Fri
Jul 22 2011 10:05am

On the Other Side of the Wall: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust

Take a large pinch of fairytale and shake it up with Lud in the Mist, Lord Dunsany, and a dash of Princess Bride, then stir it into a glass of beautiful prose, and you have Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1999). Let me show you some, because this is a book that above all rests on the beauty of the way the words are put together. This is setting the scene:

The events that follow transpired many years ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad Widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and a spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, though she was very much in love.

Mr Charles Dickens was serialising his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.

Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.

In this Victorian England the little town of Wall has a guarded gap in a wall, and on the other side of the gap is Faerie. Most of the time nobody is allowed to cross, but every nine years there is a faerie market, and people come to Wall from all over both worlds to visit there.

Stardust is a clever postmodern fairytale with enough understanding of what a fairytale is and enough contemporary sensibility to make it work. It’s delightful, and it believes in itself despite its absurdity. What it isn’t is fantasy — at least in the modern sense.

Of course Stardust uses some of the worldbuilding techniques of fantasy, and any book about a young man going on a quest for a fallen star and encountering witches and magic is inherently fantastical. But genre fantasy post-Tolkien has become connected to specific imaginary history and geography in a way that Stardust scorns. This is not only a book without a map but a book where the very idea of a map would be ridiculous. The geography makes sense in an intuitive magical way that works for the plot. The same goes for the history and the social systems. This isn’t a book that you can consider comfortably in the same genre as Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet or Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. It’s just not interested in doing the same kind of thing — it’s coming at the numinous from quite a different direction. It has different ancestors and works by different logic.

Stardust is the story of a young man who goes to find a falling star. It’s also the story of a star falling and landing and breaking her leg and saying “Fuck!” It has a boy turned into a goat, and a goat turned into a man, and witches and lords and fairies and magic glass flowers and a week where two Mondays come together. It has true love that doesn’t turn out to be where you expect it. And it has a star who is a girl, which reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, except that Lewis’s girl-star isn’t even given a name, whereas Gaiman’s Yvaine is a proactive feminist protagonist.

Stardust is very short and very beautiful and it reads just like a modern fairytale should. There’s even a movie version that doesn’t suck, though substituting special effects for lovely prose never works as well as people think it will.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

33 comments
Katy Maziarz
1. ArtfulMagpie
"Stardust is very short and very beautiful and it reads just like a modern fairytale should. There’s even a movie version that doesn’t suck, though substituting special effects for lovely prose never works as well as people think it will."

Stardust is indeed a wonderful, delightful book. And the movie is mostly enjoyable. I just had one major problem with the movie. In the book, the character Victoria Forester is, in the end, a perfectly nice young woman who wasn't quite sure how to let Tristan down lightly and made the mistake (or was it a mistake?) of sending him off into Faerie instead of just telling him she was already interested in someone else. In the movie, Victoria is a shallow, manipulative cariacature of a woman who only wants everyone to love her her her, damn the consequences. Gaiman's portrayal of a beautiful and sought-after, but ultimately kind and confused, young woman was refreshing. The movie's portrayal of one more sterotypal crazy man-eater was exhausting and obnoxious.
Matthew Haase
2. Indagator
Stardust is delightful, and while it works in pure prose form, the definitive edition is the version illustrated by Charlie Vess. It is almost, but not quite, a graphic novel, which may scare some people away. Don't let it, though, because the illustrations are integral to the original version and the dreamy fairytale tone of the story.
TheDoctor
3. TheDoctor
Read the version with Charles Vess' illustrations for sure (as mentioned above).

This is one of my favorite stories. I liked the movie (heck we named our son Tristan --instead of the book version Tristran) but the book is, well, magical.
Melissa Shumake
4. cherie_2137
i love this book. a whole bunch. which is strange for me on one hand, becuase i don't often read books that don't go with a couple other parts of the same story. however, i love fairy tales (and would consider fairy tales to be the other side of the coin to fantasy novels) and fairy tales don't usually have sequals, disney be damned. i think it's a great place to get someone started in reading fantasy because it's so short, and so well writen, and just lovely. in fact, my copy is currently out of my hands because one of my friends was looking at my crowded bookshelves and said, what do you think i would like? and that's what i handed her.
Scott Sherris
5. ssherris
I loved the book - was a bit disappointed by the movie. I was happy to see that my wife, who refuses to read fiction and so of course never read the book, loved the movie.
Hello There
6. praxisproces
Love that you keep reminding people of Long Price Quartet, Jo, Mr. Abraham doesn't get anywhere near the attention he deserves after writing something that beautiful.

