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The Sandman as a Neomedieval Text

By Zuleyha Cetiner-Oktem

Neomedievalism and the Graphic Novel

The medieval era, elapsing roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, remains alluring as it has laid a mystical canvas on which the Western world is constantly repainting, adjusting the scenery to be suitable to each contemporary period. The scenery nowadays implies assimilation between the medieval and the fantastic. Hence, the term “fantastic neomedievalism” coined by Umberto Eco defines the link between fantasy and this turn towards medieval culture. Recent terms such as Medievalism, Postmodern Medievalism, Neomedievalism, and so forth seem to imply the ongoing fad of specifically returning to the Middle Ages ad infinitum. Eco states that this return has become an “obsessive” topic: “Thus, we are at present witnessing, both in Europe and America, a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages, with a curious oscillation between fantastic neomedievalism and responsible philological examination” (63).

Though traditional writers are horrified at the notion of “the visual” replacing the written text, one only needs to look around to witness popular culture swarming with more images than words. Emotion icons (emoticons) have replaced the function of words on the internet and with the latest technological developments, activities such as the transference of pictures through cellular phones act to effectively eliminate the presence of speech. With signs replacing words, traditionalists consider the classics of our time to be debased as they are transferred into the graphic novel format. Yet, the rise of the graphic novel is a phenomenon which calls for an awareness of the fast-paced period we inhabit. The form of the graphic novel closely resembles the world around us, in which we move from one panel to the next with imminent gaps in between.

When Neil Armstrong stated that by taking “one small step for man” he was taking “one giant leap for mankind,” his walk on the moon came to represent the ethos of an era – the possibility of new visions, new hopes and the free rein of the imagination. At this point in time we should question where we are today. It seems that we are paradoxically envisioning a whole new world based on an old era that conceived the cathedral and gave birth to the castle. Yet, the manner in which we behold our own time leads to a re-thinking and re-imagining of the past. Fantastic neomedievalism along with the graphic novel format are the tools with which we may be able to re-consider the present.

Medieval Imagination

Norman Cantor suggests that “medieval civilization stands toward our postmodern culture as the conjunctive other, the intriguing shadow, the marginally distinctive double, the secret sharer of our dreams and anxieties” (47). According to this view, the Middle Ages resemble our contemporary culture, yet portray slight variations in which we find ourselves disturbed and are forced to re-evaluate our values along with our behavioural patterns, with an urge “to propose some alternatives or at least modifications” (47).

One of the modifications may be suggested in line with the medieval Model of the Universe which divides Nature and Sky, the former denoting the lower region of change and irregularity, and the latter encompassing the divine, heavenly bodies such as the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The Medievals modified the Model of the Universe so that the Arts corresponded to their cosmic counterparts: “Rhetoric, for example, corresponds to Venus; for one reason, because she is ‘the lovliest of all other disciplines’ … Arithmetic is like Sol; for as he gives light to all the other stars so she gives light to all other sciences” (Lewis 186).

The Arts consisted of Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy, the first three comprising the Trivium and the last four the Quadrivium. As the Arts were fitted into the cosmic framework, it is also possible to insert the Endless into this equation as well. Therefore, by modifying the Model of the Universe to the Sandman Universe, we may correlate the main characters of The Sandman to the seven spheres located within the medieval universe: the Trivium being Destiny, Death and Dream, the Quadrivium consisting of Destruction, twins Desire and Despair, and finally Delirium. These anthropomorphic personifications belong to the Endless, a set of seven beings who are considered to have existed before the gods and will continue to exist after the last god has ceased to live. Although this modification to the Model of the Universe may seem extreme, the mysticism or divinity behind the schematic proves to be closely intertwined with it.

The portioning of the universe into lower and higher spheres served as a background on which medieval culture built itself. As inhabitants of the lower region the Medievals’ ultimate aspiration was to access and mingle with the Divine. Yet, the manner in which this could be accomplished was problematic. The possibility of a mere human reaching the Divine could only be achieved through some kind of divine intervention; only if the Divine allowed for contact could the connection take place. The means for contact, without breaking the hierarchical chain, was established through dreams; hence dream visions are a vital aspect of medieval culture.

Jacques Le Goff maintains that “[t]he life of men in the middle ages was haunted by dreams. Dreams which warned, revealed, and instigated, they were the very weft of the life of the mind, as well as its stimuli” (Medieval Civilization 343). Yet, “[t]he frontier between sleep and wakefulness is not always apparent” (The Medieval Imagination 194) and it was this aspect of dreams which created both confusion and doubt among the Medievals. As Le Goff states, “[p]rior to the fourth century and the recognition of Christianity as an authorized and then official religion, Christians showed first an interest in dreams, then anxiety about them, and finally, uncertainty” (TMI 203). The lineage of the Christian interest in dreams may be traced back to the Bible, as both the Old Testament and the New Testament include accounts of dreams and visions. Yet, the formulation of medieval dream theory owes its existence to Macrobius (c. 360-422) who categorizes dreams under five types: three being veridical or valid dreams thought to be of heavenly origin, and two being invalid as they are believed to be of mundane or demonic origin.

Valid dreams:

(1) Somnium, meaning Dream, is a symbolic or allegorical dream experience which requires interpretation. Truths are veiled in allegorical form.
(2) Visio is an exact, realistically revealed pre-vision of the future.
(3) Oraculum is a description of the future or a revelation provided by a spirit, a relative, or an authoritative figure that appears in a dream.

Invalid dreams:

(1) Insomnium is a distorted vision resulting from either emotional distress or bodily disorder or illness.
(2) Visum or, Phantasma is a delusion or hallucination resulting from mental disorder or demonic intervention. Nightmares are included in this class.

The Christian “anxiety” and later “uncertainty” concerning dreams may have stemmed from the uncertainty surrounding the classification of one’s dream. Certainly, just as the dream may have been divinely inspired, it was equally likely the dream could have been demonic in origin. Thus, the field of oneiromancy, or dream interpretation, held a significant place in medieval popular culture just as it was a highly valued art in the Greco-Roman world; the Church, however, “tended to regard it as a pagan trait and was suspicious of the practice” (Argüelles and McNamara 107). Nevertheless, the practice of dream incubation, where one would sleep in a temple or in any type of holy building in order to induce dream visions, persisted, although the Church condemned such acts. The popularity of dream visions, unsurprisingly, installed itself in the literature of the medieval era. Dream poetry is a “genre of allegorical literature in which narrative material is structured as a dream or is presented as having occurred in a dream. The genre can be found throughout the Middle Ages … [and] much of this poetry is religious” (110). By convention, a fictionalised version of the poet sleeps and begins to dream a dream which he relates to the reader. In the dream, the poet encounters either a mentor or some kind of guide, who takes the poet on a journey in which he meets various historical or fictional characters. Through interaction with these figures, the poet undergoes a transformation in which he obtains certain truths. The Pearl, Langland’s Piers Plowman, the Roman de la Rose of Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Lorris, and Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame are among the canonized examples of dream poetry.

