction and resurrection in a form more compatible with that aspect, is fairly standard Tragic Hero stuff, but that doesn’t make it any less maddening to see this being of immense power essentially lay down and accept his fate, no matter what Clotho has told us at the outset. Tasha, was this part of your frustration with the book the first time you read it, or was it something else? And I’m interested to hear more about how your view on The Kindly Ones has changed this time through, both the events and the art therein. 

Tasha: Ha, I never properly associated my own initial dissatisfaction with The Kindly Ones and the “It’s never what they want / I don’t know why we bother” scene, but that’s such a good point; Gaiman is absolutely anticipating negative fan reaction with that sequence, and philosophically shrugging it off. You both have me pegged.

I got so much more out of the book this time, through, including a growing appreciation of Hempel’s expressionistic art, particularly his vibrant colors and the way his abstraction compared to the Michaels gets across Lyta’s shattered state of mind, or the malleability of the Dreaming. I feel particularly bad about not properly appreciating images like this, just because they didn’t have Zulli’s realistic look:

What strikes me most often about Hempel’s work, though, is how much he loves balance, and sharply defined geometrical shapes. Images like these two are startling to me, because they’re beautiful, but not remotely natural. They resemble stained glass in the way the colors are sharply separated and defined.

Looking at something this composed and nearly symmetrical, it’s impossible for me to forget I’m in a constructed story. Hempel’s work doesn’t feel observational and warm and organic the way Zulli’s does, or to a lesser extent, Glyn Dillon’s on issue #6 here. It feels more stylized, jagged, and emotional, but also consciously constructed. Did you have the same reaction? Does it affect your take on the story? As with so many things about Sandman, it seems to me that anything that makes us aware that we’re in a tale, anything that makes us step back and examine the structure and the nature of stories, is intentional. At the same time, even when enjoying Hempel’s art, I still find it distracting, because it’s so different, and so bright, and because it’s harder to think of the people in this story as people when they’re so full of sharp angles and points. Though possibly an entire book could be written on why Hempel chooses to draw certain characters—Morpheus, Loki, Puck—as jagged collections of zigzags, while other characters, particularly Daniel and the Corinthian, are all soft round curves.



In addition to being less frustrated with the art this time around, I was less frustrated with the story, largely because this time around, I didn’t expect Morpheus to shrug off an entire series’ worth of foreshadowing and avoid his fate; I knew what was coming, and could accept it. Even so, and even reading closely for clues, I’m still uncertain about what’s been described as the central mystery of the book: How much Morpheus is complicit in his own fate. He certainly presents himself as doomed against his will, particularly by Nuala’s wish, which draws him away from the Dreaming and leaves him and it both vulnerable, and he isn’t terribly kind to her about it. He faces down the Furies in his castle as though he fully intends to marshal all of his resources to fight them off. He claims to be bound by rules and to not have a choice about killing Lyta or obeying Nuala, but he admits to Death that his choices are about his own experience—that he’s changed, but he feels trapped and he can’t leave. I like to think the contradiction is explained in the end by him realizing things he hadn’t yet processed—that he’s ready to enter a new phase of his existence, and that parts of him have to die so new parts can be born. At least, I like to think he doesn’t deliberately tell Nuala everything’s her fault when he personally already knows otherwise.

At the same time, he begins this book by calmly preparing for the end by re-creating the Corinthian and sending him out to fetch Daniel, who will become the new Dream. Which feels like he knew all along. Do you think there are contradictions in here, or are we just watching a process of him accepting a hard decision he knows has to be made? We’ve seen many proofs throughout the series that he’s an incredibly prideful being who usually shrugs off other people’s insights about him, even when he knows they’re right, even when he bends to them later, whether it’s Nada pointing out his wrongdoing regarding her or Destruction commenting on how much he’s changed. Is he just putting up a good front throughout the book as he internally surrenders to the inevitable? And would that explain all of the back-and-forth between defiance and acceptance, or are there parts of the story you still can’t reconcile?

Genevieve: I actually think this contradiction you speak of is addressed well before the end, back in Part 7, when Delirium is talking to Destiny in front of a weeping statue of Dream, and Destiny splits into two. One Destiny suggests she not interfere with Dream’s problems, while the other says her aid couldn’t hurt, and might even help him—contradictory statements, those. Destiny is, for me at least, the most maddeningly abstruse of the Endless (which is saying something), but in this case, he provides the key to understanding the incongruousness of Dream’s actions in The Kindly Ones. 

