The words of John Donne’s Death be not Proud are Neil Gaiman’s badge of honor. “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful for thou art not so,” the emboldened meter chimes. These words resonate with Gaiman’s dealings with death in his Sandman corpus, and though Donne’s polemic against death, its grip and hold on the mortal, is celebrating the freedom from life into eternity, thereby implying the death of death itself, Gaiman leverages the spirit of Donne’s words. Death, as perceived in the anthropomorphous character of the same name in Sandman, is not a cruel Fate of early antiquity, but a blithe spirit, full of mirth and acceptance.
Earlier in this series, in “The Sound of Her Wings,” Death is feared by all she meets, something which bothers Dream, who conceives of death being the inevitable end of all things, something that happens only once. He quotes the early Egyptian wisdom proverb Death is Before Me Today, and concludes that even in the passionate encounters his older sister makes with the mortals, she still finds joy in her work, by completing it and taking ownership of her ill-perceived tasks. All things considered, it would seem odd that Death would introduce her brother to a man named Robert Gadling, a man who does not believe in death or its purposes. The resulting relationship between Dream and “Hob” spans six hundred years, and encapsulates the spirit of Sandman’s connection with real human history.
Gaiman’s work Sandman #13 “Men of Good Fortune,” is arguably one of the greatest single issue comics ever written, on equal footing with #19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and establishes Dream’s own connection with humanity in his budding friendship with Hob, along with the cycle of human achievement from success to misfortune that Hob undergoes between their meetings.
Dream’s first encounter with Hob at the Tavern of the White Horse – which may or may not be in reference to the White Horse Inn of Bingley, West Yorkshire, England – sets the historical setting of the period. Only eight years after the Peasants’ Revolt, led by John Ball and Wat Tyler, England was still enthralled with the Hundred Years War and experiencing an upheaval of drastic proportions. During the Black Death, as much as 75% of Europe’s population was decimated. Suddenly, in thinned towns, now devoid of serfs and other instruments of the feudal social strata, once common unskilled workers were given liberty to ask for higher wages, even turn down jobs given the lack of available labor. The result was the end of the feudal system, foreshadowed by the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Hob then would have been one such peasant, birthed in the early years of the surviving population of the plague, now a hired hand in the continental skirmishes between England and France.
Within the first pages of the issue a litany of events are pushed to the forefront, many of which are finite samples of greater issues that denizens of the late 14th century encountered. Gaiman’s skill of weaving these period social themes is unprecedented. Hob, a disillusioned English peasant would not have easily forgotten the freedom nearly gained by Ball and Tyler in the Peasants’ Revolt. He also would have shared a distaste for the French based off the continuing conflict between the two crowns. This conflict roots itself in the issue of succession going back to the war of 1066 when William the Conquer entered England from Normandy and declared himself king at the expense of the hapless, though valiant King Harold. According to David Howarth, a popular modern historian of the era, the French invasion marked the end of the idealism of the English rule, where common men had a voice amongst their feudal hierarchy, and instead introduced chivalric megalomania to the ruling classes. According to the law of the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum, the English were organized into social groups that allowed easy communication of grievances to the the crown through communal village meetings. It was also a time when no true figurehead in England boasted ansolute sovereignty, but rather ruled in deference to the people and landed gentry. The French invader William changed all of that, and therefore compromised the purity of English culture for the next three hundred years. This is why in the tavern, voices are overheard discussing the social upheaval and turmoil of the age.
Midst the tavern talk, Dream and Death encounter the literary figure Geoffrey Chaucer who at an undisclosed time nearing the end of the 14th century wrote a collection of short stories that would become immortalized in English Literature as one of the most influential works in Western Civilization. Much of this had to do with the making available of high criticism to lower classes through the use of English vernacular rather than the classical languages of French or Latin, though English vernacular was in common use long before. Peirs Plowman, another work mentioned by Geoffrey’s companion was an earlier populist tale for the working man struggling to find the true Christian praxis in the mire of corrupt medieval Catholicism during the reign of Simon Sudbury, then Archbishop of Canterbury. The significance of the religious upheaval of the time is only made more potent with the beginning of the story taking place in during the reign of the popes in the Avignon Papacy, when Pope Clement VII reigned in opposition to the over zealous Urban VI, thereby instigating much discussion over the Eschatological end of Christendom.