The Sandman universe, unlike medieval dream poetry, is constructed as a place where the “poet” or Dream is the creator of the dream world itself. Nonetheless, throughout the series, Dream is eventually transformed by his experiences in which he also carries the role of transformer. In The Sandman we not only encounter historical and fictional characters but we also cross paths with biblical figures. The journey through this universe takes place both in “reality” and in “the dreaming” and sometimes somewhere altogether separate. These elements of The Sandman evoke wonder in the reader and may be classified under Le Goff’s notion of “marvellous” and further explained through Caroline Walker Bynum’s concept of “wonder”.

In deciphering the term “marvellous” Le Goff deems it necessary to compare it with the terminology of the medieval West. Among medieval scholars the word mirabilis corresponds to our notion of the marvelous. Le Goff also contests a deeper comprehension of the word by reeling in the field of etymology. Etymologically speaking, the root of the word mirabilis is mir (as in mirormirari) implying something visual, enhancing the act of looking. According to Todorov, “the marvelous” is a genre in which characters accept the supernatural; in the “strange” or “uncanny”, it is rationalized; in the “grotesque” or the “fantastic”, characters hesitate between natural explanation and acceptance of the supernatural as supernatural (28-62). Medievalists, such as Le Goff, have disagreed about whether Todorov’s categories should be applied to medieval works of the imagination (TMI 34-35), yet Bynum argues that it is possible to utilise “modern critical notions of response and framing to identify a medieval ‘fantastic'” (204).

Bynum states that “much recent work has demonstrated that the period from about 1180 to 1320 saw a great increase in stories of marvels, monsters, miracles, and ghosts; and the characterization of medieval Europe as ‘awash in wonders’ has been employed by many of our century’s greatest scholars” (38). Thus, bypassing both the term “the marvelous,” which she leaves to literary theorists and the term “the age of marvels,” which she leaves to the Renaissance, Bynum proposes the word “wonder” in lieu of the former terminology, stating that “[w]onder was moreover associated with paradox, coincidence of opposites; one finds mira (marvelous) again and again in the texts alongside mixta (mixed or composite things)” (43). Bynum emphasizes that “in the later Middle Ages, stories abounded of fabulous places, of stones with marvelous powers, of monsters, mermaids, and fairies, of bizarre races with eyes in their chests or enormous umbrella feet. Strangeness appealed” (68). Indeed, the appeal of the strange has not lost any of its former significance in which it held fast the popular medieval imagination; the appeal of the strange has operated continuously within the realm of the fantastic.

The fantastic habit has collected in its pockets numerous pebbles, the most marvelous being the phenomenon of the graphic novel, where images and words are so intertwined that any kind of separation would render both word and image meaningless. In relation to the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga points out the existence of a profound difference in the effect of art and word: where a painting by itself pours forth images which the eye feeds upon, leaving behind any type of explanation, poetry calls for the attention of the ear, wording all and draining the aspect of imagination (330). Hence, drawing together the image and the word in a singular medium would offer the best of both. The merging of word and image is not peculiar to our age, as it is possible to trace its roots in much earlier cultures.

When considering the similarities of the medieval imagination to our own, it is necessary to reflect on the manner in which each was represented. The intersection of the representation of medieval imagination and the representation of popular imagination in the Sandman universe may be considered in two categories: the first representation of imagination occurs in the verbal sense and the second in the visual sense.

One can argue that the medieval imagination in The Sandman is represented through the extensive use of metaphorical expressions. In Old English poetry kennings which were compound words (such as goldgyfan “giver of gold” or goldwine “gold-friend”) and phrases (such as sinces brytta “distributor of treasure”, heofonrices weard “guardian of heaven’s kingdom”) were extensively used. The frequency of the usage of this formulaic phraseology may be attributed to the view that kennings provided a means of flexibility of poetic diction as well as of compression of imagery in describing the protagonist. Likewise, the depictions woven around the central character in The Sandman also resemble the medieval use of kennings; Dream-weaver, Dream Lord, Dream-shaper, Lord Shaper are among the various forms whereby Dream is identified.

As for the representation of popular imagination, it is interesting to note that the stages followed in both manuscript and graphic novel productions are profoundly similar. In the medieval manuscript, the scribe calligraphed the text and various artists or specialised artisans decorated the manuscript. Illumination was carried out only after the text had been transcribed, and was applied to the areas left blank by the scribe in his layout of the text. There were several levels of decoration, each assigned to a specialised craftsman. Generally, the illuminator, or illustrator, executed the paintings, or histories, intervening only after two of his lesser colleagues had completed their work. One was the illuminator in charge of the pen-flourishing, the pen-work decoration in coloured inks; the other was the illuminator in charge of the painted ornamentation, namely, the decorated letters, borders and frames. Except for the greatest artists, the illuminators were restricted in their depiction of subject matter, as the manner in which they were to paint was either dictated through written instructions or sketched in lead-point placed near the images to be painted. Correspondingly, in The Sandman series, a similar team also exists in the production of the graphic novel: alongside the writer or scribe (Gaiman), many others also contribute to the work, namely, a penciller, an inker, a colourist and a letterer. Gaiman types the story and sets our further instructions and descriptions pertaining to the format of each page, which the team then follows, each member adding his or her individual talents to the development of the work.

The Sandman

Roger Sabin states that The Sandman encapsulated a contemporary feel and particularly “chimed with some of the preoccupations of the ‘gothic punk’ subculture, especially the romantic obsession with death” (168). Huizinga notes that “no other age has so forcefully and continuously expressed the idea of death on the whole population as did the fifteenth century, in which the call of the memento mori echoes throughout the whole of life” (156). Considering that “the gothic” has its roots buried in the medieval era, one could surmise that Gaiman’s Sandman is a modern re-visitation of the medieval era in mood and atmosphere, especially when one considers the fact that both Dream and Death constantly wear black. As Hy Bender indicates, “he’s thin, humorless, and perpetually dressed in black” (xi). Bender also states that “the Sandman isn’t even human. He’s a ten-billion-year-old member of the Endless, a family of anthropomorphic personifications of such universal forces as Destiny … Desire … and Death … They’re called the Endless because, as projections of fundamental ideas, they’re immortal – but that doesn’t stop them from occasionally trying to kill one another” (xii). Even though these distinctive attributes make reader identification difficult, they have lent the saga an enduring popularity.

