Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014).

For some time now, I've had the idea that it is just possible to examine a specific strand of time which represented an astonishing period of artistic creativity among a number of several well-known authors.  While it is a mistake to believe that these authors make-up anything like an organized group, there can still be a sense in which each individual writer was responding to a phenomenon that is best described as the birth of the proper cultural and aesthetic climate which would allow them to find both their individual voices, and methods of expression.  The curious part is how often this disparate group of writers from the 70s and 80s often find ways to dialogue with one another in their works of fiction.  It is similar, in many ways, to the kind of artistic flourishing which saw another handful of differing authors produce a series of texts during the Victorian Age which now make up the canon of both children's and popular literature.

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon, of sorts.  Sometimes there will be moments in any potential age which can serve as a kind of igniting spark that will both draw in and produce artistic minds capable of churning out a surprising (and hopefully effective) level of creativity.  The children's authors (i.e. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Edith Nesbit etc) of the Victorian/Edwardian eras are just one such example of this phenomena.  I'd like to argue that a similar group of authors is the product of a similar kind of cultural convergence.  These writers came of age either during or after the 60s, and were, in general, a mix of both Boomer and Gen X cultures.  The curious part is how this doesn't seem to have led to anything like an expected series of major clashes that can erupt between generations.  Instead, older scribes like Ramsay Campbell were able to get along just as well with relative youngsters like Neil Gaiman.

It is Gaiman as both an individual talent, and as part of this larger artistic phenomena that I'd like to examine here.  Gaiman is one of those semi-household words of the moment.  The good news is that a close examination of his works reveal that we are dealing with a genuine talent, and not just some ever vanishing fad.  Of all the names associated with this semi-group of writers under discussion, Gaiman is one of the few to win his way to mass popular ubiquity, along with the likes of Stephen King and Alan Moore.  In taking a closer look at Gaiman's life an art, the trick here will always be how to realize that Gaiman is one of those artists who does not exist in isolation.

I find that the most interesting aspect of Gaiman's writings is that he is one of those rare talents who is willing to pretty much wear all of his influences on his sleeve.  In both fictional writings, and real world essays, Gaiman has proven himself more than willing to talk about his artistic enthusiasms.  These range from obscure names like Hope Mirless and Lord Dunsany, to the work of popular comic book artists like Jack Kirby.  The result is that Gaiman's work demands that we see him as an individual talent in relation to the cauldron of story from which he returns to draw ideas from time and again.  Hailey Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman is just the sort of text that can help us in this regard.

Novelist and academic Audrey Niffenegger describes the book in rather succinct terms.  "As time runs along we can all look back and trace the large events in our lives (marriages, children, vocations, artistic triumphs) to some small conversation in a pub, a book encountered at random in a library or a chance meeting on the street.  In this book, Hayley Campbell rewinds Neil Gaiman's life and explores the connections between his life, his ideas and his work; She has interviewed Neil about every comic, novel, short story and movie he's ever created, excavated old photos and manuscripts out of boxes in Neil's attic and spoken to many of Neil's collaborators, editors, and friends.  She has written a delightfully comprehensive, matter-of-fact and sometimes surprising account of the development of Neil's entire body of work thus far (60)".  In addition to all of that, Campbell's book is good for one other thing.  It is perhaps the closest resource critics and fans may have at trying to gain an idea of the meaning and nature of Gaiman's work as a writer.

In what follows, I'll be focusing in on certain aspects of Campbell's insights.  In particular I want to see if she can tell us anything about what we're Gaiman's influences, does he have a relation to any kind of artistic cultural milieu, and would these two factors tell us about the thematic significance of her subject's work.  In trying to find this out, I will be not be focusing on any one specific text.  The goal here is to work toward an overall understanding of Campbell's subject.  In order to accomplish this goal, I will be focusing in on just a small handful of Gaiman's texts.  There is always the risk that such a method of approach can wind up giving the reader a distorted picture of the author.  However, I've never been able to shake the idea that at least a tentative beginning of an understanding of Gaiman's work can be reached if we first zero in on a small sample of his stories.  From there, it should be possible to build on the basic idea suggested by these works as each of Gaiman's other writings come under eventual examination.

