Neil Gaiman: A Postmodern Romantic


Given his propensity for invoking the figures and tropes of classical mythology in his work, Neil Gaiman is often described as a postmodernist writer of fantasy fiction, and not without reason; most, if not all, of the titles in his oeuvre feature characters sourced from myth, folklore, literature, or contemporary culture, either in re-imagined forms or simply lifted whole and repurposed. Certainly, by drawing on the rich body of myth and culture preceding him, Gaiman can be said to fit the postmodernist profile through his deconstruction of existing works into their component parts and subsequent employment of the resultant fragments as evocative symbols. In doing so, he weaves the associations of the source text into his own writing, and can thus manipulate them to enrich his own tale.

Although the most obvious examples of intertextuality in Gaiman’s bibliography are probably American Gods and the Sandman comics, both of which feature an eclectic range of figures sourced from a variety of pantheons and folktales, his work is known for and characterised by its numerous allusions and the slippage between fantasy and reality. Novels such as Stardust and Coraline show that Gaiman is more than aware of the workings of the fairytale and has an interest in, and a love for, the format which is reflected in the fairytale style of these titles. However, unlike fellow fairytale enthusiast Angela Carter, Gaiman does not aim to deconstruct the subtext of his source material; whereas Carter reworked fairytales to reveal their psychosexual undercurrents, reorienting them to a feminist perspective, Gaiman uses the elements of the stories he draws on in a semiotic sense, striving more for classicism than postmodernism, to reference rather then further a message.

Indeed, when asked about his influences in the area of comparative mythology and the monomyth, Gaiman replied:

I like Campbell — but, I sort of met him second. And the truth is, the stuff that I’ve always really enjoyed most of all is the primary influences. It’s always interesting to see what people say about things. But I tend to be more interested in the actual myth. I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true — I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.

Whereas Carter’s interest lies in subverting the fairytale form to fit her feminist message, Gaiman revels in the magic of the myth, in making the ordinary extraordinary as children do. His is a world where dreams are accessible for those who know the method; always there is a border which must be crossed, a realm which must be stumbled upon, and a supernatural threat which must be overcome. The monomyth structure can be readily identified in his work, true, but simply because Gaiman draws upon the material which Campbell retrofitted with his theory; the focus of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is on the psychosocial context of myth, whereas Gaiman is drawn to the fantastical elements and the enduring, rather timeless nature of the stories.

Storytelling is his raison d’être, and his lyrically eloquent style make his writing both accessible and pleasurable to read, striking a balance between sophistication and simplicity that avoids limiting his audience with an age bracket; although there is a definite difference in complexity between the stories of, for example, Coraline and American Gods, both have something to offer for both younger and older readers alike. Gaiman’s concerns lie not with the postmodernists, whose work Terry Eagleton describes as ‘arbitrary, eclectic, hybrid, decentred, fluid, discontinuous, pastiche-like’; his interest is in the impact of the story, its lifespan, its memorability:

You know — the joy of doing something like Coraline is creating a story for kids that, with any luck, you actually wind up hoping that kids will read when they’re little and that they will remember. That they’ll always be there and that story will sit in their heads.

Magic and memory, myths and dreams – these themes are prevalent throughout Gaiman’s oeuvre, giving it a certain Romantic bent. A fascination with dreams and meditative states, with classical mythology, nostalgia and the imagination is a characteristic which Gaiman shares with the likes of Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, with Wordsworth and with Tennyson.

Romanticism, an intellectual movement which arose in Europe toward the end of the 18th century in response to the Industrial Revolution and the doctrines of the Enlightenment, advocated a departure from scientific rationalisation and a return to an emphasis on emotion and imagination, the individual and the subjective. In his Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth examines the passage of time and man’s relationship with nature, dwelling on the sublime nature of the English countryside; Coleridge, in ‘Frost at Midnight’, recalls the village life of his childhood with nostalgia, whilst denigrating his years in the city where he was educated, whilst ‘Kubla Khan’, a poem which allegedly came to him in a dream, details a dream like landscape around a fantastical castle which would not be out of place in The Dreaming.

The realm of Sandman‘s Morpheus, The Dreaming is something of an imaginative gestalt, a collective consciousness where people come to dream, conceptually derived from the Dreamtime of Australian Aboriginal myth. Although Morpheus, or Dream as he is more commonly named in the text, is not always the central figure of the stories which make up the Sandman canon, his presence is felt throughout, the small circle of other protagonists being linked to he and his actions through their dreams and thus The Dreaming. Dreams and meditative states were a subject of fascination for the Romantic poets, allowing the imagination free reign as they do, the subconscious slipping into the conscious in bursts of creativity. Not only does much of Romanticism reveal a foreshadowing of the cognitive models and theories later fronted by Freud and Jung, it is characterised by an awe of the sublimity of the natural world, a respect for the raw power and majesty of nature as a reflection of the Divine; it echoes the pastoral nature of Classicism and draws connections between nature as a reflection of the Divine and the creative processes of the mind.