Preludes & Nocturnes

Preludes & Nocturnes introduces the plot and the main figure: Sandman, who is one of the Endless, an immortal being in charge of maintaining the realm of dreams. The legend begins on the 6th of June 1916 in Wych Cross, England, where a magus named Roderick Burgess of The Order of Ancient Mysteries, in an attempt to capture Death through a summoning, imprisons Dream instead. The atmosphere in which the story unfolds is neomedievalist in tone, as the date incorporating the triple six, the name of the town, and the event of a ritualistic demon-like summoning occurring at midnight are all aspects of black magic, much like the high magic which peaked in the twelfth century.1 Subsequently, Burgess deprives the unconscious Dream of his helmet, ruby and pouch, which are Dream’s tools of office, similar in representation to the crown, orb, and sceptre of a reigning medieval monarch. Burgess encloses Dream within a glass cage surrounded by a magic circle. As Burgess remarks, “the circle traps [Dream] incorporeally [while] the crystal cell imprisons [his] material aspect” (“Sleep of the Just”). This reinforces the medieval mind and soul dichotomy, whereby the body was seen as a cage where the soul was imprisoned and from which it could be freed only through death.

Upon regaining consciousness Burgess demands that Dream grant him immortality and power, but Dream refuses to acknowledge Burgess’s presence and remains silent for the duration of seventy-two years. Five days after the imprisonment of Dream, people worldwide suffer from encephalitis lethargica, which doctors refer to as the “sleepy sickness”. Though the people suffering from this illness do not die, their lives change drastically; moreover, the sickness spreading worldwide and affecting all is similar to the plague, or Black Death, which swept Europe in 1348. Le Goff states that “[t]he lowering of physical resistance resulting from the new outbreak of malnutrition must have played a part in the ravages which the Black Death finally exercised after 1348” (MC 108). Only in the case of encephalitis lethargica the sickness itself brought about malnutrition in the victims.

In 1932, one of the victims falling to this illness was Unity Kinkaid who was raped and left pregnant, birthing a girl while still asleep. In 1930, Burgess’s mistress Ethel Cripps, along with Ruthven Sykes, ran away and stole Dream’s belongings from the Order’s treasury. To protect himself from Burgess, Sykes traded Dream’s helmet to a demon from Hell for an amulet of protection. In 1936, however, Cripps robbed Sykes of both ruby and amulet, paving the way for Sykes’s death. Roderick Burgess dies in 1947, leaving his place as Magus to his son Alex, who maintains Dream’s imprisonment. From father to son the hierarchical order is passed down. In 1988, Alex accidentally erases a part of the magic circle, setting Dream free from confinement, which in turn causes the people with sleepy sickness to regain consciousness. Dream curses Alex with “eternal waking” which is a nightmare from which he believes himself to have woken only to find that he has not. Considering Dream’s actions to be demonic, in this case, the cursed dream laid on Alex corresponds to the visum or phantasma categorised under the invalid dreams.

Dream then returns to his realm, which resembles a medieval castle all gated and protected, to seek out his objects of power. During the years of his absence, The Dreaming has undergone mass deterioration; yet, in order for Dream to restore his realm he must regain his tools of sovereignty: his pouch, helmet and ruby, objects which store his power. The pouch, which holds the sands of dream, is easily regained with the help of an English magician named John Constantine. However, reclaiming the helmet proves to be challenging as it resides in the possession of a demon in Hell. After struggling his way into the infernal realm, Dream is led through the Wood of Suicides. He travels the same route Dante once did and he is escorted past Nada – a woman he loves yet has condemned to Hell, where she has been tortured for the past ten thousand years. Eventually he reaches the heart of Hell, the city of Dis.

As a monarch of his own realm, Dream is led to the presence of Lucifer. Calling him the Morningstar and Lightbringer, Dream requests the return of his helmet. Summoning all the demons of Hell, Lucifer demands Dream to identify the keeper of his helmet, which Dream does by using the sand from his pouch. After a demon named Choronzon has been identified, Dream then invokes the ancient rules to challenge Choronzon to a duel of clashing realities. The strict hierarchy of Hell and the adherence to rules brings to mind the code of knights. Dream leaves the duel victorious.

Retrieving both pouch and helmet, Dream sets out to recover his ruby, which was passed on by Ethel Cripps to her son, the psychotic Doctor John Dee. Resembling a medieval alchemist, Dee drastically alters the ruby, changing the essence of the jewel. Due to this alteration, the ruby, which is able to shape raw dream material into reality, absorbs much of Dream’s power when he tries to retrieve it, knocking him unconscious. For the duration of twenty-four hours, Dee turns a diner into hell on earth, and he begins to exert the same insane forces on the rest of the world. Akin to the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (and thus to the cursed ring of the Nibelung), the ruby in Dee’s possession emanates evil and must be destroyed for order to be restored.

In “The Sound of Her Wings,” the introduction of a female death is very interesting as death was always portrayed as masculine in medieval morality plays, where death was first personified (e.g. The Castle of Perseverance, Everyman). Yet, one should consider the routes of the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when western European culture mixed and mingled with that of the east. The Crusades led to an inevitable foundation of the Knights Templar in 1119 with the aim of protecting the pilgrimage routes between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Thus, the Crusades along with the foundation of a Templar network may have resulted in the transfer of the concept of the Great Mother Goddess, embedding the image of a life-giving and, at the same time, life-taking matron. Hence, Death carries aspects both of Hecate and of Kali.