It is true that Campbell provides an extensive look into Gaiman's creative output in her book.  Each book is given it's own two to four page chapter in the text.  These examinations of Gaiman's work come after a few opening sections dedicated to the life of the author.  Now a focus on the early chapters to the exclusion of most of his book's might be a disappointment to some.  However, it has to be remembered that this article is concerned with whether or not Gaiman belongs as a part of a disparate, yet related group of writers that together make up a sort of informal group that defined the nature of fantastic fiction for a brief span of time near the end of the 20th century.  If Gaiman does have a place in such a gathering, then it means we need to review the author as an individual talent in relation to whatever literary traditions might have informed his writing, as well of those of the other creative artists in this hypothetical collective.  This means we must first look at the author himself, and the ideas behind his writings, if we can ever hope to gain a better understanding of each of his individual stories in the future.  In this regard, Campbell's text can be of great help when the  time comes to look at each of Gaiman's artistic endeavors on an individual basis.  It's for all the above reasons that taking a critical look at Campbell's text might just help us to understand what kind of a writer Neil Gaiman really is.

A Fortunate Childhood and a Box of Comics.

It is just possible the Gaiman owes his entire career and literary output to a somewhat flawed approach to parenting on the part of his mother and father.  He was born on November 10th, 1960, and was the first child and only boy his parents ever seemed to have.  Perhaps this explains a familiar amount of leniency the author was granted as a child.  "Neil says he was always the weird one of the bunch, although it never occurred to him at the time.  'The lovely thing about being the first child is that nobody has anything to measure against, and so nobody knows they're weird (22)".

If one takes a closer read between the lines of that statement, it means Gaiman was somewhat fortunate in the order of his birth.  It used to be a tradition in ancient societies to favor the first child to come along over all the others.  This sort of practice is rightly looked on as backward and regressive nowadays.  I suppose this means there's a bit of poetic irony involved in the formation of Gaiman's imagination.  He was given the room he needed for his talents to grow due to a somewhat misguided idea of how to raise a family.  The upshot is that it all appears to be one of those odd curve-balls that life can toss at people where something positive finds a breeding ground in negative circumstances.  It's paradox that I'm not sure I've got the notion to explain.  Either way, because of his fortunate position, very little limitations were placed on the young boy's choice of entertainment.  In Gaiman's case, this meant an easy access to whatever literary matter happened to be lying around, provided the asking price wasn't all that high.

The first sign of Gaiman's imaginative mind began with an almost immediate interest in the alphabet.  the author's first few years seem to have been an obsession with words.  What they are, what they meant or mean, and how you can put them together in order to discover meaning.  "Before he'd learned so much as the alphabet, Gaiman was writing poems.  He remembers having to dictate them to his mom since he couldn't actually write them down himself.  From the beginning, everything was about words (ibid)".

The second step in the growth of his imagination seems to have been his introduction to the books of Enid Blyton.  He also discovered a product known as a comic book, however these were the standard fare for very young children with titles like "Sooty" (23).  Adam West's version of Batman seems to have followed after that.  Gaiman's beliefs about the 60s TV incarnation of the character are somewhat out-step with the popular opinion of today, except perhaps for the statement that, for Gaiman as well as others, "Batman was primal (25)".

"The next important thing that happened was the box of American comics; proper four-color comics from America, not chopped up and re-arranged in small British paperbacks with one panel to a page.  "It was my first real exposure to American comics and it was absolutely like giving somebody The Drug.  The thing that you want, the thing that you need.  And it was a great, wonderful box of comics some time around 1968-ish.  Maybe 1967.  There were loads of Fantastic Four in it, the Silver Surfer stuff.  It had The Brave and the Bold where Batman and Green Lantern are on the front in iron stocks saying 'No, no save yourself'!...And there was Inhumans in there, and there was some Spider-Man (26)".

