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The Topic: Imperfect Hosts (The Sandman #2, Preludes & Nocturnes)
“I awake in the darkness, too weak to even summon a light.”
Welcome to The Sandman #2 "Imperfect Hosts”.
As the name suggests, it is the second issue of the acclaimed graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman. In this issue, Dream begins his quest to recover his three tools of power: His sand, his helm, and his ruby, which were stolen by a mortal occultist who had him imprisoned for 70 years (if you need a recap, you can get it here).
Let’s start with a little synopsis of this issue…
Dream returns to his realm, the Dreaming, only to find it in ruins and decay. To restore his strength (he is seriously underpowered without his vestments—or is he?), he needs to summon the Fates, who can tell him where his tools are. However, he is so weak that he can’t bring up enough strength to do so, unless he reabsorbs something he has created in the Dreaming. Enter Cain and Abel, two immortal brothers who live in the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets (this is a nod to their past as the hosts of DC/Vertigo’s “House of Mystery/House of Secrets/Plop!” horror comics).
I’d like to briefly point out a difference between the comics and the TV series: In the comics, Dream is found by Gregory the gargoyle in a very weakened state, and Cain and Abel nurse him back to health. He then reabsorbs Cain’s and Abel’s letters of commission (he created them, and they hold his signature) to gain back enough strength to summon the Fates. In the TV series, on the other hand, Dream reabsorbs Gregory because he is one of his creations (he started his existence as a nightmare).
We also meet Lucien (comics)/Lucienne (series) for the first time. He/she is Dream’s librarian, and also somewhat his majordomo. I won’t go into their relationship too deeply at this stage, but Lucien/ne could certainly be called one of Dream’s most loyal servants (in both the comics and the TV series, he/she was one of the few denizens who didn’t abandon the Dreaming when Morpheus was captured).
Dream summons the Fates/Hecatae, who appear as three women of different ages: a maiden, a mother, and a crone (there is a whole article in there as to their different incarnations in world mythology, which I will spare you at this point). They tell him that his sand is in the possession of John Constantine, a British occultist/magic user (who is gender-swapped in the TV series into Johanna Constantine); his helm is in Hell, guarded by a demon; his ruby is with John Dee, who is also known as Doctor Destiny (this doesn’t get mentioned in the TV series because Netflix stripped away all DC references).
Dream leaves Cain and Abel with a new gargoyle named Goldie (this is also specific to the TV show. In the comics, Goldie is a gift that Cain gives to Abel). He then sets off to find his tools and restore his power. He also promises to rebuild his realm.
Meanwhile in Arkham Asylum, John Dee is visited by his mother Ethel Cripps, who was involved in Dream's capture (in both the comics and the TV series). Dee is in a terrible physical and mental state. He tells his mother that they "took his dreams" away from him. In the TV series Ethel Cripps is visited by the Corinthian, a nightmare that escaped from the Dreaming. He tells Ethel that Dream will come after her, her son and him soon, and (in a way) encourages her to take him out first. Ethel is not having any of it and protects herself with an amulet that sends the Corinthian back to the Dreaming (albeit briefly).
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The Pain Points
If we wanted to find the intersection between storytelling, mental health and creativity in issue #2, we can basically boil things down to several main topics:
Stories as the intersections of dreams & reality, truth and lies (Dream is actually called the Prince of Stories for the first time in this issue)
Dream’s imprisonment was one big metaphor for the loss of imagination, inspiration, expression and ultimately life force that many people experience due to trauma, depression, or oppression (feel free to go back and forth between this and the previous issue).
His quest to find his tools of power symbolises his long journey of healing and reclaiming identity and agency (how that will work out—who knows at this stage).
Dream's return to his realm is marked by sadness, despair, and hopelessness. He finds his palace in ruins and decay, his library empty of books, and his creations fading away. He feels weak, powerless, and alone. He also has to make difficult choices and sacrifices to restore his power and his realm.
Dream is the Dreaming, and the Dreaming is Dream. There has never been a more powerful metaphor for trauma, and how one’s inner state affects absolutely everything:
The crumbling Dreaming is Dream’s inner state, and Dream’s inner state makes the Dreaming crumble.
The issue also shows us in no uncertain terms how Dream's creations are affected by his absence and his return. They reflect his emotions and his will, but they also have their own personalities and feelings, like Gregory. Creativity is not only a product of the mind; it has the power to build deep relationships with others. It can be a source of joy and redemption, but also of pain and sacrifice.