The Doll’s House

“Tales in the Sand” describes the love between a mortal queen named Nada and Dream. When Dream reveals his true identity as the Lord of Dreams, Nada is filled with terror, for it is forbidden for a mortal to love a member of the Endless. Nada flees from her beloved, first by returning to the waking world, and then, like a druidic shape-shifter, by taking the form of a gazelle. Yet, each time Dream chases and catches her. To end the chase, Nada uses a sharp rock to break her maidenhead, reasoning that Dream’s passion would ebb and dissolve if she was no longer a virgin. However, Dream merely says: “I am no mortal man, and I love you as no mortal man could love. What matters your body to me?” and draws her into his black robe. The next morning, Nada’s fears are realised; upon seeing her together with Dream, the sun throws down a blazing fireball that razes her glass city to the ground, leaving nothing behind but sand and emerald shards of glass in the shape of hearts. Devastated and determined to prevent far worse catastrophes, Nada flings herself from a mountaintop to a bloody death; but even this does not stop Dream’s pursuit of her. Dream follows Nada to the border of the realm of death, where he gives her an ultimatum: Nada should either agree to be his bride, or suffer eternal torment. Refusing to be the Queen of Dreams, as this would lead to further disaster, Nada is condemned to Hell. The tale thus told resembles the medieval Irish tale of Noisiu and Derdriu recounted in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The manner in which Noisiu and Derdriu fall in love is similar to that of Dream and Nada; both couples are not allowed to live out their love for various reasons; and both women seek some form of salvation through death.2

Following the story of Nada, two more members of the Endless are introduced: Despair and Desire. Desire reveals that it was behind the intense attraction between Dream and Nada; however, as the affair did not work out as planned, Desire now schemes to ensnare Dream by means of a “vortex” which brings all dreams together. The vortex is a wonder-evoking being, much on the threshold of the marvellous. In this era, the vortex is a young woman named Rose Walker, the granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid. Unity asks Rose to reunite the family by locating Jed, Rose’s missing brother. Although Rose is unaware of her special powers, Dream knows about them and uses Rose’s natural ability as a “dream magnet” to locate his missing creations: Brute and Glob, Fiddler’s Green, and the Corinthian.

Rose first leads Dream to Brute and Glob, who have constructed their own dream realm within Jed’s mind by making Jed’s waking world unbearable, impelling Jed to escape reality by creating intricate dreams. To reinforce Jed’s fantastical world, Brute and Glob create their own version of the Sandman by using the ghost of a deceased super hero named Hector Hall and his bewildered wife Lyta, who has been six months pregnant in this dream world for the past two years. When Dream encounters his fake self, he laughs uncontrollably, dissipating Hector’s ghost and exporting him from the dream in Jed’s mind to the realm of Death. As for Lyta Hall, Dream treats her almost as cruelly as he once did Nada. When Lyta says “You killed Hector. You destroyed our home. You’ve ruined my life,” Dream icily responds: “You are free to go. Build yourself a new life, Hippolyta Hall. Oh, I almost forgot. The child – the child you have carried so long in dreams. That child is mine. Take good care of it. One day I will come for it” (“Playing House”). After his visio that he will return for the child, Dream disappears, leaving Lyta in an empty room.

Jed is also treated brutally, as he is left to wander through the wreckage only to be picked up by the Corinthian, the personification of nightmare, who has mouths with teeth in place of eyes and whose favourite pastime is to feed his eyes with the eyeballs of young boys. In other words, the Corinthian is the phantasma come to life. The Corinthian places Jed in the trunk of his car, planning to feed on him, but postpones his feast because he is on his way to a major event: the first annual convention for serial killers, where he will be delivering the keynote address.

Due to another vortex-generated coincidence, Rose is staying at the hotel where the convention is taking place. With her is the fourth missing dream, Fiddler’s Green, who is not actually a person but a place in The Dreaming, where he appears as a peaceful place inhabited with trees, mountains, springs, meadows, and green glades. In the waking world, however, he has taken the appearance of the late author G.K. Chesterton and has named himself Gilbert. Gilbert tells Rose a medieval version of the Little Red Riding Hood legend that is full of twisted sexuality and violence. The tale proves to be prophetic when the red-and-blond-haired Rose is later attacked by Fun Land, a serial killer wearing a wolf T-shirt and a wolf-ears cap. Unconsciously aware of his earlier oraculum, Gilbert slips Rose Morpheus’s name on a piece of paper. Thus, when Rose reads out the name, an act which is the basis for summoning rituals, Dream appears and disposes of Fun Land.

Dream then locates his renegade dream in the convention area, where he finds the Corinthian making his “guest of honour” speech. Witnessing the raw banality of evil the Corinthian inspires among the serial killers, Dream intervenes by saying:

You disappoint me, Corinthian. You, and these humans you inspired and created, disappoint me. You were my masterpiece, or so I thought. A nightmare created to be the darkness, and the fear of darkness in every human heart. A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront. But look at you. Forty years walking the earth, honing yourself, infecting others with your joy of death and what have you given them? What have you wrought, Corinthian? Nothing. Just something else for people to be scared of, that’s all. (“Collectors”)

After confronting the Corinthian, Dream proceeds to uncreate his creation and works a different kind of “uncreation” on the rest of the serial killers: he strips away their fantasies of being maltreated heroes, removing all the justifications they cling to for their actions. The episode concludes with Gilbert hearing Jed’s sobs and rescuing him from the Corinthian’s car trunk. Accompanied by Rose, Gilbert takes Jed to a hospital.

The next episode, “Into the Night”, features a very exhausted Rose returning to her room from hospital to await Jed’s recovery. As she is completely worn out, Rose goes to sleep and begins dreaming. At this point, Rose starts to function as a vortex and she begins sensing the dreams of everyone in her house. Rose brings down the barriers between the dreamers, allowing the dreams to crash together, and then her mind begins to bind millions of other dreams.

The figure of Rose transforming into a vortex through dreams may be considered under the category of the marvellous, as she resembles a spiritual entity binding all of humanity into one under her power. The figure of Rose depicted in this manner also resembles the symbolic icon of Christ in medieval culture; however, this depiction should not be confused with the doctrines of the Church. As Richard Kearney states:

Despite certain concessions granted to art by the Church in the Middle Ages, we must not lose sight of the fact that the “onto-theological” attitude to man-made images, which prevailed during this period, was essentially one of prudence or distrust . . . It is, however, important to recall … that the Christian attitude to imagination is not all there is to the medieval imagination. (138)

Le Goff in The Medieval Imagination points out exactly this kind of an argument when he documents the existence of a significant non-Christian culture which lay beneath the established culture of medieval Christianity. Kearney says that “[t]his unofficial culture was sustained by the popular folk arts which accorded a central place to three main areas outlawed by the onto-theological orthodoxy – magic, the body, and dreams” (138). In The Sandman, all three of these categories are depicted through the vortex, combining the popular medieval imagination with the postmodern imagination.

Another fusion of past and present takes form when Dream, reaching a sort of conclusion in his mind, decides to pay a visit to his androgynous sibling Desire, who admits to being the mysterious rapist who fathered Unity Kinkaid’s daughter, and is therefore Rose’s grandfather.

Dream: What did you truly intend, Desire? Was I to take the life of one of our blood, with all that would entail? Or was it more devious than that?
Desire: Does it matter, big brother? It didn’t work.

