Literature Study GuidesThe SandmanPreludes And Nocturnes Summary

The Sandman | Study Guide

Neil Gaiman

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The Sandman | Preludes and Nocturnes | Summary


About the Title

Preludes and Nocturnes is just that: a prelude of things to come. At first glance, it reads like the straightforward story of a lord stolen from his realm and his attempt to return to power. But this volume merely sets up the larger conflict to come and introduces major players in future books. A nocturne is a musical composition inspired by or appropriate to the night, when most people sleep and dream.


Capture and Escape

In 1916 Roderick Burgess is a knockoff Aleister Crowley. Cowley was an English occultist, a person who seeks knowledge from ghosts or demons. Burgess seeks to capture and bind the entity of Death. Unfortunately, that is not who he gets. Instead he captures Dream inside a round glass cell where the Lord of Dreams remains imprisoned for over 70 years, waiting to escape.

During this time, the dreaming and waking worlds are deeply affected. This eruption is detailed in the lives of four characters: Unity Kinkaid, Stephen Wasserman, Ellie Marsten, and Daniel Bustamonte. Unity sleeps so much she barely wakes up. She's put into assisted living so she's taken care of. While there, she is raped and gives birth, all without waking up. Stephen, a soldier in World War I, stops sleeping entirely and eventually kills himself at the age of 16. Ellie goes to sleep, only waking infrequently, still thinking she's a child. Daniel walks around like a sleepwalker, cut off from dreams.

Roderick Burgess eventually dies, leaving his son Alex in charge of Morpheus's imprisonment. After decades, Morpheus's guards grow careless and he makes his escape. He stops only to curse Alex with Eternal Waking. He flees to The Dreaming, but before he can make it to his palace, he collapses, exhausted after his ordeal. He's found by Cain and Abel, the brothers from the First Story and recuperates in Cain's House of Mystery. When he's recovered, he continues on his way to the heart of the Dreaming. There he finds his palace collapsed and the dreams and nightmares under his control now fled. He finds Lucien, the Librarian, and his faithful servant who fills him in on what his absence wrought over 70 years.

The Tools

Morpheus, still weak, realizes he needs to find the tools of his office: his pouch of dream sand, his helm, and his ruby. He summons the Hecateae to ask each incarnation a question regarding the location of his tools. He goes to retrieve the pouch of dream sand first and encounters John Constantine of the comic Hellblazer. Constantine's ex-girlfriend, Rachel, has the pouch and has been using it like a drug. Rachel overdoses, Morpheus provides her one last sweet dream, and then he retrieves the sand and leaves.

His helm is the possession of the demon Choronzon in Hell. Ruthven Sykes, a member of Roderick Burgess's cult, made off with the helm. He traded it to Choronzon for his protection from Burgess and his magicians. Morpheus speaks with Lucifer, then challenges Choronzon for the helmet. Morpheus defeats the demon and regains his helmet. He tries to take his leave, but is stopped by Lucifer who asks him why they should let him leave Hell. Lucifer also asks what powers dreams hold in a place like this one. Morpheus answers what makes Hell effective is the demons' dreams of Heaven. He leaves with Lucifer vowing to destroy him.

John Dee

Morpheus next attempts to find his ruby. He discovers it was taken away from Dr. Destiny by the Justice League when they defeated him and imprisoned him in Arkham Asylum. Dr. Destiny's real name is John Dee and he is the son of Ethel Dee, the ex-lover of Roderick Burgess. He received the ruby from his mother and corrupted its power. After he's notified of the death of his mother, John Dee escapes Arkham and goes to retrieve his ruby.

Morpheus manages to track the ruby down to a storage unit and retrieves it. He finds it much changed and the tool he once relied on drains him further, leaving him unconscious. Dee arrives and takes the ruby, then holes up in a 24-hour diner. After Dee torments and controls the diner patrons, Morpheus arrives and fights Dee for control of the ruby. Dee destroys the ruby thinking this will destroy Morpheus. Instead, it returns all of the energy stored within the ruby to its rightful master, making Dream more powerful than he's been in ages. He returns Dee to Arkham and undoes the damage to the dreamers Dee caused with his use of the ruby.


Morpheus sits in front of a fountain in London, feeding the pigeons. A Goth girl approaches him and strikes up a conversation. They talk, Morpheus angers her, and she takes him to task. This is Death, Dream's older sister. She is the entity Roderick Burgess had been trying to capture at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes. Morpheus accompanies Death as she goes about her tasks. They discuss his imprisonment, their duties, and Morpheus comes out of his funk. Death reaps the soul of a soccer player we met earlier in the issue and leaves. Morpheus, feeling more at peace, feeds the pigeons.


Death and Sleep

The two Endless introduced in this volume are Morpheus (Dream) and Death. Hypnos and Thanatos—Sleep and Death—are brothers in the Greek and Roman pantheons. Sleep is often referred to as the "little death." It is no accident Death and Morpheus are so linked from the first issue of this series. Death was the entity Burgess wished to trap and instead got Morpheus. There is an interchangeability to the two at the beginning of this narrative. The connection is even clearer in their Roman counterparts—Sleep and Death—were twin brothers. With Morpheus absent, the people of the world enter a kind of living death. Unity Kinkaid and Ellie Marsten fall into comas, barely waking at all. Daniel Bustamonte shambles through his life like the walking dead. Stephen Wasserman goes the furthest and commits suicide.

