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Fairy and Faerie: Uses of the Victorian in Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’s Stardust

By Meredith Collins, Temple University

Collaboration complicates classification and ideas of genre. In Neil Gaiman’s text and Charles Vess’s artwork, and in their combination, Stardust exhibits a particular sort of cohabitation and cooperation between word and image that ultimately places the work in relation to the tradition of the Victorian fairy tale and its illustration. Neil Gaiman’s work has a history of exploration of the possible relationships between image and text through his involvement with a variety of media and genres. He works with film, comics and picture books, as well as the traditional novel and short story genres. The majority of these categories require cooperation between a visual and textual component, giving Gaiman much experience and possibility for experimentation and variance between textual and visual projects. Vess’s work history shows a more concentrated trajectory of illustration work that nearly always involves a relationship with a different author’s text, and often with historic influence. While Stardust is not explicitly labeled as a fairy tale, but instead a Romance that occurs within Faerie, it does fulfill Phyllis C. Ralph’s usage and J. A. Cuddon’s definition of a fairy tale:

In its written form the fairy tale tends to be a prose narrative about the fortunes of a protagonist who, having experienced various adventures of a more or less supernatural kind, lives happily ever after. Magic, charms, disguise and spells are major ingredients of such stories. (Ralph vii)

Some of Ralph’s requirements for a fairy tale could, of course, be contested – especially the necessity of the “happily ever after” – but even so, the definition is strategically useful and applicable to understanding Stardust, for the journey of Tristan Thorn and the Star, Yvaine, through Faerie, and their eventual choice to marry and continue traveling, qualifies the story as fairy tale under this definition.

Stardust establishes itself as a fairy tale from the very opening when it begins with a framed and illustrated version of John Donne’s poem “A Song,” which catalogues supernatural possibilities and decries the loyalty of women. This flows easily into the start of the story, which describes a man ready for such a supernatural adventure as Cuddon mentions: “There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire” (Gaiman 6). With the poem and first sentence, Gaiman has already separated us from realist expectations and prepared us for the fairy tale genre. Not long after, Gaiman distinctly and carefully describes the time period of the story:

The events that follow transpired many years ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne, but she was far from being the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and the Spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love. Mr. Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr. Draper had just taken a photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face for the first time on cold paper; Mr. Morse had just announced a way of transmuting messages down metal wires. (8)

Gaiman here uses four figures and their actions to define the period of the text, but also to define the period for the text. We know the setting is early Victorian; Gaiman makes that important with his emphasis on the youthful energy and optimism of Queen Victoria, negating the more known image of Victoria as widow, repressive and mournful. None of the mentioned figures appear without calculation, but rather communicate certain associations and achievements to help delineate a mood or palette to the text. Victoria gives her name to the period; her disposition gives the nation and time an atmosphere. Dickens, a writer of and commentator upon the literary fairy tale, represents the arts and popular culture; Draper and Morse represent science and technology, but they could all represent Victorian human magic as well, all being figures of both renown and wonder, able to perform acts that most people cannot meaningfully comprehend, either in their own time period or in ours. It is in all these ways that Gaiman, having already established the fairy tale tone of his text, knowingly aligns Stardust with a Victorian cultural tradition, but a particular one – one compatible with fairy tales. He does not mention depressing, mundane, or sordid figures, which the period could also supply easily. Instead he focuses on these pioneers of the unknown in realms of culture or science. Just as Tristan is a figure of exploration and wonder, Gaiman chooses for the time period itself to embody similar attributes. This complements the vibrant physical color palette Vess establishes in the artwork; this work looks far different from the art with which Gaiman’s writing is most often associated, that of David McKean. Though McKean, with his art’s dark multimedia surrealism, comes to mind more immediately as a Gaiman collaborator because of the Sandman covers and MirrormaskStardust is not the first joint project for Gaiman and Vess. Over the course of Sandman Vess and Gaiman worked together to produce multiple issues, often with a specifically historical and literary bent. The “Shakespearean” issues “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” serve as excellent examples of their previous work together. Though history and literature play important roles in the Sandman illustrations and text, we cannot subsume Stardust as a simple continuation into the next popularly known era of British Literature. In Stardust Vess’s main colors are green and blue, making even scenes of darkness more inviting and intriguing than somber or sparse. With this period-accurate palette, both textual and visual elements define a particular form of the Victorian era for the fairy tale setting of Stardust.