There is perhaps just the faintest element of another poetic irony involved here.  That box of comics seems to have been one of the key determining factors in the future of Gaiman's career.  The irony comes in when you realize that to this day the author has no clue as to how that box wound up on his doorstep.  "Every now and then I get grumpy about my dad having died because there are things I would love to have answered that my mother is completely clueless on.  There are things that I would love to know.  One of the last conversations I had with my dad, I mentioned this box of comics and he said, 'Oh yeah, I know where you got those from.  I know where they came from'.  I didn't say, 'Where?  Who?  Tell me!'  I put it off.  I figured, 'Oh good, it sounds like that's a story.  Next time I see him I'll say: so, tell me about my box of comics".  He never found out, but this was the person who introduced Neil Gaiman to Sandman.  It's all their fault. (ibid)".

If we take this statement on it's face value, then once more we are presented with the irony of the right sort of parental nurturing at the right time.  In retrospect it remains interesting how Gaiman's parents always seem to find ways of nurturing their son's creative talents and ambitions without ever quite seeming to be aware of it.  More than that, sometimes the gaps in the historical record make the just the right combination of events have that slightly amusing, fortuitous quality.

Literary Influences.

The next step in the shaping of Gaiman's imagination was centered around a group of authors whose single shared trait was that they all came from the same background of Victorian/Edwardian Fantasy, with a few dashes of Science Fiction authors thrown in here or there for good measure.

"His tenth birthday present was a self-assembly shed, which his parents constructed for him at the bottom of the garden.Here in his undisturbed bookish haven he absorbed the work of Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, William Burroughs, R.A. Lafferty, Baroness Orczy, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, James Branch Cabell, and Kurt Vonnegut.  He borrowed the first two volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings from his school library, constantly reading them and returning them and borrowing them again, but it wasn't until he won both the English prize and the school reading prize that he was able to request The Return of the King as his reward and find out how the saga ended (29)".

In addition, a bit earlier the list of Gaiman's influential reading included the following names: "As a kid he read the likes of C.S. Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Ray Bradbury, Lewis Carroll, and Roger Lancelyn Green, all of whom feed into the pool of fairy tale and myth that is at the core of his writing.  In the New Yorker he said G.K. Chesterton in particular left hm with "an idea of London as this wonderful, mythical, magical place," which became the way he saw the world.  He later used Chesterton as a basis for Fiddler's Green, a much-loved character in Sandman (11)".

It is possible that all the reader can make out of this is an assorted list of names, some of which are probably too unfamiliar to have any kind of impact.  It begs the question of whether or not it has any importance to understanding either the man or his books.  I'd argue that the answer is a definite yes.  However, in order to have a complete and full a picture of the author, it helps to make sure we know and list all the ingredients that went into the shaping and growth of the artist's mind.  Each of the authors listed above can tell us something about the nature of Gaiman's writings, however before we can get to it, there is still one more influence to consider.  There's a bit of irony involved in this one, as it both is and isn't a musical influence.

A Would-Be Punk. 

The final ingredient Campbell lists as an influence on Gaiman is so problematic that I almost have to wonder if it even counts as a genuine fact.  For a time, Gaiman's attention was captured by the Punk movement in what was then considered contemporary rock n' roll.  He seems to have lingered about on the edges of the movement without ever quite managing to gain admittance through the front door.  In all his attempts to define a role for himself in the movement it just seems like he could never quite pull it off.  Still, Gaiman claims there was at least one source of influence from those times.

"He had a firm theory, nurtured by Lou Reed, that you didn't actually have to be able to sing to do vocals, so he fronted his own punk band called Chaos, which soon became the Ex-Execs instead ("just because you could write it XXX").  "We did a terrible cover version of Suffragette City.  We did Sweet Jane because you had to.  Quite a good Mystery Girls, the New York Dolls number.  The best cover we did was Something's Got a Hold of My Heart as if it was being done by the Stranglers, really slow and menacing.

