Hope in a Handful of Stories. T. S. Eliot’s « The Waste Land » and Neil Gaiman’s « The Sandman »


Until human hands draw us. T. S. Eliot and how he illustrated the modern city
The aim of the paper is to prove that T. S. Eliot’s works influenced not only the so-called traditional media, such as literature, film, and theater but also the new forms of expression that gained extreme popularity in the second half of the 20th century, namely comic books and graphic novels. My speech focuses mainly on the parallels between Eliot’s vision of a modern city and the way that metropoles are represented both in graphic novels, that are directly inspired by Eliot’s poems (such as, for instance, Martin Rowson’s The Waste Land), and in popular superhero comic books series published throughout the 20th century by, among others, DC and Marvel Comics. In the course of the analysis, an additional consideration is given to the similarities that link the neo-gothic character of Batman’s Gotham City to Eliot’s textual transposition of New York, Boston, London, and Paris which derives from the early stage of his poetical endeavor. The study in question offers an interdisciplinary approach, as it tackles the problem of how the visual adaptation of poetry might influence the very process of possible interpretation and how the quite unique perspectives suggested by the modernist literature, whose objective was to be innovative, are subsequently turned into commonplaces of the pop culture.

Jusqu’à ce que des mains humaines nous dessinent: T. S. Eliot et comment il a illustré la ville moderne
L’objectif de cet article est de prouver que les œuvres de T. S. Eliot ont influencé non seulement les médias dits traditionnels, tels que la littérature, le cinéma et le théâtre, mais aussi les nouvelles formes d’expression qui ont gagné en popularité dans la seconde moitié du 20e siècle, notamment les bandes dessinées et les romans graphiques. Mon intervention se concentre principalement sur les parallèles entre la vision d’Eliot d’une ville moderne et la manière dont les métropoles sont représentées dans les romans graphiques qui s’inspirent directement des poèmes d’Eliot (comme, par exemple, The Waste Land de Martin Rowson) et aussi dans les séries de bandes dessinées de super-héros populaires publiées tout au long du 20e siècle :  DC et Marvel Comics, entre autres. Au cours de l’analyse, une considération supplémentaire est accordée aux similitudes qui lient le néo-gothique de Gotham City, la ville de Batman, à la transposition textuelle par Eliot de New York, Boston, Londres et Paris, qui remonte au début de sa démarche poétique. L’étude en question propose une approche interdisciplinaire, puisqu’elle aborde le problème de la façon dont l’adaptation visuelle de la poésie peut influencer le processus même d’interprétation possible et comment les perspectives uniques suggérées par la littérature moderniste, dont l’objectif était d’être innovante, sont ensuite transformées en lieux communs de la culture pop.


– – – – –

In Convergence culture, a groundbreaking study about various aspects of new and old media, Henry Jenkins acknowledges (and proves with multiple examples) that intertextuality is very much ‘rampant in the era of transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins 2006). This assumption turns out to be particularly relevant when it comes to comic books. Even though in recent years we have been witnessing a growing interest in the study of graphic novels and its relations with literary canon[1], non specific consideration has yet been given to the works of T.S. Eliot as a source of influence for comic-book artists[2]. Yet, the subtle influence of Eliot‘s ideas may be traced in many recognized comics (such as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchman or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) and some mainstream graphic novels refer to Eliot’s works in a very direct way[3]. That is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (1988–1996) which, as proved by Andrés Romero-Jódar (Romero-Jódar 2017), has largely contributed to the change in comic book esthetics in the late 80s. Apart from drawing upon the heavy or even sordid atmosphere of The Waste Land, the creators of The Sandman went as far as to use the most recognizable, if slightly modified, line of Eliot’s poem[4], namely line 30, as a part of marketing strategy. Romero-Jódar points out that the catchphrase from the advertising poster of The Sandman, which read ‘I will show you terror in the handful of dust’ is nothing else than a conscious play with well-known, if not iconic, quotation from The Waste Land, ‘I will show you fear in the handful of dust’ (Romero-Jódar 2017)[5].

