Historical Context of Sandman: Fables and Reflections

2 Mar

The Sandman: Fables and Reflections is an interesting tale of tales from Neil Gaiman.  What I find to be so encapsulating about the stories is their incorporation of history throughout accompanied with a hint of mythology every so often. Specifically in the story of “Thermidor”, we get a glimpse of the French Revolution when dream proposes a business arrangement with Johanna Constantine at her manor in Wych Cross, England 1979. July 30th that very same year, Johanna finds herself in the attempt to liberate Orpheus’ severed head from post-Revolution Paris. “Thermidor”, taken from a month marked by the calendar of the French Revolution, is rich in history and more in depth than most give it credit for.

Both St. Just and Robespierre are real life characters associated with the French revolution. The illustrators based drawings of those two characters on likenesses found in paintings of the two men. Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, regularly called St. Just, was a military and political leader during the French revolution while Robespierre was perhaps one of the most influential people of the revolution before being sent to the guillotine. Having an slight affinity for history, I found Gaimain’s incorporation of these two figures into the text particularly appealing. There’s even more to be said for Gaimain’s abilities to throw mythology into the mix, giving the story one of its more unique characteristics among many.

After extensive research, I could turn up no evidence to suggest that Orpheus’ unknown lineage has been attributed to any sort of dream god in Greek mythology. It was interesting to see that Gaiman granted Orpheus with the power to woo anyone with song; a power not so far outside those that dream possesses. I suppose it isn’t too much of a stretch considering older story tells have before considered Apollo responsible for the life of Orpheus. “Thermidor” does well in illustrating the danger of a society driven by a demagogue, the lengths to which people will go in the name of “the people” or “the nation.” — abandoning rationality for support. I believe this story has an ever increasing relevance to society today, particularly the more Americanized societies. Think Rick Perry before he dropped from the 2012 presidential race.

While “Thermidor” may initially seem to be nothing more than a mere horror story of a misplaced head, it actually goes much deeper than that. Not only is it about Orpheus and his father, but moreover the Reign of Terror and how those in power justify their atrocities. “Thermidor” provides us with a more supernatural scenario for the end of The Terror and by such trivialized the actual history. It is by no mistake, for instance, that we are introduced to the imprisoned Thomas Paine, a man who sought residence in France throughout the 1790’s, becoming a deeply involved and pivotal figure in the French Revolution.  Johanna is found on the final page of “Thermidor” saying, “What we obtain too cheep, we esteem too lightly”. A statement taken directly from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet series “The Crisis”, which he published in late 1776. Johanna attempts to calm  Orpheus for, no matter is immortality, his heart still finds itself haunted by the unanswered question of his father’s love. This microcosmic drama of history is what makes ”Thermidor” and moreover Fables and Reflections, such an interesting read.

Its this way of retelling the stories of the past that we find appreciation in the gravity of history — its precedence will forever be repeated, bringing some sense of order to the present. History contains a past of corrupted rulers, shattered hopes and dreams, and lessons learned. But with “Thermidor” and a little imagination, the ancient world can be transformed into a place for a lost head to long for a father’s love. History is but a dream, and the extent of its unanswered questions is what makes Sandman such an inviting and compelling read.

— Will Herren

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