The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Hugh H. Davis
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:6-7 (#359-360) in June-July 2012.]
In a May 2012 commencement address to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Neil Gaiman said to the audience of graduates, as he recounted the early days of his career, “No one ever seemed to mind that I was making it all up as I went along.” Given his track record, Gaiman likely has realized that none mind that he has made and does make things up as he goes along, for his is one of the great imaginative minds of this age, and, arguably, one of the great fantasy writers of any age. While Gaiman’s commentary focused on the freedom he felt when he started writing to find his own path, his imaginative works reveal that he has maintained the joy of sub-creation throughout his career, although one might challenge his implicit suggestion that he does not follow rules in his story-telling. Indeed, Gaiman’s canon of works often revolve around the very nature of story-telling and myth-making, so that his efforts at “making it up” drive his creative output to critical successes. Gaiman’s creative output and its engagement in myth-making are the subject of a wide-ranging and impressive collection, The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman, jointly edited by Anthony Burdge, Jessica Burke, and Kristine Larsen. This anthology offers fifteen erudite essays which begin to explore the prismatic story-telling of Neil Gaiman.
Many writers deal with myth and myth-making, through their creation of secondary worlds and their refashioning and retelling of traditional tales. However, Gaiman’s output is incredibly varied, as he has authored comic books, poems, short stories, fantasy novels for adults, fairy tales for children, screenplays for films, episodes for television series, and audio dramas. As a result, the Gaiman canon is one of the most multi-dimensional in terms of style (at least until Gaimanesque is accepted into the lexicon), genre, and works, making the author an apt subject for the second volume in this delightful new critical series. The first Mythological Dimensions volume, on Doctor Who, gave appropriate critical attention to the ever-evolving mythos for that British series and considered the program’s approach to mythology, both those it incorporated and those it created. Neil Gaiman, who, fittingly, penned an episode of the revived Doctor Who, incorporates, considers, and creates myths throughout his writing, “making it up” as well as responding to and through story-telling. Gaiman and Gaiman’s work are always engaged and engaging in a conversation about and through the telling of tales. Just as the Doctor Who volume suggested a platform from which scholars could discuss that unfolding text and its use of “transmedia” (a term coined in that collection for the way Doctor Who began as a television series but now embodies much more), this volume suggests a platform from which scholars can discuss Neil Gaiman, one of the first truly transmedia authors.
Gaiman’s impressive diversity of works as author and co-author are a testament to his imagination and to his strong legacy as a fantasy writer. Well-read, he weaves into and draws from the greater tapestry of mythos begun and embellished by tale-tellers before him. In his commencement address, Gaiman said to his listeners, “The urge at first is to copy, and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our voices when we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.” He continued to advise them that their greatest asset is the personal voice they bring to their art, and so, too, one finds Gaiman’s assets. Throughout his career, he has built upon the myths told before him, and he has found his voice through these conversations with other writers.
True to its subject, The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman features a series of essays which study Gaiman’s conversations with earlier writers and texts and analyzes the voice he provides. Melody Green (in “Ravens, Librarians and Beautiful Ladies”) applies Bakhtinian theory while noting the potential connections between the works of Gaiman and George MacDonald, and Chelsey Kendig (in “The Problem with Bod”) connects Gaiman to C.S. Lewis and a vexing point from The Chronicles of Narnia. In both of these solid chapters, the authors note Gaiman as fan-writer, an author whose literature responds to prior works and even engages questions they pose. Anthony S. Burdge (in “So Long and Thanks for all the Dents! A Guide for the Hitchhiker through the Worlds of Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman”) notes Gaiman as fan-critic, as a young writer who playfully engages The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as seminal text. These writers and their colleagues show that Gaiman’s work resides in the fertile ground where writer and critic co-exist. These overlaps are profoundly discussed in two superior essays, Jason Fisher’s “The Authors and the Critics,” an examination of Gaiman and Roger Avary’s screenplay for Beowulf and its relationship to J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal criticism of the epic, and Matthew Hills’s “What Ever Happened to the Time Lord? Mythology and Fandom in Neil Gaiman’s Contributions to Unfolding Texts,” a chapter considering Gaiman’s contributions to the transmedia of Batman, Babylon 5, and Doctor Who. These essays intelligently discuss the nature of adaptation and contribution. Gaiman is far from the first writer to write screenplays or television episodes, but the habit among critics has been to marginalize or at least downplay those writings compared to other written works. Mythological Dimensions admirably discusses Gaiman’s contributions to other creators’ myths and provides for its readers a way to generate conversation about these sorts of contributions. Rather than minimizing the potential of these works, these essays elevate them appropriately and articulately.
Much of the collection examines Gaiman’s canon through the mythological motifs they most often embrace and explore. Tanya Carinae Pell Jones (in “‘It Starts with Doors’”) discusses the recurring motif of portals and doors, while Kristine Larsen (in “Through a Telescope Backwards”) considers a motif of light and dark in the texts. Larsen’s essay, examining as it does the dichotomy of brightness and darkness, makes an excellent companion to Samuel Brooker’s “Fables and Reflections,” a cleverly written analysis of mirrors, doubles, and duality throughout Neil Gaiman’s writing, a thoroughly academic presentation which places Gaiman’s writing in the context of the great literary tradition of the doppelgänger. The greater literary tradition of works incorporating and involving deities is illuminated in essays by Camillo A. Gormigatti (in “The Eternal Carnival of the Myth”, which finds gods made commonplace), Tony Keen (in “The Best Things Come in Threes,” an effective discussion of Gaiman’s use of the Triple Goddess in an essay which asks to be expanded), Lynn Gelfland (in “The End of the World as We Know It,” which looks at the motif of old vs. new gods in the context of end-of-the-world sagas), and Harley J. Sims (in “Consorting with the Gods,” a recognition of the intriguing poly-mythic world presented through Gaiman’s pan-pantheon, a good and fruitful topic for discussion).
Further fruitful discussions abound in this collection. Leslie Drury’s “Gaiman: The Teller of Tales and the Fairy Tale Tradition” thoughtfully frames the subject in his place in the tradition of traditional story-telling, turning a consideration of three fairy tale adaptations into a consideration of the purpose of tale-telling and the role of the author. Jessica Burke’s “Women’s Magic: Witches and the Works of Neil Gaiman” is an excellent example of an engaging and thorough discussion, an erudite essay about Gaiman’s use of the witch archetype in his works, an educational chapter which leaves the reader informed and energized about its topic. The collection ends with Colin B. Harvey’s “The Playful Palimpsest of Gaiman’s Sequential Storytelling,” a strong final note which looks at four examples of Neil Gaiman as a comic book writer through their recall of mythological archetypes and a stylistically deliberate misremembering as needed by the author. Harvey’s essay seems to end too soon, as he begins to stoke the reader’s imagination about further application of this approach with other works and study.
Neil Gaiman’s body of work is far from finished, so one can hope that this is simply a first volume about his writings. While Harvey touches on Marvel 1602, that comic series offers many options for discussion of the use, conversion, and adaptation of myth and legend. Gaiman’s work as fan-critic and fan-writer is seen directly and indirectly throughout his writings, and the intersections of those roles continue to provide material for the scholar. Just as The Graveyard Book shows influence from Kipling, Gaiman wrote an excellent introduction to the recent collection Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy (Pegasus, 2008), revealing a further potential angle for study.
In his commencement address, Gaiman told the graduates “Make glorious mistakes — make good art.” Few would agree with the modest Gaiman’s declaration of prior mistakes, but most would agree he has made good art. So too have these writers, as they continue this excellent and engaging series. One wonders what good art the next volume will bring.