“How does the story end?” is a legitimate, but not often enough asked, inquiry of our narratives. Imagine any fairy tale. The Tortoise and the Hare embodies the weathered adage, “slow and steady wins the race,” but does the rabbit reform afterward? Or does he commit suicide in his basement over the shame of his defeat?
In Sandman, stories are not closed off memoirs relegated to the corners of our brains, nostalgically reflecting on the past, but are rather open-ended. The story of Dream is endless (pun intended). In the opening frames of the final Convergence arc, The Parliament of Rooks, Lyta reprises her role in Sandman and is pictured adjusting to the sedentary, but real existence as a stay-at-home mom. On her knee she reads to her son, Daniel, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She states, “And that is the end of the story. There,” in finality. It would seem strange that a home invasion perpetrated by a fickly peckish Caucasian teen would end so abruptly. No, many stories are ongoing, if not all of them. The “Happy Ending,” is the stuff of brothels and Modernism: cheap and short lived. So what is the role of a story? They are archetypical narratives of conflict, predating weapons modern and neolithic. In The Parliament of Rooks, three such stories are told, each substantiating varying perspectives on society and gender, their conflicts, and mystery. What they illustrate ably chronicles the ongoing story of humanity. That’s why Gaiman hasn’t been killed in the street by a flock of rooks, yet.
Before the birth of Western Civilization, the story was already an aged institution in the Ancient Near East. Each culture, borrowing from their contemporaries, would substantiate their cultural foundations through the art of spoken narrative, which explains why Judeo-Christian religions share many similarities with Sumerian religions. Each was aware of one another’s culture, and while Sumerian stories predate Mosaic narrative (the Torah, notably the Pentateuch), the latter’s adaptations and borrowings are subversive and polemical. Job’s sufferings predate the writings of both cultures in their contemporary forms, but even there is a dialogue underway, explaining Man’s relationship with the divine before state, and even tribal deities were in vogue.
After Daniel is put to bed, he is whisked away to the Dreaming, and brought to an impromptu dinner party hosted by Abel in his house of secrets. Matthew attends in his down time and Eve, the first mother joins, carrying Daniel inside with her and seating herself around a hospitable hearth. Abel serves them tea, always the good host. Cain blithely and maliciously crashes the party fulfilling his role as chief antagonist of Abel. Around the fire they begin to tell their stories, Cain being the first. Rather than telling a story, Cain tells a “mystery,” setting the stage for the rest of the tales to be mentioned. In doing so, Cain suggests that under the roof of the House of Secrets there are no true stories to be told. If stories are merely the placeholders for personal narrative, a mystery is the substance that holds it all together. Mysteries endure by the virtue that their elusive nature is what intrigues and fascinates the cultures through time. The story that Cain tells focuses on the conformity and groupism within cultures. The rooks, in performing their ritual of hearing out the lone rook in the center, function as an entity. Acting as a collective they choose to either stamp out the voice of the individual or cede to its voice, flying away once more as a group and leaving the bird to fend for itself. The tale is violent and animalistic, suggesting the order and precision of society, and the bloody alternative of anarchism within the group. Considering that the issue deals with origin tales of key players in Near East religion, the tale is all the more appropriate. Civilization was of key value to the residents of the Ancient Near East. Morality of the individual is a Western concept, enmeshed with legal language, and is enforced with punishment via incarceration. This was not the case in ancient Babylon where prostitutes did not threaten their contemporaries because of their loose living, but threatened the stability of the City-State. Their punishment did not satisfy a civil code or local ordinance. They were banished and extricated from society. Cain would know this story well, as he too was banished. He was the lone rook, and his life was spared at the cost of social deprivation.