The author of The Trauma Graphic Novel provides a historical background which allows a better understanding of why the comic book artists at the turn of the 1980s felt urged to place their works in the context of modernist writings. Once the US authorities, encouraged by the social anti-comic books crusade launched by an American psychiatrist, Dr Frederic Wertham, in his pseud-scientific works[6], had implemented strict censorship on narrative iconical texts in the 1950s, the fate of graphic novels was sealed for the next thirty years because, as Romero-Jódar explains it:

[…] The developing techniques that were favoured by the topics and experimentalism of Modernist authors all over the Western world and on all the fields of art at the beginning of the twentieth century were prevented from percolating into the narrative devices of comic books. The mainstream comic book fell into the entrapment of the Manichean adventure narratives of impossible superheroes, colourful men in tights, and rightful patriots at the service of overt political agendas (such is the case of Superman, Batman, Captain America, and a long etcetera) (Romero-Jódar 2017)

It was only in the 1980s, when the severe censorship guidelines of the Comics Code started to give away before finally disappearing amidst the period of political unstableness (dubbed as ‘Crisis of Confidence’ in Jimmy Carter’s speech), that the comic-book industry got its second wind. After finding the long-lost liberty of expression, curtailed for decades by the ‘sharp scissors of the censor’, as Romero-Jódar vividly puts it, comic-book artists turned to the works of major modernist writers in search of motives, metaphors and experimental narrative technics. In other words, in the 1980s the authors of graphic novels picked up where their predecessors had left off in the 1940s and 1950s when the censors got in their way cutting short any possible originality of comic books for several years. Additionally, references to modernist poets and writers work also as a part of the ‘ennoblement’ strategy that comic-book authors put into practice to gain the approval of more ‘literary’ readers with refined taste who prefer books of recognized national status. Romero-Jódar describes this phenomenon in the following terms:

[…] The impulse given by many authors (mostly of British nationality, like Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, and Alan Moore, working for mainstream American companies, such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics) to rise the status of narrative iconical texts to the level of serious literature. More concretely, their move to connect graphic novels with the High Modernism of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and Eliot, led many other authors to explore the narrative possibilities of stream-of-consciousness novels, and adapt their techniques to the visual world of the graphic novel […]. (Romero-Jódar 2017)

Even though the quotation from The Waste Land used in the marketing campaign for The Sandman fits the aforementioned scheme, it should be noted that Gaiman is far from turning to Eliot only for advertising purposes. Quite the contrary, this reference must not be separated from the broader literary strategy adopted by Gaiman who ceaselessly encourages his readers to seek connections between the universe of his own graphic novel, on the one hand, and scenes, motives, and quotations taken from other renowned works of fiction (be it renaissance, romantic, or modernist), on the other. As Katheryn Hume justly points out, The Sandman is deeply rooted in various cultural contexts that should be understandable for those who are well-versed in history of literature and culture[7]. Accordingly, the famous passage from The Waste Land cited on the publicity poster turns out to be a pivotal reference that organizes the narrative in the first volume of The Sandman series (namely Preludes and Nocturnes) and then returns in its penultimate installment (titled The Kindly Ones) to offer a coherent closure to the whole series.

