This post contains spoilers for later issues of The Sandman, the comic book and audio play series, as well as (if future seasons get greenlit) the Netflix TV adaptation.
Dream of the Endless is, ostensibly, the main character of the Sandman series of comics. He and his siblings—Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium—are each both overseers and personifications of an aspect of humanity.
You can argue that Sandman isn’t about Dream or the Endless; rather that it’s about stories and storytelling, and that Dream is its most important character. Dream’s story is the main narrative, but it’s not the only one, and at times it’s set aside for other stories where he appears only briefly, in cameo if at all. As the series evolved, storytelling itself became a central theme. And in Volume 8, Worlds’ End, it also becomes a structural device, with Gaiman consciously acknowledging the Canterbury Tales.
In Worlds’ End, we hear a story from a character called Mistress Veltis. She describes an event from her youth, getting lost in the catacombs beneath her city, which led to her right hand becoming supernaturally withered. Veltis was a teacher in the necropolis Litharge, a vast city dedicated to the dead, and to performing all manner of funerary rites.
Veltis is telling this story to her apprentices, Hermas and Klaproth, but by the time we hear it she is long dead. Hermas, now an old man, is relating the larger story of his apprenticeship under Mistress Veltis, and stories she told her apprentices, and how they came to attend her body once she died. He’s telling this story to his own assistants, Scroyle and Mig (who have also told a story each), as well as Petrefax, a novice attending the funeral, gathered around a campfire.
And Petrefax is telling this all as part of his own story, at the inn called the Worlds’ End. He’s relating the story of his apprenticeship under Klaproth, where he was sent to attend a mountaintop “air burial”. His audience is the guests at the Worlds’ End, who are sheltering from a storm, and his is only the latest of many stories.
The framing story of Worlds’ End is told by Brant Tucker, who crashed his co-driver’s car in the storm during a business trip to Chicago, made his way to the inn for shelter and recovery, and listened to the stories there. But we discover at the end of the book that he’s—in that other great English-language storytelling tradition—telling this tale to a bartender.
That’s four levels of nested story—Veltis’s, Hermas’s, Petrefax’s, Tucker’s—all of which are part of the larger Sandman story that Gaiman is telling. And I suppose—with Gaiman as the fifth—there’s a sixth level in that I’m telling it to you. Nesting stories in this way lets us look outward from the story we’re reading to the story we’re living, and to the idea that some day this might be part of another tale we’re telling.
Around the campfire, after he’s spoken of Mistress Veltis and her withered hand, Hermas invites Petrefax to tell a story, but the young man declines: “I have no stories to tell. I have done nothing. I have met no strangers, visited no foreign lands, witnessed no miracles;I have no tales.” Later, of course, this admission becomes part of Petrefax’s story. There’s an injunction here to live, and in living to gather stories. (Much like the moral imperative of the harpies in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: “Tell them stories. … They need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well.”)
But it’s deeper than that: Petrefax sees his life as that of a normal young man, yet to us, not citizens of Litharge or of any necropolis, Petrefax’s life is far form ordinary:
I know cosmetics and taxidermy, and masonry, and all the funerary arts…
I can build a catafalque or make a paper wreath or boil a skull as well as any prentice in the necropolis.”
Gaiman shows us the mundane in the fantastical, and in doing so invites us to see the reverse. I think that’s central to Gaiman’s view of fantasy. It’s always grounded. The Endless are as old as time, but they bicker and fight as much as any family. People see wonders but never speak of them.
Death, Dream’s sister, meets everyone with the same respect and interest and love. The most touching moment in the series—adapted perfectly in the TV version—sees her taking an ageing violinist. It’s such a beautiful portrait of this character who we only meet for two pages. In this tiny space we understand him almost as well as anyone else we meet in the story.
The story of the Sandman features monsters, gods, ghosts, and demons, and always we see their humanity and their flaws. But when we meet people we see every one as unique. Gaiman puts all these beings on the same level to reinforce an important truth: There is no such thing as an ordinary life.