Finishing his tale, Cain offers the next tale to his mother, Eve, who reluctantly accepts. The tale is told of Adam’s three wives, each drawing off of separate traditions. Once again the story told is archetypical, subversive, and tells a story different from what was prior knowledge. The language used is similar to the parables of Jesus, who in his Sermon on the Mount would initiate his theological statements with, “You have heard that it was said,” which allowed him to dismantle contemporary Rabbinic traditions. Eve begins her tale with the creation of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, painting her as a sexual beast that degraded Adam sexually. In doing so she is cast out of paradise where she begins to copulate with demons and angels, thereby populating the world with supernatural creatures. The story, framed this way, rejects aspects of feminism concerning sexual liberation, and polemically deals with spirituality-infused sexuality. The irony of this story is that it is actually not an authentic piece of the Judeo-Christian creation myth. The story of Lilith, contained in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, is a late addition of the 6th century AD, and actively encourages the stereotypical vision of the hyper sexual and domineering woman; Jesus put this perspective to rest in his reinterpretation of Rabbinic thought and gender relationships in the first century. Gaiman also takes liberties with the text, applying the detail of Adam being a hermaphrodite, bonded to Lilith as one organism (later separated), when this interpretation was always applied to Eve. In the Talmud, the most popular conception of Adam and Eve’s physical relationship at creation is Eve being removed from Adam through his rib. Rabbi Joshua of Saknin formulates in detail that YHWH chose the rib for its symbolic attributions to humility. Also, men and women possess the same amount of ribs, thereby giving equality to both sexes.
In her story telling, Eve offers another wife that was given to Adam prior to her; one that is stated to be made solely of the dust of the earth, which congeals and materializes as flesh, bone, and sinew. The nameless proto-Eve is referenced in the Genesis Rabbah, a subcategory of the Midrash Rabbah, a piece of Rabbinic literature dating between 400-600 AD, and is depicted as having no functional purpose or shared heritage to Adam. In Eve’s narrative, Adam’s wife must have a spiritual connection to himself, otherwise their relationship is divergent. Lilith was too hot, the nameless Eve, too cold. Eve, the all-mother, was just right. Gaiman’s further assessment of the final Eve, assumed to be the one telling the story, is predominantly classical, with Eve being blamed for the fall of man. This narrative is also subversive, told by medieval theologians and philosophers, to conflict against the original narrative, which suggests that both Adam and Eve are clearly responsible for their transgressions: Adam for relinquishing his responsibility to care for Eve, and Eve for disobeying YHWH.
The “why” of Parliament of Rooks is not explained in full until the later third of the issue, concluding with Abel’s story and his subsequent slaying by his own brother. Each of the stories told thus far—tales of coercion that offer the “truth” of reality—though persuasive, are also open-ended. As aforementioned, the best of tales are often the ones so filled with mystery and ambiguity that it compels the hearer to fill in the details. Cain’s tale is a mystery, the truth of which is not revealed until Abel rebels against his brother’s wishes and tells Eve and Matthew the spoiler at the conclusion. Eve’s tale is interspersed with doubt, employing certain statements such as “that’s a matter of opinion,” and, “that’s what the Midrash states,” to elude responsibility for her tale’s contents. The question initiated in Abel’s narrative is far more philosophical than a mere tale accounting for why the world is what it is. After he is slain, Abel is brought to the Dreaming by Dream himself, and is charged to keep watch over the House of Secrets. Abel explains Cain’s arrival as Dream’s consolation for Abel’s loneliness. While Abel represents mankind’s earnest and faithful journey toward understanding, Cain offers the counterbalance of stability, acting in the form of mankind’s antagonist and limitation in that pursuit. Death or brute tragedy curtails the quest of any one person so that others can follow in their footsteps, forever short of solving the mystery, thereby keeping life interesting and worth living. Life thrives with discovery and ambiguity. This can be seen with any empire that rises. Once one is at the top, the view loses its grandeur and everything falls apart. In Sandman, stories are fruitless grabs for power, constantly contextualizing Man’s existence, ebbing and flowing with the tides of advancing philosophical agendas. This truth explains Lyta’s dissatisfaction with suburbia and sedentary life. After seeing worlds so large and magnificent, there is nothing more to wonder at. She was told the spoiler, and now she regrets it.
Placing Convergence: The Parliament of Rooks before the coming story cycle Brief Lives is intentional. It is Gaiman’s apology, if not an encouragement, for leaving Destruction’s departure from the Endless so ambiguous and unresolved. The lives of the Endless are never static, but fluid, and any stagnant activity is continually resolved through the inevitable flow of time. Destruction, and his abdication, without the last of the Convergence arcs would seem premature, if not scandalous. But it is only a chapter break, if nothing else, in the grander narrative of history.