By the time we return to Destiny’s Garden in Part 11, the destruction of the Dreaming is in full swing, and Morpheus has left to answer Nuala’s call. The timing here is very important. Up until now, Dream’s actions have indicated that he intends to protect his kingdom, and presumably himself, against the Furies: He’s dispatched the Corinthian to rescue Daniel (I don’t know that he consciously intends for Daniel to take his place at this point, it might just be a matter of trying to bring Lyta back from the brink); he’s stood his ground against the ladies when they storm his castle; and, most significantly, he’s tried and failed to kill Lyta, who is under Thessaly’s protection. But despite all that, the Furies have waged war, Fiddler’s Green and Merv Pumpkinhead have both bitten it, and Lucian is pissed at Dream’s seeming reticence to act.

Immediately following this discussion, we flash to Nuala being tormented by a boggart in Faerie, and as she snaps and runs off crying, we see the shadow of the Fates, indicating that Atropos has fulfilled her role and cut the thread. Within a couple of pages, Nuala has summoned Dream away from the Dreaming, and the cards truly begin to fall.

Back to Part 11, and back to Destiny in his garden, surrounded by multiple other Destinies clutching their books, presumably at the same time Dream is visiting Nuala. “Very well,” says Destiny.  “Events will fall as they must.” Then a set of Destinies say at the same time, “As the events happen, the conflicting destinies will merge into a whole,” and “As the events take place, the conflicting destinies will cease to exist.” These statements are really two sides of the same coin, making the same point: Up until now, Dream has been weighing his options, considering courses of action, hence the sense of back-and-forth between defiance and acceptance. But once that thread was snipped, once Nuala decided to summon him—which, not coincidentally at all, coincides with Daniel’s arrival in the Dreaming—his choice was made. One by one, the alternate Destinies fade in the background, and the blurry text in Destiny’s book comes into focus. 

This is the turning point in The Kindly Ones, the moment when Dream, as you say, surrenders to the inevitable. I believe that before that thread was cut, he was operating under the assumption that there was a way out of all this; but now that all those hazy, indistinct Destinies have solidified into one solid whole, he’s a bullet train speeding back toward the Dreaming from Faerie, where Daniel, his final solution, awaits.

In these panels of Dream’s return—which are some of my favorite in the whole series, and really benefit from Hempel’s stylization—a bit of poetry sneaks into the borders: “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.” This is echoed later in the final panels of the book, in the fortune cookie Lachesis selects: “Flowers gathered in the morning, / Afternoon they blossom on, / Still are withered by the evening: / You can be me when I’m gone.”

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The repetition of “You can be me when I’m gone” is incredibly significant here. The first time, it’s a reflection of Dream’s decision, of his final solution; the second time, it’s almost like an affirmation, a statement of triumph over the Fates, who react to the fortune/moral/motto with slight chagrin. Ever the control freak, Dream has found a way to subvert the fickleness of fate, sort of, in his transformation into Daniel. He’s found a way to bend the rules, by creating a version of himself that’s not so beholden to the rules. Someone can always be him when he’s gone; he is Endless, after all. Morpheus may not be complicit in his fate in this story—in the end, he’s subject to the will of Atropos and her scissors—but Dream is not a victim of it. 

But if that’s the answer to the central mystery of this book—and I’m not saying it is, but I like to think it’s a pretty good guess—there are so many more questions raised around the perimeter. We haven’t scratched the surface of this book and its various threads. I’d like to move on to some of those, particularly the reappearance of a bunch of characters from previous books, including Hob, Lucifer, Loki, and, most interestingly, Rose Walker. Rose has a very strong presence in The Kindly Ones in spite of the fact that she seems to have very little connection to the events of the Dreaming. (Aside from letting Daniel get kidnapped and all. I mean really, Rose.) Tasha, how do you think Rose in particular, but also the others I mentioned, connects to all this? And how do you think this whole character retrospective works? Are all the pieces necessary, or could some have been left out?

Tasha: Without looking back at the book at all, the answer’s easy: The Kindly Ones checks in on an awful lot of characters, and I’m sure some of them are unnecessary, and Gaiman is just saying goodbye to a memorable and interesting cast. But actually looking at the cameo scenes one by one and asking the question, “What do we get from this, and could it have been dropped?” is a lot more fun, because each of those scenes serves some specific purpose, and it’s exciting to see what Gaiman does with them. 