This volume, the opening of the whole series, consists of issues 1–8 and tells the story of Morpheus, a.k.a. the Sandman, a.k.a the Lord of Dreams, a.k.a Dream of the Endless, who sets off on a quest to regain control over his kingdom after having been captured for almost a century by two generations of an English occultist family. Slightly changed and unfinished, the quotation from The Waste Land appears on the last page of the first issue. Morpheus, finally freed from the cage in which Roderick Burgess had put him in the 1910s, takes revenge on his son, Alex, heavily responsible for the Sandman’s torment throughout the second half of the 20th century. In retribution for his long and painful imprisonment, Morpheus bestows Alex with a dreadful gift – the eternal waking. From now on Alex is trapped in a nightmarish dream in which he keeps waking up just to find out that he is still asleep. The Sandman then pounders upon what he has done. In black squares we are introduced to Morpheus’s mental process expressed in free indirect speech: ‘It was more tiring than I had expected. But he will never return to the life he knew. His is the nightmare everlasting… Eternal waking… […] And I have showed him fear…’ (no 1)[8]. With these words the Sandman disappears from the frame, only to return in the second issue of the volume. His last sentence, ‘And I have showed him fear..’, is a clear play not only with the line from Eliot’s poem, but also with the catchphrase used in the advertising campaign. It seems as though Morpheus was boasting about keeping the promise made by the poster. He indeed showed fear (or terror) to Alex Burgess. Besides, he did it with a handful of dust as it is drawn on the panel with the image of an unreal twisted hand from which glistening grains of magical sand float into the air. At first glance, it might appear that Gaiman was quite faithful when he adapted the famous passage from The Waste Land to the context of his own story, as he literally depicted Eliot’s ‘fear in a handful of dust’ as a nightmare caused by Morpheus’s magical sand thrown into Alex Burgess’ eyes. However, the phrase proudly uttered by the Dream Lord at the end of the first issue is left incomplete. This is no mere evasion of a direct quotation of Eliot’s work, but a narrative strategy that justifies itself when the Sandman’s story from Preludes and Nocturnes finds its closure in the 8th issue (The Sound of Her Wings). Thus, only more profound insight into the world of Gaiman’s series may demonstrate to which extent the first volume of The Sandman consciously comments on and interacts with the text of Eliot’s poem. This analysis proves fruitful, especially with regard to the modern city landscape as it was described, if not canonized, in The Waste Land. Spencer Morrison draws attention to the double, both spatial and temporal, complexity of the ‘unreal city’ from The Waste Land:

While processes of literary and historical allusion render London a palimpsest striated by urban cultures across time, The Waste Land’s collage-like juxtaposition of spaces that are geographically distinct but temporally simultaneous enacts a subtly different type of superimposition: the first is diachronic, the second synchronic. (Morrison 2015)

Consequently, Morrison emphasizes that the characteristic feature that defines Eliot’s image of a metropolis as developed in The Waste Land is the fact that it encompasses a wide range of places and time periods: varying from the 20th–century London (which streets and sides are enumerated, for instance, in The Burial of the Dead) to the ancient empire of Carthage (implied by a reference to the battle of Mylae in the same part of the poem). In What Thunder Said, near the end of the text, Eliot drafts a list of historical capitals, each of them being at some point a center of a magnificent empire, before falling into decay, represented in the poem by an image of ruined buildings:

Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (The Waste Land, p. 69)

As for geographical juxtaposition, The Waste Land thrusts together spatially remote locations, combining the landscape of modern Western cities with mountain, jungle and desert scenery. Morrison explains this poetic strategy in terms of symbolic value gained by such a temporal and spatial, collage:

Desert, alpine, and jungle geographies in The Waste Land thus function as multivalent symbols in the poem’s representation of urbanism: these symbols do not simply bind urbanity to wilderness zones by foregrounding shared geographical or material features, nor do they simply link these spaces by reference to common psychological states; rather, these figurative connections rely upon, and elaborate, intricate links between material space and subjectivity itself. (Morrison 2015)

The bond between the spatial and the mental, to which Morrison draws attention, is pertinent especially when it comes to the character of the Fisher King, who is one of the most important figures in Eliot’s poem. Hero of French medieval romances and Grail legends, the Fisher King is, as Craig Raine points it out, ‘the impotent ruler of an infertile land’ (Raine 2006), waiting for a worthy knight (such as Percival in Chrétien de Troye’s work) to come and lift his curse. The correlation between the monarch’s mental and physical health and the state of his realm probed to be of extreme relevance in the Fisher King’s story for the modern city landscape in the Waste Land. To put it simply, King’s ‘lands will die if he is not healed’, as stressed by Emily E. Auger (Auger 2018). Metaphorically, this codependence may stand for the inextricable relationship between modern city inhabitants’ sanity and the places they dwell in. That is the case of, for instance, the married couple from A Game of Chess, whose apartment, with its stifling, claustrophobic and isolating atmosphere, constitutes a material manifestation of their passionless and frustrating relationship. Thus, one of Eliot’s most genuine inventions in The Waste Land is that he engraved the mental state of the poem’s heroes into the very tissue of modern metropolis.

