Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman

by JoHarrington

The Kindly Ones was the ninth in Neil Gaiman's epic Sandman graphic novels. All of the other stories had been leading up to this, and it was glorious!

If it wasn't for Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman would be the undisputed greatest graphic novelist ever.

Some might say Neil Gaiman is that, despite Alan Moore and his Anonymous elevated 'V for Vendetta' following. And I would have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view.

Gaiman's graphic novel 'Sandman' series told a story on an epic scale, filled with endless detours and avenues of exploration along the way, as befits a tale about Dream dreaming within the Dreaming. And the awakening that must come.

'The Kindly Ones' was the ambitious final installment (if we count 'The Wake' as an epilogue and 'Dream Hunters' as still part of the coda). It's where the threads all came together and revealed what we'd been half-seeing all along.

Who are the Kindly Ones?

Let's just say that it's a euphemism to keep Them on side. After all, these aren't the kind of ladies that you want to upset with insults.

There is something about The Furies which struck a chord in the human psyche and stayed there.

Ever since some ancient mind first conceived of those Goddesses of Divine Retribution, and lodged Their legends in classical Greek tales, humanity has retained Their terrible grip upon our collective imagination.

Even those who could not recount the origin of the Dirae will know how to react to Their presence. We still run like The Furies are after us. Above all, we still know to run.

They've been called the Eumenides, the Erinyes, the érénï, the Infernal Goddesses, the Dirae, the Furies and the Kindly Ones. We've seen them before in the Sandman series. They were listening in Hades when Orpheus sang his song. They reacted in a frenzy once he'd made them cry.

The legendary tale of the Kindly Ones emerges in sections throughout the panels of their eponymous graphic novel, and The Furies that followed. But it's a story already thousands of years old, hence there's no spoiler in repeating it here.

To the Greeks, the first living entity was Gaea. In the empty void, She gave birth to Uranus, who promptly turned upon Her - fresh from the womb - and forced Her begetting of the Titans. Uranus feasted upon His children, until Gaea was able to save one. She armed Her son Cronus, who killed His father-brother.

In the drops of blood which fell to the ground during this primeval crime, the Furies sprang fully formed. Their function was inherent from the start. They would avenge all broken oaths, and utterly destroy those who slaughtered blood kin.

Run and call them the Kindly Ones all you want. If you've given false oath or killed a family member, they are relentless. They will tear down all you love and cherish; annihilate your life's work; drive you mad; and then they'll take revenge.

And Morpheus once did just that. Now his mercy killing has evoked those merciless Ladies.

Neil Gaiman's 9th Sandman Novel: The Kindly Ones

Reading The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman

I bought the first collected volume of these chapters in 1996. I'm no stranger to the story that unraveled within its pages.

The Kindly Ones is the largest of the Sandman graphic novels. It took three years, from 1993-1995, to be told. There were plenty of people at the time who thought that it became too long, too involved. They were wrong.

By the finish, it had evolved into one of the most perfectly crafted of all the Sandman series. It takes the reader on a truly encompassing journey, that only overtly has anything to do with its female antagonist.

As an old voyager, retreading old ground and knowing precisely what is going to happen next, I still read some scenes gasping aloud. Nearly twenty years on, it still has that power to move and shock.

Earlier version of the graphic novel.

Nominally, the ninth Sandman graphic novel is all about Hippolyta Hall. She was the young woman trapped for years in a dream, as told in The Doll's House. Throughout that time, Lyta Hall was pregnant - an embryonic child gestating in dreams - but she's since actually given birth.

Morpheus once said that he'd come for the baby one day. So when Daniel Hall goes missing, it's understandable that Lyta would suspect the Prince of Stories. Her waiting hunt owes more to Delirium than Dream, until she receives confirmation of her toddler's demise. Then she's after vengeance. Then she will bring the Furies into the heart of the Dreaming.

I've read The Kindly Ones many times, but on this occasion I really took it slowly.

There were so many tiny details in which to delight, that I'd never noticed before. The tiniest of them can lead your mind into wondrous flights of fancy, if you pause to muse upon them. Like the title of a book glimpsed buried inside a single pane, halfway through the graphic novel, which read: When Real Things Happen to Imaginary People.

I sat for a good five minutes pondering that one. A small daydream captured amidst several layers of dreams within dreams.

Better still I saw the beautiful symmetry in the over-riding story. The beginning and the ending like mirror images of themselves. The tying in of loose threads and random people from other Sandman tales. The realization that Neil Gaiman must have had some elements of this planned from the start, or else became really clever with reinterpreting story seeds left scattered in the past.

Moreover, I discerned the underlying themes inherent in Sandman's The Kindly Ones.

Kindle Edition of Neil Gaiman's The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones: Sandman Story about Rules

Functioning within the ancient laws creates the frenzy, or the inability to step aside when everything goes wrong.

At the start of The Kindly Ones is a little mini-prologue.

It doesn't seem to be the prologue proper, that follows immediately afterwards and that one's scene is pinged again at the end. But that's what it's called - The Castle (Prologue).

We're there with a dreamer locked in a recurring nightmare. Otherwise faceless women with razor-sharp teeth inside gaping mouths ride in on wolves, then feast in a frenzy upon their hapless victim.

He doesn't panic until, in fighting back, he realizes that they have no brains. Their heads are sponge-like, soft as jelly, collapsing in beneath his grasp. Yet still they go on feeding.

It's not the attack that frightens him so badly, nor even the being eaten alive. But the lack of reason.

There is no negotiation with those set so rigidly upon their course. No way to alter destiny. Those bound by a primal directive to act as they do are not moved by emotion, nor swayed by begging, bribery and blackmail. They cannot be fought. They cannot be persuaded. They cannot be tricked. Because they lack the ability to change.