The parallel between the imagination and the Divine is drawn between the similarities in creative powers; in his ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’, Wordsworth considers the natural landscape both as a representation of the creative power of the Divine and as a mirror of the soul:

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

The poet treats nature as a conduit which connects him, as a man and a creator, to a greater creative power, much in the same fashion as Gaiman uses The Dreaming to connect the mortals of Sandman to Morpheus and his realm. Wordsworth identifies ‘the human soul’ as something ephemeral which flows through him rather than something that he can lay claim to as his own; this Descartian separation of mind and body is far from unusual, being a tenet of Western philosophy since its inception in the 17th century, but Wordsworth’s phrasing suggests that the soul is the property of the Divine, and thus the creative powers it allows him as poet are also derived from something larger than himself, a notion echoed in Morpheus’ titles as Dream King and Prince of Stories.

Indeed, Gaiman shows Dream as the patron of William Shakespeare, striking a bargain with the playwright: ‘dreams, that would live on long after I am dead’, in exchange for two plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The mortal man is gifted with creative genius by an greater power, and thus goes on to become one of the most successful playwrights in history. In return, Dream is immortalised in human memory through the two plays, as the function for which he is named in Midsummer, and as the authorial figure of Prospero in The Tempest.

Just as Prospero acts as the figure of author and playwright in Shakespeare’s play, directing the events on his island to craft the tale he wants, so too is Dream an authorial figure. The Prince of Stories, Dream is shown not only to craft the dreams and nightmares experienced by mortals who come to his realm to dream, but to influence events in the waking world as he sees fit. It is broadly acknowledged that Dream’s appearance is an amalgamation of Gaiman himself, Robert Smith, and Peter Murphy, and his status as the nigh-omnipotent storyteller is easily read as a reflection of the author and his role in the telling of Sandman‘s tales. Although this parallel between reality and fiction is arguably another tick in the column of postmodernism, acting as something of a self-reflexive reminder of the fabricated nature of the comic, it is a path taken by Shakespeare, as shown above, and by Byron, whose titular character of ‘Manfred’ shares many similarities with his creator.

Rather than acting as a form of metafiction, Sandman, as with Gaiman’s other work, draws on reality and embellishes it with the fantastical, employing that which already exists to create something new. Dream may be visually influenced by his creator, among others, and his role too may parallel that of the author, but his characterisation reveals many traits which coincide with the profile of the tragic Byronic hero, a brooding and proud intellectual, introspective and arrogant, undone by a flaw in his own being; like the precursor to the Byronic hero, Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is Dream’s pride that is his bane.

Like many other figures of literature, myth and folklore, Lucifer appears in Sandman as a character of importance, first as Dream travels to Hell to reclaim his tools of the trade, and again in the ‘Season of Mists’ story arc. It is an interesting representation of the intertextuality of the comic that Gaiman creates in having Dream and his contemporaries to travel between ‘realms’, one figure entering another’s domain in a parallel to the author’s placement of characters from other texts within his own work. By the same token, he reinforces the idea that The Dreaming is a collective consciousness, an ocean of creativity upon which all conscious beings draw. When it is considered that the supernatural beings who populate these various realms and appear, on occasion, in The Dreaming, are visitors only in the waking world, it might be further surmised that the various gods and demons are but archetypes drawn from this gestalt.

To return again to Wordsworth’s idea that the human soul, and the imagination, is a reflection of Divine creativity, it might be argued that, in the context of Sandman, human creativity is a reflection of Dream’s work. Although Christian mythology is present in the series, Dream and his siblings, The Endless, are anthropomorphic personifications of seven basic natural forces, older than and holding authority over Gods and mortals alike. It stands to reason, then, that deities might also draw on and be influenced by the power of Dream and his realm in their acts of creation.

As indicated above, Romanticism sought for a return to an emphasis on the self, experience, imagination and the subjective, a retreat from the scientific rationalisation associated with the urban environment and a return to nature and the pastoral, the environment of classicism. In this, and in invoking the figures and tropes of classical mythology, the Romantic writers exhibit a definite sense of nostalgia, ‘a sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past’ (OED), a sentiment which Gaiman can be seen to share.

Although he may not long for a return to childhood, his love of the fairytale, that staple of childhood bedtime stories, shows the author’s love of the magic of childhood, the unenlightened perspective of the child who believes in the fantastical because they know no better. His latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is saturated in nostalgia; set in a village in the English countryside, the novel takes the form of an extended flashback wrapped in a frame narrative as the narrator recalls his childhood experiences of living there. Drawn back to his childhood residence after a funeral, the narrator is obviously seeking refuge in his roots, or perhaps returning to the place where he first had to deal with death in order to process the funeral.

