Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gilbert as a Character in a Neil Gaiman Book

It all sounds a bit too nightmarish for me. Has anyone around here read it?


  1. As a fan of Gaiman and Gilbert, I read it many years ago. This is a bit horror and a bit splatter, but a lot more deep mythology.

    If you enjoy serious comic books, or graphic novels, or whatever term that is most fitting, the whole Sandman series is a gem. If not, it may take some effort to get into it.

    BTW, Gaiman really likes Gilbert, when I asked him some years ago he replied that "Chesterton probably is still my favorite author".

    And then he willingly signed "to a fellow chestertonian".

  2. That's very interesting, thanks for sharing that Bjorn.

  3. Oddly enough, I just read The Doll's House this week. Gaiman is both a gifted storyteller and a bit freaky at the same time. I had just read his book American Gods (recommended by someone at this year's GKC convention) and found it quite interesting, but Gaiman does not neglect to include the seamier, degraded aspects of humanity in his writings.

    These are graphic novels; richly illustrated comic books for, as noted on the back cover, mature readers. Yeah, one can only hope in vain because the typical reader of these are teenagers. In The Doll's House, we eventually find ourselves at a convention for serial killers, including those who collect specific body parts. Into this comes a teenager girl whose protector is Gilbert. He's not identified as Chesterton, but just the mysterious Gilbert. He looks like our guy, is clearly drawn in his likeness, has a few wise things to say and even carries (and uses) a sword stick. Surrounding this story is the Sandman, the main character of this entire series of eleven graphic novels. He is the god of Dreams and his siblings are such other gods as Desire and Death. These are perhaps archetypal sorts, and humans are sometimes their playthings and pawns and sometimes the target of their justice.

    The two books that I have read (The Doll's House is #2 in the series) are quite interesting with well developed characters and intriguing storylines, but I'm not particularly fond of such exposes and embraces of the worst in us — and other than an obvious condemnation of the "collectors," Gaiman does not really judge his characters and there's the modern obligatory muddle of sexual mix and match.

    I would love to know why Gaiman is a fan of Chesterton. After I was done with this book, I had no real sense of why the character as Gilbert was there. He clearly represented goodness and was a protector of such things. Perhaps Chesterton was also quite aware of the, um, diversity of human expression. Father Brown certainly did, though Chesterton never gave us the sorts of crimes and characters that might have shown up were he also a modern writer. Chesterton knew about the world but still loved it enough to want to change it for the better, but I wonder if he were to read these stories would he just want to wash his hands of this whole (bloody) mess. These books are morality tales of a sort, but it seems a far looser, modern morality. I'm a little uncertain how Gilbert K. Chesterton fits into them. He might have been a grandfatherly, mostly tolerant character we find in this book, but would the average reader of The Sandman books be tolerant of the real Chesterton if they were to next read Orthodoxy or the like. That would be the best test of why Gilbert was included in this book.

  4. Dave: Thanks for the analysis and thoughtful questions about the books and the character of Gilbert in them.

  5. Nancy, I'm so glad you put my question to you on the blog!
    These are great answers.

  6. I've enjoyed almost all of Neil Gaiman's books, and dabbled a little in the graphic novels. They're not really to my taste, but I think there's an undeniable trace of Chesterton in most of Gaiman's work in that he (through his characters) explores the moral standpoints of others from the standpoint of a third party, however, unlike Chesterton, Gaiman's outside-looking-in characters don't seem to have the definite moral compass that many of Chesterton's protagonists do. This ties in with what DMZach put forth (very well) in his third paragraph about how Gaiman doesn't tend to judge his characters, but set them on equal footing regardless of their "character", such as it is.
    In addition, there's a certain degree of similarity to be found in their mutual affection for conflict between characters with wildly differing worldviews, to use a cliched phrase. Immersing the protagonist in a setting where he finds his own principles juxtaposed with those of others that are, inherently and almost instinctively, different from his own, is a common theme in both of their works. I'm thinking of "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" and "The Ball and the Cross", specifically, as well as "American Gods" and "Anansi Boys".

  7. the link to the blog is not working. what is the title of the book?

  8. BTW, Gaiman really is a huge Chesterton fan. A number of his novels begin with Chesterton quotes, and in the aformentioned American Gods, he works in a Chesterton quote so wonderfully (a line from the poem, "Song of the Strange Aesthetic"), that when I read it a year ago, I let out a huge "Woo-hoooo!!" I was in the hospital then so I'm sure they heard it up and down the floor.

  9. I fixed the link. The title is The Dolls House.

  10. Gaiman's novel Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett) is deedicated 'to the memory of G. K. CHESTERTON -- a man who knew what was going on.'

  11. +JMJ+

    I don't know if you'll still read this, Nancy, but I thought anyone else who stumbles upon this post might find it helpful. =)

    I've just finished Good Omens and see a very definite Chestertonian influence. (Both Gaiman and Pratchett are quite open about it. At one point, one of the characters, who is a millennia-old demon, muses that Uncle Gilbert is the only poet in the twentieth century to ever come close to "the truth.")

    As other commenters have pointed out, however, the characters don't have much of a moral compass. Yet they're not amoral. It's all very postmodern, really. =P

    Two of the protagonists are an angel and a devil--traditional adversaries who have become friendly allies of a sort. They've both grown to like earth so much that they actually hope to put off the Apocalypse because it would mean the destruction of earth. I think you can see how that sentiment is both very Chestertonian and not Chestertonian at all!

    Another character is the Antichrist himself . . . but it's impossible to describe what is so Chestertonian about him without going into spoiler territory.

  12. Thanks, E! I think this is an excellent view of the books, which are entertaining and thought provoking. Thanks for the review.

  13. Gaiman's "Gilbert" first appears before Doll's House, in Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Sandman. There we find that the King of Dreams has been captured and away from his realm for decades--and, during that time, some dreams have escaped into the waking world and taken up residence there. One of those dreams is Fiddler's Dream, a utopia dreamed of by sailors and other travelers, which decides to find out what it would like to be a person--and so it/he takes on the form of Gilbert, who looks remarkably like Chesterton. I don't know if Gaiman ever explained why he thought a sailor's paradise would imagine itself as Chesterton, but it might have something to do with this made-up Chesterton quotation (from The Man Who Was October, a book Chesterton wrote "only in dreams") which Gaiman used as postscript to Season of Mists, a later volume of Sandman:

    "October knew, of course, that the actions of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale.

    Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: 'It is simply a matter,' he explained to April, 'of finding a sunning place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft, somewhere to rest, stop reading, and be content.'"

    Speaking of endings, in his final appearance in sandman, Fiddler's Green/Gilbert, after being destroyed, declines a chance to be restored; if that happened, he says, then his death would have had no meaning. It seems like a sentiment appropriate to Chesterton, who knew how to tell stories and understood the importance of narrative closure.


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