The words of Ovid’s Metamorphoses bear the emblematic slogan of Sandman #74, the second to last Sandman of it’s original run: “Omnia Mutantur Nihil Interit.” Gaiman’s translation of the phrase in the comic is “Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost,” and here does the reader experience the meaning of what The Sandman is all about. In a world of dying gods and forgotten lands the fantasy world is decaying into a state of stale obsolescence. In his other works, notably American Gods, which is the culmination and spiritual offspring of The Sandman, Gaiman grapples with the idea of death and the loss of innocence brought on by the modernization of the world. In the 21st century there are no fairies, no Bermuda Triangles, no Sasquatch, and no intrinsic wonder to be found in the woods and glens of the Black Forest or Nordic Fjords of Tolkien writ. We are as Bertram Russel once remarked, “the product of causes which had not prevision of the end they were achieving [...] but the outcome of accidental collocation of atoms.” This brave new world of concrete realness is the unmovable object put before Dream of the Endless prior to his suicide, and the object of his demise; he could no longer see himself living in a world that is fading away. Despite all of this, Exiles attempts to salvage the pursuit of dreams and wonderment, and revive what is left before the candle goes out.
While the story of the Sandman truly never ends, the reader by now understands that The Sandman is about impermanence, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Dream is finished. Exiles is a story about the state of the mythos and cannon authored by Neil Gaiman. There is much work to be done, and the reader is made certain of that by these subsequent issues that serve as the epilogue of the series. Rather than tying up loose ends, which Gaiman does to a certain extent, the mood that follows The Wake is transitory. The narrative is changing and moving forward to something else. The move between these two personifications of Dream shows the titular character moving from a creature of stoicism to a creature of grace and forgiveness. Already we have seen Daniel forgiving and protecting his mother for what she had done to the Dreaming. In this tale we see him actively engaging those wandering in his domain. The old Dream possessed great imagination, but from a classical and old world point of view. Daniel’s is vibrant and creative, the mind of a child. How he views his life is proactive now, rather than reactionary. Dream knows that he will destroy the amulet that was given to him by his predecessor, but he does so because he knows that in relying on the tool he will be lesser than he was before. So what was lost is not what is ruminated upon, but what has been gained.
The most intriguing aspect of Exiles is the opportunity to see the New and Old Dream occupy the same space in the soft place of the Dreaming. Their demeanor and characteristics are markedly dissimilar, and experiencing them in the same place makes one wonder how they could even be related. Using techniques that simulate the style of Chinese calligraphy, the emphasis on black and white contrasts and the use of negative space emulate their disparate natures. The dispersal of Taoism and Eastern Philosophy recreate an orientalized reproduction of ancient Chinese spirituality juxtaposed on Dream’s two natures. The yin and yang, often being misunderstood as the dichotomous relationship between good and evil, here are implemented correctly, realized through art and the Dreams as the concept of balancing natures and structural harmony in the universe. Old and New Dream occupy the same space. Neither is better than the other, or more just. They are, as Abel stated in The Wake, points of view, two sides of the same coin. In Exiles each Dream demonstrates their brand of justice, and how they execute it, typifies their frame of mind. Master Li, when meeting Old Dream in the tent, asks for a cup of wine, the same cup that he had dreamed of, that his pain may be eased in his journey to his new prefecture in exile. Dream only gives him the cup as repayment for Marco Polo’s favor of giving him water shortly after he was released from his prison. Dream then acts on pricipal, and does good for good, evil for evil, in the fashion of the old gods that ruled before man had modernized. New Dream, on the other hand, is gracious in his approach. Here in Exiles, he is seen searching out the wandering bands of lost warriors in the soft places to intentionally free them. He pities them and give them grace in their predicament, seeing them trapped in cages that they built for themselves. Much of this moment acts as a metanarrative for Dream’s own imprisonment of himself in guilt for the way he treated his son.
During their encounter, Old Dream tells Master Li a parable about a father who loved his son very much, but when the son died he did not mourn the son but move on. In doing so, he earned the ire of those around him for his callousness. The parable posed to Master Li becomes a question: was this the proper response to the death of the son? The introduction of the parable segment reveals the twofold nature of the issue, which focuses on the grief of Master Li’s exclusion from his purpose and Dream’s grief of losing his son. It can be inferred by his answer to the parable that Master Li’s response to his son’s execution for rebellion against the emperor was to mourn and grieve for his son. Despite his treachery, Li still loved his son regardless, seen plainly in the interaction Li has with the ghost of his son in the desert. Li is so heartbroken he walks away from his son and leaves him behind, unable to be with him any more.
Dream, however, is a different matter. In asking the question, Dream attempts to justify to himself the manner in which he mourned his son. Dream’s rationalization of death, which is mechanical and operates on fate and consequence, is illustrated through the “wise man’s” reaction to his son’s death (“I did not mourn him before he was born, and I will not mourn him now that he is gone.”). This callousness emphasizes the grief of the old man, but also does something else: It emphasizes the grief and loss of Old Dream. Only one issue before, The Wake depicted the influx of well wishers and mourners to the funeral of Dream, which offered a wide array of creatures and supernatural entities, so many so that they entered into the funeral hall like the tide of an ocean. The emotional responses of those that knew him, or even those that hated him, conveyed Dream’s impact on their lives. Exiles follows the grief of a man advanced in years, going to the place where he will die, but his grief honors the memory of those he left behind. Dream, like a suicide victim, never knew how much he was loved until he was gone.
There is hope, however. After the issue plumbs deep into the wells of human darkness, there is light to be had at the end of it all. Li’s experience in the desert makes the experiences of his life concrete. Whereas before he wandered in a desert of gray, ever-shifting sands, he now sees balance in the world. The marauders, doomed to wander forever in the soft places, are freed from their prison of wanderlust, just as Li is freed from his regret. The axiom offered by Ovid speaks to the fluidity of life, how like matter, the sum experiences cannot destroy but can only transition to something else. In the same way Gaiman offers an odd (near) ending to his seminal run that began so many years ago. Despite the loss of a character and friend, he has not truly gone, but only changed from one form to another. The Sandman has not ended. It has truly begun.