Cain and Abel are, on the surface, the first murderer and the first victim in “the first story” (and dreams are also equated with stories here). But it goes much deeper than that. Both Cain and Abel are caught up in a state of codependency, where one cannot really exist without the other, and they both suffer and can’t escape playing out the same destructive patterns of their relationship over and over and over again.
And then there is of course John Dee—we will look at him in much more detail in later issues, but suffice it to say that he is the poster child for lines between dreaming and reality becoming so blurred that it turns into a real problem. And it is probably also no coincidence that we learn about the Shifting Zones earlier in this issue, where the boundaries between the real world, the various afterlives, and places like the Dreaming are indistinct and time doesn’t really exist in a linear form. We will visit this place several times during the whole run of The Sandman.
In this context, I would also like to point towards the Gates of Horn and Ivory, which are mentioned for the first time in this issue. These are obviously not Neil Gaiman’s invention—we can already read about them in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Eclogues.
“Dreams surely are difficult, confusing, and not everything in them is brought to pass for mankind. For fleeting dreams have two gates: one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those which pass through the one of sawn ivory are deceptive, bringing tidings which come to nought, but those which issue from the one of polished bone bring true results when a mortal sees them.”
“There are two gates of sleep. One is of horn, easy passage for the shades of truth; the other, of gleaming white ivory, permits false dreams to ascend to the upper air.”
And in Greek mythology, it was believed that Morpheus, as the only god who brought dreams to kings and emperors, brought true dreams. But what do we make of a distinction between dreams that are true and dreams that are lies? Are they not both and neither?
"Imperfect Hosts" really invites us to consider:
how we currently cope with trauma and/or depression
how we express ourselves through imagination, inspiration, and story
how we relate to our creations and to the creations of others
how we balance dreams and reality in our lives, whether there even has to be a balance to strike
This issue always makes me reflect on my own relationship with asking for help (and offering it).
Don’t get me wrong, Dream is basically the antithesis of someone who asks for help (we’ll find out much more about that), and yet, there are moments in here that could almost (just almost!) be regarded as either asking for help, or at least accepting it:
In the comics, Cain and Abel nurse him back to health and offer him (at least some sort of) hospitality. Dream also seeks help from the Fates/Hecatae, who give him information about his tools of power.
But of course, we also get the moments where he makes it abundantly clear that he is too proud to ask for, and indeed accept, help. There’s a poignant scene in the TV series in which Lucienne tries to encourage him to call for his siblings’ aid. It becomes clear very quickly that this is not an option, be it down to grudges that have him in a vice, or the idea that “one doesn’t ask for help because [reasons]” (and boy, do I personally feel especially the latter deep in my bones sometimes).
So this week, I’d really like you to dive into your own relationship with asking for help.
How easy or hard is it for you to ask for support, comfort, guidance or resources?
How does asking for (or indeed offering) help reduce isolation, stigma, and shame? What does it mean to our personal healing journeys, whatever they may be?
Asking the Fates for help leads Dream into recovery (well, sort of—no spoilers at this point). Restoring his power and his realm is one big metaphor for healing.
Healing comes at its own cost. It isn’t easy, and especially in the TV series, this is shown via Dream’s speech to Gregory the gargoyle before he takes him (it’s an apology, even if he doesn’t use the word “sorry”).
When Dream rebuilds his realm, we are looking at someone who reclaims his agency and ultimately identity (whether he always connects with his purpose—well, we’ll get there).
Healing involves making peace with what haunts us (which, let’s be fair, Dream isn’t particularly good at, but in the TV series, he has a moment when he gives Cain and Abel a new baby gargoyle to make amends), and creating positive change.
What could you make peace with today?
What could you let go of, even if letting go requires help or support?
Some things run so deep that we simply need support, and that’s okay.
My last question for you today is how your creativity can help you on that journey. Dream is the personification of dreams and stories, of imagination, inspiration, and storytelling.
How do any of these help you to cope with challenges and to pursue your goals? Are they a source of joy, wonder, beauty, and meaning? Of resilience, hope, growth, and transformation?
That's all for today. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section, or join our subscriber chat. If you like this newsletter, please subscribe and share it with your friends who might be interested in The Sandman, too.
Stay tuned for the next issue, where we will discuss #3: “Dream a Little Dream”
Until then, sweet dreams! 😉