Death is the sibling Morpheus is closest to and the only one to seek him out after his ordeal and ask if he's OK. Likewise, Death is the only sibling Morpheus really talks to honestly. Their relationship deepens throughout the series, but in the final volume of Preludes and Nocturnes, readers get a glimpse of their private selves. Death talks about how people hate and fear her while they go into Morpheus's realm nightly without complaint. His response, "And I am far more terrible than you, sister." The comment serves as a reminder of the installment that came before where readers see the awesome power Morpheus holds. It also is a reminder of how that power can be twisted to dark and painful ends. Death, in contrast, is a relief from pain, a kindness. She holds no nightmares.

Their appearances also reflect their mindsets: Death, while a Goth, is still cute, open, and approachable. Morpheus is standoffish, distant, imposing, and forbidding in both manner and dress. Death is the older sibling, and far, far wiser than her brother. "Little death" is an apt moniker here for Morpheus, as he strives to learn his place and adapt to change with the ease Death does. He holds Death in high regard. Her opinion of him is one of the few that matters.


The ideas of power, how one uses it, and powerlessness abound in this first volume of Sandman. When Morpheus first appears, readers don't even know who he is. He's stripped of his clothes, his tools, and caged inside a glass bubble. He's rendered powerless, silent, a prisoner who remains caged, unchanging, for 70 years. Roderick Burgess captured him in his attempt to chain Death. Roderick wanted to gain the power of immortality and to overthrow the natural order of things for his own aggrandizement. This is a very human display: acquiring power well beyond the human scope, regardless of the consequences.

Readers see a different example of power on display during Morpheus's trip to Hell to retrieve his helm. He's still weak, nowhere near powerful enough to take on Lucifer, and yet he still expects everyone to treat him the same as he was. His pride—and he's got plenty—is on full display in his trip to Hell. So it surprises Morpheus to find Lucifer no longer the sole ruler in Hell. He has shared his power to form a triumvirate with Azazel and Beelzebub. Morpheus comments on the fact and finds Lucifer not terribly bothered by it (in Season of Mists readers learn why). Despite Morpheus's evident weakness, he retrieves his helm, but Lucifer threatens to pit the might of Hell against him. That is when Morpheus reveals he understands the true power of the concept he embodies. His answer to Lucifer reflects this: "What power would Hell hold if its inhabitants could not dream of Heaven." This is what truly makes Hell a punishment. For this, Morpheus earns Lucifer's enmity.

Likewise, readers get an illustration of power and the ways it can be applied in the form of Morpheus's ruby. While Morpheus was imprisoned, John Dee—Dr. Destiny—found and corrupted the stone. He twisted the contained power of the Dream Lord to his own ends. It still answers his call years later when Morpheus attempts to reclaim it. In the chapter "24 Hours," readers glimpse what the power of the ruby can accomplish when wielded by someone without a restraint against using it. Dee does not care about the destruction he causes. In addition, he does not care for the pain he inflicts on innocent people. Morpheus understands the power of the ruby should be used to help, nurture, and protect both the Dreaming and the dreamers that enter it. In comparison to Dee, Morpheus's use of his own power is positively restrained, especially since readers have seen glimpses of Morpheus's pride in earlier chapters. This shift goes a long way to humanize what has been, up until that point, a solely otherworldly character.


A number of different families are represented in Preludes and Nocturnes. This is fitting since the core of the entire series revolves around the dysfunctional family that is the Endless. First we meet Roderick and Alex Burgess, father and son, with the son always living in the enormous shadow of his father. There is a distance and a powerful resentment between the two. Alex takes on the sins of his father in his attempts to keep Morpheus captive, asking for the same things his father once did. Unable to punish the father, the sins of Roderick Burgess follow the son.

Readers next meet Cain and Abel, brothers from the First Story. In the original Bible story, Cain slew Abel. In Sandman Cain kills Abel on a fairly regular basis. Something as simple as naming a gargoyle can set off his murderous rage. Abel is the gentler of the two, nursing a weakened Morpheus back to health. When Cain kills him after Morpheus leaves the House of Mystery, Abel wakes and tells a story. It is a story of two brothers who get along and never hurt each other, rewriting his own family relationship.

Ethel Dee visits her son, John Dee, in Arkham, reconnecting with him after many years. Whether the reason for her visit was because she knew she was going to die or something else, readers don't know. What readers do know is the death of his mother triggers something in Dee that causes him to escape the asylum. When he tortures the people in the diner, we see Gary and Kate who are in an unhappy marriage. She knows about his infidelities and dreams of killing him to keep him all to herself. Gary doesn't care he is hurting his wife with his affairs. In all four of these instances—father/son, brother/brother, mother/son, husband/wife—readers see relationships strained, stressed, and abused.

The final familial interaction in Preludes and Nocturnes is between Morpheus and his older sister, Death. It is by far the most loving and stable out of the familial relationships readers have seen. It serves to humanize Morpheus who, until this point has been a character difficult to truly connect with. While we empathize with his journey and admire his goals, he is still a chilly character to identify with. Death may be the embodiment of the concept of mortality, but she is still a warm and caring older sister. She expresses her concern, calls Morpheus on his brooding, and provides comfort to him. Death is earthy and human in a way Morpheus is not and can never be.

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