"The whole ethos gave him a new way of thinking.  "The DIY attitude of punk has certainly informed all my career, including comics.  Without punk I probably would have gone through with my original plans to become a comparative theologian while dreaming wistfully of becoming a writer (31)". 

When it comes to Gaiman as a Punk artist, I have to confess a great deal of ambivalence about it.  A lot of the trouble has to do with the very idea and definition of Punk itself.  For me, when I think of the word, I am always led back to a certain style of music that was able to carve out a whole genre for itself back in the early 70s.  In addition to this, there is the kind of lifestyle and sub-culture that sort of grew-up around the music.  It's notable for it's aggression and anti-establishment philosophy.  Now compare all this to what Gaiman claims to be his major influence from the Punk movement, the idea of just letting the imagination go wherever it needs to in order to tell the story.

I look at Gaiman's ideas and I can't help but wonder how long he would have lasted in the company of real-life, actual punks.  Wouldn't he be tossed out of the movement for being perceived as just a pretender, or a phony?  When you look at a photo of the author and his mates posing next to a record shop, the overall vibe is not Punk, but something more closer to what would happen if the cast of Geoffrey Willans' Molesworth series had the not-so-bright idea to pretend to be a Punk rock band in order to pay their student loans.  It doesn't help when the presence of a Lou Reed album is in the frame to highlight the glaring contrasts between who the author is, and what he thinks he is.  It does seem that Gaiman has borrowed at least a part of the Punk idea, at least in terms of a work ethic and a willingness to push through as many creative boundaries as possible.  The irony is that beyond these two obvious elements of his creative constellation, Gaiman presents a surprisingly mainstream set of values and interests.  This, in and of itself, does not have to be a bad thing.  In fact, it seems to be this sort of base-line style of living and thinking that might account a great deal for the enthusiasm his works enjoy with mainstream audiences.  However, this would also be the every thing that separates him from all of Punk culture.  

The reason for this would be because the movement's followers would regard Gaiman as a representative of the kind of superficiality that they were all trying to get away from.  The worst of Gaiman's sins from this perspective would be how well he was embraced by the popular audiences.  The very fact that Gaiman can be labeled as a "mainstream" artist would automatically put him at odds with the very movement his is being labeled with.  In contrast, compare Gaiman with a band like The Clash.  Just as those guys were about to reach their peak as a popular band, they pulled the plug on the whole thing and broke up in order to remain true to their anti-establishment ideals, rather than go "mainstream".  Gaiman, on the other hand, has long since branched out into writing children's picture books.
It all just begs another question of whether Gaiman, as an author, has got his artistic concepts all that straight.  In fact, the whole idea of letting the imagination do all the talking in the creative process does have a relation to an artistic movement.  It's just not Punk, however.  Instead, it is a much older tradition than any of that.  It's also when we turn to this alternate tradition that a true idea of the nature and meaning of Gaiman as an individual talent begins to emerge.

Somewhere between Myth and Mundane.

Trying to define an author can be tricky.  Just because something is a challenge doesn't mean it's impossible, however.  Besides which, Gaiman is one of those writers who seems to keep revisiting certain core themes in different contexts and narratives.  The question is just what is this theme, or themes?  Answering that question requires filtering through a ton of material to find out which thematic ideas are the most common or representative.  After giving it some thought, I think Gaiman's main preoccupations can be explained by turning to an installment of his Sandman comics, as well as by taking a look at one of his minor short stories, "Monarch of the Glen".