One of my favorite things about Stardust is how revelatory it is of a lot of what would follow in Gaiman's prose oeuvre; it has the same feel of slippery reality and gorgeous whimsy cloaking profound menace that characterizes a lot of what he wrote as he went on. I always tell people to start with Stardust as a kind of orientation and then go to American Gods.
TheDoctor
7. a-j
My favourite Gaiman novel and a fun film, indeed as with the film Master & Commander: Far Side of the World (from Patrick O'Brian's novels), it does what I like a film adaptation to do, that is to be true to the spirit of the original but with enough shifts and self-confidence to be its own beast. As to the novel itself, I think it is one of the most charming of Gaiman's works with a joyfulness and sheer delight in its own élan and pleasure in its story that makes it the reading equivalent of quaffing perfectly chilled champagne.
TheDoctor
8. JoeNotCharles
Fans of Stardust as well as fans of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and I'm sure there's a lot of overlap!) will also want to check out Susanna Clarke's short story "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse", which is set in Wall. (It's available in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.)
TheDoctor
9. Mark Andrew Edwards
I disagree with your statement that Stardust isn't fantasy. I think that umbrealla is big enough to cover everything from Red Nails to The Golden Key. It certainly wide enough to cover what Tolkien called, rightly, "fairy-stories".

It's a provokative statement but one that don't consider accurate.

I am glad you loved Stardust as much as I do. Apart from discordant modernisms (the 'fuck' you mentioned, for one) I thought it was a charming story that kept me surprised and entertained throughout its length.
Memory Arnould
10. xicanti
This is one of my favourites, largely because of the gorgeous, gorgeous prose. I often tell people that Neil Gaiman is my favourite punctuator. Nobody strings words together like Gaiman.
TheDoctor
11. Breda
I disagree.

Not about STARDUST: it's my favorite Gaiman novel, and he's one of my favorite authors. I LOVE this book. I basically smile the entire time I'm reading it, both for the absolutely charming story and the magical way that he uses words.

No, I disagree about this very restricted definition of fantasy. After that marvelous post on all the different "family trees" of fantasy, we're going to say that it has to fit into this very narrow sense of "having a map" in order to be called fantasy? That's bizarrely limiting to me.
JOhn Johnson
12. smileyman
I love Stardust. It's my favorite Gaiman (and that's saying a great deal). I love the sense of whimsy and charm that he manages to convey with this book. His other works tend to retain the sense of whimsy but lose the charm. This is one of the books that makes my annual re-read list (and there aren't very many of those).

I disagree strongly that it's not fantasy. It's certainly not traditional fantasy in the sense of Tolkien, but it's most definitely fantasy. It's fantasy the same way Peter Beagle is, or Nina Kiriki Hoffman is.

@9 Fuck is an old word. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the earliest uses of it in print are from the early 1500s. It was used often enough that it was outlawed in print in England in 1857, and the US in 1873.
TheDoctor
13. Anna Lawrence
What a narrow, proscriptive definition of fantasy Ms Walton must have.
Lenny Bailes
14. lennyb
Stardust *is* descended from traditional fantasy -- borrowing from the works of authors such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, and James Thurber, who were in print before the original edition of Tolkien's LOTR. LOTR was re-published in paperback in the 1960s. This caused the fantasy genre to explode in the 1970s and 80s with new authors who imitated Tolkien.

The question of what's fantasy and what's not is one that's caused some debate in both fandom and in academic circles. Recently, Farah Mendlesohn, a fan, teacher, and literary scholar, has attempted to sort this out a bit in her treatise: The Rhetorics of Fantasy.
Andrew Mason
15. AnotherAndrew
There's something weird about the way 'fantasy' is currently used. On the one hand, I think everyone would agree that Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Susannah Clarke, Gene Wolfe (sometimes), John Crowley, Naomi Novik, etc., etc. - and indeed Jo Walton - write fantasy. Certainly there's no other term which better describes what they write.

On the other hand when the word 'fantasy' is uttered, what it first calls to many people's mind is the post-Tolkeinian stuff - you get claims like 'fantasy is always about the battle between good and evil' and 'you can't have a work of fantasy without a map' and so on. (Most of the authors mentioned above get on fine without maps.)

