“Cluracan’s Tale” marks the second installment of single, one-shot style issues in the Worlds’ End story cycle in the Sandman. Exhibiting the wit of the Faerie and the corruption of Man, Cluracan’s yarn advances a nuanced and subtly articulated Sandman universe. As before, the nature of Dream’s universe is akin to a multifaceted cosmic personality, diversified with contoured realms of varying types. At the Worlds’ End Inn, time and space are fluid and nullified, allowing for a slew of extradimensional beings to occupy the same space in time, to come together under one roof to share their tales. Though the tale from the first story occupied a universe in line with our own, filled with familiar cities and major urban areas, the second one supplied by Cluracan features a world familiar, using imagery from the late Medieval period, but is clearly outside of the realm of Earth. Faerie mythology is sprinkled thinly over the main arc of the story, which Gaiman uses as glue for the story’s narrative, and substantiates the doubtful air of the tale. Ultimately his story is one about the dogmatic theocracy of the late Medieval Catholic Church and the institution’s failure during the time to restore the golden age of Rome through ideological conquest and theological polemics.
It is foolhardy to think that, in the age of Postmodernism, Western Civilization has escaped the shroud of dogmatic, institutionalized religions. Much of the foundation of Western Civilization draws on the political and social organizations mired in ecclesiastical structure (now hundreds of years old), with fragments of their influence eulogized into the tapestries of common memory. What unfolds in Cluracan’s narrative is a stylized, though somewhat realistic reenactment of the 13th century pre-Protestant era where, in the midst of scandals like simony, absenteeism, pluralism, and violations of the oath of celibacy, the Catholic Church was attempting to regain their height of power with the enthronement of Innocent III. After numerous failed attempts of the Conciliar movement to rekindle cultic fidelity and restructure the operations from within the Catholic Church, hope for change was diminished, and the way was paved for John Huss’s grievances. Only later would the 95 theses be nailed to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and initiate the birth of the Protestant Reformation. Cluracan’s Tale documents the atmosphere of anger, corruption, and infidelity that plagued the period. The Psychopomp Innocent XI of Aurelia (who had also gained the crown of Aurelia as Carnifex Carys XXXV), to whom Cluracan is dispatched as an Envoy for Queen Mab, dominates the arc of the narrative as an archetype of the popes preceding the Protestant Reformation. Cluracan is greeted at the Psychopomp’s palace by a throng of petitioners begging for indulgences and authorizations rooted in extrabiblical tradition, which were founded as means of extorting what little the people had in exchange for a clear conscience. Structurally, the Psychopomp (referred to as Marion) meets his end in biblical fashion, his carcass torn asunder by dogs in the streets, a common trope of Old Testament narrative for unfaithful kings.
While satirizing the age of the Popes during the Medieval period, Sandman #52 deals with the expansion and fall of ancient civilizations. The name of the city featured in the issue, Aurelia, is a pun on Aurelian, 44th Emperor of the Roman Empire, whose fame for consolidating the glory of Rome’s borders by defeating the Palmrene and Gallic forces that impressed upon Rome’s borders in the east and west of Europe was canonized under the designation Restitutor Orbis. In Cluracan’s story, the irony lies in that this is a tale of paradise lost, and the disintegration of a once beautiful and stately city. Met by an envoy in the shadows of the derelict streets, Cluracan immediately encounters insubordination, as the envoy asks Cluracan to hide from the Psychopomp his official whereabouts prior to their meeting. The city gate, the jewel and regulator of city commerce, is depicted as unguarded, free and open to barbarians and foreigners. Walking through the streets, Cluracan can no longer recognize the city and finds it devoid of civic structures, like the amplitheater, which characterizes the culture and art of the classical period. Cluracan’s mission from Queen Mab is stifle Marion’s plans to consolidate power in the region and to subdue a would be Aurelian from taking complete power over the region through unification. Marion, in merging his spiritual authority with the power of the state, is effectively recreating the conditions of the later Catholic period, which attempted to emulate the glory of Rome amidst a period of economic and national expansion. This period was a precursor to the Modern era, effectively phasing out the structure of the Catholic Church as obsolete in the face of Nationalism, war, and plague, which the Church was incapable of handling. Cluracan’s mission to Aurelia serves as the deathblow to the Medieval period in this parallel world.
As the world moved from the shackles of Medieval society to the modern Renaissance period, folklore culture exploded in popularity. This fascination with grassroots and pre-Christian mythology found its home in Northern Europe, some of which is evident in Shakespeare’s plays. Gaiman has already exhibited his affinity with this culture in Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the role of Queen Mab in Cluracan’s Tale is overlooked in her importance in this parallel world. Queen Mab is referenced in Mercutio’s soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet as a predominantly sprightly figure carrying out acts of subterfuge and whimsy, like plauging women with herpes simplex. She is also credited as a figure of the Dreaming, as described by Mercutio:
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are. (I.iv.74-80)
Queen Mab’s abilities and associations with the Dreaming suggest that she, in this realm, holds sovereignty over the aspects of the Dreaming, acting as a goddess presiding over the reigning powers of the monarchy. (Lord Oberon and Titania are not referenced in the issue, which suggests that Gaiman intended for Mab and her consort Cluracan to be separate entities from the royalty introduced in Sandman #19.) Historically, she is associated with the Irish goddess Medb, found in the Ulster Cycle, a fragmentary account of the pre-Christian pantheons of Ireland, and it is clear that Gaiman used the Ulster Cycle as inspiration (if not in name only) for Cluracan’s Tale. When traveling through the realms and dimensions to enter Aurelia of the Plains, Cluracan travels through Scáthach, which is the name of a mythical female Scottish warrior (Gaiman anglicizes the name to “Scathach” in the issue) that appears in the Ulster Cycle. Also, it would appear that Cluracan’s name itself was borrowed from the place of Medb’s rule, Cruachan. Considering these adaptations, it is not surprising that Medb’s original purpose in mythology is suggested to be that of a goddess joined to a mortal sovereign. Queen Mab’s interference with Mairon’s climb to power underscores the nature of her historical origins, as well as Mairon’s cultic infidelity to the Church of Aurelia and the sovereign powers in control of his realm.
Though Dream’s role in the issue is pivotal to Cluracan’s rescue, it should be noted, if not emphasized, that the purpose of the Worlds’ End narrative arc is to expand the cosmology of the Sandman. This world building comes at the peak of Dream’s maturity in the Sandman, as he ends the life of the son he scorned out of mercy and compassion. (The same compassion is witnessed again here in his willingness, out of respect for Nuala, to free Cluracan from certain death at the hands of the Psychopomp.) What this all aims to do, then, is show the reader the expansiveness of the realms of the known cosmos, and illustrate Destruction’s point that the Endless are not needed to make the world run. There are so many worlds available that even though the Endless are omnipresent, they are still overwhelmed by the vastness of time and space. Dream in this universe no longer is represented as all-present and intertwined with the devices of the universe, and he must choose whether to continue as he has, or reform his operations.
The conclusion of the story, in similar style to the previous tale ends on a note of obscurity. The Faerie according to history and common folklore are required to speak the truth, but are given creative license to embellish or emphasize particular details of the story. Whether or not Cluracan’s story happened then is shrouded in mystery, leaving the tale open ended. Like all the stories told in the Worlds’ End Inn, each are fantastic. Gaiman’s mantra “writers are liars” returns once more. Given what is known of Cluracan the burden of responsibility is then places on the reader to ask if Cluracan’s tale is a farce. Needless to say, truthful or no, Cluracan is a convincing liar.