Gaiman seems to draw heavily upon the symbolic urban imaginary of The Waste Land. The first volume of The Sandman links different and distant places, real metropoles (such as London and New York) become entwined with unreal realms (like Lucifer’s palace in hell). Likewise, the city from Eliot’s poem, the heterogenous locations are organized as a whole thanks to the montage-like structure (characteristic of graphic novels). In Preludes and Nocturnes Morpheus travels through those various places in search of his tools, which are not only his royal regalia, but also the very pieces of his self, as he has magically put fragments of his own power into each of them. Now, scattered across the material and spiritual worlds, they must be brought together, so that the Sandman may stop the decay of his realm. Just as it was with Eliot’s Fisher King, the mental and physical state of Morpheus affects deeply the condition of his kingdom. However, unlike the character from The Waste Land the Sandman succeeds in finishing his quest and he reconciles different parts of his existence after having collected all his tools. On the last page of the analyzed volume, we see him throwing grains to pigeons, forsaking his revenge, peaceful. Here, in this particular fragment, Gaiman once again refers to the line from The Waste Land that he previously used as a catchphrase and then left unfinished at the end of the first issue. Feeding pigeons, Morpheus thinks:

There is much to do in my kingdom. Much to restore. Much to create. But that can wait… I have found the solace I sought, though not in the way I imagined. From dreams I conjure a handful of yellow grain… I throw the grain into the air. And I hear it. The sound of wings… (no 8)

A ‘handful of dust’ turns out to be replaced by a handful of yellow grain, a symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth. Thus, at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes Morpheus finds, even if for a brief moment, what habitants of ‘unreal city’ from Eliot’s poem may only yearn for. Victim of the same malaise that afflicts the characters from The Waste Land, that is the utter isolation, the Sandman reconciles different aspects of himself kept in his royal regalia and by doing so he arrives at the place where he can rebuild his dream kingdom, which might be metaphorically understood as a process of restoring his mental sanity after the decades of imprisonment. In other words, Morpheus firmly announces that he will set his lands in order, as opposed to the Fisher King from Eliot’s poem, who only ponders such possibility. Figuratively speaking, the ‘handful of dust’ from the advertising poster turns in Morpheus’s hands into a handful of hope.

If the first volume of the series ends on a rather positive note, its following issues refer to Eliot’s works in a more complicated way. In the next-to-last volume of The Sandman Morpheus finds himself in a most difficult position. He has to confront an ancient and relentless power, a triad of vengeful goddesses known as the Furies or the Eumenides (a term which translates into English as The Kindly Ones, hence the title of the volume). Driven by the desire to avenge the death of Orpheus, Morpheus’s son[9], the blood-thirsty deities seek to bring havoc and destruction upon the Dream Lord and his kingdom, as they kill, one after another, inhabitants of the Dreaming[10]. Knowing that the Furies will not content themselves with nothing less than his life, Morpheus realizes he is left with little choice but to sacrifice himself in order to prevent his realm from utter annihilation. He calls on his sister, Death, to come and put him out of his misery.

A quick look at the above-described plot of The Kindly Ones shows that Gaiman’s story echoes the themes taken from Greek tragedies, especially from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this trilogy (composed of three plays: Agamemnon, Choephoroi, and Eumenides), the Furies fulfill a vital role. They hunt and torment Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, to punish him for the matricide he committed while trying to avenge the death of his father, killed by Clytemnestra (Orestes’ mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Both Orestes and Sandman are tragic heroes. The former slays his mother but does that at Apollo’s order, led by intentions that are far from being evil, as he seeks justice for his father’s gruesome death. The latter feels compelled to put an end to his son’s life just to save him from his prolonged ordeal. In the last part of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes is saved due to the decision of the jury assembled for this occasion and Athena’s godly intervention. Morpheus could only escape the Furies’ rage through the utmost sacrifice. The strategy of rewriting Greek myths brings Gaiman’s graphic novel closer to Eliot’s dramatic works, as they are also heavily inspired by Aeschylus. R. G. Tanner points out that Eliot himself claimed to use the situation of the Greek tragedies as a starting point for the real-life situations he tried to portray in his plays (Tanner 1970). For instance, Harry, Earl Monchensey, the protagonist of Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939), is followed by Furies, since he supposedly murdered his wife while they were crossing the Atlantic. Hence, it is possible to treat his character as a modernized version of Orestes.