I thought for a while that this was a stereotype imposed by outsiders, like the robots and spaceships of science fiction or the adulterous professors of literary fiction, but then I realised many readers and writers of fantasy themselves think that way. I find this weird, but that's how it is. It is probably to the advantage of fantasy writers not in that tradition, because they can point to their work as 'Not your typical fantasy'.

What a narrow, proscriptive definition of fantasy Ms Walton must have.

I don't think it's her definition. She did say 'in the modern sense'. And it is at least a modern sense, and a very influential one.
Lenny Bailes
16. lennyb
As an additional note, some taxonomists hold that the specific genre we commonly refer to as "fantasy" began with Tolkien and that before Tolkien there were individual fantasy novels and stories, but no ""fantasy genre." That may be what Jo was trying to get at.
Ashe Armstrong
17. AsheSaoirse
@2:

Stardust is delightful, and while it works in pure prose form, the definitive edition is the version illustrated by Charlie Vess. It is almost, but not quite, a graphic novel, which may scare some people away. Don't let it, though, because the illustrations are integral to the original version and the dreamy fairytale tone of the story.

Agreed. I bought the hardback version when the movie came out and waited til I'd seen the movie to read the original (I've since added the novelization to my collection as well as it's easier to travel with). As someone else pointed out, Victoria's characterization differences are frustrating but on the whole, the movie is wonderful. Like most adaptations, it does not hold a candle to the book though, especially with Vess's gorgeous illustrations.

@11 :

it's my favorite Gaiman novel, and he's one of my favorite authors. I LOVE this book. I basically smile the entire time I'm reading it, both for the absolutely charming story and the magical way that he uses words.

I am the same way.

@Jo Walton: I am in agreement with the others about Stardust being fantasy. There's magic and whimsy and the magic alone gets the fantasy nod from me. Tolkien did a lot for fantasy and so have others but to deny Stardust as fantasy just seems rather wrong and foolish. I can understand your points but I disagree wholeheartedly.
TheDoctor
18. Wagner Artur
Stardust is a fantasy work indeed. The comparation to Tolkien's works is in fact misleading. Stardust isn't a minor fantasy compared to the storis of Middle Earth, but, in fact, it's even more fantastic! Tolkien - mainly due his almost obscene love for details - roots his world in fact, culture, and you can almost close your eyes and imagine how the world developed rationally back to the beginning of the world. In this sense, is a pretty realist story.

Stardust actually leaves many holes and unexplained spots simply because it doesn't want to be necessarilly realistic. The aim is to be true to the idea of fantasy only, and the immense array of possibilites.

I'm not saying that any of them is better than the other, just saying that they are different by essence.

@setzerknight
TheDoctor
19. Robert Jackson Bennett
Balkanization is always going to be one of the biggest problems with genre. Because "Fantasy" really is a huge umbrella term that both works and does not work to define the things that happen to fall under it. "Epic fantasy," for example, is the most lucrative and the most popular "subgenre" of fantasy out there. So, to anyone who hasn't read quite a lot of the books under the fantasy umbrella, the term "fantasy" has naturally gravitated to be the chief signifier of epic fantasy.

But the problem with balkanization is that it's a slippery slope. You can split "epic fantasy" down into, say, "New Wave epic fantasy," which is inspired by the grittier, grimmer fiction of GRR Martin, and "old school epic fantasy," which would be inspired by Tolkein. Or it could be "historical epic fantasy," which is a bit like historical fiction, except they've taken historical characters and entered them into an epic fantasy plot.

It eventually devolved into hair splitting. Are zombies fantasy, or sci-fi? Are vampires? What's supernatural fiction? Does it only involve ghosts, or can they say spells and things, or is that just too fantastical for supernatural fiction? Is The Dark Tower series fantasy, or science fiction?

These are labels. Often poor ones. I know it's a bit lame to say that every book really should be its own thing (splitting hairs, after all, is whole lot of fun), and that no book should be written to fill what is frequently just a marketing niche or term, but the really good stuff is unlabelable. Which is why stuff like Stardust tends to shrug off all the genre terms we slap on it.

The trappings are fantastical, but the plot is more of a romance, yet it's quite gruesome in places, and the ending is more tragic than comedic. It's a weird blend of Edwardian fantasy and modern sensibilities - there is almost a fatalistic streak to the book that taints its whimsy with some serious darkness. But it's not the grim and gritty darkness of New Wave epic fantasy: this is much more melancholy, much more soulful.