Going through the book roughly in order: There’s Dream’s umpteenth reunion with Hob Gadling, who at this point must roll his eyes just a little when he sees his old immortal buddy coming: They used to meet every hundred years, and now Dream shows up about every five minutes because he thinks this is their last meeting and he wants to say goodbye. That scene gives us some sad foreshadowing—“If there’s one thing I’ve learned to pick up, it’s the smell of death… Matey, you stink of it.” But it also shows Hob’s grief over all the people who’ve slipped through his long life, and how hard he finds it to let go. And when he requests Dream get in touch with the hit-and-run driver who killed Hob’s latest lady-love, and forcefully bring home exactly who and what he killed, it clearly depresses Dream. If he’s contemplating his own end, he probably doesn’t want a reminder of what that’s going to do to other people. “I should not have come here,” he mutters before leaving—although he does crack a smile when Hob expresses personal concern for him, which suggests even if he doesn’t want people to cling to his memory after he’s gone, he can be touched by their reluctance to see him go. Still, the key line of that meeting may come earlier, when Hob is venting about wanting to hurt the hit-and-run driver, and Dream says, as if talking to Lyta about her supposedly dead child, “I do not recommend revenge. It tends to have repercussions.” And he’s right.

I get less from Remiel’s visit to Lucifer, apart from a sense that beings of power all over the place know what’s happening with Dream and are expressing concern—or studious lack thereof—in their own ways. Zelda’s scenes with Rose give us the inciting message from her dead grandmother Unity Kincaid (last seen in The Doll’s House) and general thoughts on decay, death, change, and inevitability. Alex Burgess reminds us of Dream’s pride and anger at the beginning of this series, and shows us how far he’s come—it was only a few dozen issues ago that he was taking his own revenge instead of counseling against it. And when Alex wakes up at the end of the book, free of the curse of unending nightmares that Morpheus placed on him, it’s a clear sign that Morpheus is dead and a new, more forgiving aspect of Dream is starting over. Lucifer and Mazikeen give us an illustration of what that’s like, to start over and radically change, and offer a bunch of thoughts—stated before in Season Of Mists, and re-emphasized here—on letting go and trying something new. 

Loki and Puck, though, are the big mystery of the book. Who, exactly, are they working for when they kidnap Daniel and attempt to burn all of his mortality away? You say Dream wasn’t necessarily seeking out Daniel in order to have his successor in place, he might have been trying to head Lyta off, but I’m not so sure I buy that. Morpheus specifically told Lyta that Daniel was his, and that he would come for Daniel one day. Loki owes Morpheus a boon for rescuing him from returning to captivity under the earth. (Yet another case of Morpheus, after his own capture and incarceration, having sympathy for caged beings.) And Morpheus does say Loki’s involvement in the Daniel situation doesn’t surprise him. And wouldn’t mortality get in the way of being Endless? I think it’s entirely possible that Morpheus himself arranged Daniel’s kidnapping and transfiguration, though why he then sent a murderous agent to get him back, I couldn’t say. And given how pathetic and pleading Loki is by the end of his encounter with the Corinthian, I’m not sure he would withhold that information if he himself knew it. Though Puck does tell Nuala, “We got the Furies around his ears,” implying that the purpose of the Daniel kidnapping was in fact to rouse Lyta into calling on them and sending them after Morpheus. Does that imply it’s Desire’s plot after all? Or is Nuala right when she suggests that Morpheus wants to be punished for abandoning, then killing Orpheus, and that he could have set things in motion to call up the Furies himself? There’s a lot left unclear in this story, by design.

And then there’s Thessaly, who returns to take a pivotal role in this story. She protects Lyta from Morpheus, she reveals herself as the lover who recently abandoned him and left him standing in depressing rain of his own making, and she seems to reveal that she’s working for the Furies themselves, in order to enable their vengeance for Orpheus. Most bafflingly, she tells Morpheus off to his face and protects the instrument of his destruction, but then the second he’s dead as a result, she suddenly decides she loves him and misses him, and she turns around and blames Lyta for the whole thing, and announces her intention to hunt down and kill Lyta for her crimes. What. The. Fuck. We’ve seen in A Game Of You that Thessaly is selfish to the point of solipsism and doesn’t care who she hurts, but this is a whole new level of pettiness. And to my mind, her radical reversal is hard to buy, but also fairly suspicious. What did you make of her role in this book?