Although both Gaiman and Eliot use a pattern drawn from the ancient dramatic tradition, they do so in very different ways and with other motives. Eliot tries to discover how Orestes’ story might be translated into the context of the entanglements of modern family life. As suggested by Tanner, Eliot doesn’t simply attempt to replicate Aeschylus’ story in a slightly changed setting but rather to “work out implications in the original tale that are of no concern to Aeschylus” (Tanner 1970). In other words, by basing The Family Reunion’s plot line on The Oresteia, Eliot looks for additional depths of meaning offered by this trilogy, one that might have been unknown to Aeschylus himself. Whereas The Sandman also reinscribes Oresteia in a more contemporary context, it does so mainly to emphasize Morpheus’s dire situation. The Dream Lord must violate the strict rules governing the existence of deities, as it is the only way he can help his son. The moment when he fully embraces his “human” side turns out to be, consequently, the very beginning of his demise.

However, by focusing on Sandman’s death at the end of the series, Gaiman contemplates not only the humanity of a godly figure but also the modes of existence of ideal values that the Dream Lord is said to embody. Back in his palace before this final confrontation, which serves as the climax to Morpheus’s story, the Dream Lord talks with Mathew, both his loyal raven and his friend. Here, some possible answers are hinted as to why Dream and his siblings name themselves ‘the Endless’[11]. While speaking with Mathew, Morpheus contemplates an extraordinary emerald which happens to be one of many receptacles containing shards of his existence, and thus of his power. He acknowledges that the object belongs to the ‘twelve Dreamstones’ he created long ago and which he characterizes in the following terms: ‘The greatest of them, the one into which I put most of myself, was the Ruby. There were others […]. Some of them are scattered. Some have been destroyed’ (no 69). He then focuses on the specific features of the stone, namely on its glowing surface:

Each facet catches the light in its own way. It glints and sparkles and flashes uniquely. It would be almost possible to believe that the facet was the jewel; not jus a tiny part of it. But, then, as we move the jewel another facet catches the light… (no 69)

When questioned by Mathew, the Sandman gives a rather vague answer as to why he pays so much attention to the stone: ‘My point? I have no point, Matthew. Save for the jewel and the facets, and the light. We see an aspect of the whole. But the facet is not the jewel…’ (no 69). The description of the emerald is crucial, since it foreshadows Morpheus’s ultimate decision and also explains the specific rules by which the Endless must abide. Once dead, Morpheus is replaced as the Dream Lord by Daniel Hall who, to some extent, resembles the late monarch. However, Hume argues that, while Daniel even has some of Morpheus’s memories, ‘these memories, though, are just blueprints. We have no grounds for thinking that Morpheus is actually reborn in his replacement’ (Hume 2013). Thus, it is made clear that the Endless cannot really be killed, that what dies being only their temporal, if in some respects immortal, embodiment. In other words, to refer to the above-quoted excerpt from The Kindly Ones, we might say that Morpheus is but a ‘facet’ to the ‘jewel’ which is the function that he occupies. Therefore, figuratively speaking, his successor shall be seen just as another aspect of the same stone, glistening a bit differently. Every single embodiment of the Dream Lord has its individual features, but together they all represent the same entity, the same idea.

The understanding of one’s existence as consisting of various points of view might be regarded in the light of Eliot’s philosophical views. In his doctoral dissertation, concerned with the though of F. H. Bradley, he suggests that the human consciousness is divided into smaller units (called ‘finite centers’):

The point of view (or finite centre) has for its object one consistent world, and accordingly no finite centre can be self-sufficient, for the life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater or less extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them. The soul is so far from being a monad that we have not only to interpret other souls to ourself but to interpret ourself to ourself (Knowledge and Experience in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, p. 147-148).

