Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

On Stardust: Love, Life, and Legacy

“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.”

Welcome back to our exploration of Stardust.

So far, we’ve followed our cast of characters—specifically Tristran Thorne, Primus, Tertius, and Septimus of Stormhold, and the Witch-Queen—as they pursued their quests through the vast expanse of Faerie. We’ve explored the boundaries that divide, encompass, and define the world in Stardust, thresholds these characters crossed in their quests. We’ve considered the tolls they paid, and the tokens they bore with them, and the treasures they sought.

And now it’s time to return to those treasures—not only their material form, but what they mean to and for the characters of Stardust. The ambitions of our characters can be delineated into love, life, and legacy.

Three seemingly noble pursuits, the stuff of fairy tales, to be certain. Yet Gaiman twists and corrupts all three, and that corruption is perhaps the most fascinating element of his modern classic. Tristran’s original pursuit of love is proved shallow, the Witch-Queen’s ambition to achieve life unnatural, and the Stormhold brothers’ quest for legacy unattainable. The first, love, is eventually realized in a roundabout way, but life and legacy, instead of being honorable pursuits, are depicted as conniving and violent.

Tristran is a bit of an anti-hero from page one, made so not by any inner demons but by of a cocktail of naiveté and ambivalence. Rather than a bold, adventuresome youth, we’re presented a passive, ignorant boy, preoccupied with earning the affections of a girl who barely notices him. His adventure begins as only a means to an end, and a foolish one at that; we as readers know from the start he will never earn Victoria’s love, and the love he thinks he bears her is merely love at the idea of her, a shallow thing that fades the longer he is away from Wall. (Once on his journey, he cannot remember the color of her eyes.)

And so, Tristran Thorne sets out to find love (or what he believes is love, though he will in fact find it in another form); in an attempt to win the affections of Victoria Forrester, he ventures beyond the border of Wall and into Faerie, in search of a fallen star.

Meanwhile, the oldest of the Lilim, known only to readers as the Witch-Queen, sets out in search of that same star, but to her it is not a token with which to buy affection. Instead, it is the embodiment of power, vitality, life—she means to cut out the star’s heart and consume it in order to stay young. The Witch-Queen pursues this end mercilessly, manipulating or slaying those in her way. She is propelled on by fear as much as want, for death is always at hand, pulling her closer. But the longer she pursues the star and the youth it promises—and the more magic she must expend—the more she withers, and the closer she draws to mortality. That desperation makes her truly vicious, but in the end, she is so frail from the attempt that when the she finds herself face to face with the star in the meadow, the Witch-Queen does not have the strength to claim her prize. And it is moot, as the star has given her heart away to another.

The brothers of Stormhold, meanwhile, do not seek the fallen star, but they do seek the thing she carries (though they do not know she carries it)—the Power of Stormhold, a topaz cast from a castle window into the sky. Whoever owns it is the rightful heir of Stormhold, and so Primus, Tertius, and Septimus, the only three remaining brothers (the other four already murdered), set out to find legacy, to claim their rightful inheritance—and slaughter each other along the way.

This fratricide is treated with astonishing aplomb by all those involved. Sanctioned by the father (who assassinated his own siblings), the brothers scheme and plot to take each others’ lives while pursuing the stone, earning their inheritance by eliminating their own family. It begs the question of what that inheritance is worth, if only the ghosts of the dead are around to appreciate it, but on the brothers go. In essence, killing is as much their legacy as the throne of their castle. Regardless, all three brothers fail. The first, Teritus, falls to Septimus’s poison, and Primus and Septimus both fall to the Witch-Queen—one to her knife and the other to her magic. In the end, it is revealed that Tristran’s mother, the imprisoned Lady Una, is the only daughter of Stormhold, making Tristran himself the rightful heir.

In keeping with the toxicity of legacy in Stardust, when the mantle of inheritance is finally bestowed on Tristran, Yvaine sees it as more a burden than a gift: “Yvaine was less impressed, for she knew that silver chains come in all shapes and sizes…” [238].

And so love and legacy are both dealt with, attained not in the way they were sought, but the way they were meant to be. Eternal life is the one goal left unattainable, at least by those who would seek it (it’s suggested that our star, Yvaine, who seeks nothing in the book, is the only one upon which eternity is bestowed).

Neil Gaiman gives the reader a satisfaction rarely found in commercial fiction, but well known in folklore and fairy tale: the full circle. Every thread woven ties in, we end where we begin, changed and yet still a part of the cycle. All things come around, and each of our treasure hunters is rewarded according to what they deserve: the brothers of Stormhold die at the hands of others, not even ghosts remaining; the Witch-Queen is left to wither and decay; Tristran wins the heart of the star, and the Power of Stormhold, and a life beyond Wall.

We could go on. We could always go on. But we’ll end it here. It’s been a joy, walking you through the gap in the wall.

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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