The thing I find least clear is Rose’s significance here, though her plotline lets Gaiman link many significant things, giving us access to Desire, who turns up to hear Rose’s thoughts on love and pain; access to the thoughts of Zelda, another changing, dying character; access to Hal, who’s moved on and has his own sharp thoughts on death; and access to Alex Burgess. So much of Rose’s story here is about thoughts on death and disappointment, whether it’s the way London has changed into something she didn’t expect and doesn’t recognize; or Hal’s cynical thoughts (“There isn’t any guilty. There isn’t any innocent. There’s just dead.”), or with the solicitor who beds her and then brushes her off, leaving her pregnant and heartbroken; or how Zelda’s body is betraying her, both with collapse and with a primal, unfulfillable sexual urge.

Rose’s story, for me, provides a counterpoint to Sandman’s often bittersweet but uplifting messages about people trying to choose new paths and embrace alteration and transfiguration, as Morpheus does. He decides to die, knowing he’ll come back in a way that will make him feel less trapped and burdened by rules he sees as incompatible with his personality. Mortals, on the other hand, just rot, and apart from the ones who choose hell, we don’t know where their souls go—time and again, Death tells dead people they need to find out for themselves what’s next. In Rose’s experience, relationships fail and rot as well. So do hopes, and even entire cities. But maybe that’s the actual narrative—things always change for the worst, they wither and decrease and die—and Morpheus’ story is the counter-narrative, the spark of hope indicating that some things, at least, don’t die—they just grow into something new that may not be entirely recognizable.

Still, Rose most significantly gives us access to yet another maiden-mother- crone triumvirate, in the form of three old ladies who tell her a significant story of revenge. I’m certainly curious what you make of their tale of a ghost-woman chasing down her husband and murderer until he begs the world to swallow him into oblivion. It’s a clear tale of feminine implacability and revenge, mirroring the Furies’ attack on Morpheus in some ways. At the same time, it doesn’t quite fit: The woman in the story doesn’t hound her husband to death, she hounds him across the world after his death. And while the Furies are empowered to avenge the spilling of family blood, the man in the story didn’t kill kin, he killed his wife. In fact, given that his children murder him in revenge, they’re the ones the Furies should be attacking. What did you think of this story and its significance?

Genevieve: Real quick before we get to that: Did you catch the name of Hob’s previous lover he offhandedly mentions in the scene in the cemetery? “You was the first woman I’d been with since Peggy died.” I like to think that Hob eventually hooked up with Jim/Peggy after the events of Worlds’ End. The timing works out, and it just seems… nice.

Anyway, “The Flying Children”: As tempting as it is to try and draw symbolic lines between everything in this book—because there are so, so many opportunities to do so—I think it might be overreaching on our part to try and directly correlate the events of “The Flying Children” to the events of The Kindly Ones. In a review he wrote for The Guardian of a collection of folk tales by Alan Garner, Gaiman himself says he “shoehorned” the British folk tale into Sandman, because “It is a story that makes authors want to retell it.” The general themes of revenge and feminine implacability you mention are enough to connect it to the general thematic atmosphere of The Kindly Ones, if not the actual course of events. (If anyone in the comments can suss out a more definitive connection, please have at it; you are smarter than me.)

But I think the bigger significance of the inclusion of “The Flying Children” is that it’s a folk tale. We’ve talked time and time again of this series’ focus on storytelling, and this collection in particular is an amalgam of all the different kinds of stories that, in Gaiman’s words, make authors want to retell them: Greek mythology, Norse legend, biblical lore, Shakespearian drama, old DC Comics continuity, and, with this, folk tales—which, in that aforementioned review, Gaiman characterizes as “where we are told what happened, and we must simply go along with it.” So let’s just go along with “The Flying Children.” 

Really, the commentary of the three old women on the story seems more important than the story itself, which is appropriately creepy and foreboding—made more so by Charles Vess’ woodcut-like art, so incongruous with the sharp, graphic look of the rest of this book—but admittedly a bit of a tangent. First, there’s their confusion over when, exactly, in the story the man dies: when his children fall upon him, or when his worm-wife devours him. The idea that there are different kinds of death, and that death isn’t a definitive ending, is one we’ve seen before and see again in this book specifically. Then there’s Helena’s mini-treatise on revenge, revenge on men in particular—“Acts of revenge are sanctified”—which ties directly to the Furies. And then, finally, there’s the women’s reaction to Rose telling them about Unity: “A woman shouldn’t have to sleep her life away. Women aren’t about dreaming. We’re about the real world… Women are about the waking, Rose.” 