As Victorian fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes and others have found, the Victorian era was unique for fairy tales in England. The genre flourished on the British Isles much later than in other Western European countries, gaining in respectability and popularity with the creation of the literary fairy tale, a new subgenre. Many respected artists and authors created original fairy tales that were immensely popular with children and adults alike. While critics of the time may have debated who the audience for this genre was, Zipes argues that

[t]he Victorian Fairy-tale writers always had two ideal audiences in mind when they composed their tales – young, middle-class readers whose mind and moral they wanted to influence, and adult middle-class readers whose ideas they wanted to challenge and reform. (xi)

Victorian literary fairy tales ranged in sophistication, originality and style, from the painfully didactic to the unsettlingly opaque. Zipes describes the situation and motivation of this new group of fairy tale writers:

[V]arious English writers began to explore the potential of the fairy tale as a form of literary communication that might convey both individual and social protest and personal conceptions of alternative, if not Utopian worlds. (xviii-xix)

The philosophical and political content of these literary fairy tales adds to their complexity and interest, though some of the texts display a sentimentality and idolization of children that has perhaps impaired their popular longevity.

Both in plot and in style, Stardust more closely resembles Oscar Wilde’s or George MacDonald’s windingly complex fairy tales than unambiguously lesson-oriented stories such as John Ruskin’s “The King of the Golden River,” or William Makepeace Thackeray’s garrulous “The Rose and the Ring.” With relation to the Victorian fairy tale, Stardust, in its political complexity and sophistication, is an especially appropriate companion piece to MacDonald’s “The Day Boy and Night Girl.”

“The Day Boy and the Night Girl” plays with a number of traditional fairy tale elements, focusing on gender and cooperation. The story concerns a witch who experimentally raises two children: a boy, Photogen, who only ever experiences Day, and a girl, Nycteris, who only experiences night. All parts of their lives are oriented around this difference; they are socialized and educated towards characteristics she finds compatible with day and night. However, when they begin to mature, they discover their respective foreign times without the witch’s knowledge and encounter one another. After a period of fear and adjustment, the two learn to work together and decide to escape the witch. Through their respect for each other and cooperation they are able to function in either day or night. Their travels only cease when they accidentally kill the witch in her wolf form, whereupon they return to her castle and more justly rule her domain together.

George MacDonald’s writings, including this story, are known and studied for his active feminism. His stories show interdependence between the sexes, and frequently highlight the capability of his female characters. While MacDonald takes a fairly essentialist view of gender, what makes him unique is his valuing of traditionally female associations and qualities. He does not believe that women are inferior because of their differences, but instead his fairy tales consistently describe women as superior. Describing Nycteris in relation to Photogen, MacDonald writes, “But she was the greater, for suffering more, she feared nothing” (205). This clearly fits into Zipes’s description of fairy tales as a genre for socially optimistic or utopian writing.