Dream: Mess with me or mine again, and I will FORGET that you are family, Desire. Do you believe yourself strong enough to stand against ME? Against DEATH? Against DESTINY?

This dialogue between Dream and Destiny enforces the power of the trivium over the quadrivium. The actions of Desire which would have led Dream to take the blood of an offspring of the Endless would have resulted in a blood feud, a ceremonious duel not uncommon throughout history. Yet, even in this situation, actions are carried out under a code much akin to the knightly code of honour. Only if the action had come to pass would Desire be in a situation to request vengeance.

The episode “Men of Good Fortune” exemplifies the notion of fantastic neomedievalism in the sense in which Eco employs the concept. In the beginning of this tale, elements of the fantastic merge with the medieval. It later lends itself to a wider reading of fantastic neomedievalism as the story takes us forward through the centuries to contemporary times.

The tale begins with Death dragging her brother Dream to a pub in 1389 so that he can learn to better understand people. The tavern which they enter is full of the usual chatter: complaints about taxes, murder, and rape and predictions about the end of the world. In one corner of the tavern sits Geoffrey Chaucer, who looks dispirited as he listens to a friend criticise his Canterbury Tales, which appeared just a year before in 1388.

The speech of a man named Hob Gadling catches the attention of the two Endless as they listen to him tell his drinking mates that he does not intend to die. Bemused with Gadling’s intention, Dream asks Death to realise Gadling’s claim. Death agrees and she leaves her brother with Gadling. When Hob repeats that dying is an absurdity which he refuses to acknowledge, Dream requests that they meet again in a hundred years so that Hob can relate to Dream what it feels like not to die. Although Hob’s drinking companions mock their conversation, both Hob and Dream show up for the appointment a hundred years later, as they again do in 1589, 1689, 1789, 1889 and finally 1989. Thus, it is possible to view the character of Hob Gadling as a representative of the medieval idea carried through the ages to our contemporary times. With a neomedievalist perspective, we may suggest that one of the reasons contemporary postmodern fantasy finds the Middle Ages so attractive is because the medieval era is the echo of postmodern fantasy’s voice.

Dream Country

“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” begins with an excited kitten going to a feline meeting to hear a well-known Siamese cat evangelize about how to change the world. Resembling a wandering medieval preacher, perched on a statue in a cemetery in the dead of night, the Siamese explains that once she had considered herself in control of her life and had thought she was a valued member of her human family until she had kittens, which her owners chose to drown. In her sleep, she prayed for a way to change the subordinate position of her race. Entering a state of somnium she began a journey where she was told to seek out the Cat of Dreams. Through many considerable hardships, the Siamese finally reached Dream, who appeared to her as a huge black tomcat with glowing red eyes. Looking into Dream’s eyes the Siamese was granted a vision of a lost world in which cats were the size of people, and people were the size of rats; and the only function of these humans was to act both as servants and as prey. This was the way in which the world had been until one day a visionary arose among the humans, spreading his inspiration by preaching:

Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night … Dream of a world in which we are the dominant species, in which we are the kings and the queens, and the gods. Dream a world in which we will no longer be hunted and killed by cats … If enough of us dreams it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world. (“A Dream of a Thousand Cats”)

The message this visionary was preaching soon spread amongst the humans until one night, when a thousand humans simultaneously dreamed the same dream, everything changed: “Humans were huge, and cats were tiny. Humans were the dominant species, and [the cats] were prey to them, to dogs, to their metal machines. Prey to the world the humans had brought with them.”

Returning from the somnium within a somnium, the Siamese asked Dream if the humans had dreamed the world into the form it currently was. Dream replied that that was not exactly how it happened: the humans had dreamt of the world so that “it always was the way it is now … There never was a world of high cat-ladies and cat-lords. They changed the universe from the beginning of all things, until the end of time.”

The Siamese set out like a self-appointed, medieval missionary to preach her revelation.

Dream the world. Not this pallid shadow of reality. Dream the world it truly is. A world in which all cats are queens and kings of creation. That is my message. And I shall keep moving, keep repeating it, until I die. Or until a thousand cats hear my words, and believe them, and dream… and we come again to paradise. (“A Dream of a Thousand Cats”)

After the sermon concludes, the cats disperse. On the way back home the kitten, believing in the revelation, nevertheless asks an older cat if he thinks it will happen. But the old cat replies: “No, it will never happen … I would like to see anyone – prophet, king or god – persuade a thousand cats to do anything at the same time.” The pessimistic tone the older cat, takes along with the insinuation of a non-unified cat society, may be seen as a representation of our postmodern culture.

Season of Mists

Destiny, duty and the great chain of being dominate Season of Mists, a story that begins with the Endless in a family quarrel and ends with an angel’s tears. After being taunted by Desire, Dream goes to Hell to rescue Nada, who he had damned for leaving him. Before embarking upon his journey, given the prospect that he might not return, Dream makes arrangements so that everything in The Dreaming will operate smoothly in his absence. He is contrasted with his brother “The Prodigal”, who had announced three hundred years ago that he was leaving both the Endless and his kingdom. In a way this collection is also about leaving responsibilities which no longer have the power to fulfil one’s existence.

Dream approaches the gates of Hell only to find that they are open and unguarded. Dream calls out for Lucifer Morningstar, who appears and says that he has decided to quit his job. The much astonished Dream is left horrified. Yet, Morningstar explains that after “ten billion years spent providing a place for dead mortals to torture themselves” he has grown weary and has ceased to care (“Episode 2”).

After evicting the last remaining residents and locking up the various gates of Hell, Lucifer hands over the key of Hell to Dream, saying “It’s all yours, now, Morpheus. You’re the sole monarch of a locked and empty Hell” (“Episode 2”). Upon hearing that Dream has obtained “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things”, a multitude of gods, goddesses, and other entities begin to accumulate at the gate of The Dreaming seeking possession of the key to the infernal kingdom (“Episode 2”). Remiel, the angel set over those that rise, and his companion Duma, the angel of Silence, attend as observers.

