Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

On Stardust: Tolls, Rewards, and Treasures

“It’s not hard to own something. Or everything. You just have to know that it’s yours, and then be willing to let it go.”

Welcome back to our exploration of Stardust.

In the first installment, we considered the various kinds of boundaries in the book (the physical, the social, the metaphysical). In this second article, we’ll be looking at another fairy tale staple: the use of tokens.

Object culture is a classic element in folklore and fairy tale alike. In many ways, objects are the most obvious exercise of an author’s will, the most visible hand in the story. Think about it. Objects are the conduits of transformation, both physical (in the case of magic) and emotional/psychological/spiritual (in the case of character). Objects transfer and revoke power, open doors, are used in kindness and in curse, and can be either an obstruction or an aid, depending on the author’s will.

In most stories, but always in fairy tales, an object bestowed is guaranteed to have importance (think of the adage that a gun mentioned in the early chapters of a book better go off by the end). There is a waste-not-want-not approach to material culture in this kind of narrative. Everything is symbolic. Everything is vital.

Object culture is particularly significant in Stardust, where one of the most important tokens is in fact a character. But we’ll get to our fallen star, Yvaine, in a moment.

First, for the sake of organization, let’s break the kinds of tokens we might come across. In Stardust, almost every token falls under one of three categories: toll, reward, or treasure.

Those who bequeath these tokens are either threshold guardians or allies in the Cambellian sense, forces to be reckoned with or friends to be won, propelling the hero on his journey, and often doling out a bit of riddle or wisdom along with their charms. Tristran encounters many of them, from a small, hairy man who belongs to a secret order to a nymph-turned-tree, from Madame Semele to Captain Alberic. In fact, everyone he encounters on his journey imparts upon him wisdom, experience, or a more material token.

Now, onto the tokens themselves.

First up, tolls.

Tolls are objects, acts, or payments made for passage. That passage may be physical, or it may be a metaphorical gate on the character’s journey. In the case of Tristran, we encounter both—tolls for his physical passage across Faerie, and tolls for his psychological passage from boy to man, from sheltered to worldly. (As discussed in the first post, Tristran’s physical and psychological journey is heavily intertwined.)

In a way, the kiss paid by Dunstan Thorne to Lady Una early in the book is a toll, both a payment for the snowdrop (payments in fairy tales are rarely made in coin) and a passage, the beginning of a journey that spans generations and concludes in the same Faerie Market years later.

Would that all tolls were as simple as a kiss. Some are more of a sacrifice, such as when Tristran, in order to flee the Witch-Queen in the inn must thrust his hand—and the candle-stub within—into the fire to gain passage. The toll the sons of Stormhold must pay for their inheritance is steep: only by killing their siblings can their earn the seat. The toll the Lilim pay for using their magic is measure in years of life.

Sometimes tolls are demanded (as with the kiss) and sometimes they are paid without prompting, given out of need or kindness. And in the case of the latter, we move out of the realm of tolls, and into rewards—payments made for aid or kindness or valor.

No fairy tale is complete without a good deed being rewarded. And these rewards, like the tolls above, take a myriad of forms, from physical tokens to bits of knowledge. While the Stormhold brothers, the Witch-Queen, and Tristran all act out of a desire for personal gain, only the latter’s naïve-but-good nature makes him the recipient of these rewards.

Take the candle-stub, for example. Gifted to Tristran by his small, hairy traveling companion for helping the latter through the serewood, the candle-stub propels Tristran quite literally on his own journey. While that’s a reward for physical aid, the once-nymph, now-tree that Tristran encounters rewards his decision to remove the star’s chains. In perhaps the most explicit example of authorial hand in the book, the tree rewards Tristran with three pieces of knowledge. The first two pieces of knowledge are bestowed then and there—the first being that the star is in danger, the second that a carriage is coming—but the third is manifested as a token (a leaf) to be used later. It’s the rewards, bestowed on Tristran for his goodness, that allow him to survive his journey and retrieve his treasure (albeit a different one than he was looking for).

The two most important tokens in the book are treasures. The fallen star and the Power of Stormhold, one sought after by the witch-queen and the lovesick Tristran, the other by fratricide-committing brothers, are the treasures at the heart of Stardust. The star’s heart is vitality itself, while the topaz stone of Stormhold is inheritance, and both are sought intently—sometimes violently—by their pursuers.

The fates of the objects themselves are intertwined, though the full nature of their entanglement doesn’t become clear until the final pages of the book. At first it seems the only tether between the two is that one treasure—the Power of Stormhold—is responsible for the other—Yvaine—falling to earth, and the latter now possesses the former until she can give it to its rightful owner, once they’ve requested it.*

*This detail is an important one, because it marks an aspect of tokens we haven’t covered: rules. While most stories have a built-in logic/system of rules, the rules in fairy tales tend to be strict and binding. Yvaine can only give the topaz stone to its rightful owner. Septimus cannot be heir to Stormhold until he avenges his brother’s death. The Witch-Queen cannot harm Madame Semele once she has sworn not to. Rules are made of words and words have their own inherent power in fairy tales, never taken lightly.

In a sense, everyone fails to attain the treasure they set out to find. Primus and Septimus, both seeking to be the future Lord of Stormhold, are murdered. The Witch-Queen, failing to attain the star’s heart, is left to wither. And Tristran, setting out to win Victoria’s love, a quest in which he was always doomed, returns the only true victor, with both the star (the literal object of his pursuit) and requited love.

And here we pause.

In the final chapter of our Stardust series, we’ll look more at these pursuits (not the literal treasures so much as what they signify: love, life, and legacy) and bring to a close our musings on Gaiman’s fairy tale.

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.


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