A burial at sea holds so many secrets.
The sea, or open waters, have upheld a strange significance in the hearts and minds of passengers, sailors, and captains alike. With satellite imaging and advanced cartography techniques, places that were once mysterious and wondrous are now available to all from the seat of any couch where Wi-Fi is plentiful. Earlier in Gaiman’s Sandman, Convergence: Soft Places introduced vague points in space- time where mystery and fluidity abound. This concept is revisited in the Worlds’ End narrative arc, but it is not until Hob’s Leviathan, the third in a sequence of independent narratives, where the mystery of unexplored lands return. This symbol of countries undiscovered becomes an overlapping symbol of the characters’ development in the issue itself. Like the lands, the characters themselves share their own secrets and obscurities that time ultimately unveils with experience and wisdom. Jim, or Margaret (as he is later revealed to be a woman), tells a tale that is described as “unbelievable,” but it is unclear what about it exactly is unbelievable. It is the secrets of the characters themselves that are so incredible rather, and these secrets, rising from and sinking to obscurity, aid the metaphor of the ocean’s mystery. One wonders, “Where does the body go?” Does it eventually wash ashore? Or does it sink into the abyss? In Hob’s Leviathan, Gaiman uncovers the secrets of the Sea Witch passengers and shows his readers that there is more here that just another big fish story.
The wanderlust expansion into the high seas developed mercantilism throughout the progress of civilization. Though our history books talk about Magellan’s bravado, there are far more impressive migration patterns advanced by the indigenous peoples of French Polynesia, who ventured out in carved canoes to the open sea, island hopping deep into the south Pacific. Though Gaiman’s cast of the Sea Witch, the ship Jim travels on, is multinational and ethnically diverse, the motley crew is not the primary literary conveyance to promote the spirit of the sailor life. Instead, it is the poetry that preoccupies Jim that emphasizes the spirited nature of mercantilism. Jim quotes the work of James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Road to Samarkand, which embodies the spirit of trade and discovery across the spice road to the famed city of Samarkand. Jim’s specific quote is cited as a rejection to the narrative proposed by an Indian stowaway which depicts women as fickle, comparing them to the mermaids of the deep. The apple given to the king by the humble beggar in the Indian’s story represents the unknown. When the queen denies the apple, along with her lover, and her lover’s courtesan, they deny a life of uncertainty. Jim’s refutation of the story suggests that men take on the enterprise of travel to explore without consequence and embrace the unknown of the sea, which is not exclusive to women. Hob refutes the story for another reason, suggesting that all people are innately fickle, showing that fear of the unknown is not a gender exclusive issue. He ventures this claim perhaps out of respect for Jim, who Hob has likely has discovered the young sailor to be a woman already. Rather than keep the ocean at a distance, as the Indian does, waxing on about its impenetrable secrets, sailors embrace the fear and romanticism involved with seafaring travel. This is done in close connection with the water itself, an experience which Jim claims would be lost with the introduction of the steam-powered dreadnoughts which put the sailor at a distance from the water.
The opening line of the issue, “Call me Jim,” is reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, as well as the works of other literary figures such as Yeats and John Massefield, and substantiates the existential journey made by Jim, who forsakes her gender identity for her love of the ocean. A subtle reference is made to the first edition of Massefield’s Salt-Water Ballads, published in 1902, during the opening pages of the issue, where Jim describes the anticipation of casting off for the voyage after Hob arrives on the ship. The ballad titled “Sea-Fever” describes the enamored state and sway of the ocean:
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
Given that the song was published shortly after Jim’s 3rd birthday, it would stand that the popular collection of songs and poems was in wide circulation in the earlier years of her life. It is stated that the Irish cook had given the work to Jim, but there is no doubt that she would have been somewhat familiar with the material already. Yeat’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which does not appear in the issue, would not have been familiar to the Irish cook on board or contained in his collection of poetry by Yeats. However, Gaiman’s knowledge of the poem is plausible, as there are notable influences. The poem shows the journey of a man from youth to old age, and the metaphor of sailing is employed to symbolize the means of self-actualization and discovery. Jim’s own journey to discover her identity begins in the pursuit of the sea, but she too acknowledges at the conclusion of the issue that she will have to move on and recycle her identity once more, as Hob has so many times; this is apparent in an aged photograph from the mid 18th century, containing the semblance of Hob’s past life. He throws the photo into the ocean at the conclusion of the story, during his final words with Jim.
The title, Hob’s Leviathan, bears much of the significance of the issue, and ties together the themes of maritime discovery and existential yearning. The Leviathan is most recognized as a great sea monster featured alongside Behemoth, the land equivalent. Both are terrifying beats in classical Near East antiquity, recontextualized in Semitic literature as under the dominion of YHWH. The creatures predate the book of Job, where they find their origin, and are synonymous with agents of chaos. Leviathan, more so than Behemoth, substantiates this symbol. In ancient Semitic thought and surrounding Near Eastern cultures, water is equated with death and formlessness, harkening back to the common creation myth motifs that show the gods finding life and resolution in the waters. The meaning of Hob’s Leviathan, then, is the secret of the water and the mysteries below. The Indian’s formulations of the water paint the ocean as mysterious due to its spiritual nature. Hob sees the ocean as an ongoing metaphor for uncertainty, the very cause of restlessness in the human soul. As a sailor, one has the opportunity to confront that uncertainty and submit to its power. This is why he is so reserved after seeing the Leviathan emerge from the water. It is not because he has already seen fantastic things (such as Dream and other mystical creatures, no doubt), but because to tell others about Leviathan would only cheapen the intrigue the open water has to offer. It would effectively steal away the significance of the sea’s mystery. Hob’s Leviathan (the sea monster, specifically) is his secret of immortality, Jim’s concealed gender, and the mystery of the sea, and it unites them all into one complete symbol for the unknown in life.
What to make of Hob’s Leviathan is a bit of a mystery. Clarity is not championed in the Worlds’ End Inn. Rather, the truth is constantly mired in uncertainty. Thus far the story of the dreaming cities, Cluracan’s adventures, and Jim’s own autobiographical narrative all possess the problem of truthfulness. Jim asserts that her tale is true, but in waiting to tell it, reminds the reader of her conversation with Hob, who says that no matter how dark a secret there is to tell, time will weather it down into nothing but whimsy.