Obligation to duty is an odd way of exacting revenge for a condemned archangel. Thus far in Season of Mists, Gaiman’s philosophy of duty and right work ethic encircles the conundrum of Lucifer’s Miltonian Hell, now abandoned and set to be auctioned off to the “who’s who” of supernatural powers. Obviously, a vacant Hell brings considerable consternation to Dream when the troupe of interested parties comes knocking at his door to be received. Even with the promises of gifts or the threats, Dream is put in a difficult position. In the face of so many deities, I offered last time that Dream’s supernatural presence considerably waned in the first half of the Season of Mists narrative arc. So it is strange that this latter half features a bolstering of Dream’s presence and power as the Lord of Dreams. If thus far Sandman has been a tale of a wayward ancient power discovering his true potential through empathy, then Gaiman’s emboldened protagonist comes into his own at the climax of Season of Mists, ascending to his rightful throne, with an audience of fading gods, no longer relevant and barely clinging to life.
Sandman #25 introduces the final installments of the narrative cycle with a seemingly unrelated story, though it will be revealed that the ongoing conflict of the issue reflects the turmoil of Hell’s absence. The school boy Rowland is the primary protagonist, a child trapped, alone at a boarding school for expatriates. The depiction of expatriated education is spot on in it’s description. A good friend of mine, Jared White, spent from ages 13 to 22 as an expatriate. All over the world, he has attended schools of exotic locales from Venezuela and the Philippines, all the way to China, and is a fascinating individual for it. But what is interesting about Rowland’s school is that it captures the social isolation and feelings of entrapment that the boys of St. Hilarion’s endured in their stay. While there is no actual school in the UK of that name, the historic Hilarion, from which the school draws its name, was a ascetic monk who lived in the late 3rd century AD and was a contemporary of St. Anthony, another monk famous for his pursuit of piety and extensive bouts with social isolation. Both were figures of the early beginnings of monasticism, with Hilarion gaining renown for his dealings with depression, hunger, and supernatural confrontations in his fasting and hermitage. Rowland lives in the same capacity, battling his feelings of isolation and hunger, amidst a school bursting with spirits loosed from Hell.
While it is subtly ironic that a school for expatriated children would house socially isolated youth, spending their times alone in a cloister named from the early founder of the monastic movement, the use of the imagery sets up the rest of the issue’s premise. Earlier in the Season of Mists arc, Hell was introduced as a realm not where people go to suffer, but rather where people go to consciously submit themselves to suffering, gravitating towards judgment as their perceived debt to their subconscious. St. Hilarion’s then, as the dead return to the school to submit to the routine and discipline of schooling, takes the semblance of purgatory, a place where sinners abide for a short while before being purged of remnant sin and then ascend to heaven, only in this case Gaiman presents it as a prison with no where to go. The faculty and students returning from Hell, rather than enjoying freedom from suffering, return to the school awaiting their further education. At the end of the issue Rowland and Paine debate about the purpose of the school, ultimately deciding that “hell’s something you carry around you. Not somewhere you go.” Those destined to Hell, then, are those who are capriciously self-involved, and are incapable of experiencing life because of their inward egotism. As Paine and Rowland leave the gated property of St. Hilarion’s they feel truly alive, and no longer spiritually dead.
Dream’s contextualization continues in Issue #26, focusing on his tenuous predicament as assorted gods and goddesses mingle in his banquet hall, each of them set on obtaining the prize: the keys to Hell. This first half of the comic is told through the eyes of Loki, who is now revealed as a means of leverage against Dream to acquire the realm of Hell by force. The use of Loki as an observer is interesting granted that he is a trickster god, one familiar with the bending and obfuscating of reality to suit his purpose. His observations of each of the deities is a scheme set in place by Odin using his stepson as a means to an end, in an attempt to trick Dream himself. This is ironic, for at the conclusion of the arc Dream will trick Odin, replacing Loki with a dream image to end the trickster’s suffering, and also quite possibly initiating Ragnarok in the process.
Thus far, Dream’s presence has only diminished in wonder and importance when compared to the parade of deities that have converged on his location. As before in the first half of Season of Mists, Dream is pigeonholed into a growing cosmology within the Sandman universe. In the presence of the Endless, he was contextualized as a petulant, capricious sibling among his brothers and sisters. These humanizing characteristics are enhanced with the introduction of other gods of similar merit. Rather than impartial, overly idealized figures, they are simply amplified humans, with particular needs, fears, and desires. Gaiman’s constructions of the Divine are consistent with the characteristics of the Ancient Near East pantheons, taking joy in food, sex, and conquest. Typically these gods were leveraged by the kings of surrounding city-states, thus becoming nothing more than glorified mascots, pressed to grant the wishes of the priest-cults that called upon them. Consequently, their recorded interactions with mortals then took the shape of mortal desires, and were less abstracted than later conceptualizations of the divine in Eastern and Western culture. Loki’s hungering for sex, Azazel’s scheming, and Dream’s humanistic dimensions are representations of older expressions of divinity that undercut the abstracted, all-powerful representations of the divine that were so alluring in the earlier installments of Sandman. Yet, in spite of this, when Dream begins to interact with his visitors, Gaiman reestablishes him as the Endless master of Dreams.