Other religious intrigue occurs in the brief mention of Ahasuerus, the archetypical figure of the Wandering Jew, the subject of medieval legend, dating back to the Apostolic Era. This tale foreshadows the story of Hob that is to unfold throughout the issue. Salo Baron in Social and Religious History of the Jews describes the tale of the Wandering Jew as appearing as early as Tertullian among extraneous Christian sects, suggesting that the Jewish people were a new category likened to Cain, cursed to wander the earth. This however is an early construction of antisemitism, reflecting the undeveloped conceptualization of the early church as a schismatic entity, and deriving none of the covenant promises as achieved through the Jewish nation. In later Medieval legends, a Wandering Jew archetype is purported in the writings of Roger of Wendover in the Flores Historiarum. The story details the monks of St. Albans Abbey celebrating Joseph of Arimathea, a New Testament figure, allegedly still alive. When the Armenian Archbishop visits them, he claims there is a similar figure in his country, a wandering Jew named Cartaphilus who taunted Jesus on the cross and was cursed to walk the earth. Since then, he had become a Christian, living out the rest of his days as a proselytizer. Both tales present a history of Jewish fantasy and antisemitism, and the orientalizing of the Jew in Western European culture. This legend will persist in history, according to Gaiman, through the interactions between Hob and Dream, becoming the inspiration for the variants of the story. It is within this backdrop that the discussion between Dream and Hob begins, as each of them vow to meet one another again in a hundred years.
When Dream and Hob return from their travels to reconvene, Dream is met by an incredulous Hob who asks if he has made some Faustian bargain (forgive the anachronism) with an unsavory spirit. The resulting conversation reveals the next stages of growth in modern human society. In comparison to the dingy dirt-covered floors of the previous hostelry, the Tavern of the White Horse is cobblestone with a larger floorspace and a great rising flame through a chimney. Each meet at the height of the Italian Renaissance, which was strengthened by the return of the Papacy to Rome and the consolidation of European powers at the conclusion of the Hundred Years War. Hob claims that he had taken up a trade in printing, the apex of human achievement during the Early Modern period. This is contrasted against the simple novelties that Hob is more fascinated with, like the creation of the handkerchief, playing cards, and the use of a chimney to vent the harmful smoke of the fire. The dialogue between Old World and Modern World science arises in the conversation when an older man exclaims the folly of newfangled implements, boasting that the smoke’s alleged healing properties can no longer be enjoyed by the people.
With the rise of modern convenience, Hob now enjoys the fruits of the Black Death, employing his freedom to barter for skills and training that were not available to the common people prior to the Black Death’s arrival. Now Hob is enjoying the expansion of mercantilism, able to move his way into a new bourgeois middle class. With his utilization of printing, Hob will corner a new market of information and learning, which will spark the Scientific Revolution. Dream’s eyebrows raise in curiosity when he asks Hob what his people will think of next, to which Hob replies, “Get rid of the fleas, with any luck.”
The scene begins with Dream at the outskirts of the White Horse Inn, possibly the very same White Horse Inn from Bingley. No longer is the exterior forested, but barren of trees, implying England’s growth and expansion, along with the scarcity of lumber. Though England was deforested long ago by the Romans and the Norsemen, it was during this period that homes were no longer constructed out of wood, but of sturdier materials and rudimentary plasters. Nevertheless, this is the new age, and with it a new tavern sitting on the exact spot where the Tavern of the White Horse once stood.
Inside the tavern, unlike the previous century, figureheads of the literary movement are present: a young, untalented Will Shaxberd and Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. During the interchange it is here where Gaiman sets in motion the upcoming arc for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by making a bargain off panel with Will Shaxberd. Gaiman’s writing shines the most in this period for his weaving of history and fantasy, where Dream will then be, again, a tool of inspiration for the most influential figure in the English Cannon. Using this as a precursor to the fortunes to come, Hob, who now goes by the name Sir Robert Gadlen remarks continually to Dream about the modern innovations of higher quality food products and services. This is a time of innovation and striving for higher ideals, something that is captured well by Will’s sudden exposition of Marlowe’s Faust, wishing that he could be a writer of equal merit. At the same time it also condemns him, because Marlowe on his own was a great poet and playwright. It took a deal with the devil for William Shakespeare to be, or not to be.