Finding it difficult to reach any kind of decision as to who the key should be transferred to, Dream decides it would be best to leave Hell empty. At this moment, Remiel receives a message from the Creator, and acting as His voice, Remiel recounts:

There must be a Hell. There must be a place for the demons; a place for the damned. Hell is Heaven’s reflection. It is Heaven’s shadow. They define each other. Reward and Punishment; hope and despair. There must be a Hell, for without Hell, Heaven has no meaning. And thus Hell must be – (“Episode 6”)

Remiel breaks off the communication with a defiant shout; “NO!” he screams. At a point of despair he continues: “No! He cannot wish that! That is wrong… We have done nothing to offend the Name – nothing that would warrant this…” (“Episode 6”). Dream asking what it is that Remiel is saying receives the following reply:

I am saying… I have been told to say… that Hell cannot be entrusted to other than those who serve the Name directly. It is too important. That myself, and Duma, are to take over Hell. That it will be under our control, as representative of The Name. And… that we can never return to the Silver City. We can never again enter the Presence. But – this is neither fair nor just. We have done nothing to be cast out. We have never rebelled – we fought bravely, side by side, against the armies of Lucifer. We are of the Host. Does He not understand what this means? To be exiled into the darkness? To be Banished from our Creator’s Light, his grace? We are too pure for our feet ever to touch the base clay – why then should we be forced into the Pit? This is… this is wrong. We can not… We must not… Hell is for the Evil. Hell is for those who have offended against his love. Hell is for… I – I will rebel. Like Lucifer. I will protest. This is wrong… (“Episode 6”)

Remiel’s protest is in fact a rebellion against the Creator; throughout his monologue, Remiel’s defiant voice echoes against Duma’s silence. Duma does not break his silence even though he has been exiled to Hell. His only response is a silent stream of tears which reflect his knowledge that every thing has a purpose, that every being is bound to the Chain, which is irrevocable. Faithful to their duty, they are compelled to live and act as has been ordained by the One Above. Some say Destiny has foreseen it, some say the Fates have been weaving again, and the neomedieval eye is left bearing witness to the knowledge behind Duma’s tears.

A Game of You

The protagonist of A Game of You is Barbie, a stereotype who evolves as the story progresses. It is the three-thousand-year-old witch Thessaly, however, who draws the most attention as her practicality, ruthlessness and defiance make sense from a neomedievalist perspective. Her attitude may be likened to a deep and primordial urge for self-preservation, as “witches” were hunted down by the Church and burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. Thessaly does not even use her true name, instead going by a pseudonym derived from the Thessalian witches of ancient Greece. When she speaks with entities much more ancient and powerful than herself, her rebellious character comes to the fore.

When a creature from Barbie’s dreams escapes into reality disguised as a man named George and uses psychic birds to mentally assault Barbie and her friends, they all are engulfed in nightmarish visions except for Thessaly, who awakens, kills the bird by smashing it against the wall, and burns the remains. Thessaly then calmly gets a knife, walks upstairs, and politely asks to come into George’s apartment, where she instantly kills him with a strike through the heart, cuts out his face, eyes and tongue, and nails them on the wall, evoking a spell in which the ‘mask’ on the wall becomes animated. The spirit of George explains that he was doing the bidding of the Cuckoo, who wants to destroy the fantasy land in order to be free from it and fly away.

Thessaly determines to travel to Barbie’s dreamworld to take care of the situation. Telling Foxglove and Hazel that their help is required, Thessaly explains that “[t]here are two ways into another’s dreams. We can go through the Dream King; or we can go by the moon’s road. But the Dream King has little time for you women, and even less for my kind; while the moon is ever ours. It’s time to draw down the moon” (“Bad Moon Rising”). Thessaly summons the Three-Who-Are-One and with their help literally calls the moon down from the sky for a few moments, allowing lesbian Foxglove, pregnant Hazel, and millennia-old Thessaly (representing the maiden, mother, and crone) to walk the moon’s road into Barbie’s dream, ultimately leading to a confrontation between Thessaly and Morpheus.

Fables & Reflections

“Soft Places” may be considered to be representative of fantastic neomedievalism as Eco understands the phenomenon. The tale is centered on a historical figure from the Middle Ages who undergoes a “fantastic” experience. The story begins with young Marco Polo, who becomes lost in a sandstorm in the uncharted desert of Lop. After encountering music, objects, and people from various points in time, Polo realises that he is meeting dreams. It is eventually explained to him that until a location is defined by an explorer such as himself, it is potentially a “soft place” where dreams have as much force as physical reality. The implication that there are “soft places” where the fabric of space, time, and reality grow thin reminds one of medieval maps in which the uncharted regions are accepted as belonging to the sea. On the other hand, in most medieval based fantasy tales, the uncharted lands, or regions, are simply marked “Here be Dragons” which depict the marvellous. When one considers the fantastic tales Marco Polo weaves in his Travels, one wonders if he really did exist in a “soft place” once upon a time.

This tale also explicitly explains the reason why one of Dream’s titles is the Sandman. Marco Polo recalls his mother telling him: “He throws the magic sand into your eyes, and that’s what sends you off to dreamland. That’s the sand you find in your eyes when you wake.” The neomedievalist views this tale from the point where certain aspects of time collide: a young Marco Polo becomes lost in 1273, he meets Gilbert from the year 1992, he encounters a man named Rustichello of Pisa who knows Marco Polo as an adult, and they all come across a band of men on horseback who have been searching for the true world, or the land of reality. This band of men resembles Alexander the Great and his army of spearmen. Thus, the events that transpire lend themselves to a cyclic reckoning of time. Time is fluid in the land of dreams, as Gilbert explains: “Time at the edge of The Dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed . . . In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real.”

In “The Parliament of Rooks”, Lyta Hall’s eighteen-month-old baby Daniel is told a bedtime story, begins to sleep, and makes his way to the fringes of The Dreaming where the house of Cain and Abel, the first murderer and the first victim, is located. Matthew the Raven and Eve accompany Daniel to the house, where they all begin telling stories over tea. Among the stories, the most interesting is the one Cain tells Matthew about the mysterious parliament of rooks, which gathers around one lone bird to stare at him for hours. The bird, in turn, continually caws at his brethren until all the other rooks either suddenly take flight as one, or just as suddenly peck the lone rook to death. Although Gaiman claims his “description of a parliament of rooks is accurate” as he “got the information out of an old natural history book” (Bender 154) the resemblance it bears to Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls should not be overlooked.

In “The Parliament of Rooks” Daniel is told a bedtime story and in The Parliament of Fowls Chaucer reads himself to sleep. Upon entering the dreamworld, both Daniel and Chaucer are escorted and both are told tales. In The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer sees an assembly of various birds surrounding Mother Nature and recounts that they have come in search of a mate. After both Daniel and Chaucer listen to tales within their dreams, they awake and are brought back to reality with a piece of the dreamworld with them: a feather for Daniel and a head full of stories for Chaucer.