So far they sound like the Furies in another guise. It feels like fore-shadowing, which it is, but not in the obvious way.

If anything, these scenes recall the Furies from Fables and Reflections. Which, in itself, holds many clues for that which is to come in The Kindly Ones. Perhaps that is the true prologue.

Yet we do well to remember that the faceless frenzied women are creatures of Dream. They feast upon the Dreamer, who returns time and time again to become consumed by them, until he stops. He wakes up. He goes back to sleep. He finds himself safe within the Dreaming, cosseted within its heart. You get the feeling that now he's made that change, he will never again meet the rule constrained nightmares so previously recurring.

The scene is fore-shadowing but not of the Kindly Ones. We'll meet Them in Their true aspect next. These Furies are Dream himself, perhaps testing out the scenario that he knows must come and finding the solution therein.

Perhaps understanding completely that those who cannot change will never avoid the frenzy. They will be torn apart and devoured by their recurring rigidity. They will have no defense against ancient laws, as long as they adhere so completely to them.

The Castle (Prologue) seems like such a strange, out of place story with which to start. It's only afterwards that we realize it told us everything.

Truths: Kindly Ones Sandman T-Shirt

The Kindly Ones Dream

Image: Sandman Fool's Prerogative
Image: Sandman Fool's Prerogative

The Kindly Ones: Sandman Story About Change

In Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the Eumenides (Greek for The Kindly Ones) are not only calm and utterly unfrenzied, but the most mutable ones there.

In so many stories, sub-plots and avenues of discovery dotted throughout The Kindly Ones, there is a definite theme.

It concerns change, or the shifting of persona to match the situation.

We see Hob Gadling once again planning to create another identity. He's not interested in returning to anything. He just wants to go somewhere new.

We detour into a story about children who grew swans' wings in order to fly away.

We find Lucifer contemplating moving on from Lux. And Delirium turning into fishes.

But most of all we follow the Three-in-One, the Triple Goddess, who switch aspect between practically every panel. Each time we encounter them, they are wearing another guise.

They begin with the Moirai, Fates or Norns, the Ladies of destiny setting a life in motion, weaving/knitting its form, then cutting the thread to end it. We revisit Them in this aspect at the end, when it seems that They controlled the yarn throughout. But yarn is just another name for stories, and They are not its Prince.

Eventually They will become the seemingly inflexible Kindly Ones. Unable to stop within that function, the Erinyes relentlessly pursue Their prey. But does no-one think it strange that They - with such an ancient law to be fulfilled - waited until Lyta Hall turned up to set Them on Their path? It seems that even such a primal force, unleashed at the dawn of time, has choices.

The Furies chose to sit back spinning, stitching, severing, until They were called into play.

Or else taking some other aspect. We see them as Hope, Faith and Charity, on a tavern sign; or three old ladies telling tales to Rose Walker. Lyta Hall finds them as the Weird Sisters of legend, dropping dread items into a bubbling cauldron. Look for Them in the sub-plots and fine details, and the Three are everywhere!

Nor do They even have to be Three. At one point, the Kindly Ones pass over Eve, as that solitary lady is just another aspect of Them. Neither can it be forgotten that in classical legend, from which all of their divine vengeance names are borrowed, the Eumenides weren't a trio. They were many.

Hidden between the lines, the Three give Morpheus every opportunity to avoid his Fate. Ultimately, it's his perceived inability to change, mutate his form as They do constantly, that condemns him.

Yet the Furies here are not in a frenzy. Even at Their most destructive, tearing down the Dreaming and closing in on Their quarry, the Ladies of Vengeance are utterly restrained. They even withdraw to give him thinking space.

In change, there are chances. In setting aside the mores of antiquity to suit the modern age, there are ways to go on.

But the Sandman cannot do that, and that is the story of The Kindly Ones.

Sandman Collections Featuring The Kindly Ones

More Articles about Neil Gaiman's Sandman

The Sandman graphic novels are arguably the best in the genre. After 25 years, new fans are still finding and gaping over them. Find out why I'm a huge fan.
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt has signed on to direct (and star in?) a movie version of the Sandman graphic novel. Neil Gaiman seems impressed. It's finally happening!
Morpheus (aka Dream) is the main protagonist of Neil Gaiman's amazing Sandman graphic novels. Discover why he's such a memorable character.
Updated: 06/02/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/10/2014

No that's all good. I hate being spoiled on stories, so I'd avoid them like the plague, if I hadn't read them.

The answer is - just read it! Take it into the loo with you. No-one can worry too much about reading matter on the loo.

Ember on 05/10/2014

Interestingly, I know you yet I have this belief that I actually have almost no sense of what the story is actually about. Like I didn't read past the intro on this, and the most that was given away was in reading bits of other articles of yours on the topic of these books (like the one on the potential for a movie) and even those I mostly skimmed. It isn't so much about not spoiling it, as I don't want it to be a let down because I'm expecting something and then I get something totally different, as has happened in the past.

So I'm trying to not have expectations of it, and it's kind of just become this thing in my head. That's what's making me nervous, in a good way though I suppose. :D

JoHarrington on 05/10/2014

Woot! Remember that any feedback other than you love is wrong. No pressure!

Stop thinking! I was drunk the first time I picked it up. But Doll's House was still fabulous when I was sober. Plus you get to tick off all of the WCTD references. ;)

Ember on 05/10/2014

I am reading Dollhouse tonight.

Weirdly enough I decided it two days ago. And I decided it was right, because I'll be home from work before anyone else tonight, so the house'll be quiet, and I'll have the afternoon yeah. Reading the intro, where you argue that he may well be the greatest graphic novelist EVER has made me nervous again. >.> If only I hadn't put so much thought into it XD

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