When it comes to Eliot’s poetry, the most striking example of a character who might be defined exactly as a collection of ‘jarring’ and ‘incompatible’ points of view is, by all means, Tiresias, an ancient prophet who appears in The Waste Land. Many scholars have already emphasized a pivotal role that Tiresias’s figure plays in the structure of Eliot’s masterpiece. For instance, according to Daniel Albright: ‘The Tiresias episode, in the center of the poem’s central part, is the key to the whole’ (Albright 1997). Albright continues to elaborate on this idea, by stating that: ‘perhaps one might even say that what Tiresias is the substance of the poem, since he seems to represent some pan-anthropoid total human sensibility, capable of taking role in any drama […]’ (Albright 1997). In the Notes on the Waste Land, Eliot himself stressed out the all-encompassing nature of Tiresias’ consciousness which is supposed to integrate every other character from the poem:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of the currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact it, is the substance of the poem. (Notes on the Waste Land, p. 74)

If Tiresias is supposed to unify, in his own voice, those belonging to other personages from the poem, he is far from being able to harmonize them into a coherent pattern. In other words, his character contains different ‘facets’, but they do not arrange themselves in any consistent composition. Albright accurately identifies Tiresias’s figure as an unstable and fragile structure designed to bind together incompatible viewpoints:

The discords of the points of view are simply included, not resolved; this is why such characters as […] Tiresias are so difficult to comprehend as carefully sculpted masks in the tradition of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Each character has several faces at once, several mouths, a preposterous number of fingers; for Eliot could not quite conceive how several points of view could be transcended by a character with a fully human shape. (Albright 1997)

Just as Eliot’s Tiresias, the Endless are entities composed of different aspects, different ‘facets’. However, once again, that what is disturbing and chaotic in the world of The Waste Land, proves to be hopeful and reassuring in regards to the Sandman’s story. In the tenth volume of the series, when a wake is held in order to commemorate Morpheus’s death, Abel, one of inhabitants of the Dreaming, remarks that the Sandman, whose adventures we have been following through the last nine issues of the series, was but an aspect of a bigger whole. Abel says that people gathered at Morpheus’s wake are mourning only ‘A […] point of view’ (no 71), since the idea of dream, temporarily embodied by Morpheus, cannot really be killed. Indeed, as Hume suggests, Gaiman’s story should be regarded primarily as a tale about death. She is certainly right, when she argues that ‘[…] one of the whole work’s major arguments is to push for a saner acceptance of death’s necessity, a refusal to fight frantically to live longer and longer no matter what the cost, especially the cost to those around one. (Hume 2013). This kind of a death-focused story should be grim and dreary, but it is not. This is because Gaiman emphasizes that death brings not only sorrow, but also transformation. Morpheus dies, but given that he was only a ‘facet’ to a bigger ‘jewel’, an embodiment of an immortal idea, he can be replaced by someone new, and thus his legacy may go on. The Dream Lord, as well as the inhabitants of the Dreaming, are going through changes, in this respect they differ from ‘[…] the dwellers in the waste land [who – N.G.] can neither think nor feel, and so are struck in their present shapes forever; they are not intent enough, not sensitive enough, to attain any transmutation of self’ (Albright 1997). In other words, metamorphosis is a gift that neither Tiresias, nor any other character from Eliot’s poem, can hope to obtain.