Brief Lives

The embodiment of change in all its forms “haunts” Brief Lives and is most recognisable in Delirium: she speaks in non-sequiturs, her appearance constantly shifts as well as her mood, and her word-balloons are strangely shaped and multicoloured. Yet, above all, she was once Delight when the world was young but changed from Delight into Delirium. As Delirium recalls: “The moment she realized what was happening, that the universe was changing, that she was growing up or at least growing older… She was no longer Delight; and the blossoms had already begun to fall in her domain, becoming smudged and formless colors …” (“Chapter 2”). Delirium, feeling the gnawing urge for change, initiates the search for their lost brother Destruction in order to reunite her family of the Endless. Yet, as one who knows about change more than anyone else, Delirium portrays a resistance to change as she wishes things to be the way they were.

The theme of change running throughout the Brief Lives series also occurs with other characters such as Destruction and Dream. In the case of Destruction, the change occurred about three hundred years ago, in 1695, when he decided to abandon his realm. The reason Destruction leaves his realm is because he no longer feels there is a place for him in the world. In a flashback scene in “Chapter 4” Destruction is seen to be uneasy, as he relates to Dream:

Times are changing, my brother … They are using reason as a tool. REASON. It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream. But it has the potential to be far more dangerous, for them. They are exploring and creating, defining and dissecting … One of them has prismed the sun’s rays into beams of discrete color. Mister Newton – the young gentleman who ordered the rainbow – has much else to say on the subject of optics … The relationship between matter and light; the transformation, one to the other. I have been here before. After a while certain ideas become inevitable … [then] follows the flames… The big bang. The loud explosions … Then follows my time, brother. The age of fire and flame. (“Chapter 4”)

Destruction reacted to the coming of the Enlightenment and an age of reason by abandoning his realm, with the knowledge that humanity did not have the need to personify Destruction any longer, as they themselves were personally carrying out his duties. Destruction later indicates that his realm has continued to function without him, as he states:

People and things are still created; they still exist; are still destroyed. They tear down and they build. Things still change. The only difference is that no one’s running it anymore. It’s nothing to do with me any longer. It’s theirs. They can make their own destruction. It’s NOT my responsibility. And it’s not my fault. (“Chapter 8”)

Although destruction in the Middle Ages was caused by wars and disease and things that could be seen, these were all considered to be divinely wrought: either God’s will or his wrath. Yet, destruction nowadays need not be personified as it has nothing to do with the realm of the Divine. It has turned into something more invisible and more scientific. Humankind is destroying humanity.

Worlds’ End

Worlds’ End is where reality and dreams clash. Gaiman himself writes that “Worlds’ End is the actual name of a pub I used to see in the Chelsea area of London. I always loved the idea of ‘What if it was? What if you could go into this pub and be at the world’s end?’ … I liked the idea of an inn that was at the end of many worlds” (Bender 248). Worlds’ End is also a collection of short stories like Dream Country and Fables & Reflections, yet with a slight difference. The six tales told in this collection are all linked with each other, as Bender states, through “a framing technique dating back to fourteenth-century author Geoffrey Chaucer [in which] travelers thrown together by circumstance [maintain] one another’s spirits by spinning yarns” (176). Gaiman does not deny his source of inspiration, as he exclaims: “I liked the idea of using one of the oldest storytelling devices in the English Language. If you’re going to steal, you might as well do so from a great source, and Canterbury Tales definitely qualifies” (Bender 176). Rauch notes that “Chaucer’s story used characters from all different walks of life; Gaiman does him one better by bringing together characters literally from different worlds” (130) as the inn embraces all types of travellers from all over time and space. Existing between worlds, the Worlds’ End offers shelter to those seeking refuge from the “reality storm” that has broken out, which has been generated by the death of someone with universal significance. Bender points out that “Gaiman’s goal is the same as Chaucer’s: to tell stories that evoke awe and wonder” (176). As the travellers in the Worlds’ End inn are busy weaving their tales, the reason behind the raging reality storm, though not explained, is hinted at. Destiny is seen walking across the night sky heading a funeral procession. A casket is being carried and many of the characters encountered earlier in the series are seen walking with their heads down, mourning. Delirium and Death are also present, engulfed in grief. However, as the inn exists beyond normal time, and the storm further disrupts the shape of time and space, we cannot be sure when or where this funeral is taking place, or who is being mourned. Thus, the six-story arc ends on a pessimistic note.

The Kindly Ones

In The Kindly Ones Gaiman decides to kill off his main character, an unusual move in mainstream comics. Although there were subtle hints that this kind of an ending might occur, the “hero” is usually expected to withstand all opposing forces, but Dream is not a conventional hero. Throughout the series, Gaiman has related strands of tales within tales, and in The Kindly Ones these strands of tales are woven together. As Frank McConnell says, “this is the kind of writing literary critics like to call ‘postmodern’: letting the reader know you’re conscious of what you are doing at the very time you do it. And a writer like Gaiman is smart enough to realize that kind of performance is about as ‘modern’ as The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy” (“Introduction”).

The tale begins with Lyta Hall, whose entire life revolves around caring for her son Daniel. Lyta’s friend Carla persuades her to take a break and have some fun for a change. So Daniel is left with a baby-sitter and Lyta goes out, but after a few hours, Lyta becomes uneasy and heads back home, only to find her worst nightmare has been realised – Daniel has been kidnapped. The call placed to the police is mysteriously diverted, and when two agents appear at Lyta’s apartment, the reader recognises them to be Loki the Trickster and Puck from Faerie. Believing that Dream was behind the kidnapping and apparent murder of her son, Lyta goes mad and begins roaming the streets of the city. Yet in her delirious state she wanders both in the city and in a world of myth, seeking for a way to wreak vengeance upon Dream.

During her frantic search, Lyta encounters the Furies, who are the avengers of the spilling of family blood. The Furies are older than the gods and are more feared, and they “prefer to be called the Eumenides, a Greek term that translates as ‘the Kindly Ones’ (Bender 186). The Furies were already seeking a way to punish Morpheus for killing his son Orpheus. Thus, despite the fact that it was not Dream who kidnapped Daniel, Lyta serves as an instrument of the Furies. Meanwhile, Loki and Puck are keeping Daniel in fire, a traditional method used by gods to burn away the mortality of a human.