Ocean is characteristically rife in what has come to be called ‘magical realism’, the line between reality and fantasy blurring to suggest that the events of the novel happened as related. Gaiman readily admits that versions of himself appear in his work from time to time, and he drew on and embellished aspects of his own childhood in Ocean, remembering how ‘As a kid, [he] was convinced the world [he] lived in was a semi-mythological place.’ It is this perspective, this manner of looking at the world through the lense of imagination that is the element of childhood for which Gaiman might be said to be nostalgic.

Generally shelved under the umbrella of fantasy or science fiction, Gaiman’s work is perhaps easier to label in terms of genre than literary movement; whereas he can be fitted with a postmodernist tag for works such as Sandman, now widely praised for combining sophisticated literary content with the comic book format, which was generally considered to be a lower form of art, he also shows an affinity for Romanticism in his love for mythology and the imagination. The irony of trying to categorise Romanticism aside, such pigeon-holing is academic; Gaiman identifies himself as a fantasy writer, a teller of tales, and it is the magic of the stories that take precedence in his work.

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A student of English and Film with an interest in animation, adaptation, and the interrelation between art forms. Avid reader; reviewer and Film Editor for DURA.

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  1. bracheer

    Neil Gaiman is a genius. Definitely on my admiration list. Another author I would recommend to Gaiman fans is Terry Pratchett.

    • Morgan Trappedman

      There are more to explore for Gaiman enthusiasts.

      Roger Zelazny’s ‘Amber’ series. Also ‘Lord of Light’ and others I can’t remember.

      Sean Stewart’s ‘The Night Watch’ nothing to do with the movie.

      Charles De Lint. I can’t remember the names of the ones I have read. I think he is an overly-melodramatic, *beep* and contrived author cashing in on the genre, but he fits the bill, unfortunately.

      John Constantine:Hellblazer comic series. Jamie Delano is one of those ‘underrated’ authors and even 20 years later, comparing Delano’s ‘Hellblazer’ to Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’; Delano wins, although Gaiman is more consistent.

      All I can remember ATM.

  2. For some reason I can’t seem to shake my image of DC as the stodgy, predictable cousin of Marvel. I grew up reading a lot of the DC Archive editions of gold and silver age titles, and as enjoyable as they were, they were pretty white bread. A friend in college loaned me Batman: The Killing Joke, Crisis on Infinite Earth and other game-changing titles but that just wasn’t enough. Sandman, though. Wow. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Gaiman’s writing, but I wasn’t sure what his work in comics would be all about. I should have known that his brand of dark urban fantasy and attention to detail didn’t first appear in Neverwhere.

  3. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    I love Neil Gaiman and was very pleased to read this. Here is a terrific artist that deserves more exposure.

  4. Andy Cashmore

    Neil Gaiman is my author idol. I’ve yet to read a novel of his that I haven’t enjoyed and one of the things I do love about his work is his allusions to folklore, as well as his ability to create something catered to adult/young adult readers like American Gods while writing child friendly fiction like Stardust. Very happy to see another Gaiman fan with such a deep interest in his work!

  5. Morgan Trappedman

    In 2009 Neil Gaiman read a few syllabuses from his novel ‘The Graveyard Book’ in a church in Hamburg, Germany. Afterwards he signed some items for me. Be jealous!

  6. A friend gave me a copy of American Gods. It’s the first of his books I’ve read, and I’m completely hooked. HBO better fast-track the TV show.

  7. Taylor Ramsey

    I have not yet finished Ocean, but am loving it so far.
    In the vein of Morgan’s comment above, I too have been lucky enough to meet and speak briefly with Gaiman, and have several signed items. He is every bit as personable and friendly as you would hope.
    Nice, interesting article.

  8. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Late post but I have this: back in college, the last day of courses would be the day where everyone would drink in the city and the streets would flow with cheap beer and tinsel. This was my last year there and a friend was taking me back to his place to sleep (it had to be around 3 or 4) and it was pouring raining. By that point we were the only ones out and we had just watched the Planet of the Apes at my friend’s house. So we’re running through this rainy main street, the orange blur of the streetlights highlighting these heaps of trash built up at each storm drain. Anyway, we stop to take a picture of one because we love garbage and in that pile of filth is a collection of Neil Gaiman stories, soaked and ragged. I pulled it out, but left it at a pizza place we stopped at because I was drunk. I wish the story was more post modern to fit in with the theme, so sorry, but I just remembered this.

  9. Monique

    Excellent analysis. In the vein of Gaiman-as-Sandman-as-Storyteller, I’m always amused (in a good way) that he so champions art and writing amongst his fans. Gaiman’s become an encouraging voice for writers and artists, and has developed a sort of literary cult of followers. (Caitlin Kiernan and Erica Morgenstern are a couple who show his influence.) I’ll be curious to see how Gaiman’s effects play out long-term — he and his love of sharing dreams have definitely made a mark.

  10. hajra aziz

    i need to cite this article in Apa style could anyone help please.

  11. You definitely used postmodernism correctly (as a return to seeing the value of narrative and meaning), and for that, it is to be commended.

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