We can see some immediate similarities between MacDonald’s and Gaiman’s tales. Both concern a male/female pair of characters forced to act outside of their native settings. In each case, the male is associated with day, the sun, health, and activity, and the female character is affiliated with night, the moon, frailty, and melancholy. Over the course of each story the pair confronts these differences, at first with mistrust and later with greater mutual appreciation. Each male character acts from a position of assumed and unearned advantage until corrected. In “The Day Boy and the Night Girl,” Photogen has been raised as a hunter and outdoorsman, expressly trained to be fearless. His first experience with night terrifies him, but Nycteris finds and comforts him. In the morning, when their situations are reversed, he scorns her fear of day because he imagines it to be a parody of his night fear. Similarly, in Stardust Tristan finds the Star for the first time only because she hits him in the face with a mud clod. She is already defensive, throwing dirt and insults because she was injured in her fall. He would never have noticed her as the goal of his journey without being told of her identity. He does not understand that a star can also be a sentient creature. She reveals herself, removing a major obstacle from his path, but as soon as she does, he chains her to himself so that he can bring her to Victoria Forrester, the object of his romantic pursuit and the reason for his trip into Faerie. Tristan does not truly understand the Star’s subjecthood, just as Photogen does not understand Nycteris’s. Tristan and Photogen have to be taught how to understand that other beings are separate from masculine assumed privilege and are complete unto themselves.

The males in the two stories are not alone in their need for development. The Star does not want to accept the foreign world in which she travels: “She looked around the grove, ‘How very bland this world looks, by day. And how dull'” (Gaiman 103). She too, like Nycteris, has progress to make over the course of the story. Nycteris has to learn that her self-education has been incomplete, and that the world around her is larger and more varied than she had imagined. This first inspires massive fear and panic, but through her progress with Photogen, by the end of the story she prefers the day, though she can function at any time. This parallels Tristan’s slowly built relationship to Faerie as well as the relationship between the Star and the young man. Similarly, both pairs must resolve their conflicts with their stories’ respective witches before they can begin their lives together. MacDonald’s and Gaiman’s fairy tales create a very similar pattern for the protagonist pair in terms of both external and internal trials. Gaiman’s story fits well with this Victorian fairy tale.

But, it is because of the art’s particular relationship to the text that Stardust cannot be labeled as only a Victorian fairy tale, although reading within that context can be productive. Stardust is also a comic: the pages mix image and text to the point that the few double sided picture spreads are an event in the text; the images and words relate to each other differently on each page; separating boxes or borders appear, sometimes with a fading of color. Both the text and the illustrations seem to adapt themselves to the other so they can cohabitate upon the physical page. George Bodmer treats the modern inheritance of Victorian fairy tale illustration, and here describes the relationship between image and text as dictated by nineteenth-century technology:

There are mechanical reasons why, through much of the history of illustrated text, there was a separation between words and pictures. Among other reasons, each tended to be produced by different processes; for example, letterpress and woodcut, and their pages had to be printed independently. The frame around pictures is symbolic of this gap, and the time in question, the nineteenth century ended with photographic reproduction. (129)

He goes on to describe Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” within the realm of Victorian illustration, particularly George Cruikshank’s original illustrations of the same tale, though the technological obstacles that once separated text and image no longer dictate that relationship. Sendak uses a similar form by choice.

Like Gaiman, Vess is aware of and participates in a Victorian fairy tale tradition, but Vess shows us multiple dialects of his visual language: images in Stardust vary between many styles and artistic media in what are at times distinctly un-Victorian ways. The style of the pre-Raphaelite movement and that of the Symbolists, as well as many visual allusions to Arthur Rackham and Walter Crane, appear in the artistic choices that comprise Stardust. A particularly strong relationship exists between Rackham’s illustrations and Vess’s. Rackham became one of England’s most celebrated illustrators during his lifetime, continuing to work far past the Victorian age but always retaining its aesthetic. Rackham created fantastical landscapes and creatures always flanked by his signature gnarled, tangled trees. The mood and content of much of Rackham’s art appears in various modified forms throughout Stardust. In the different artistic styles Vess uses in the volume, Rackham’s particular aesthetic influence is manifest. Though the influence is most apparent in Vess’s treatment of trees, it is also evident in the way he draws small fanciful creatures and their unobtrusive inclusion in so many illustrations of Faerie, and his portrayal of the Star, especially her distinctive hair, which evokes trees and wind.

Figure 1. Gnarled tree branches, from Stardust, p. 48.

