Şanⅆman ℒeẳrnⅰngs: ④Ɗeatᚺ- No Viłlain Aƒter All
or . . . Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from Dream, Lord Shaper, the Prince of Nightmares.
Maybe it is the way Death is depicted as a cool, non-cynical goth-girl, that makes Neil Gaiman’s depiction of her so compelling. She is certainly a fan favorite. Death doesn’t wear a cowl, that’s her brother Destiny. Nor does she carry a scythe. Instead, her sigil is an ankh — the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph symbolizing life itself. She is not angry or vengeful; rather, Death is matter-of-fact, clear-eyed, and remarkably kind.
She appears early on in the Sandman series at a moment when her brother, Dream, is having something of an existential crisis. The Lord Shaper spends the day palling around with his sister, an experience which helps him out of a rather deep funk. The reader takes a stiff punch in the gut, however, with a panel depicting the death of an infant. This part reveals a tough but true lesson: death comes to the mighty and the small alike — often without warning or reason:
Contrast the tragic scene above with another from nearer the end of the Sandman saga. Death and the remaining Endless fashion a creature out of mud, each sibling bestowing a gift upon the newly made being. Dream is now dead and his prodigal brother, Destruction, is nowhere to be found. When Death’s turn comes we witness her breathe life into the man of clay:
It is here that Gaiman clues us into a secret ability only hinted at earlier — Death breathes life into the creature. How often, at funerals have we heard the platitude “Death is a part of life”? Yet here, the author stands the idea on its head:
Life is a part of Death.
Death is indeed quite essential to life. I am reminded of an illustration from the Boy Scout Handbook that was such an integral part of my early education:
Forty years after I first set eyes on the above illustration, it continues to inform my worldview. In order for life to continue, we all must eventually die. But death (or Death as the case may be) is an end and a beginning. Death is present at the beginning of each life . . . and she makes another appearance at the end. In the world of Sandman, she is our oldest friend.
A few of the humans in Sandman are immortal. Mad Hettie, for one, doesn’t die because she has hidden her heart from Death. Thessaly, an ancient witch, is untouched by time and Death thanks to her magic. Another character, Hob Gadling is granted immortality as the result of a “what if” conversation between siblings Death and Dream. This gift is bestowed on Gadling, perhaps, so Dream will have someone to call a friend. Hob is allowed to live as long as he chooses.
After the death of Dream, his sister approaches the 400-year-old Hob (drunk wile attending a modern Renaissance Fair) with an offer:
By the way, Gwen is Hob’s girlfriend. He loves her deeply but feels tremendous guilt sometimes when he gazes upon her beautiful black form and remembers his terrible life as an owner of slave ships in the 17th Century.
We observe another aspect of Death in the following panel where she does not actually appear in person:
The ghost of Fiddler’s Green (the personification of a beautiful, peaceful place and one of my favorite characters in the saga) explains his perspective to the newly reincarnated, “Daniel” version of Dream:
“If you bring me back to life, my death will have no MEANING. I had a FINE existence. I was a GOOD place. I spent a little time walking in the waking world. I even fell in love, once, a little. I lived a good life and it ENDED. Would you take that away from me?”
Death is Dream’s closest sibling and one of the few characters who always speaks to him with absolute candor. Perhaps this is because they share the powers of creation and endings. It is necessarily for life in order for it to continue on. Stories must end as well, and for the same reason. Perhaps Gaiman is at his most magnificent when he reminds us, using the words of The Great Bard, how our very existence may very well be but a dream:
Is death the end, or merely an awakening? Gaiman seems to glory in the contradictory meanings of the word, “wake” — as both an observance of finality and a moment of origin. Death is a transition and transformation. Although dream “dies”, another aspect of himself lives on. Do one’s dreams ever really die . . . or just change?
Maybe it was during my twentieth (or so) reading of Sandman that I finally connected the idea of “Life is but a dream” with this panel at the end of (the original) Dream’s funeral where Death trades in her goth black-as-night outfit for a crimson mourning dress:
“Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”
It is from the stars we come, the scientist-philosopher Carl Sagan taught, and it is to the stars we all return. Death is a friend, not a villain . . . for we are all children of the stars:
Consider the funeral of the Great (and flawed) Sir Winston Churchill . . . his body too eventually sails off in a boat: