Literature Study GuidesThe SandmanFables And Reflections Summary

The Sandman | Study Guide

Neil Gaiman

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The Sandman | Fables and Reflections | Summary


About the Title

There are a number of myths, legends, and retellings in the volume, all making up the section Fables. Some modern fables (Emperor Norton I) are mixed with the Russian shifter tale of werewolves and Baba Yaga, and older myths like that of Orpheus. Reflections come from the idea of the Dreaming being a reflection of the real world and in tales like "Soft Places" and "Ramadan."



"Fear of Falling" is the first installment of Fables and Reflections. It is a short tale about Todd Faber, a playwright getting set for the opening of his play off-Broadway. He's decided to leave town and cancel the play. He dreams he's climbing a cliff face, and when he reaches the top, he finds Dream. Todd only sees two solutions: read the top or fall. Dream offers him a third option: fly. Todd wakes and returns to rehearsals.

In "Three Septembers and a January" readers meet Emperor Norton I. Despair, Desire, and Delirium set a challenge for Dream. A man, Joshua Norton, has lost everything and debates about committing suicide. Despair challenges Dream to keep Norton from her, Desire's, and Delirium's realms before Death finally comes for him. Accepting the challenge, Dream gives him the dream he is emperor of the United States.

Desire is the first to visit Norton and Dream. She realizes Norton's madness is different from the kind that falls under her auspice. Desire states that "his madness keeps him sane." Desire sends the King of Pain to offer Norton any woman he could want, and says they can make him a real emperor. Norton is content with his life in San Francisco and refuses the offer. Dream and Desire wait for the King of Pain in a carriage. Desire is so angry they failed they vow to make Dream spill family blood and send the Kindly Ones after him.

Emperor Norton suffers what appears to be a heart attack in the rain on January 8, 1880. Despair and Dream stand over him. Despair states Dream won the challenge and Norton never despaired. Death takes him.

In "Thermidor" Dream hires Lady Johanna Constantine, whom readers last saw in Hob Gadling's story. The year is 1794 and the French Revolution is in full swing. Johanna's goal is to liberate the head of Orpheus, from the Greek myth and son of Dream of the Endless and Calliope. She manages to steal Orpheus (who is still alive even absent a body), but needs to find a way out of Paris. She is captured and imprisoned, but she does not have the head on her.

She is interrogated by Citizen St. Just and Robespierre who want the head back. She refuses to talk, even after being threatened with the guillotine. They leave and Johanna sleeps, visiting Dream in his realm. She asks for his help.

Johanna takes St. Just and Robespierre to where she has hidden the head of Orpheus. It is among all of the other heads from the Revolution. She pulls Orpheus's head from its hiding place, and he begins to sing, using the other decapitated heads as his chorus. Johanna and Orpheus make their escape while Robespierre and St. Just stand frozen. The latter two are sent to the guillotine later. Johanna returns Orpheus to his home on the Isle of Naxos.

The story of "August" occurs in the rule of Augustus Caesar. For one day each year, Augustus disguises himself and goes among the people of Rome as a beggar. He goes about with an actor named Lycius. They discuss the nature of Rome and Augustus's relationship with Julius Caesar. Augustus tells of Caesar's dreams for Rome and the empire. He also tells Lycius he hated Caesar.

Augustus suffers from terrible nightmares, until one night Dream visits him and offers him a way out of the dilemma Augustus finds himself in. Augustus has plans he does not wish the gods of Rome to know about. Dream counsels him to dress as a beggar and go to the marketplace and make his plans. On this day his thoughts are hidden from the gods, and he is free to plan the downfall of Rome. Caesar raped Augustus when Augustus was still a boy. That colored his decisions of who he appointed as his successor and why he solidified the boundaries of Rome. It is implied he does this to ensure the destruction of the Roman Empire out of his hatred for Caesar.

"Ramadan" is a gorgeous confection of a tale. It is about a bargain the Caliph makes with Dream to ensure the glory of Baghdad stays forever perfect. Hauron-al-Raschid is the ruler of ancient Baghdad, a city at its peak. Knowing it can only lessen as time passes, Hauron summons Dream to him and offers him the city as it is. He wants Dream to take the city into dreams so it will never fade. Dream agrees.

Hauron next wakes up in a marketplace that is significantly less than the Baghdad readers saw. He notices Dream, standing with a massive jar in his hands. The jar contains a city. The story ends in war-ravaged, modern-day Baghdad. A young child listens to this tale told by an older man, and offers payment of money and cigarettes. The Baghdad of legend lives on in dreams.


The story of "The Hunt" begins with an old man telling a story of the old country to his granddaughter. A young man of "The People" (werewolves) meets a traveling Rom woman in the forest. She has a bag full of wondrous items, including a picture of a beautiful young woman. When the young man finds her dead body in the forest, he takes the bag and sets out to find the young woman from the picture.

He meets Lucien, Dream's librarian, shortly after. Lucien would like a book in the young man's possession. The young man says he will give Lucien the book in exchange for the woman in the picture. Lucien refuses the trade. Later, while hunting, the young man loses his quarry to a young female werewolf who takes him to her people. After spending the evening with them, he continues on his way.

He meets Baba Yaga who takes him to the young woman in the picture (after a trade of the emerald heart of Koschei the Deathless). When the young man tries to see the girl, he is thrown in the dungeon and there eventually enters the Dreaming. To procure the book, Dream does give the young man what he wants. But the young man leaves and returns to the werewolf girl he met earlier.

The old man's granddaughter is less than impressed at the folktale, thinking it a silly story. She only pays attention when the old man mentions her grandmother never let him forget she stole his kill from him. This implies the grandfather is the young man from the story.

"Soft Places" presents Marco Polo lost in the Lop Desert. A sandstorm has separated him from his caravan and uncle and father. He is lost in that in-between place where reality and dreaming blur. As he wanders, he meets Rustichello, the man who will later write down Polo's accounts of world travel. Rustichello believes he is dreaming and Marco Polo is simply a part of that dream.

They encounter a third man who turns out to be Fiddler's Green (from The Doll's House). He shares stories with Rustichello and Marco Polo as ghostly travelers pass by, looking for the "true world." Abruptly, Polo's companions disappear.

Marco next sees Dream. This is a Dream newly escaped from Roderick Burgess's prison. He is weak and disoriented. Marco offers him water, his politeness saving him. Dream uses what little resources he has left to send Marco back to the "real" world. Marco's father finds him lying in the sand and brings him back to the caravan.

"The Parliament of Rooks" is about stories and Daniel's visit to the Dreaming. Lyta has put Daniel down for a nap and the toddler enters the Dreaming. Eve and Matthew find him and take him along on their visit to Cain and Abel and their House of Mystery. They begin to tell stories to entertain Daniel and each other, though Matthew says he came there for a secret.

Cain tells the story of a Parliament of Rooks. It occurs when all of the rooks gather with one of them in the middle of the field. The bird "speaks" to all of the others for an indeterminate period of time. When it is done, the gathering does one of two things. They can take to the sky as one, leaving the bird in the center behind. They can also all attack the bird in the center and kill it.

Eve goes next, telling the story of Adam's three wives. The first was named Lilith and she saw herself as equal to Adam. She had been formed out of the same stuff and at the same time as he was. She was expelled from the garden and went off on her own. The second wife was made while Adam watched and she was created out of nothingness. Adam saw each step of the process and was disgusted by her. When he didn't accept her, Eve says God either destroyed the second wife or allowed her to leave the garden.

Finally, there was the third wife. God put Adam to sleep and took a rib and created Eve. And Adam woke up and took her for his wife. But they ate from the Tree of Good and Evil and were expelled from the garden. Lilith begat the Lilim, no one knows what truly happened to the second wife, and Eve grew old and retreated to a cave.

Abel takes up the final story. He tells of how he and Cain came to be in the Dreaming. Death and Dream were walking and came upon Cain and Abel fighting. Death tried to take Abel. But Dream offered him a spot in the Dreaming (he calls it a garden) and a job telling secret stories. Abel accepts the offer, but grows lonely and talks to Dream. Dream tells him there is a surprise waiting for him at home. Abel returns to his house. He finds a house next to his and in it was Cain and they get to live together forever.

Cain's disgusted by the sweetness of the story and throws everyone out. Eve, Matthew, and Daniel leave. Abel opens a window and tells the three the rook in the field is a storyteller. It finds out if the other rooks like the story it told after it's finished. Cain kills him for telling the secret. Daniel returns to Lyta clutching one of Matthew's feathers.


The tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is the focus of "The Song of Orpheus." It begins on Orpheus's wedding day. Dream and Calliope are still together and celebrate the marriage, along with all of Dream's siblings. During the wedding feast, the satyr Aristaeus—a friend of both Orpheus and Eurydice—drinks too much. He attempts to rape Eurydice. She runs away and is bitten by a poisonous serpent and dies. Death collects her.

Orpheus goes to see his father in the Dreaming to ask if Dream will help him get Eurydice back from the Underworld. When Dream refuses, Orpheus leaves, saying he is no longer Dream's son. Orpheus returns to Greece and contemplates suicide, only to be visited by Destruction. He counsels Orpheus against suicide and then suggests Orpheus talk to Death. Destruction opens a doorway so Orpheus can speak with her.

Orpheus meets with Death in her house. She warns him against this path, but he is insistent. Death tells him Destruction was right. Orpheus could go to the Underworld and come back to the land of the living if Death agrees never to take him. But there are rules surrounding that. Orpheus doesn't care about the rules and Death reluctantly agrees.

Orpheus descends to the Underworld and makes his plea to Hades and Persephone. He plays them a song and they agree to give him Eurydice back. He must lead her out of the Underworld and not look back until he is above ground, back in Thrace. If he looks back before that time, he will lose Eurydice forever. As he journeys, Orpheus begins to believe Hades did not keep his promise and so he looks back. Eurydice was following the whole time and she disappears back to the Underworld.

Orpheus sits in the forest. Calliope arrives to tell him she has left Dream and the Bacchante are coming. She warns him to leave. Orpheus tells her he tried to kill himself and he cannot die. Calliope warns him again to leave, but he refuses. The Bacchante arrive and tear Orpheus apart. All that is left is his head, which they throw into the ocean.

Dream finds Orpheus's head on the shore. Dream tells his son he has arranged with the priests of the island to take care of Orpheus. Orpheus begs his father to kill him. Dream answers, "Did you not say you were no longer my son?" and leaves him without looking back. He does arrange for care for his son, but he says he will never see him again.



In a series that is about stories, this volume is full of tale tellers. The grandfather in "The Hunt" shares a story with his granddaughter. Orpheus was a singer of songs and tales. Lycius tells of his time with Augustus Caesar in "August." Readers meet Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in "Three Septembers and a January." "Fear of Falling" features a playwright. "A Parliament of Rooks" focuses on three members of the Dreaming telling stories. "Soft Places" includes the man who writes down Marco Polo's adventures.

The idea of creating one's own narrative runs through a few of these stories, particularly "Three Septembers and a January" and "Ramadan." The first shows how the power of story can be used for good. Emperor Norton is a loveably remarkable creation whose imaginary reality is taken up by friends and neighbors, and eventually the whole city. Norton creates his narrative out of his delusions, but in one of the rare instances, he's not punished for it. The idea of creation and destruction slides in and out of Sandman. Gods, men, and the Endless work in collaboration to build and maintain a universe.

"Ramadan" shows the creation of a myth—the mythical city of Baghdad with its flying carpets and minarets and fantastical beasts. Haroun-al-Raschid worries his city is at its pinnacle and there is nothing for it to do but decline. He wants Baghdad to be remembered at its height. He also searches for a way to break the rules and cheat "death"—this time the death of a city. He offers it to Morpheus to keep Baghdad as it is always. Baghdad becomes something lesser in the waking world, while the dream Baghdad will always exist. On the last two pages, readers learn this was a tale being told in war-ravaged Baghdad of the present day. The story shows the power dreams hold, and how a beautiful narrative can give hope to a brutal reality.

"Soft Places" plays with the jointly creative narrative somewhat. If gods and humans and the Endless work together to create the worlds, what about the places that are not quite as developed? Dreaming and waking coexist in "Soft Places" and time is not linear. In this space stories of Morpheus just released from captivity meet with Fiddler's Green complaining about Morpheus's new girlfriend while talking to Marco Polo. They have all come together despite their disparities in the space where stories happen.

"A Parliament of Rooks" offers up three stories. They include a story about a storyteller (if readers believe Abel's reveal of the secret of the rooks). Eve offers an alternate version of Adam and his three wives. Abel tells a revisionist story about how he and Cain ended up in the Dreaming. Cain gives readers a story about why rooks gather in a field with one rook at the center. Abel yells to Matthew, Eve, and Daniel the rook in the center is the storyteller. If the other rooks like the story, they all fly away, but if they don't like the story, they peck the lone rook to death. It's a bit of foreshadowing as Cain once again kills Abel because he doesn't like that Abel offered that brief story explanation. This story also gives readers a glimpse of Daniel, of his connection to the Dreaming and his own effect on the narrative.


The retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with added Endless sets up the last two major volumes of the Sandman series. It allows us greater insight in Morpheus's personality and his dealings with loved ones. Readers have already seen Morpheus's—and those in other mythological pantheons—preoccupation with responsibility and rules in previous volumes. In "The Song of Orpheus" readers see how this rigidity affects his family.