The World's End is the seventh run of a series of comics in Gaiman's still widely popular Sandman series.  It was the next to penultimate part in the story of the half-life and otherworldly adventures of the King of Dreams.  What makes it a good place to look for clues to the author's ultimate concerns is that it can be argued that World's End is the closest the series gets to a neat encapsulation of the ideas Gaiman had been working around with the series.  The best summary of the plot TWE is provided by Hank Wagner and Christopher Golden, from their very helpful resource book, Prince of Stories:

"When two co-workers wreck their car in a freak snowstorm, the only place they can find shelter is a mysterious, antiquated inn called World's End.  Here they wait out the storm, listening to stories from the many travelers also stuck there.  World's End is apparently one of those "soft places" beyond space and time (perhaps the king of all soft places), where all eras, realities, realms, and planes intersect.  Some travelers between worlds go there willingly, but others find themselves driven events that disturb the very fabric of the cosmos.  That is the case with most of the guests in the inn on this particular night.  Finding themselves cut off from familiar environs, they pass the time telling stories (101-20)".

"These tales are indeed a perfect showcase for Gaiman's passion for stories, of his talent for creating them, and his love for the very telling of them.  As such, it makes a nice companion to the first two Sandman-inspired short story collections, Dream Country, and Fables and Reflections.  It can be distinguished from those two volumes,  however, by the fact that it works best as a collection, its framing device amplifying and feeding off of the stories it bookends.

"The structure of World's End recalls that of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  These stories, written in the fourteenth century (two of them in prose, the others in verse), are contained inside a framing tale, and are told by a group of pilgrims making their way from Southwark to Canterbury to visit a shrine.  The structure has been used again and again in modern tales - examples can be found in Peter Straub's Ghost Story (the stories told by the Chowder Society), Stephen King's tales of the gentleman's club located at 249B East 34th Street in Manhattan (for example, "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands"), and Gaiman's own short story "October in the Chair (101)". 

The most important aspect of TWE, however, is that each of the stories in the volume not only buildup out of the basic setup of a main character having an otherworldly encounter, it is also this very setup that determines the over-arching theme of the entire volume.  Gaiman seems fascinated in this issue with exploring the meaning of ordinary encountering the extraordinary.  Each tale is an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to suss out both the causes, effects, and implications of what happens when the world gets turned on its head by some fantastical circumstance.  In particular, Gaiman is interested in examining what, if any, effects the otherworldly has on the mind and state of the people who encounter it.  Sometimes, as in the opening story "Tale", this encounter can border on the nightmarish.  yet even here, Gaiman never quite manages to shut the door on a sense of wonder.  The protagonist of tale has been shaken by his encounter with the "dreams of a city", yet he's also very thrilled by his experience and there's every implication that he wouldn't mind having another just about like it.

For the quarreling couple who bookend the entire collection, their encounter with life at the end of things is framed in terms of both a personal crisis and also something of a paradigm shift in their thinking and outlook.  For Charlene, the seemingly miraculous nature of the inn, it's inhabitants, and the stories they tell trigger an ironic re-assessment of her life and where it's going.  She realizes, for instance, that for the longest time, "I always knew what I was doing, you see.  In my life.  I don't need people.  I've never needed other people (145)".  Perhaps this is the first time she's ever discovered a need for anything in her life.

Brant's character seems to undergo a similar narrative arch.  His role in the story often reminds me of Coleridge's Mariner, in that his role seems to be that of an ordinary person re-shaped by extraordinary circumstances.  He starts trying to live under the motto that "Reality isn't fragile - it's big and huge and solid (140)".  By the end of the final issue, however, he's more cautious about such statements.  What changes his mind might be termed a near close encounter with Death.  Of course, he could have just dreamed the whole thing.  Even if he did, by the end he seems about ready to turn his life around in some other direction.

In all this, it is the basic setup, or creative idea of an extraordinary event re-shaping the ordinary that Gaiman returns to time and again in his work.  The basic element that unites all of his riffs on this theme is that often the extraordinary often portrayed by creatures out of ancient myths.  Gaiman seems to be implying that even his post-modern audience has a connection with the world of antiquity which it might be less than wise to avoid.  We're creatures of habit in the modern world, yet we also posses the same minds that created the griffin, dragon, and mush else besides.  Gaiman seems to recognize that modern society needs to tap into the kind of viewpoints that truly imaginative myths provide, not matter how strange their appearances.  Besides which, it's the truth inside the lie that matters.  Without any thematic resonance, most stories remain little more than a passing diversion.

