The Old World:

Comics and Cultural Reclamation in Sandman #38

Worthy expressions of folk myth are few and far between in the mainstream media, but persist as the most iconic means of contemporary storytelling. At the conclusion of A Game Of You, Gaiman introduces a unit of these tales, serving as a breathing point in the ongoing Sandman Mythos, reminding the reader that Dream’s universe is diverse and potently supernatural. Anything goes here. In the styling of The Princess Bride, Gaiman’s first tale introduces an elder and a youth, their culture clash and recourse. In the elder’s tale there are referential elements from the Sandman saga such as Lucien’s stewardship of Dream’s library and the subtle inclusion of Matthew, the raven. It features as well Gaiman’s recurring thematic statement, contained in the grandfather’s advice: “you shouldn’t trust the storyteller, only trust the story.” This is a line of reasoning originating in the description of John Dee’s torture victims in 24 Hours, as well as Richard Madoc’s hypocrisy in his own writing from Sandman #17. Similarly, like Men of Good Fortune, Convergence: The Hunt introduces a mortal to contextualize Dream’s omnipotence and his subtle involvement in human history. What results from this collocation of themes is an analysis of cultural preservation, and the perseverance of tribal societies in the growing modern world.

The story begins in medias res with the grandfather telling his granddaughter a story about the “old country.” Here, in Convergence: The Hunt, the “old country” refers to Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago set in northern Russia, which in the 1950s was extricated of its indigenous people, the Nenets, in favor of using the land as a nuclear testing site during the Cold War. Notable tests of weapons such as the Tsar Bomba were conducted scaring the land. On Google Earth, it’s impact is still visible from satellite, now an arid wasteland. After their relocation, the Nenets, like other indigenous people groups in the U.S.S.R, fell victim to the Soviet Union’s collectivization policy, thereby crippling the transference of cultural heritage via state education and homogenization.  The Hunt primarily draws upon a variety of indigenous folklore and legends lifted from the Baltic States, and therefore allegorizes the region as a vanishing land. As in the previous arc, where Dream watches an ancient region of the Dreaming die, Gaiman brings to the reader’s attention that so too in reality do cultural microcosms die. Oral tradition, being the first means of culture transmission, is leveraged by the grandfather, later revealed to be the protagonist of the story, Vassaly. His granddaughter is modernized, living in rebellion of her cultural constraints, preferring modern cultural expressions over the older styles of Vassaly.

The Old World that Gaiman introduces through Vassaly’s story is populated by not one particular Baltic folk heritage, but rather an amalgam of Northeastern European tribalism, and furthers the primary message meant for the issue: the rapid modernization of society and the extinction of vanishing ethnic subgroups. Interspersed throughout the comic in the points of dialogue between Vassaly and his granddaughter are inconsistencies in the story’s progression, thereby illustrating the cognitive dissonance between the differing emphases of Old and New World historiography. What is the purpose of the carved bone being carved into another smaller bone? Why does the story contradict itself in saying initially that the Emerald Heart of Koschei the Deathless is not authentic, but is put to use as payment for Baba Yaga’s service in bringing Vassaly closer to the Duchess? The problems as they arise illustrate the conflicting understandings of Old and New World perspectives, the former honoring groupism and fate, the latter subscribing to philosophical entrepreneurship.

Premodern sciences bolstered holistic approaches to the real and super-real, supremely believing in functional ontological significance over material ontological significance. Because the divine energies that sustained the world drove its mechanics, the material composition of the world was not a matter of importance. (This would be a later development in Western civilization, founded in Democritus’s Atomic Theory , a contemporary to Aristotle and regarded as the Father of Modern Science.) This can be seen in the traveling gypsy’s bag, which contains trinkets valued by their functional worth over their material composition. The words of Lucien to Vassaly suggest this, who is in search of a lost book from the Library of Dreams (An unfinished work entitled, The Merrie Comedie of the Redemption of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe). This perspective is also true of Old World creation myths. In Genesis 1 Man is made from the dust of the earth, which is a divine act of imbuing functional purpose to functionless material. In Old Norse mythology, mankind in fashioned from two logs found by Odin, Vili, and Ve, each of the sons giving their share of attributes to the mortals. Ancient Sumerian mythology is similar in this regard in which mankind created to serve the whims of the gods, who themselves emerge from the primordial waters of chaos from the beginning of time.