Orpheus's decision to break the rules of life finds an echo in Roderick Burgess's desire to cheat Death. It is fitting in order to break the rules, Orpheus must rely on Destruction to get him there. Orpheus courts his own destruction to get to his aunt, who then grants his wish. But Orpheus is unable to follow the rules handed down by Hades to get what he sacrificed so much to attain. He looks back too early only to see Eurydice as she is dragged back to the Underworld. He broke the rules and now must live with the consequences of his hasty actions.

Morpheus is furious with his son and his siblings for guiding Orpheus down this path. But this is Morpheus of the past, a far more proud and inflexible being than he is when we meet him after his imprisonment. Here Morpheus hasn't yet learned the lessons from his captivity and his interactions with humanity. When Orpheus yells at him he is "no longer his son," Morpheus takes it as a blow to his pride. Instead of grieving, as he tells Orpheus to get over Eurydice, Morpheus shuts down. He blocks Orpheus from his mind and holds him prisoner in a half-life by refusing to grant his wish for death.

There is also a parallel between father and son: both are doomed through their own choices. Orpheus could have moved on after Eurydice's death. Destruction comments on it, saying, "I think you are more in love with the idea of your dead love than you ever were with the girl herself." He says how much Orpheus reminds him of his father. Orpheus could have avoided being ripped apart by the Bacchae if he'd listened to Calliope's warning and if he'd gotten out of their way. Morpheus's path to his death was more convoluted. But he still put it in motion and made choices along the way that would ensure a similar outcome, even if he still clung to his willful blindness to it.

Readers also see in "Thermidor" Morpheus still cares about his son when he sends Johanna Constantine to retrieve the head of Orpheus from Paris. Because of his pride, he cannot directly help his son, so he uses an intermediary. It speaks to his deep love of his son, but also speaks of his own inflexibility. Once he makes a decision, he sticks to it, unwilling to go back on it even when holding to it causes him pain. It is more important for Morpheus to be right than to be kind. This doesn't begin to change until he is captured and held prisoner. It is only then, once he himself has experienced it, that he can understand what he has put his son through. They are both captives to each other.


The idea of how rulers rule pervades Fables and Reflections. Readers glimpse a deluded man acting as the emperor of the United States. They see the head of the Roman Empire working to crumble it from the inside, and a caliph determined to save the beauty of his kingdom. A stop by the French Revolution shows what happens to those in charge when they grasp too strongly for power.

Emperor Norton has no real political power, but he embodies another sort. He brings people together, gives them hope and joy and they, in turn, do the same to him. Norton has no plans, no grand schemes like the others. He's just a simple man who gets what he needs to live from the strangers and neighbors who visit him. It is why Desire and the King of Pain cannot tempt him. His needs are met and his dignity is worth more than fleeting phantoms and Norton is wise enough to know that. It's one of the reasons Death likes Norton best.

"Thermidor" is a story set during the French Revolution. St. Just and Robespierre become victims of the very engine they began years prior. They overstep the bounds of the ruling hierarchy they put in place. The revolutionaries become the prey of the revolution they started because of their vaunting ambition. In the end their plans to erase the classical and elevate everything to a more modern sensibility dies with them.

"August" details Caesar Augustus's secret plans to unmake everything his uncle Julius created. It is payback for the sexual assault of Augustus by Caesar when Augustus was just a boy. He wants Caesar's legacy to the world to fall and be forgotten. Haroun-al-Raschid in "Ramadan" stands opposite this idea—he wants his city immortalized forever, its glory never fading. Both men are interested in rewriting the rules of their situations. Morpheus offers Augustus the chance to plan in secret away from Roman gods' prying eyes. This allows the man a chance to be an empire destroyer rather than a builder.

In "Ramadan" Morpheus makes a deal with the Caliph of Baghdad, so the city will never be lost to time. As such, the fantastic world of Baghdad lives on, as does Haroun's name. He longs for a slice of immortality both for himself and his city. Morpheus takes Baghdad and turns it into a dream, a miraculous place that only exists between wakings. He juxtaposes flying carpets and minarets with the destruction of carpet-bombed streets and poverty of the modern Baghdad. Rather than adapt to the changing times, Haroun attempts to stave off time's passage and loses the wonder entirely. Both Augustus's tale of hidden planning and Haroun's inability to embrace change play into Morpheus's own difficulties. In The Kindly Ones and The Wake, readers will see the lengths Morpheus will go to hide his motives from everyone—including, possibly, himself. They will see the fate that awaits him if he is unable to change enough to continue in the Dreaming.

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