Neil Gaiman himself seems to have but one incarnation—dressed in all black with a mop of unruly hair—but his body of work presents a far less cohesive image. Some hear his name and think of the personification of sleep, others of a boy living in a graveyard, or an Other Mother with button eyes, or a world where gods walk among men.
I hear his name, and think of Wall.
I think of Tristran Thorne, and the Lilim, and the brothers of Stormhold, and the star who fell from the sky.
I think of Stardust.
Neil Gaiman’s self-proclaimed “fairy tale for adults” is all of his best traits—his whimsy and his subtle darkness, his love of archetypes and his lilting voice—in one slim, perfect book. Over the next three posts, I’ll be looking at some of things that make it tick, and make it sing. Each will be little more than a breath on a fire, but hopefully it will rekindle—or kindle—your love of this modern classic.
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee…
–John Donne, Song
Wall/Faerie. Insider/Outsider. Life/Death.
Stardust is a book divided, encompassed, and defined by boundaries: the physical, the social, and the metaphysical.
Sometimes the boundaries are narrow (as with the line between Wall and Faerie), and other times they are vast (as with the great distance between Tristran and his prize), and other times still they are both (as with the Lilim’s mirror). Sometimes they are solid and permanent (as with the stone divide between the village and the world beyond), and often they are not so much boundaries at all but thresholds, made to be crossed.
We are first introduced to the simple, physical boundary of Wall: a stretch of granite blocks running from the woods and into the woods and broken only in one place. The wall of Wall marks the divide between the small world of the known and the vast world of the unknown, of Faerie.
The physical boundary of Wall also maintains a social boundary. Outsiders are neither welcomed in through the gap, nor are insiders sent out. A clear delineation of not only near and far, but who belongs where. (“Dunstan knew that…as a villager of Wall, he had every right to feel superior to all of the ‘furriners’.” )
But as with anything simple and solid in Stardust, it can be made fluid by the introduction of magic.
When the Faerie Market comes to Wall every nine years, the boundaries—both physical and social—invert, the villagers becoming visitors in the meadow beside the town. And it’s in that meadow, that grey zone between the worlds of Wall and Faerie, that arguably the most important moments in the book take place. There Dunstan meets Lady Una. There Yvaine faces the withered bones of the Witch-Queen. There Tristran is conceived and glass flowers are gifted and identities are revealed and destinies are found.
There journeys begin and end and begin again. And there we witness both the birth and culmination of Tristran Thorne’s adventure.
As the product of both worlds (the son of Wall-born Dunstan Thorne and Faerie-born Lady Una), Tristran Thorne has never belonged. He is what we might call an inside-outsider—someone raised in a world that is not entirely theirs.* (In an interesting twist, Tristran does not realize how little he truly belongs until he is far beyond the wall. An uncharacteristic hero, he doesn’t actively crave adventure, and only appreciates it once he’s well enmeshed.)
*Regarding insider/outsider culture, a person’s physical location does not guarantee their status. Those born in a place can still be considered outsiders, and those who come in from the outside can earn insider status, or at least stand on the line between worlds. Tristran’s inside-outsider counterpoint would be an outside-insider, such as Wall’s Mr. Bromios, who“…had come to the village quite some time ago, a visitor.” (7) He runs an inn, a classic place for an outsider-insider, as it itself embodies the transitive.
Tristran is caught at another boundary, one both physical and social: the boundary between childhood and adulthood. We are told he is “halfway a boy and a man, and…equally uncomfortable in either role.” (40) A reflection on that state, Tristran finds himself at a kind of social impasse: he is enamored with (the idea of) Victoria Forrester, whom he considers his social and physical superior (an assumption she agrees with). And soon the social boundary becomes a physical one, a seemingly crossable threshold: acquire the fallen star, and his true love will become attainable. If he can find it, and bring it back, he will have his happily ever after.
Or so he assumes. And so he sets out on his adventure, not for the sake of that adventure, or even for self-discovery, but for the opportunity to return home as an insider.
The wall is hardly the only physical boundary Tristran must cross. From the grey and black mountain range that had once been a giant, to Diggory’s Dyke, dug in a day and a night, to countless others (the serewood and the enchanted inn and cloudscape), physical thresholds act as structural ones in the book, obstacles and transitions both. For every one of these boundaries Tristran succeeds in crossing, he grows out of his Wall child-self and into a man of the world. His stammering shyness gives way to assertion, and his protest about wanting nothing of adventure gives way to an appreciation for the journey.
We leave Tristran briefly—somewhere amid the clouds, or on the path—to consider the final kind of boundary: the one that runs between the living and the dead. A boundary with startling thinness.
The dead in Stardust are ever at hand, close enough to glimpse out of the corner of one’s eye, to hear and mistake for nature’s whispering. The deceased brothers of Stormhold stand beside their living counterparts, watching and commenting and waiting to be joined. The Lilim in the mirror, beyond the veil, gaze out at their mortal incarnations, the two present but never touching. Death is, in fact, always at the Witch-Queen’s shoulder, and we watch time and magic wear on her, dragging her toward an inevitable end. One that can only be stopped by carving out and consuming the heart of the star.
And so we come to the star. We can’t explore the boundary between the living and the dead, the human and the beyond, without looking at Yvaine. We picture a star as an object, not a person, and Tristran’s surprise at finding a living girl instead of a lump of star-matter leads to a moral dilemma over possessing a person as though she were a thing. We learn, in the late pages of the book, that, were she to cross the threshold from Faerie into Wall, entering “the world of things as they are” (177), she would in fact become a thing again. An outsider in the truest sense, having fallen from the sky, Yvaine finds a place in each of our categories.
Before we return to Tristran to discuss his final threshold, we must draw attention to the in-betweens. They’ve already been mentioned in context, so this is brief, but it bears noting that wherever there are boundaries, there are in-betweens—grey zones where the worlds rub shoulders, or overlap. The physical in-between is the Faerie Market held in the meadow; the social in-between is the outside-insider (or the inside-outsider); and the metaphysical in-between, in a sense, is the Witch-Queen herself, caught in a constant struggle to hold on to life while death drags her into its embrace.
And now, at last, we return to Tristran.
Like so many elements in the book that come full circle, Tristran’s final boundary is the same as his first: the edge of Wall. But on returning home after his incredible journey, he discovers what we as readers have long seen coming: it is no longer home. He has become an outsider to Wall. In fact, the guards at the gap do not even recognize him, and even after his insistence, they refuse to let him through. And once he is finally allowed through, he discovers that just as life isn’t as he left it, neither is he. He does not love Victoria Forrester. He is not relieved to be done with his adventure. He does not belong in Wall.
By book’s end, only one boundary remains—one Tristran and Yvaine cannot cross together—and Gaiman touches on it quietly in the epilogue, telling us of their life, and Tristran’s death (referring to him then as the eighty-second lord of Stormhold, creating the sense that he, too, is part of a larger cycle). And so, by the time we close the book, the boundaries have all become thresholds, and we’ve walked with Tristran across each one, glancing back, but always moving forward, as things must.
Illustration by Charles Vess.
V.E. Schwab is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. She has a penchant for tea and BBC shows, and a serious and well-documented case of wanderlust. Her supervillain revenge tale, Vicious, hits shelves this September.