“Our culture is filled with depictions of costumed heroes with magical powers saving the day from a bunch of equally super-powered villain.” [i] This is why Neil Gaiman’s, The Sandman, is a controversial character in the search behind the classification of what defines a Hero or Superhero.  The Sandman is based on the Greek mythological character Morpheus: God of Dreams -- who was the leader of the Oneiro – and appears as part of the Endless; a group of immortals with specific roles. [ii] Detective Comic (DC) do publish 'regular' super-hero characters, such as Batman, Superman and the Green Lantern. Yet Gaiman sets himself apart by bringing in a historic mythological foundation to his series. Building upon pre-existing myths and tales, and using his unique narrative to conjure a spirit of the modern day hero, Gaiman is able to create a form of literature that is unprecedented in the comic book genre.   Parallels can be drawn between Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and mythological tales, as well as biblical and historical texts. Such characters include Eve, Cain and Abel, Orpheus (Son of Morpheus and the Greek muse, Calliope) who each have their own purpose in the Dreaming.

To locate the Sandman as a hero we must recall that Dream is an immortal and thus may be described as being closer to a God than a human. The Ancient Greek Hero was a deceased religious figure who received cult worship and in return was expected to bring prosperity and fertility to the community. According to Nagy the hero as “a literary figure” is:

‘… A key part to the narrative of the hero's life is that s/he undergoes some sort of ordeal. The hero, who is mortal (not immortal like the gods) must suffer during his or her lifetime, and, significantly, must die. Only after death can the hero receive immortalization in cult and in song. The hero must struggle against the fear of death, in order to achieve the most perfect death.’[iii]

If Dream is an immortal he challenges the theory put forward by Nagy thus removing him from the category of hero. But rather than a human hero becoming godlike and performing various exploits, Dream starts as more than any god, and over the course of the series, becomes a man. This process of humanization turns the hero myth on its head [iv].

Morpheus rules the Dreaming, his place of power, where dreams are reflections of humanity. When myths die in the waking world, they return to the Dreaming. As the character Death observes, “Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you” (Death, Gaiman, N. 1995)

In Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes Morpheus has been imprisoned by a supernatural ritual for 70 years. After his escape he punishes those who imprisoned him and we get our first glance of the how ruthless he can be: “…You wanted DEATH? Then count yourself lucky for the sake of your species and your petty planet that you did NOT succeed…” (Morpheus, Gaiman, N, 1995)

Morpheus is merciless in his wrath, far closer to the nature of god than of a man. According to Greek heroes are dangerous because they are beyond conforming to the standards which confine ordinary men, and their aberrations are no less typical a feature than their exemplary qualities.[v] Similarities between the temperament of Brelich’s hero and Morpheus are evident from our first impression, as he actually maintains very few of the honourable qualities that are expected in heroes today. But Dowden points out that the more merciless the hero, the more he will be admired as a true champion among the Greek audience: “…(It) creates an awful and extreme model of heroism which Greeks thought it appropriate to entertain. Greek Heroes are not saints…the impulsive, reckless anger…is at least part of what a Greek audience might expect and even demand of so exceptional a person…” (ibid)

We learn character more about the history and changing characteristics of Morpheus when his escape from imprisonment starts his heroic journey, during his journey he must accept aspects of humanity by rectifying past actions.  One of his more significant decisions features in the Second Volume:  The Dolls House. Morpheus imprisons the mortal woman he loves, Nada, to 1000 years in hell for thrice refusing to become his queen. The point must be made that she refuses only because it is against all rules for a mortal to be with one of the endless and their love making alone meant her entire kingdom was destroyed. We can again witness aspects of his character relating to that of the former Greek hero. Morpheus  is unconcerned about this loss and is merciless, demanding she stay by his side: “Once more I will offer my love to you, once more and that is all. If you refuse me a third time, I will condemn your soul to eternal pain” (Morpheus. Gaiman, N. 1995)

But his attitude changes when he rescues Nada from hell in the fourth volume Seasons Of Mists. The ability to have a relationship and compassion are critical aspects of what we describe as being human[vi] .