If this is at least a good first approach to Gaiman's thought about the necessity of myth or imagination for modern life, he is also very much aware of how the mind's creative faculties, and it's products, can be misused or abused.  This is where "Monarch of the Glen" comes in.  The story is not so much a sequel, and more of a follow-up on the author's 2001 fantasy novel, American Gods.  "Monarch" catches us up with Shadow, a character from that book, as he makes his aimless way through Scotland.  It is there he meets a barmaid named Jennie.  At one point, Jennie shares the folklore surrounding a type creature known as a huldur with Shadow.  "He'd heard the word before, in Norway.  "Aren't they a kind of troll?"  "No.  They are mountain creatures, like the trolls, but they come from the woods, and they are very beautiful...They fall in love with farmers".


"Damned if I know," she said.  "But they do.  Sometimes the farmer realizes that he is talking to a huldur woman, because she has a cow's tail hanging down behind, or worse, sometimes from behind there is nothing there, she is just hollow or empty, like a shell.  Then the farmer says a prayer of runs away, flees back to his mother or farm.

"But sometimes the farmers do not run.  Sometimes they throw a knife over her shoulder, or just smile, and they marry the huldur woman.  Then her tail falls off.  But she is still stronger than any human woman could ever be.  And she still pines for her home in the forests and the mountains.  She will never be truly happy.  She will never be human (296-7)".

In these passages, all Gaiman has done is little more than to insert the briefest kind of encyclopedic entry one might have expected to find in any self-respecting medieval bestiary.  The author has plucked a character from the narratives of old world folklore and and given her a place in one of his own writings.  If this was all he did with the subject, there would be little more to talk about, and the whole setup would be little more than a minor, if interesting piece of window-dressing.  Gaiman is smart enough not to just leave the character hanging like that, however.  He proceeds to relate a kind of parable through the narration of Jennie.  I think this parable is important for the light it sheds on the second aspect of Gaiman's overall narrative concerns.  The story goes something like this:

"There's a story about one of them who was married to a farmer who didn't treat her well.  He shouted at her, wouldn't help around the farm, he came home from the village drunk and angry.  Sometimes he beat her.

"Now, one days she's in the farmhouse, making up the morning's fire, and he comes in and starts shouting at her for his food is not ready, and he is angry, nothing she does is right, he doesn't know why he married her, and she listens to him for a while, and then, saying nothing, she reaches down to the fireplace, and she picks up the poker.  A heavy black iron jobbie.  She takes that poker and, without an effort, she bends it into a perfect circle, just like her wedding ring.  She doesn't grunt or sweat, she just bends it, like you'd bend a reed.  And her farmer sees and he goes white as a sheet, and doesn't say anything else about the breakfast.  He's seen what she did to the poker and he knows that at any time in the last five years she could have done the same to him.  And until he died, he never laid another finger on her, never said one harsh word.  Now you tell me something...if she could do that, why did she let him beat her in the first place?  Why would you want to be with someone like that?  You tell me (297)".

Well, to be fair, that's good question.  From a literalist perspective, it can be argued that the story features gaps in logic or characterization.  Why would any woman, even one who is a mythical creature, put up with such an illogical situation as a loveless marriage.  Of course, one can make a defense with an appeal to real life.  There are countless examples of the same sort of tragic situation played out on a daily basis all across the globe.  The only difference is that a lot of them don't have much of a good ending like the protagonist of Jennie's story.  The trouble is Jennie raises a good point, the story doesn't make much sense, from one perspective, when the most logical resolution to the whole dilemma is right in front of the main character's face.  Another alternative is to ask whether or not whoever came up with such a story was all that good at telling them in the first place (or else they just never knew how to treat a lady)?  However, there seems to be too much of a ring of truth to the whole setup to just dismiss it as bad yarning.  Instead, it's always possible that the right way to read it is on a more symbolic, rather than literal level.  The positives of this approach are that it can help us understand that what appear to be logical inconsistencies are in fact pointers (deliberate or otherwise) to the actual meaning the legend or myth is trying to convey.