The wheel of fortune, ever turning, drops Hob into a new low in the following century, no longer a father, or a husband, whose wife and son were taken from him through fate and circumstance. As for Dream, who sits in luxury hearing the conversations mingle in the air on religion’s relinquishing of power unto science, the era seems less exciting to him, as he stares lonely into space. The fancy and whimsical tales of myth and magic no longer serve the atmosphere of the Scientific Revolution, bent on stripping the world of its wonder and fantasy. Hob must be escorted into the Inn through Dream’s intervention, seeing before him a scoundrel and a beggar.
During the conversation, Hob’s admittance that he made a wrong siding with the English King James II is a clear indication that his age and wisdom no longer protect him from the geopolitical events that occur in the greater world. Hob’s reliance off the wealth and authority of the crown, along with the philosophy of divine right that backed it, failed him when William of Orange invaded England and established a constitutional monarchy, thereby ending the possibility of an absolute monarchy. Also, since the popularizing of the Reformation, Protestantism’s stamping out of errant doctrines and folk magic of the early 17th century led to Hob’s own deposition, being declared a witch and barely surviving. But when Dream asks if he desires to die, Hob still replies that he wants to live.
In the subsequent decade, Hob discusses his success with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, confessing that he started the whole thing back when he financed John (read as Jack) Hawkins’s first attempts of monetizing the slave trade. Dream’s reply is disconcerting. Hob’s calloused reply, “it’s a living,” fits his character well who undoubtedly is no stranger to death, and therefore cares little of what humans die of or who is killing them. Also, the historical backdrop places Hob in a dubious time for the English, having lost the colonies, and now across the waters from an even bloodier revolution in France. Now Hob appears more strategic, no longer investing in transitory powers that rise and fall. He now looks to private investments to ensure his success. A brief interchange turns more serious when Hob talks about Shakespeare’s King Lear, remarking how it has changed since the original version. Dream is convinced that the true ending will return, however.
Before Hob is able to ask Dream of his true nature, and the deal surrounding Will’s relationship with Dream, the two are held at knife point by Johanna Constantine. The legends surrounding the Tavern that precede them now suggest that the Devil and the Wandering Jew of Late Apostolic antiquity convene at the Inn. In the same spirit, Lady Constantine’s attempts to kidnap Dream and Hob and take them away for some spiritual gains shed light on the nature on the commodification of individuals. Hob’s imprisonment of humans is unsightly in Dreams eyes, who then sternly advises Hob to find another means of employment.
Upon entering the White Horse Inn, Dream startles a whore who is under the impression that he is Jack the Ripper. Politely Dream refuses; yet the encounter, while humorous, establishes the modern setting of the late industrial period of England’s history. No longer are there expanses of open fields surrounding the Tavern, but a network of brick and mortar sinew suffocating the flickering lamplight with air pollution. Hob has been frequenting the tavern lately as to not arouse suspicion in the guests and avoid the previous encounter with any supernatural enforcer. His mood is also more sober, less optimistic but contemplative, as if something has been on his mind since his last encounter with Dream. He mentions that there are others who continue to live long after their mortal years, including Mad Hette, who appeared earlier on in “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Hob concludes then, that after a long life, having time to learn from his mistakes, while also making time to commit many more, that he has discovered the true nature of Dream’s desire to continue meeting with him. He then suggests that Dream is lonely; Dream scoffs, walking out in a torrent of anger. Behind him, Hob watches him walk away, hoping to see him again in the same spot. This marks a turning point in their relationship, revealing Dream to be more human than he would wish to appear. The result is that the reader is inclined to want the outburst to be simply a childish coverup of Dream’s true feelings. Nothing more can be concluded from this era until the final segment, thus concluding the issue.
This time, as before, Hob waits by himself in the sleek 80s design of the new White Horse Inn, hearing in the chatter the same equivalent speech patterns that were introduced in the opening of the issue. Gaiman’s statement here is, “Life comes full circle, people never change, only the historical environments do.” It’s a very sobering but insightful message that makes this comic in particular stand out. Whether or not Gaiman is a well-read scholar is not the final question – though he most certainly is – but the real issue at hand is the culmination of a new friendship, between Dream and Hob, who visits him offering a drink for the first time. It is missed, I think, that until now Dream’s reason for meeting Hob was nothing more than pure curiosity, and in a way was commoditizing Hob’s experiences for his own personal pleasure. This time is different, however. After seventy years confined in his magical prison, Dream no longer takes relationships for granted. Now he looks at Hob as a friend and companion, one that he is glad to have around. In a way, the reader can relate with Hob, who now looks at Dream, Neil himself, waiting to hear a story from him for the first time in six hundred years.