Gaiman’s character retains similarities to the Hero myth, but while Joseph Campbell refers to tests of a more physical aspect, Gaiman fashions tests of humanity for the Sandman. But as Leeming says, “[t]he quest myth in one sense is the only myth-that is, all the other myths are part of the quest myth…psychologically all heroes, as we have seen represent humankind’s search for the self” [vii]

In the final leg of the Hero’s journey according to Joseph Campbell, the hero must suffer an ordeal or tragedy, death and then resurrect. In the middle of the series, Morpheus experiences a momentous ordeal that causes a chain reaction that will eventually result in his death.  Morpheus’ ordeal is bringing his son Orpheus (an oracle, musician and poet), the death he craves, despite this being a punishable sin even to the Endless.  Orpheus lost his wife Eurydice on their wedding day and beseeched his father to help rescue her from the underworld. Morpheus’ refusal to help could suggest that Orpheus’ subsequent death at the hands of the Furies, otherwise known as the Erinyes (Greek deities of vengeance), was due to his negligence of his son’s emotions. His response to Orpheus’ grief is: “It is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve, then you continue with your life. “ (Morpheus, Gaiman, N. 1993)

Orpheus remains alive yet as a severed head remaining which Morpheus rescues and keeps on a protected island, with the promising to never visit him again. His breaking of this vow represents another stage in the changing of his character. It is something he would not previously have done. And when he returns to the Dreaming, the guardians of the gate question his identity causing him to reply: “A strange question to ask, my servant. Am I not your creator?” (Morpheus, Gaiman, N. 1994)

In Volume 9: The Kindly Ones, Dream is hunted by the furies after Lyta’s baby son Daniel is killed by escaped nightmares.  Dream atones and when the Furies attack him, he bleeds (Sandman 67:19). As Rauch says: “He has become human. In this sense, Dream’s flesh and blood, real and human, are a miracle.” [viii]

 Dream’s death is followed by his resurrection as the new Dream of the Endless, through Daniel. Daniel was conceived in the dreaming by Lyta and her husband Hector, who had previously died in the real world, during the The Doll’s House.

“The child you have carried so long in dreams. That child is mine. Take good care of it. One day I will come for it.” (Morpheus, Gaiman, N. 1995)

Dream’s resurrection is so important, there is an argument that he orchestrated his death himself, in a form of a very long and cleverly thought out suicide. It is suggested that Dream follows the function of mythology put forward by Campbell, ‘wonder at the majesty of life in the world’ [ix]. He has lived his time, he has loved and lost and now is the time for Daniel to take over his realm.

Although Morpheus: Lord of The Dreaming came from the spiritual world, entering both the waking world and the dreaming, he undertakes the mortal’s perilous journey, and even resurrection, as put forward by Campbell’s Hero Myth. An otherworldly being, he might be, but in an age where heroes must serve as realistic exemplars, he makes for a very human hero too

The Unsuspecting Hero: Humanity and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman by Charlotte Peck

[i] Rauch, S. (2003) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside, p39

[ii] Gaiman used manifestations of human experience as the titles of his other characters in his series: Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who used to be Delight) and Destruction (who has left the Endless to pursue a mortal life).

[iii] Nagy, G. (2001) The concept of the hero. Harvard University

[iv] Rauch, S. (2003) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside

[v] Dowden, K. (1992) The Uses of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge. p99

[vi] Rauch, S. (2003) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside, p40

[vii] Leeming, D. (1998) Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York: Oxford UP p 152

[viii] Rauch, S. (2003) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside, p52

[ix] Rauch, S. (2003) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth. Holicong, PA: Wildside, p47

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Gaiman, N. (1995) The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York, NY: DC Comics

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