Unlike most of the Sandman books, The Kindly Ones gets away somewhat from the male/female delineation that Gaiman has used to characterize other collections in this series. Or rather, he brings them together in a story that combines and pits the male and female elements of this story against each other. This line spoken by the old ladies, about women being of the waking world, seems to correlate to the actions of Lyta and the Furies, taking revenge on the Dreaming for events that happen in the real world. It also sort of—just sort of—helps explain Thessaly’s motivations, in that she, as a being very much attuned to the female realm, feels compelled, maybe even honor-bound, to let this course of events play out, in spite of her own feelings toward the Furies’ victim. It would explain the matter-of-fact, almost resentful manner in which she goes about protecting Lyta from Morpheus. 

Going back to the idea of destiny, Thessaly seems aware that her role in all this is predetermined—she’s on “team woman,” and in this case, that means she’s an agent of the waking world, of revenge, of that thread the Fates are spinning. Once all this is over, she’s free of her obligation in this story—free to hunt down Lyta. But that’s another story; perhaps “When Real Things Happen To Imaginary People”?

Tasha, I know you’re a little skeptical about this whole gender-dichotomy thing in Sandman, so I’d like to hear what you think about how it all comes together in The Kindly Ones. Do you buy that “women are about the waking”? Do you think that idea of a gender dichotomy adds to or subtracts from the impact of this story?

Tasha: I tend to think of the “Men are from Thor, women are from Bast”-type gender distinction pretty questionable; it’s pop psychology, broadly drawn, and it requires an awful lot of reducing people to broad classes and ignoring individuality. I don’t buy into the “Women are about waking” line of thought here any more than I bought into “Little boys dream about superheroes, little girls dream about princesses” back in A Game Of You, or any more than I buy into the “female stories are about family and identity, and male stories are about power and mythology” dichotomy that Oliver used in our Game Of You write-up to elaborate on Gaiman’s feeling that all books have genders. In this book, certainly, those lines blur: The Furies are all about power and mythology, and they’re incontrovertibly a female dynamic. 

I don’t think it distracts much from the story any more than the rest of this sequence, which is packed with loose threads. The three women Rose meets—Magda Treadgold, Amelia Crupp, and Helena (“I can’t say your last name, dearie”) each offer a little information about their past lives, particularly Helena, who says “I spent two decades looking for the man who had killed a person I loved. I hounded him for year after year after year, across the world… Eventually, I killed him. First, though, I destroyed his life.” This all seems remarkably specific and referential, too much so to be just a casual parallel with the Furies plot, but what’s it referring to? Hunting around online hasn’t given me much—there’s speculation that Helena is Helena Kosmatos, Lyta’s mother, the Golden Age version of the superhero Fury. Which would tie all this together into a neat package and explain Amelia’s reluctance to attempt to pronounce her name, but it certainly opens up the question of who the other two are, and what plotline Helena is discussing. Something to look forward to once DC’s gigantic Annotated Sandman series is complete. Until then, I’m likely to dismiss that entire sequence with Rose and the three ladies as a big, dense puzzle in the middle of a dynamic story, though it does give us a reminder that there are many ways to interpret the word “wake”—which will be relevant in the final book, The Wake.

In the end, The Kindly Ones certainly is a book about male vs. female characters, but I hesitate to say it’s about any sort of male vs. female principles, because it’s much too easy to interpret that in a Dave Sim kind of way here when looking at the central antagonist-vs.-protagonist story: Women are about cold reality, men are about creativity and dreaming. Men are about creation, women are about destruction. Etcetera. I doubt that’s the direction Gaiman was going in. As heavily as Sandman relies on symbols, archetypes, and fables, and as much of that kind of dichotomy exists in mythology, it seems to me that the central story here isn’t about the Furies acting on Dream, or Thessaly holding him back from murder, or Rose meandering her way through life, learning that it can be cruel. Ultimately, it’s about Morpheus’ choice, how he’s come to see his own implacably enforced identity as a cage, and he’s ready to move on. There are many outside factors, but ultimately, it’s an internal decision, one the entire series turns on.

Next week: Our Back Issues run on Sandman concludes with a round-table discussion of book #10, The Wake.