Let's take the farmer for instance.  He is a man who comes across a woman who is also a creature of folklore.  It should be noted that we are never truly given an idea of what his first reaction was to meeting one of the fair folk at any point in the narrative.  All we are given as readers is the fallout which happens some five years after the initial contact.  However, there must have been something that drew the old cur to her in the first place.  Some further considerations lead to the inevitable conclusion that what happened with this unfortunate couple is that the husband at one time found himself enchanted with the possibilities of the extraordinary, or the otherworldly.  It was under this enchanted Romanticism that he must have proposed and, somehow, won her hand.  It is just possible that he might have vowed to honor all that she stood for, for a moment, at least.  The trouble is while he might have been enchanted at the idea of what essentially appears to amount to having an Elf for a wife, he just didn't, or doesn't have the kind of personality required for living up to such a Romantic vision.  It also helps to keep in mind that this parable is delivered by one of the characters in the narrative, and that Jennie is, in an indirect manner, commenting both on herself and the current plight or situation she finds herself dealing with as a fantastical being in the modern world.

Here then is the real truth of Gaiman's symbolic parable.  He seems to be saying that while it might be possible for some to be enchanted by the products of the imagination, the simple fact appears to be that not everyone can change their lives or behavior in a positive way because of it.  To be fair, this isn't always a problem in and of itself.  It's only when a lack of character results in a similar failure of morals that trouble can sometimes ensue.  This is the kind of situation that Shadow finds himself drawn into in the course of "Monarch's" narrative.

The entire short story is basically a what-if scenario wrapped around an old English custom.  There are societies in Great Britain dedicated to the preservation stories and legends that make up the mythology or matter of England.  It's a tradition in some of these preservationist societies to keep these narratives alive in the public consciousness by holding open-house dramatic readings from a lot of these ancient texts.  One of the narratives that is very popular in a lot of these institutions is the anonymous work known as Beowulf.  There is even one chapter in the district of Kent it is "performed in a fantastic, full-scale recreation of an Anglo-Saxon royal hall (web)".  Actor Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is or was the annual narrator for these events.  

What Gaiman has done is to take this innocuous local custom and give a sinister narrative twist.  He asks what it would be like if instead of a bunch of harmless local enthusiasts and a few professional scholars, a group of greedy, clutching, covetous, yet knowledgeable members of the ruling class where to re-enact Beowulf, not in a spirit of good fun, but rather as something close to a kind of death-cult.  What if, furthermore, they had access to certain cast members from the poem and used their circle not as forms of entertainment or enlightenment, but rather as part of a vicious circle of exploitation?  It is here that reader may begin to see the thematic links between Jennie's parable and Shadow's predicament.  What Gaiman seems most concerned about in "Monarch of the Glen" is the way stories are used or abused in modern life.  It is just possible that the short-story reflects more direct real-life concerns, as Gamin claims he came up with the idea for this narrative not long after trying to handle the screenplay for an abortive film adaptation of Beowulf.  If there's any truth to that, then it could be that "Monarch" is great deal more satirical than it appears on the surface.

I've focused on World's End and "Monarch of the Glen" because I think the two of them taken together provide a decent and manageable an understanding that most of us are liable to get about Gaiman's concerns as an author.  Together they paint the image of an artist whose interests share a great deal of affinity with guys like Alan Moore. In a review of a biography of Moore, I was able to uncover and highlight that artists like William Blake seem to be in back of the inspiration for works like Watchmen.  In the meantime, all I've been able to find out about Gaiman convinces me that he's seems to be cut from pretty similar looking cloth.