It's a tough book to label. Which is why it's good.
TheDoctor
20. jongleuse
It's certainly not epic or high fantasy a la Tolkein. More urban fantasy as , some would say, invented by E. Nesbit, perfected by Wynne Jones and extemporised by Gaiman.
www.jongleuse.blogspot.com
TheDoctor
21. DLG
"fan·ta·sy: The faculty or activity of imagining things that are impossible or improbable" By definition, fantasy can and does include books such as Startdust. The very notion that Fantasy stems from some common and linear thread or stream of consciousness is preposterous! Fantasy originates from many cultures and many eras. It is a coagulation of all things that defy not just current technology, but current notions of logic and reality, as opposed to Science Fiction. I can't help but assume that Ms. Walton suffers from some fantastical notions of her inflated ego by trying to confine or define the limits of a world that giggles at reality.
Ashe Armstrong
22. AsheSaoirse
@ Robert Jackson Bennett:

The Dark Tower is fantasy, sci-fi, horror and western (and possibly other things I've forogtten). It is, to me, all things good haha. But I do so love genre mashing. Still, points well made.
Andrew Mason
23. AnotherAndrew
lennyb@16:As an additional note, some taxonomists hold that the specific genre we commonly refer to as "fantasy" began with Tolkien and that before Tolkien there were individual fantasy novels and stories, but no ""fantasy genre."

That sounds sensible to me. But I don't think it actually forces us to limit the genre as much as is sometimes done. Most of the authors I mentioned above have, I think, enough in common with Tolkien that they can be seen as part of the same genre. After all, Tolkien himself drew on fairytale ideas. (There are kinds of work with fantastical content which I would say don't belong to the same genre ; magical realism; horror; the kind of surrealistic stuff, found especially in works for children, of which Alice in Wonderland is an archetype. But still lots of things do.) To say that because the genre begins with Tolkien, all fantasy must be set in a quasi-mediaeval world, with a map, and feature a quest, is like saying that because the detective genre begins with Sherlock Holmes, all detective stories must be about a clever private detective who outwits the stupid police.

Robert Jackson Bennett@19:
"Epic fantasy," for example, is the most lucrative and the most popular "subgenre" of fantasy out there

Is it really? There may be a difference between British and American perspectives here, but I would have thought that, even if you discount Rowling and Pullman as being children's/YA, Gaiman himself and Pratchett are more successful than the 'epic' writers. This is why I think it's so weird; people's immediate associations when they hear the word 'fantasy' don't actually accord with what the most prominent works of fantasy are.

(I agree with most of what you say, by the way.)

DLG@21:
I can't help but assume that Ms. Walton suffers from some fantastical notions of her inflated ego by trying to confine or define the limits of a world that giggles at reality.

But, once again, it's not her definition. She said 'at least in the modern sense'. I might cavil at 'the modern sense', but it's unquestionable that the word has this sense. She's clearly aware it has other senses. And it's surely worth while pointing out that Gaiman's work doesn't fit within this box.
TheDoctor
24. ArielLeslie
I would call Stardust Traditional Fantasy in it's finest sense. There's a quest, a maiden in distress, a boy who becomes a man, magic, wonderous creatures, fulfilment of a prophesy, and even an outcast who becomes king. What more could you ask for?

When forced to catagorize fiction (as I was when I ran a used bookstore), I have always considered Fantasy to be the larger "umbrella" genre that includes Science Fiction. (Actually, I tend to use the term "Science Fiction-Fantasy," a habit I picked up from the amazing Matthew Woodring Stover.) While the majority of Fantasy reading culture seems to orbit around "Epic Fantasy" or "Fantasy Sagas," I think that we can all enjoy the sweetness of a less complicated escape into the traditional style fantasy worlds of Stardust, Diana Wynne Jones, the early works of Patricia Briggs, and so many more. Paranormal and Urban Fantasy may dominate the market right now, but I think that the appeal of all Fantasy subgenres grows out of our early exposure to other worlds through Fairy Tales, myths, and folklore.

