The Sandman is a moniker that’s relatively popular in pop culture. There’s a Sandman in Marvel, one of Spider-Man’s sinister foes. There are many Sandman references in music, from The Chordettes’ ’50s classic “Mr. Sandman” to Metallica’s well-known hit “Enter Sandman.” The Sandman has also appeared in many other songs, TV shows, movies, and comics. And now, Netflix is bringing to life one of the most famous of all the Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is coming to the platform as a live-action series. But where did all these tales of sandy men begin? Well, the concept of the Sandman found its start in European mythology. So let’s meet the Sandman of folklore.
SANDMAN FROM NETFLIX.
Netflix’s fantasy series The Sandman opens with a small chunk of exposition explaining its protagonist Morpheus. The King of Dreams is much more than comics readers got when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series launched in 1988. Even given the series’ small concession to an audience that may need upfront hooks to commit to the show. Both the comics version and the Netflix version of the story leave a great deal for the audience to learn over time. And both versions parcel out that information slowly, as it becomes relevant to a story where the scope is constantly shifting from the personal to the cosmic.
WHO IS SANDMAN?
Sandman’s title character, and more or less its protagonist, is Dream of the Endless, a character who’s also a concept and a fundamental force of the universe. Played by Tom Sturridge in the Netflix adaptation, Dream is an immortal entity that broadly embodies and manages the world of dreams. The Dream is also called Morpheus, the Sandman, Oneiros, and many other names by many races, species, and cultures throughout the Sandman series. He has the power to create and modify dreams and nightmares, which are also usually embodied as immortal entities, particularly when they’re in his realm, known as the Dreaming.
Mortals, not just humans, but as the comics series shows, animals, aliens, and anything else sentient sometimes visits the Dreaming. Especially when they dream, or they may remain at home and have dreams visit them. It’s Dream’s responsibility to keep the world of dreams in check and balance. What does that mean? We find out early in the series when he’s unable to do so for a while, and things fall apart.
WHAT ARE SANDMAN’S POWERS?
Roughly speaking, he can do anything that falls under his purview, so long as it’s relevant to the narrative. He has complete power over how things appear and interacts in his realm. He can make independent, sapient beings from scratch, change them however he wants, and destroy them at will. Dream can navigate anyone’s dreams and take things from them or add things to them. He has broad powers over the story itself, and in a story that’s fundamentally about storytelling, that’s pretty powerful.
WHO ARE SANDMAN’S SIBLINGS?
Early in the series, Dream’s servant Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) asks whether he could seek out his siblings for help in a present crisis. He cuts her off sharply, saying they have their realms to see to. (This is true, but also, Dream is incredibly proud and stubborn, and he doesn’t want to admit he needs help.) Unfortunately, the nature and identity of all of those siblings take quite a while to unfold in the books, but here’s a brief rundown if you’re curious.
Each of Dream’s siblings: Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and a sixth we’ll get to in a bit, is an immortal like himself, with power over the fundamental aspects of reality associated with their names. They each have radically different personalities, often matching their realms of influence: Despair is grim and glum, and Desire is seductive and greedy. Delirium, who doesn’t turn up in season 1, represents insanity, and she ranges from cheerfully dotty to outright psychopathic. Destiny also gets left out of season 1. Still, in the comics, he’s unbudging and ungiving, the least human of the siblings, because he sees himself not as creating or controlling fate but just endlessly observing it.
IS THERE A GOD IN THE SANDMAN MYTHOS?
There are tons of them, much like in the increasingly messy Marvel Cinematic Universe canon of gods, which reflects the endlessly messy Marvel Comics canon. The Sandman world includes various pantheons, including the Greco-Roman and Egyptian gods. They have fallen on hard times because mortals largely stopped worshiping them. Heaven and hell are real places in the Sandman mythos. Biblical figures like Cain, Abel, and Eve were real historical figures who eventually became dreams in Dream’s realm. That’s because they’ve passed into myth and legend, and stories are part of his kingdom. Lucifer Morningstar, aka the Devil, is real (and played by Gwendoline Christie), with a significant part to play in season 1 and a much bigger role in a later Sandman arc.
IS SANDMAN A JERK?
The answer is YES. One of the fascinating things about Sandman is that Dream often isn’t a particularly sympathetic protagonist. He can be sentimental and mopey, vain and stuffy, remote and superior, or just indifferent to other people’s suffering. His motives are sometimes hard to discern because he’s so inhuman. But, of course, that’s by design: He is, after all, the manifestation of the idea of stories as much as he’s a person. So it’s OK to dislike him when he’s being angry or bossy.
Remember that we aren’t exactly seeing him at his best in Sandman season 1. He’s just off a long, frustrating trauma, during which he was as helpless as ever. Dreams like Lucienne, Matthew, Cain, and Abel aren’t his peers. He can’t confide in them because they’re his subjects and creations. The only beings on his level are his family, who are a problematic bunch at best. So he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about being off his stride and having to figure out who he is after what he went through.
- In the 1990s, Nilus the Sandman aired on Anglophone Canadian television.
- In the 1970s, Bonne Nuit Les petits aired on French television.
- In 1991, Paul Berry directed a stop-motion short film titled The Sandman based on the short story Der Sandmann by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
- The sci-fi British television show Doctor Who, from the earlier productions since 2005, has made an episode revolving around Sandmen. The ninth episode of the ninth season (2015), called “Sleep No More.”
- Netflix released The Sandman series in 2022, an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman comics.
In Marvel Mystery Comics, the Sandman lives in the Land of Dreams, located in the Realm of Fairies within the potentially imaginary world of Nowhere. The Sandman ruled over the realm and would place a blanket over it every day. Those who grabbed a dream from the dream tree would have a dream based on whatever they grabbed from the tree and awaken again when the Sandman removed the blanket over his land. Anyone who did not grab a dream would end up in a night of eternal, dreamless sleep.
Several fictional characters named Sandman have appeared in comic books published by DC Comics. These include fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s 75-part comic book series, The Sandman for Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC Comics). The original series ran from 1989 to 1996. It tells the story of Dream of the Endless, who rules over the world of dreams. He is an anthropomorphic personification of dreams known to various characters throughout the series as Morpheus, Oneiros, the Shaper of Form, Lord of the Dreaming, the Dream King, Dream-Sneak, the Cat of Dreams, Murphy, Kai’ckul, and Lord L’Zoril. In addition, he possesses three symbols of office: a helm, an amulet known as the Dreamstone, and a sand pouch.
A comics adaption of the above-mentioned German TV show Unser Sandmännchen has also been published. Most notably, on the back pages of FF, Dabei focuses on Pittiplatsch and his friends.
Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman arc was eventually resolved with plenty of open questions about the nature of this universe, and we can expect the TV series will as well. Don’t expect to have all the answers. Understand that that’s part of the experience, and realize that most of these characters aren’t people so much as concepts and purposes made flesh. It’ll all fall together a lot more easily. You’re in the realm of the mythic when you’re reading or watching Sandman. And most myths are more about capturing a feeling or illustrating a principle than making sure every last plot point adds up. Enjoy the ride.