In addition to poets like Blake, however, Gaiman often displays a wider pallet.  In many of his works, he can often be found drawing from sources as diverse as Arthurian and Norse myth, and even to the Hindu pantheon for a tale like Cinnamon.  Rather than think of him as a Punk, I think the word Romantic is perhaps a better description for the kind of writer Gaiman is.  In this regard, perhaps it makes sense to compare him with an artist like Alan Moore.  The differences between them seems to be that Gaiman often keeps things on a relatively down to earth, mainstream-oriented level.  There's wrong with the mainstream as far as I'm concerned, it has it's place just about as much as anything else.  Besides which, some of the best work ever done came from that sector, and only  complete fool would just dismiss all of it as trash.

Nonetheless, a thematic link with the Romantic movement is still there in his works, and Gaiman does show an overlap of concerns with people like Wordsworth.  One of the closest shared concerns is the lens through which people observe all that happens to and around them.  This is best demonstrated by the farmer in the parable of "Monarch".  The idea of an individual who is able to have some Romantic idea of life, and yet isn't able to grasp it or live it through is remarkable for its similarity to certain ideas in The Prelude.  At the very least, such individuals were and seem to remain a fascination to guys like Wordsworth or Gaiman.  I suppose one reason for this might be that such characters, whether in real life or fiction, are the sort that are able to mine an endless supply of drama that most artists require for their daily bread and butter.

If a proper artistic term was required to describe characters like the farmer in Jennie's parable, then one possible suggestion might be to call him an Isolated Romantic.  It is possible to trace characters just like this alienated plowman in works by others.  There's T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, or Melville's Mad Whaler.  We also have taxi driver Travis Bickle.  Then, or course, there is, once more, Coleridge's Mariner.  If this figure represents the second part of Gaiman's overall artistic concerns, then the picture we get by putting it all together is an author whose work acts as a kind of examination, critique, and cautious endorsement of the Romantic visions and quests promulgated in the fantasy genre.

Conclusion: A Very Decent Intro to the Author.

As I said way back at the beginning, this review was going to be as much a general, introductory look into the nature of Gaiman's main themes, and his place in a potential semi-related group of late 20th century authors, as much as it was meant to be a review of Campbell's text.  Looking at Gaiman as part of a group, it is at least possible to say that he can fit on a thematic level on the same shelf next to Alan Moore.  Both authors are concerned, in varying degrees, with how the post-modern individual relates to the imagination in daily life.  It is also just possible that both authors share a similar interest in seeing how, or in what way, that the same post-modern audience can achieve a re-discovery of at least some kind of meaning for their lives.  This seems to be as far as things can go in terms of sussing out the idea of Moore and Gaiman as part of any group.  The type of questions that remain to still be explored revolve around things like why was there such a collective explosion of artistic talent all clustered together during such a brief span of time?  It will be interesting to see if that question can yield any kind of answer, as it may tell us a lot about what factors, social, artistic, and otherwise can come together to create such talented minds in the first place.
As for Campbell's text, there is a lot in it's pages to earn a hearty endorsement.  After a brief scan of her subject's early life, she dives into a one-at-a-time examination of each of his works, even forgotten embarrassments like a biography of Duran Duran.  This also includes unjustly neglected tomes like Gaiman's study of the work of Douglas Adams.  It is true that what Campbell has composed amounts to a coffee-table book.  However, she knows enough about Gaiman as an artist to provide the necessary insight to give what amounts to a decent introductory text on her subject.  The highest compliment I can give the book is that any critic going forward should take Campbell's work into account.  What she was able to assemble here amounts to the handiest one-stop shop for all the current relevant material there is when it comes to understanding Gaiman's output on both an individual level and as a whole.  I think any fan can be thankful that someone has provided such a generous resource on one of the most creative writing talents out there.


  1. Sounds like a good book for Gaiman fans. I aspire to be a Gaiman fan one of these days -- he's on the list for sure.

    1. I'd definitely recommend it as a good starting point for those looking for a good overview of the authors. So that's a definite endorsement right there.