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Credit: Starz

The search for meaning in Neil Gaiman's American Gods and The Sandman

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Apr 23, 2019

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was the first fantasy novel I ever loved. I read the book as I was moving from graduate school in New England back home to Colorado. As I drove through America, I read about the same landscape I was seeing through a fantastical lens.

A couple years later, while on a graphic novel kick, I picked up The Sandman. Where I found American Gods nostalgic and elusive, The Sandman was dreamy, contemplative, and trippy. As I dove further into The Sandman, though, I found the two narratives to be distinct, but with interesting areas of overlap.

In both, Gaiman obsesses over the common questions that plague religion. He's consumed by themes of fate, desire, human potential, and meaning. As his characters, namely Shadow in American Gods and Dream in The Sandman, navigate their respective worlds, they must grapple with their own natures, their relationships to others, and what the point of it all is.

At the end of the day, both narratives and characters explore meaning-making when nothing in the world makes much sense at all.

Let’s be real here for a second: Gaiman is not perfect, and though I tend to adore his work, I do so with a certain selective lens. There are some problematic tropes and representations of women and queer people that arise in his work — all of which certainly bears teasing out and none of which will I be tackling in this essay.

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Credit: Starz

American Gods tells the story of Shadow Moon and his entrance into the world of the gods and powers that dominate his country, both old and new. Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday, a conman in need of muscle, and, despite his reservations, he ends up accepting his new job. Shortly thereafter, Shadow’s dead wife, Laura, rises from the grave and tries to reconcile with him. (She died having an affair with Shadow’s best friend.) Shadow follows Wednesday on his wild recruitment road trip, meeting stranger and stranger old gods—and learning the threat the new gods pose firsthand. The old gods are disappearing because belief in them is waning and the new gods of media, technology, and modern transit are rising in their place.

Shadow lives with and encounters the impossible over and over throughout the course of the book, and all the while he tries to find a way to help Laura, help Wednesday, and help himself. Unfortunately, he finds that Laura is decaying rapidly, that Wednesday, aka Odin, is a self-obsessed jerk, and that he himself is not at all who he thought he was.

It is only when Shadow dies, while holding vigil for the recently murdered Wednesday, that he starts to understand the truth. He is Wednesday’s son, his father is trying to set up a war to rack up some sacrifices and return to his glorious stature, and Shadow has powers he’s barely scratched the surface of.

To end the war, Shadow must slip “Backstage,” behind our reality, which is something he has never done before by himself, though he has tagged along with his father. Once behind the scenes, Shadow reveals Wednesday’s plan to both the old and new gods, convincing them to leave the battlefield. Afterward, he finds Laura dying on the ground. She asks him to let her die and he pulls the coin that has been keeping her revived from her neck.

Shadow spends the majority of the narrative searching for meaning and truth. And once he has grasped it, it slips through his fingers.

“You learn anythin’ from all this?”

Shadow shrugged. “I don’t know. Most of what I learned on the tree I’ve already forgotten,” he said. “I think I met some people. But I’m not certain of anything anymore. It’s like one of those dreams that changes you. You keep some of the dream forever, and you know things deep inside yourself, because it happened to you, but when you go looking for details they kind of just slip out of your head.”

“Yeah,” said Mr. Nancy. And, then he said grudgingly, “You’re not so dumb.”

Even after all Shadow has been through, after all he has seen and done, he has no greater sense of meaning than before. Or, at least, he cannot express what that meaning is in words.

Sandman Neil Gaiman hero

Credit: Vertigo 

Dream, A.K.A. Morpheus, is one of the Endless, a being more powerful than a god. He reigns over a realm called the Dreaming. When mortals dream, we enter his realm, spending nearly a third of our lives in Dream’s territory. When Dream is captured and imprisoned for 70 years, the world of dreams falls into disrepair and some nasty baddies get a hold of dream-related magic. Upon his escape and return to his previous stature, Dream sets about fixing all that is wrong in both the Dreaming and the waking world.

Given the sheer quantity of The Sandman issues produced by Gaiman between 1989 and 1996, it’s hard to discuss Dream’s search for meaning overall, but there is a fantastic issue that illustrates his wider arc beautifully. In The Sandman #13, “Men of Good Fortune,” Gaiman diverts from the narrative and timeline of the other issues to foray into Dream’s relationship with one person in particular.

In the 1389, Dream meets a man at a tavern. The man decides he is simply not interested in dying, which Dream finds intriguing. He agrees to meet the man in 100 years at the same tavern. When they meet again, the man describes his life, having not changed much, but still very much wanting to live. So, they part and meet again in another 100 years. They do this over and over and each time the man seems to have learned little, dabbling here and there in the worst of humanity’s enterprises: murder, slavery, and thievery.

When they meet again in 1889, the man says to Dream, “Y’know I think I know why we meet here century after century. It’s not because you want to see what happens when a man don’t die. You’ve seen what happens.” He tells Sandman about his mistakes and how he doesn’t think people ever change. He continues, “You’ve observed all that. But you knew it from the start. I think you’re here for something else.”

“And what might that be?” Dream asks.

“Friendship,” the man replies. “I think you’re lonely.”

Dream becomes furious that the man would imply he “might befriend a mortal.” As he storms off, the man tells him that he’ll be there in another hundred years and if Dream shows then, it will be because they are friends.

In 1989, the deathless man sits alone at the pub, smoking a cigarette. Dream appears to him, appropriately adopting a more Bowie-esque appearance, and says, “I have always heard it was impolite to keep one’s friend waiting.”

Being Endless, you might think Dream would not be interested in meaning or other human affairs, but this single issue provides an interesting window into Dream’s personality, ethos, and how he has changed due to his interaction with humans. As The Sandman issues continue, Dream becomes more and more receptive to humanity, just as he was with the ageless man. And, he expresses a deep commitment to serving humanity, not to toying with them like dolls. So, it seems, Dream’s pursuit of meaning is wrapped up in his service to and understanding of humans.

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Credit: Vertigo

What’s probably most interesting about comparing American Gods and The Sandman when it comes to meaning is how different yet similar the two main characters and their outlooks are. Shadow is (mostly) human while Dream is anything but. However, as the two go through the course of events in their respective narratives, Shadow discovers his limited godhood and Dream finds himself more connected to humans.

But, what does it mean if the meaning they find doesn’t really mean anything? Or, if Shadow cannot remember the most important things he’s learned, has he learned anything? If Dream finds himself in search of human friendship, does that make his search for meaning fundamentally a search for human connection?

No one knows. And, that’s why Gaiman’s work is so powerful. He presents compelling dilemmas, asks deeply philosophical questions, and then, just when you think you know what he’s saying, the narrative seems to assert the opposite. It can be frustrating, but when we turn to the subject of finding and making meaning, it feels incredibly poignant. How on earth can we know or believe or do anything when we know that at any moment we can drop dead? Because we assign meaning to our decisions.

Ultimately, I would argue, Gaiman posits that the creation of meaning is in telling the story. It is only when Shadow understands his position within his father’s machinations, or mythology, that he can break the god’s hold on himself and others. It is only when Dream understands how he is caught up in the story of human history that he can accept that he wants to be there.

Because the truth is, there just isn’t any meaning to life — not until we make it mean something. What better way to do so then through the stories we tell?

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