In the first part of The Kindly Ones, Lucien (that is Morpheus’s librarian), quotes directly a passage from Eliot’s Whispers of Immortality : ‘Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’ (no 57; Whispers of Immortality, p. 47). Even though this line obviously foreshadows the main theme of the volume (likewise Webster, Gaiman seems to be indeed ‘possessed by death’ while writing The Kindly Ones), it also suggests, to more literate readers who know the title of Eliot’s poem, that this death will not be definitive, since Dream itself is immortal. In one of the last panels of the ultimate issue of this volume, Moirea are seen weaving Morpheus’s thread of life. After finishing it, one of them asks the rest of the trio: ‘What did we make? What was it, in the end?’ (no 69). Her question is then answered in the following way: ‘What it always is. A handful of yarn […]’ (no 69). Here, once again, Gaiman evokes the context of Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which he referred at the very beginning of the series. Appearing in The Sandman’s advertising campaign, Eliot’s ‘handful of dust’ is, in turn, transformed into a handful of yellow grain (in Preludes and Nocturnes) and a handful of yarn (In The Kindly Ones), a word that is used to describe both a thread and a story. Thus, by following the reformulation of one of the most iconical fragments of Eliot’s poem, we might trace the character arc of Morpheus. He begins, in first issues of Preludes and Nocturnes, as a vengeful creature who seeks to harm those who contributed to his imprisonment, but as the story progresses, he tries to right the wrong that he himself has done to others and, finally, he sacrifices himself to help the subjects of his realm. That what is left of him, at the end, is not a handful of dust but a handful of stories. Death brings an end the Sandman’s life, but it also gives it closure, a necessary part of every good tale.

In The Sandman series, quotations and ideas taken from Eliot’s poetical works are being constantly translated into new contexts. They are far from being only a part of marketing campaign, on the one hand, or simple literary curiosities aimed at a public who is well-versed in cultural tradition, on the other. In fact, they play a considerable role in the Morpheus’s story not only by creating a certain ambience in which the dream kingdom is plunged, but also by contributing to the development of specific philosophy that stems fromm Gaiman’s graphic novel – as I tried to prove in the section of my paper about The Kindly Ones. Fragments of The Waste Land or The Whispers of Immortality are reworked and reprocessed by Gaiman’s imagination, which gives new meaning, let alone new life, to Eliot’s masterpieces.


[1] Among the works that explore this subject, special recognition should be given to works of Jan Baetens,(Graphic Novels:Literature without Text?), Ashley K Dallacqua (Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels), and, above all, to the impressive study presented by Andrés Romero-Jódar (The Trauma Graphic Novel), to mention but a few.

[2] Scholars (like Scott Freer) tend to focus rather on the graphic adaptations of Eliot’s works (such as, for instance, Julian Peters’s visual reinterpretation of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) than on the references to Eliot’s poems in popular comic books.

[3] It is worth noting that this group includes, among others, the comic book adaptation of The Waste Land, created by Martin Rowson. This work, published in 1990, reconciles themes and motifs from the literature of modernism (the works of Henry James, Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot) with elements of classic noir detective stories.

[4] Every time I quote excerpts from Eliot’s works, I refer either to the two-volume complete edition of his poems, established by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, or to his philosophical dissertation (Knowledge and Experience in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley). In the main text of the article, I provide the titles of Eliot’s texts and a page number in parentheses.

[5] Funnily enough, in 2021 Neil Gaiman explained on Twitter that the quotation from The Waste Land has been slightly changed by the DC’s legal department out of fear that ‘the T.S. Eliot estate might sue’ (see: https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/1392721764816355329 [accessed 17 Dec. 2022.]).

[6] Especially in a book published in 1954 under a telling title: Seduction of the Innocent.

[7] As Kathryn Hume points it out in her article about The Sandman as a mythical romance: ‘Gaiman expects his audience to be knowledgeable in two realms, in that of comics and in that of literary culture. His and his artists’ intertextual references to various heroes in the DC Universe abound, but the audience is also expected to recognize a fat man with a moustache named Gilbert as an avatar of G. K. Chesterton, and that same audience must be comfortable with unexplained allusions to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and Milton. The audience must also be on nodding terms with Maximilien Robespierre, Aleister Crowley, Marco Polo, Greek and Norse mythology, Chinese philosophy, and biblical figures. Readers can enjoy recognizing phrasing influenced by Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot’ (Hume 2013).