Vess quotes Rackham’s style rather than depending on it or being held by the same limitations as Rackham, whose color choices were strongly affected by available printing technology. Bodmer explains Sendak’s approach, directly parallel to Vess’s: “For effect, he copied the look of an earlier technology as his source material and added his contemporary reading. This parallels what the illustrator must always do, in making images of written text” (134). Vess adapts the story to a modified form of the comic medium, as we see clearly on pages 96-97, and the text is presented and marketed as a comic. Vertigo and DC Comics originally printed Stardust serially, like a comic, in four parts. Even in its complete edition it retains the comic book’s format and dimensions, with Vess’s art created for the ten-inch comic standard. The specific and varying forms of coexistence of text and image distance Stardust from its Victorian forbears more than any other aspect of the work. This changeable relationship establishes a hybridity that will be supported by many aspects of Stardust and will be more fully explored later. For now, each page establishes a new combination of image and writing without placing one or the other as clearly dominant. They fit together in ways that respond to the needs of both, for example, the faery market illustrations include an arresting two page spread that temporarily removes text from the story, whereas other pages move the story along for a page with only text. Most pages involve the two aspects of Stardust coexisting actively on the physical space of the page in ways that reflect the comic and fairy tale aspects of the project.

Figure 2. Comic-influenced layout, from Stardust, p. 96 – 97.

Text and illustrations alike are each at times framed on the page by a slim red or black border. Frequently, drawings fade from bright color into a pastel wash and into the blank whiteness upon which the text then appears, freeing both text and image from conformity to box-based, geometric shapes. There are occasionally full-page or two-page illustrative spreads, or a single page of unornamented text, but these are rare; on other pages, multiple small illustrations intersperse with sentence-long paragraphs. Victorian fairy tales were sparsely illustrated, often with only frontispiece images and a few full-page drawings. Typical of the time, in Rackham’s Grimm’s collection, each fairy tale featured one full-page color illustration. Stardust, however, nearly always presents text with image; the two are difficult if not impossible to separate in this edition. Gaiman’s un-illustrated novel publication of the same story does, of course, separate the two, but with no small change to the work’s effect. When Stardust becomes solely Gaiman’s work, it loses a great deal of Victorian-ness, and thereby the interesting hybridity of the Victorian fairy-tale comic. Charles Vess’s visual contribution makes the story as much as Gaiman’s text, despite the uneven publishing history created by the text-only version of Stardust. The artwork of the project allows it a place within the Victorian fairy-tale oeuvre because of the interesting Victorian allusions Vess creates.

The most direct parallel between Stardust‘s artwork and an outside source is between Vess’s image on page 171 and Rackham’s drawing from The Wind in the Willows of Mole leading a caravan down a dusty lane. In Rackham’s original, the horse leans down and to the right with its head drawing attention to Mole and adding to the very diagonal composition. On page 171 of Stardust, Tristan, the Star, and the old witch woman, Semele, congregate around a similar caravan, this time drawn by two horses – one of which is craning its neck down and to the right to a patch of grass, mirroring Rackham’s horse and Mole. Even the small twig that leans into the frame pointing down and to the left that Rackham uses to propel the diagonal is adapted by Vess, holding its same position, though now supporting a small blue sprite. Though the images look astonishingly alike both in content and composition, their mood and accompanying text differ widely from one another. The Rackham image is one of companionable contentment and leisure. The picture illustrates “It was a golden afternoon; the smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying” (Hudson 145). In Stardust, the facing page has extensive text and the story introduces an unknowing Tristan to his mother’s keeper, a witch, who suspects him of stealing her bird. The witch learns of his innocence and sees Tristan and the Star later on the same page and offers Tristan work at the same stall at which his parents met. It is a page of uncomfortable confrontations with the threat of the story re-creating itself in the son as had happened to the mother. The most notable visual difference between Stardust and The Wind in the Willows here is Stardust‘s addition of the brightly colored bird landing on its perch on the caravan. This bird, Tristan’s mother, attempts to draw Tristan’s attention away from the witch or to warn him without words. She will not allow the witch to entrap her son and his companion; her presence prevents a total visual reiteration from Rackham to Vess, and her character wants to prevent a plot repetition from one generation to the next. Vess makes an independent, purely visual allusion to Rackham, explicitly connecting Vess’s art to the Victorian tradition of fairy tale illustration.

