Season of Mists: Episode 3 – Sandman Meditations

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A friend of mine told me he first got hooked on The Sandman when he read some of the original Doll’s House issues and found them to be among the creepiest, most disturbing comics he’d read. Much as I enjoyed The Doll’s House, I didn’t really find them creepy or particularly horrifying (which may say more about me than them).

But the two images of Loki at the top of the third page of Season of Mists’s third episode are among the grossest things I’ve seen in the series: Loki bound in his son’s entrails. The idea alone is revolting enough, but then to have it portrayed there on the page takes it into realms of splatter far beyond the killings and tortures of previous issues.

Entrails. Yum.

I assume this nasty little punishment is part of Norse mythology, but everything I know of Norse mythology I learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and even that I haven’t read in a few years. (Are the entrails in it? I think I’d remember. But then, I’ve thought I’d remember lots of things in life — birthdays, meetings, names, deadlines, keys, to eat, to sleep, to … well, some things are worth forgetting…)

One of the reasons these columns are Sandman “meditations” and not “explications” is that I’ve never much been interested in mythology, and anyone trying to write authoritatively on just about anything by Neil Gaiman needs to have, I think, a better background than I in world mythologies. (Why am I indifferent to mythology? you ask. I could offer various hypotheses, but they’re all just shots in the dark of my unconscious; I’d have just as much trouble explaining why I am obsessively fascinated by such things as the history of comma use in the United States. I sure wish I could control what obsesses me — I’d love to be obsessed with, say, the intricacies of global finance. Alas, I am fated to suffer less useful interests.) Gaiman, of course, isn’t only a magpie of mythologies: his work is filled with references to all sorts of literatures, both the popular and the esoteric, and part of the fun for any reader is in recognizing the wondrous depths of allusion. Everything in the worlds of Gaiman’s universe can be understood if it is understood as a story, as the result of someone, somewhere, saying, “Once upon a time…”

Once upon a time in this episode of Season of Mists there were all sorts of beings clamoring for the land rights to Hell. It’s a lovely concept, really: Lucifer abdicates, and now there’s a scramble. Everyone with a grudge and a history thinks they’re entitled to this bit of real estate. Once again we see that the non-human creatures are just like humans. Human history is a story bursting with territorial disputes, with incursions and turf wars, with bloody soil. The denizens of limbo look toward Azazel as if he’s a union boss or insurgent: “There will be a new Hell. A forward-looking Hell, that recognizes individual worth; in which a daemon can raise its head — or any other important member — high and say: ‘This is my land. And no one is ever going to take it away from me again.’” This is the language of nationalism and tribalism, and it suggests that things are going to get nasty. That these tribal nationalists of Limbo also have control of Nada, the object of Dream’s affections, especially portends something wicked this way coming.

Representatives from many of the major mythologies of Earth arrive on Dream’s doorstep to make claims on Hell. I was especially amused that Lord Kilderkin, “a manifestation of order” appeared as a cardboard box. This seems startlingly humble. (Most Lords would, I expect, at least want to have a ribbon.) It made me wonder what sort of order cardboard boxes represent. When Order was depicted earlier in the issue, it was a kind of black and white Mondrian painting, its speech full of bracketed words and phrases, which perhaps suggests a translation or a bad transmission from one source to another, though I also assume the brackets are a textual representation of the squares and rectangles, the geometric order. A cardboard box would be a three-dimensional incarnation of this, but boxes are also used to bring order to chaos — boxes are tools of organization. Cardboard, though, suggests impermanence. Order is always a symbol, a manifestation, but it doesn’t last.

We get more talk in this issue about the return of the dead, though it hasn’t become an element of the story yet. Dream seeks advice from his sister, Death, who isn’t much help, preoccupied as she is with troubles of her own: “I’m doing what I can,” she says, “but the dead are coming back.” In her dialogue, Death is more contemporary than Dream, a characteristic that has been true of her throughout The Sandman: she calls Hell “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate,” and she suggests, jokingly, that Dream should open a ski resort or theme park in it. Death’s diction is colloquial and of the moment, unlike Dream, who seems more formal, less bound by time. This makes some sense, doesn’t it? Dreams live outside time, while death is always present.

What it means for the dead to come back, though — to become present once more — remains unclear. I doubt it will remain unclear much longer, though…

4 Replies

  • Excellent, as always. Sandman lends itself to this kind deconstruction very well, it is multi-layered to a fault.

    Being of the Scandinavian persuation myself, Norse mythology is a know quantity to me. That is actually kind of a liablity in reading some of Gaimans work. American Gods held few mysteries for me after one of the priciples introduced himself as Wednesday.

    Loki’s faith is indeed horrible. Then again, so is all the gods and giants in the pantheon. That is what is fascinating about Norse mythology, it’s fatalistic to the extreme, especially for the gods. I like Gaiman’s take on Odin and Loki here, however. Very fitting.

  • By the way, I’m pretty sure I heard that Gaiman deliberately made the manifestations of Order and Chaos rather silly, because he’s always thought that the concepts, in practice, didn’t really lend themselves to workable characters. (Because what would a manifestation of Absolute Order DO, exactly? It would pretty much have to be immobile and rigid by definition.)

  • Matthew, I agree with Pope Buck I, and there’s some context you may have missed there: Gaiman is not just being an ancient-mythology magpie here, he’s also being a DC Comics mythology magpie. The notion of “Lords of Order” vs. “Lord of Chaos” goes back to the 1940s DC series featuring Doctor Fate, who worked on behalf of the rather hazily defined LoO.

    As one of the weirder magic-oriented characters in the DC universe, Doctor Fate naturally appeared as one of the many revisionist cameos in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Gaiman ended up revisiting a lot of those in his miniseries The Books of Magic– in which a decrepit, nihilistic version of the Doctor disavows the whole Order/Chaos thing.

    The Lords were also retconned into Grant Morrison’s version of even more obscure DC character, Kid Eternity; Morrison not surprisingly made Chaos the good guys, fighting for human evolution against the forces of tightassedness. But Gaiman, also not surprisingly, depicts both sides as empty ideologies.

  • Also, yes, the Loki/entrails scene is straight out of the Eddas. There’s a prophecy that he’ll only be free when it’s time for Ragnarök, and in the later stories that deal with Ragnarök he does reappear and things play out more or less as foretold, although it’s never clear how he escaped. That turns out to be significant later on in The Sandman. Right now it’s worth noting that Odin knows all the prophecies, and for him to have let Loki out on temporary leave suggests that he’s taking a rather desperate chance.

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