The Furies enter The Dreaming and begin killing off its inhabitants one by one. As everything located in The Dreaming is an extension of the Sandman himself, the Furies are gradually killing Dream as well. Dream attempts to end this massacre by killing Lyta, only to find out that she is being protected by Thessaly. Although Dream has the power to kill Lyta even though she is under protection, he chooses not to, for he would be breaking certain rules by doing so. Like a knight valuing his honour, Dream does not wish to break the code. Dream is unsure of the actions he must take, yet stays calm with the knowledge that as long as he remains within his realm, he cannot be truly harmed. Yet Morpheus eventually leaves The Dreaming as he is called on by Nuala, one of the Faeries, to whom he had given a pendant stating that she may use it to call him for a single boon. Once again Dream is adhering to his code of honour. When Dream returns to his castle he finds that it has been taken over by the Kindly Ones. Dream decides that he is left with no other option but to confront the Furies. He flies to a high peak with Matthew and, after a brief exchange with the Furies, he hands over his helm and pouch to Matthew to take back to the castle and tells him to inform his sister Death that he is waiting for her. Dream waits on the peak of nightmare for Death, and after they talk, Dream holds her hand and ceases to exist in his former state. Daniel, who has been kept in the Dreaming, is now Dream reincarnated.

Stripping away the personifications, it is possible to read this exchange as a new beginning for humanity. The unconsciousness thus forced into a corner, on the edge of nightmares, seeks a way to continue its existence, albeit in a different form. A new beginning is made possible only through redemption. The cycle of one era has ended, paving the way for a new cycle to commence, built on the old. The postmodern world which we inhabit has also brought us to the edge of nightmares, to the threshold of everlasting change. This cycle is also completing its turn, interlocking and generating a new cycle built on the older medieval model.

The Wake

Before I died, I told me many things…
(Daniel, “In Which a Wake is Held”)

The climax of the series occurred in The Kindly Ones where Dream died, but The Wake is important as it is where loose ends are tied, the dead are mourned, and there is reconciliation. The aftermath of Dream’s death begins when each of the remaining five Endless is visited by winged messengers, who summon them to the Necropolis Litharge to collect the cerements and the Books of Ritual for Dream’s funeral. They sculpt an envoy from mud for the task. Death breathes life into it, and Delirium names him Eblis O’Shaughnessy.

Meanwhile, Daniel is adapting to his role as the new Dream. He begins by resurrecting the entities that were destroyed by the Furies. Yet, when he attempts to resurrect Fiddler’s Green, Gilbert states that he has had a fulfilling life and does not wish to be resurrected, representing, in a way, the past that is forever lost. Daniel accepts Gilbert’s request to be left in peace. Matthew also has difficulty in adapting to the new situation, as the instant Daniel says that Matthew was his friend, the raven retorts in anger and frustration: “I was his friend. I’m not your anything.” The former Dream would have been enraged at being thus spoken to, whereas Daniel simply replies: “This is very new to me, Matthew. This place. This world. I have existed since the beginning of time. This is a true thing. I am older than worlds and suns and gods. But tomorrow I will meet my brother and sisters for the first time. And I am afraid” (“In Which a Wake is Held”). Towards the end of the story Matthew is reconciled to Dream.

The most notable distinction between the former Dream and the latter is in appearance and attitude. While Dream was dressed in black – much akin to his sister Death – had black hair and a nightmarish attitude, Daniel is dressed in white, has white hair, and is much more gentle and kind. Even the tone of his voice differs from Dream, as his word-balloon, though retaining a dreamy border, is set in a white background against Morpheus’ black. In chapter 2, “In Which a Wake is Held”, the conversation taking place between Lucien, Cain and Abel, and Eblis sheds more light on the distinction between Morpheus and Daniel:

Eblis: Sir Librarian – the young lord in white… who was he?
Lucien: He is Dream of the Endless.
Eblis: He is…? But the wake. The ceremony. I was told that Dream of the Endless was no more.
Lucien: Yes.
Eblis: So…who died?
Cain: Nobody died. How can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an action?
Eblis: Then what died? Who are you mourning?
Abel: A puh-point of view.


Rauch asserts that “[w]e are living in an age of wonders. Although the ‘Age of Reason’ came hundreds of years ago, the fruits of reason have continued to grow, and we stand at the edge of a new millennium in a time of unimagined scientific progress” (13). Though humanity has gained much from scientific progress, it has also turned away from imagination. Free-reined imagination is a necessity in any culture, and the deficiency of imagination may only lead to a sense of meaninglessness. As Jaffe points out, “people are beginning to bump up against the limits of materialism and rationalism, realizing that these fail to offer something essential, a purpose in life … [thus] we cannot do without meaning in our lives” (7) and this meaninglessness brings with it an emptiness we experience in the form of anxiety, which seems to be dominant in our age. This anxiety has led to a return to the Middle Ages in the form of neomedievalism as defined by Eco.

In search for meaning and sustenance, we have revisited the medieval era through the fantastic. Thus, the term “fantastic neomedievalism” binds together the concept of fantasy and the concept of the Middle Ages, resembling the uroborus, where beginning and end are forever interlinked. Cantor suggests that the Middle Ages serve as an essential source of inspiration for Western culture and that the “memory of the Middle Ages endures only to be explored and refined, but never, it seems, to be rejected or forgotten” (410). According to Eco’s “fantastic neomedievalism,” we can see how the medieval era serves to alleviate the sense of meaninglessness and the anxieties of contemporary Western culture. Cantor also believes that capitalism and socialism no longer function as value systems, but are only endured as ways of social existence and physical survival which do not provide any emotional sustenance. Therefore, “we have found our inspiration and technologies elsewhere, in cultural systems … because of the richness and diversity of the medieval world, wherein anyone can find an aspect of special significance and proximity, medievalism sustains itself and flourishes as the cultural structure of a compelling value system” (411).

Furthermore, the fantasy genre also offers emotional sustenance, as it provides both the means and the freedom by which inner experiences might be explored and expressed. As the postmodern world we live in is stripped of meaning and as the surge of the fantastic provides spiritual compensation, it is possible to view fantasy as the new religion of our current culture. Interestingly, fantasy was the edifice in which beliefs manifested themselves until the Age of Reason and scientific development brought about an analytic viewing of the world. However, it seems that rationality is no longer able to maintain its once fulfilling role.

Consequently, only through a comprehensive understanding and restructuring of the past will we be able to structure our present. Although our current era has been categorised as being postmodern, for the reason that our culture has inherited an uneasiness and societal anxiety resembling the collective insecurity of the medieval era, I tend to agree with Eco that we are, in fact, under the banner of neomedievalism. Furthermore, in order for “a neo-medieval-based culture for the twenty-first century to be constructed, the Middle Ages must be exhibited in all their glory and terror, in all their joy and distress, in all their harmony and conflict” (Cantor 412).


[1] See Jeffrey B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, 1972, New York: Cornell UP, 1984. p. 115

[2] See Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Esp. p. 20.


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