The bartering for Hell’s keys is the launching point for Dream’s redefinition as a prominent member of the spiritual universe. In his dealings with his guests Dream reasserts his dominance. Thus far in the Sandman universe, Morpheus has consistently revealed himself to be a constant, a parameter that transcends reality across all universes. How he reveals himself to individuals, like Robert Gadling or Nada, expresses his pliability and universality, being the highest form of conscious manifestation in the minds of humanity and other creatures in the known universe. Much like Morrison’s Superman, Dream’s consistent atmosphere in his corporeal manifestations set him at the highest degree of reality. So when he deals with each spiritual being, his methods of interaction consist with the cultural milieu associated with each god or goddess. For example, Kelley Jones represents Dream’s incarnation with Susanoo, a Japanese storm god, in an artfully depicted in the ukiyo-e style, and articulates Dream’s condescension to his comparatively youthful contemporary. The bartering sequence, including his other dealings with Odin, Bast, and Kildernkin, effectively place Dream back on his throne of power, now in a position to leverage his influence. Especially when he confronts Azazel, Dream asserts this sovereignty. (As Azazel threatens Nada, Dream still maintains a stoic presence, fully in control.)
After speaking with the gods vying for Hell, Dream returns to his quarters to think, attempting to determine which party to give the key to. Here Dream’s quest to free Nada, the catalyst for his second adventure to Hell, is brought to the forefront in the reader’s mind. One would not fault the Dream Lord for siding with Azazel due to his intimate connection to Nada. However, this is not the case as Dream impartially weighs his options. Gaiman’s characterization of Dream in this sequence is far more mature than before, when he would tamper with the lives of William Shakespeare, or kill the false essence of Hector Hall without thought to Lyta. No longer reckless and out of his element, he now approaches the problem analytically. Before making his decision, the Angels Remiel and Duma appear and give him a message from YHWH: an appeal to Dream that Hell can only exist in tandem with Heaven, both antithetical constructions of one another and forming one whole. Therefore, Hell must remain in the hands of YHWH. Realizing the implications of its superior command, Remiel rebels against YHWH, with parallels to Lucifer’s own rebellion, seeing the proclamation of the Name as unjust. Duma, however, accepts the key dutifully, and Remiel follows its companion to Hell willingly as a friend. Dream’s choice to side with the observant angels redeems him at the arc’s conclusion, illustrating his prudence. In siding with the angels, Dream single-handedly ends the conflict between Heaven and Hell, brings order to a realm of chaos, satisfies the Faerie, and curbs the earthly inundation of spirits that since Lucifer’s deposition had wandered aimlessly through the void of limbo and back to their earthly lives. Ultimately, the just nature of Dream’s actions renew him as the mysterious and omniscient anthropomorphic presence that so typified his character in the early issues of Sandman.
During the Epilogue of Season of Mists, Gaiman’s story comes to a close with clarity. The angels, now in Hell, have restored the realm’s true essence, as punitive overseers no longer feeding the egotistical desires of the occupants’ self-inflicted pain. Rather, they now advance the torment of Hell as penance for wrongdoing, aimed at redeeming the lost soul. This is not Purgatory by any means, as there is no implications of being freed from torment based on repentance. What it does instead is magnify the pain of the damned. Before, Hell existed to gratify the souls that lived there with a debased satisfaction with suffering. The suffering was about those that lived there, and not contingent on their rebellion against the created order. The damnation that follows is more reminiscent of the Hell of the apostle John’s Revelation: eternal torment ad infinitum, with emphasis on consciousness. The emphasis here is separation from self and identity, something which the souls of Hell clung to in its previous management under Lucifer (see Breschau of Livonia, Sandman #23). Torment is exceedingly worse when all gratification is removed, and is replaced with a loss of self. Remiel’s words, “One day you’ll thank us for it,” is a constant reminder that the souls of Hell, lacking any sense of self in their depleted individuality, cannot thank or show gratitude without confronting their own evil that brought them there to begin with.
Concluding The Season of Mists, Gaiman’s pay-off at the end is rewarding, and perhaps the most memorable anecdote from the Sandman series. In Perth, Australia, Lucifer reclines on a beach chair, relaxing in the fading sunlight. On the beach he meets another tired soul, burdened with heartache and loss, but still can find joy in every sunset he watches. Lucifer’s journey, despite a spinoff vertigo series and further emendations to his mythology, ends here. Despite this, it offers a moment of clarity for Lucifer’s character. The man, who declares himself as agnostic, admits a begrudging respect for the God responsible for such beautiful sunsets and Lucifer agrees, enjoying the rest of the sunset in peace. This final coda on the sprawling story that was leveraged as Dream’s return to dominance begs the question of whether Dream’s adventures can continue, now that he has regained his own “paradise lost.” The final quote of G.K. Chesterton at the conclusion of the narrative arc presses the reader to continue on, for Dream’s tale is far from over. In fact, it’s only just begun.