Figure 3. Comparison of Rackham’s illustration from The Wind in the Willows and Vess’s illustration from Stardust, p. 171.

The relationship of the textual and visual artists is described in depth by Arthur Rackham, and his comments show a few interesting variations. He acknowledges a number of possibilities and explains in more depth the relationship he seeks and advocates. This gives us direct insight into Victorian notions of illustration – one in which Gaiman and Vess need not participate, but that they indirectly address because of the Victorian-ness of their individual artistic contributions to Stardust:

“An illustration may legitimately give the artist’s view of the author’s ideas; or it may give his view, his independent view, of the author’s subject. But it must be the artist’s view; any attempt to coerce him into a mere tool in the author’s hands can only result in the most dismal failure. Illustration is as capable of varied appeal as is literature itself; and the only real essential is an associate that shall not be at variance or unsympathetic. The illustrator is sometimes expected to say what the author ought to have said or failed to say clearly, to fill up a shortcoming, and not infrequently he has done so. Sometimes he is wanted to add some fresh aspect of interest to a subject which the author has already treated interestingly from his point of view, a partnership that has often been productive of good. But the most fascinating form of illustration consists of the expression by the artist of an individual sense of delight or emotion aroused by the accompanying passage of literature.” (qtd Hudson, 87-88)

This explanation shows how Gaiman and Vess enact a version of Rackham’s Victorian idealized relationship between visual and textual artists. Vess certainly interprets and reacts to Gaiman’s story, showing the “sense of delight or emotion aroused by the accompanying passage of literature” that Rackham found ideal. Vess also shows an awareness of and allusion to texts outside of Gaiman’s words, including Rackham’s own work.

In summary, Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, has a genuine but complicated relationship with the Victorian fairy tale. Individual aspects of both text and illustration draw direct inspiration from Victorian artists like Arthur Rackham and George MacDonald and from the era in which Stardust is narratively set and creatively based. Gaiman and Vess are invested in the same sort of artist/writer relationship Rackham sought and enjoyed. Nonetheless, a modern comic aspect also exists in the book, with the specific form of textual and visual cooperation within the work separating it from illustrated Victorian fairy tales. Thus, the overall effect is one of reference and strategic borrowing of the Victorian more than imitation or facsimile. Both artists use and adapt parts of a Victorian aesthetic for their contributions, but do not limit themselves in any hope of historical replication. They actively choose to combine aspects of the Victorian and modern, and to create a text that is not a straightforwardly illustrated story or a comic book, but is instead a hybrid of both. Stardust‘s multiple hybridities work together to create complex and varied effects. These hybridities of form combine text and image, Victorian and modern, comic and illustrated story. This suits the literary fairy tale well in that interactions between mundane and magical worlds, occurrences, and characters help to define the genre. Gaiman and Vess show the interactions of Faerie and fairy both implicitly and explicitly in their collaboration on Stardust.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Bodmer, George. “Arthur Hughes, Walter Crane, and Maurice Sendak: The Picture as Literary Fairy Tale.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 17.1 (2003): 120-37.

Darrell, Margery, ed. Once Upon a Time: The Fairy Tale World of Arthur Rackham. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Hamilton, James. Arthur Rackham: a Biography. New York: Little, 1990.

Hearn, Michael Patrick, ed. The Victorian Fairy Tale Book. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Hudson, Derek. Arthur Rackham His Life and Work. New York: Scribner’s, 1975.

Larkin, David, ed. Arthur Rackham. New York: Bantam, 1975.

Zipes, Jack. Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Posted in Volume 4, Issue 1: The Comics Work of Neil Gaiman