Stardust is, in my eyes, Traditional Fantasy that winds up sounding very much like long-standing folklore at the end (which is part of what makes it end so well, which most Fantasy novels do not). It is beautiful, and mystical, and enchanting, and manages to maintain an overall good-feeling throughout.
TheDoctor
25. theworldturtle
Hmmm. I have confuse.
I’m familiar enough with Ms. Walton’s own work enough to be caught off guard by this supposition. What, exactly, would she call it if not fantasy?
I believe Terri Windling used to call fiction a la LOTR ‘high fantasy’ and I’d probably not quibble with excluding Stardust from that. But that’s just one branch on a very big, very LIVE oak tree. As in one that is still growing new branches, as well as new leaves.
Was this article intended to start discussion on the subject then? Because Neil is tweeting and here his Legion of Doom will follow. And twitter amidst themselves and the interwebs :)
TheDoctor
26. J. Vitor
Could someone tell me if there is any difference is between the text in the Charles Vess-illustrated edition and the 'plain novel' edition? I didn't find any mention of it in Wikipedia or Amazon descriptions. Because the text-only seems to have more than twice the number of pages in paperback (okay, smaller pages, but still)...
TheDoctor
27. Eugene R.
I would agree with Ms. Walton on the distinction of Stardust not being "that kind" (meticulous attention to detail, mapped, appendiced) of fantasy, a condition that we may refer to as "post-Tolkein". Stardust belongs to a different, if allied, tradition, that of "Beyond the Fields We Know", a locale of the fantastic first so named by Lord Dunsany. Later terminology devised "high fantasy" for those worlds which existed wholly on their own (and so often required the supporting armature of maps and lexicons) and "low fantasy" for worlds that are just "on the other side of the Wall". Trying to map Stardust would be just as superfluous (if gleeful) as trying to draw the maps of Dunsany's Erl and Elfland, pre- and post-incantation.
Ashe Armstrong
28. AsheSaoirse
@J. Vitor: The difference is that some of the descriptions in the novel are not present due to the illustrations. The story is essentially, just that it's an illustrated prose work. I recommend owning both.
Jo Walton
29. bluejo
First, do call me Jo. Second, I'm in Florence, and only checking the internet once a day, so interaction will be much slower than normal -- sorry about that.

I'm slightly startled at being accused of having a narrow view of fantasy. In the broad sense, of course Stardust is fantasy, as I said. But if genre is anything beyond a marketing category, it's works in dialogue with each other. Stardust is in dialogue with Dunsany anb Cabell and Susannah Clarke and Mirrlees, and not really interested in the conversation that's going on on the other side of the fire with Tolkien and Martin and etc.

Also, something doesn't have to be genre fantasy to be excellent, and it isn't an insult to say that something isn't genre fantasy.
Ruthanna Emrys
30. R.Emrys
I enjoyed the movie while I was watching it... then went back to reread the book and noticed some things. Victoria's not an isolated character--every place that the book puts a woman with agency, actively trying to improve her life, the movie puts an oversexed predator, a trophy, or a helpless rescuee. Also, every place that the book cleverly avoids an expected action scene, the movie puts an action scene. And now I can't watch it again. Hollywood makes me sad.

And a second to the recommendation of the version with the Vess illustrations. It's not actually a graphic novel--I know you have trouble with those--in spite of being sold as one originally. It's an illustrated fairy tale.
Clark Myers
31. ClarkEMyers
I'd put James Stephens (Crock of Gold from 1912 et. al) in the lineage/dialog.

If I had to put together a case for blending what I and perhaps others see as distinct sub-varieties of the fantasy genre back together I'd pick on:
"a new mythology to take the place of the threadbare mythology of Greece and Rome." and stretch all the writing to fit that procrustean bed

But in fact although frex - let me spell that out for example - OSX-Lion and Windows 7 have a lot in common; still among the cognescenti it's more useful to emphasize the differences - and the Apple fanboys will invariably take offense. That doesn't advance the discussion.
TheDoctor
32. Sandman
Couldn't agree more Jo.

I think Gaiman is an incredable writer, although American Gods is his best. Pratchett and Gaiman are my all time favorite authors, however the order changes every time I read one of their books. I believe its the almost poetic punch you get from them.

I'll have to try the Vess version.

I think i'll go and re-read Stardust.
TheDoctor
33. Lenora Rose
J. Vitor:

Contrary to what AsheSaoirse says, I actually did go through the novel paperback and the Vess version side by side, and as far as I recall, there were a handful of copyediting style tweaks, but no missing descriptions. If someone who's done the same can cite me missing passages, I'm willing to be corrected, but I seem to recall every time I met something in the novel that I didn't remember seeing, I found it was there after all.

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