Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

The Sandman Reread: The Dream Hunters

Years after Neil Gaiman had concluded the Sandman series, after all the epilogues and Death-sequels, after Dream joined forces with his gas-masked Golden Age namesake, and after the writer had moved on to such things as the work that would become American Gods and the English-language dub of Princess Mononoke, he was asked to return to his comic book creation to commemorate its tenth anniversary.

Inspired by Japanese folklore he had discovered while working on the Studio Ghibli Mononoke adaptation, he decided to recast an ancient fairy tale from our world and place it in the realm of Sandman. He wanted to retell the story “in his own way,” according to the afterword printed in Sandman: The Dream Hunters.

So he took versions of the old Japanese story from the likes of Reverend B. W. Ashton and Y. T. Ozaki and pulled in some of the familiar Sandman components like Dream’s raven and a brief cameo from a pair of famous Biblical brothers. Sandman: The Dream Hunters ended up as a prose story retelling of that foreign tale, with the great artist Yoshitaka Amano (who you may know from such character designs as Gatchaman anime and the Final Fantasy video game series) providing sumptuously painted illustrations.

That’s how the story goes. But it isn’t actually true.

Yes, it’s true that he wrote a prose story for the tenth anniversary of Sandman and yes it was illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, but it was no Neil Gaiman adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale. It was an original story posing as an adaptation, with Gaiman himself providing the misdirection in the form of an unreliable Afterword in which he cites his (fabricated) sources.

In his notes at the end of Absolute Sandman Volume 5, the massive hardcover that collects The Dream Hunters along with a handful of other late-phase and post-Sandman projects involving the Endless, Gaiman explains that he never expected the original Afterword to be taken seriously. “I learned that if you put things in small type at the back of a book, they are believed, unquestioningly,” says Gaiman, “as the first of a stream of requests came in from people and from universities who found themselves unable to obtain the source texts I claim to have drawn from. I explained to each of them that I had made them up, and I apologized.”

I know I fell for the ruse when I first read The Dream Hunters in 1999.

I didn’t try to seek out the original source material, but Gaiman’s playfully false Afterword did trick me into thinking that the Amano-illustrated story was merely an adaptation of an old fairy tale, and not “really” a Sandman story, even if the Dream King and a few of his compatriots found themselves wedged in.

And, yes, I read the Afterword before reading the original book, because I’m one of those people who tend to read about things before they read the things themselves. I’ll read author’s notes and commentaries before I’ll read the actual text, more often than not. I’ve never been one to heed spoiler warnings.

But in the case of The Dream Hunters, my incorrect understanding about the origins of the story—spurred by that sneaky Neil Gaiman and his Afterword hijinx—led me to completely dismiss the book upon its original release. Until approaching the book anew with this reread, I had always thought of the Gaiman/Amano work as “lesser” Sandman because it was just a retelling of some old Japanese story. Barely even Sandman. Just something that was a related project. Like a silver ankh sold at a comic shop or something.

Yet by the time of The Sandman: Endless Nights—an anthology project completed as the original series neared its fifteenth anniversary, and one that I’ll dig into next time—Gaiman had already flat-out said that The Dream Hunters was “a retelling of an old Japanese folktale [he] completely made up.” I must have read those words in 1993 or 1994, whenever I first sat down to read that anthology. But I ignored them, clearly, because until now I have always thought of The Dream Hunters as not-real-Gaiman-Sandman.

How foolish of me.

And after rereading The Dream Hunters again recently, after reading everything else Sandman, how foolish of me not to see that the prose story is quintessential Gaiman. Like the best of the Sandman single issues or story arcs, it holds the essence of the entire saga in miniature form.

Gaiman does a convincing job of writing in a faux-translation style. His prose in The Dream Hunters is more direct, less full of digressions and figurative wordplay. It reads like a story adapted from a British retelling of a Japanese folktale. Which is, of course, exactly the point. So I will forgive myself and everyone else who fell for the ruse, because the master storyteller did what he does: told a masterful story. And the way of telling is just as important as what is told.

But what is told is a story that would fit right in with any of the Sandman one-shot tales, although it’s considerably longer, and contains chapter breaks. But like the shorts in Dream Country or Fables and Reflections or World’s End, this is the story about people who want something, and their desires end up intersecting with the world of Dream.

In The Dream Hunters, the lead characters are a young monk and a wily fox. First, the fox challenges a badger to a contest in which they will drive the young monk from the neighborhood. But the fox falls in love with the intelligent and discerning young monk. “And that,” writes Neil Gaiman, at the end of the first chapter, “was to be the cause of much misery in the time to come. Much misery, and heartbreak, and of a strange journey.”

Those two sentences not only provide an overview for The Dream Hunters, they could be used to describe the whole of Sandman.

When I wrote, in an earlier reread installment, about Neil Gaiman’s “Orpheus” story, I discussed how that, too, echoes the larger story of the entire series. And though Orpheus never appears in The Dream Hunters, his tale resonates through this one as well. They all overlap, in the dream world where loved ones are lost, and trying to bring them back leads to great sorrow.

Thus, just like with Orpheus, and just like with Dream himself in the full series, the protagonist must go on a journey to save someone he cares about. Orpheus goes to the Underworld to rescue Eurydice. Dream goes to Hell to free Nada. (And takes a road trip with Delirium to find his brother, and maybe reunite a former lover of his. And leaves the safety of his realm to visit Nuala, when she needs him.) The young monk in The Dream Hunters? He goes to the land of the King of Dreams to resurrect the fox, who has become trapped in the dream world so the monk could continue to live.

It’s yet another story of sacrifice and obligation, of love and honor and commitment, set amidst high fantasy and dark dealings and the shifting veil of the world that lies beyond sleep.

In the end, everyone pays a great price, and nobody really gets what they want, but they all get what they have asked for, at least temporarily. It’s a fable without a clear moral, and “be careful what you wish for” doesn’t do it justice.

The raven confronts the lord of the Dreaming about this, as the story comes to a close. “What good did it do?” the raven asked.

“‘Lessons were learned,’ said the pale king. ‘Events occurred as it was proper for them to do. I do not perceive that my attention was wasted.’”

Probing deeper after that unsatisfactory reply, and additional exchanges between Dream and his winged charge, the Raven asks, pointedly, “And you also learn a lesson?”

“But the pale king chose not to answer and remained wrapped in silence,” writes Gaiman. “…and after some time the raven flapped heavily away into the sky of dreams, and left the king entirely alone.”

Did Dream learn a lesson from this story that would so closely mirror his own? Did this tale of the monk and the fox who loved him inform Dreams own decisions when it came time to pursue his own loved ones and possibly sacrifice his own life in exchange?

The answers to those questions are in your interpretation of the Sandman series itself.

Just be careful about trusting that Gaiman guy. He’s a writer—an author, and if you study the origin of the latter word, you’ll know that it comes from the Latin auctorem, which translates as “magnificent liar.”

NEXT: The finale of the Sandman reread with some of the world’s best comic book artists telling of the Endless Nights.


Tim Callahan appreciates the work P. Craig Russell did in later years to adapt The Dream Hunters into a sequential comic, but he still greatly prefers the original illustrated short story.

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