[8] Acknowledging the complicated publication history of Gaiman’s graphic novel, I use the same strategy that Hume has adapted for her article, namely, for the sake of convenience, I refer only to comic issues numbers when I quote passages from The Sandman. However, as the reference edition (listed in source texts) I use Vertigo 30th anniversary edition (Gaiman 2018-2019).

[9] Morpheus kills his son in the 49th issue of the series; which is also the epilogue of its 7th volume (called Brief Lives). However, it is noteworthy that he does not do so out of spite or because of a family feud of any sort. Morpheus’s intentions are pure. Orpheus’s death is, in fact, an act of mercy on his father’s side. After his body had been torn apart by a group of frenzied Maenads – with only his head left intact – Orpheus was compelled to lead a miserable and barren existence. His father finally listened to his pleas and agreed to kill him, just to put an end to his sufferings. Nevertheless, Morpheus’s knew that by such an act he would bring upon himself the vengeance of The Furies, haunting those who spill family blood. Hume explains exhaustibly all the intricacies of father-son relationship between the Dream Lord and his offspring: ‘Orpheus’s immature and grief-stricken rejection of his father for not helping him reclaim Eurydice from death should not have caused Morpheus to meet it with a reciprocal rejection and a refusal to deal with the boy’s head. Morpheus acknowledges this failure in paternal love by promising the prophetic head of Orpheus to help him die some three thousand years after the Bacchantes had torn him to pieces. Killing this magic head still amounts to shedding the blood of kin. Morpheus thus knowingly violates the oldest rule of shedding family blood to right a wrong he himself had perpetrated’ (Hume 2013).

[10] That it the realm which Morpheus controls.

[11] In the Sandman’s world, the Endless are a family of anthropomorphic creatures who embody primordial forces of the universe. The family composes of Dream (that is Morpheus) and his siblings: Destiny, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, Death and Despair.

Works Cited

Albright, Daniel. 1997. Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Auger, Emily E. 2018. “Tarot and T.S. Eliot in Stephen King’s Dark Tower.” Mythlore 36, 2 (132): 185–214.

Dallacqua, Ashley K. 2012. “Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels.” Language Arts 89 (6): 365–78.

Eliot, T.S. 1964. Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. London: Faber & Faber.

———. 2015. The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 1: Collected & Uncollected Poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber & Faber.

———. 2015. The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 2: Practical Cats & Further Verses. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber & Faber.

Freer, Scott. 2020. “Remediating ‘Prufrock.’” Arts 9 (4): 104.

Gaiman, Neil. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 7: Brief Lives, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 8: World’s End, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 10: The Wake, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. Sandman Vol. 11: Endless Nights, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman : The Dream Hunters, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman: Overture, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

Hume, Kathryn. 2013. “Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as Mythic Romance.” Genre 46 (3): 345–65.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, London: Routledge.

Morrison, Spencer. 2015. “Geographies of Space: Mapping and Reading the Cityscape.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Waste Land, edited by Gabrielle Mcintire, 24–38. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Raine, Craig. 2006. T.S. Eliot. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Jódar, Andrés. 2017. The Trauma Graphic Novel. New York, London: Routledge.

Tanner, R. G. 1970. “The Dramas of T. S. Eliot and their Greek models.” Greece & Rome 17 (2): 123-134.

Norbert Gacek, Jagiellonian University (Kraków)
09.2021 – 06.2022: stay at Sorbonne University (Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV) under the Erasmus programme
10.2020 – present: Jagiellonian University, graduate studies in French and comparative literature (Master thesis in comparative literature: T. S. Eliot as a representative of the symbolist movement)
2016-2020: Jagiellonian University, undergraduate studies in French and publishing
Publications in polish:
Gacek Norbert, Niewiędnące kwiaty. Soupir Stéphane’a Mallarmégo – Uśmiechowi mojej Siostry Wacława Rolicza Liedera – powinowactwa, „Ruch Literacki” 2018, no. 6, p. 699-714.

Une réflexion sur « Hope in a Handful of Stories. T. S. Eliot’s « The Waste Land » and Neil Gaiman’s « The Sandman » »

Les commentaires sont fermés.