Vassaly’s granddaughter’s accusations of the story being sexist and xenophobic, which she assumes to be the purpose of the story at its point of conclusion, are misplaced. A true Postmodern in her desires to sever herself from prescriptive traditions, her interpretation of Old World perspectives is ironically Modern, assuming a utopian principal of philosophical supremacy over older worldviews in her idealizing of gender roles based on contemporary culture and her insistence of global cultural identities. The petulant nature of her youth culture is all the more apparent when she admits that she no longer likes Micheal Jackson and has transitioned wholeheartedly to a newer, more contemporary styling of music. As society progresses and changes, each subsequent stage of development has less staying power than the one before. Postmodernism’s inevitable end, therefore, is the homogenization of all cultures into a unifying expression of post-Western civilization, and therefore has no tolerance for Old World gender concepts and the preservation of outdated cultural identities.

Convergence: The Hunt, while focusing its attentions on the transmission of the cultural history of Vassaly’s people, also critiques the change of women’s roles in society from Old World to New World perspectives. The granddaughter, who impatiently provokes and attempts to stomach the ramblings of her elder, accurately portrays the contemporary dissatisfaction with traditional female roles in society. The granddaughter’s infatuation with a boy outside of her cultural heritage, as well as her need to distance herself culturally from her family lineage, accurately paints the values of the Postmodern woman. At the same time, her position ignores the former strength in the roles women played prior to the impositions of overly patriarchal hegemonic institutions like the Medieval Catholic Church, which unmade the Old World victories achieved for women in the teachings of Jesus in the 1st century. Shamanism in Nordic and Sami cultures often associated women with the divine and the spiritual, being mystics devoted to cults of Freya and Odin and utilizing the symbol of the World Tree as a means of communication between the real and the divine. These practices put women at high standing in society. Vassaly’s encounter with a woman, who is revealed later to be his wife, in which she bests him at hunting a deer as he journeys to the duchess’s castle, though well intended, is anachronistic if she is just a mere hunter, and not one who communicates with the wolf spirit to gain her powers. The Baba Yaga archetype and figure that appears in the issue, as well as in Slavic mythos, is accurate and authentic concerning the role of women in animistic, tribal societies. Old World gender relationships, due to ignorance and the loss of cultural significance, then is lost on Vassaly’s granddaughter. She dismisses them without consideration for these high standing roles, which sadly illustrates the ignorance produced by transgressing cultural heritage for the sake of modernization.

Gaiman’s Old World tale is not entirely nostalgic, including even the unsavory moments of sectarian fear in history, with references to the pogroms and disenfranchisement of the Jewsish people in Eastern Europe. Serving as a prototype to his later novel, American Gods, what is contained in The Hunt is a window into the past of a pre-Christian Europe. It is a rich inheritance to be had, but is lost on the reader either implicitly or explicitly. A lone few in the world still have knowledge of Koschei the Deathless and Baba Yaga, let alone those who actually heard the stories spoken by their grandfathers and grandmothers in the “old country.” Much of The Hunt serves as a means of cultural reclamation for Gaiman and his audiences, using Sandman as a conduit for the reintroduction of worlds lost on the Modern minded. To the older generation it is the hope that in the years to come people will still remember their stories. There is much to be gained in the recovery of heritage. Comic book culture stands today as one of the premier means of cultural preservation in the media industries that attempts to keep the purity of the tales in balance with modern readership. Gaiman faithfully continues that tradition today in his current work, and one can only hope others follow after in his example.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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