Reading “The Parliament of Rooks”

I don’t know what it says about me that some of my favorite Sandman stories are the ones where Dream doesn’t make an appearance.  “The Parliament of Rooks,” much like “Soft Places” and “The Hunt,” is a side story where Dream is absent from the narrative, except in stories that other characters tell one another.  It’s a detail that gets disguised in the collected Fables & Reflections which presents the stories both before and after A Game of You out of chronological order as more a collection of all the one-shot stories in The Sandman‘s back half where Gaiman committed more heavily to particularly long story arcs (I can understand the editorial difficulty here since the three stories prior to A Game of You are thematically linked, but because they lack a unified narrative it would be hard to justify a collection of only three issues; heck, Dream Country collects four issues, and it had to be padded with a bonus script to keep it from looking like a sliver on a bookshelf).  There’re some interesting narrative reasons for Dream’s absence over these three issues (Gilbert in the previous story and Matthew the Raven in this one allude to Dream’s preoccupation with a new girlfriend), but those aren’t immediately significant.

What is significant about “The Parliament of Rooks” is that it’s actually three very short stories framed by a visit to the House of Secrets from Daniel, Hippolyta Hall’s toddler son whom Dream laid claim to many issues ago.  In a lot of ways this is an inconsequential issue more concerned with exploring the nature of stories, especially old ones, rather than advancing any particular ongoing plot, and that’s actually very nice.  I know that seems kind of paradoxical to say after the way I complained about “The Hunt” and “Soft Places,” which are also issues concerned with the nature of stories; maybe I’m just happy to see an issue featuring Cain and Abel; maybe I just don’t find werewolf or desert stories appealing.  Nonetheless, it’s a story about telling old stories, and whatever unique confluence of characters and subjects found therein works particularly well.

So Cain, Abel, and Eve find themselves entertaining a human child in the Dreaming, and because they are all natural storytellers (I think everyone native to the Dreaming is supposed to be a natural storyteller, but considering that these three also embody central characters in archetypal narratives, it’s especially true), they decide that the only thing to do with an audience is to tell stories.  Cain explains the mystery of the parliament of rooks (which, as far as I can tell, is a fictionalized account of the way rooks behave; they are social animals, but a casual Google search didn’t turn up any evidence that they actually congregate and randomly kill one of their number), Eve tells a version of her own story wherein she is the third of Adam’s three wives, and Abel explains how he and Cain came to inhabit the Dreaming as the keepers of Secrets and Mysteries respectively.  There’s an interesting contrast among the stories where Cain tells his story in a very authoritative, matter-of-fact way, but withholds any larger explanation for why rooks act the way they do, while Eve and Abel take many liberties with the details of the stories they’re pulling from in order to emphasize specific points of significance (Eve’s tale goes a long way towards building the relationship she and the other two Adam wives have to maiden-mother-crone entity that so regularly pops up in The Sandman to tell us something bad is about to happen, usually to Dream, and Abel recasts the story of his murder in terms appropriate for a toddler in order to bypass the gruesome parts and explain his and Cain’s roles in the Dreaming).  Cain’s fixated on telling his story in the proper form without worrying about imparting any real meaning, while Eve and Abel submit the form of their stories to the needs of their messages.  I guess you could say it’s a distinction between attempting to say something factual and attempting to say something true.

Abel’s a terrible liar. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The payoff for this contrast comes as Daniel’s dream winds down and Abel decides to explain that the behavior of the rooks isn’t really a trial, as Cain’s story suggests, but actually a storytelling event where the audience passes judgment on the story.  Cain is nothing but critical of Abel’s story as he tells it, and Abel’s decision to give away the secret of one of Cain’s mysteries drives him to a murderous rage where he beats Abel to death in a manner visually reminiscent of the rook who is pecked to death by its audience.  Cain’s reasoning has more to do explicitly with the loss of a mystery, but there’s a definite implication that he is also punishing Abel for modifying their origin story.

Eve’s middle placement between the two halves of the drama of the brothers is interesting because she seems to occupy a middle space.  She certainly plays with the narrative of Adam, but she’s careful to note where she’s gathered various bits of the story from, lending her narrative an air of authority that Abel’s child-friendly version of the first murder lacks.  Of course, Eve’s explanation of the three wives, which is kind of a Goldilocks situation regarding sexuality (Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is found to be domineering even though in Eve’s story she’s actually the female half split off from a hermaphroditic Adam and thus technically his equal; the second, unnamed wife is too timid and repulsive since Adam has seen her formation from nothing; the third wife Eve is just right even though its her partnership with Adam that leads to their expulsion from Eden), gets subverted at the end when she explains that while it’s true Adam had three wives, it’s also true that he had one.  Eve will become a more significant character late in The Sandman‘s run, but here her refusal to let the version she’s told be established as the only real one reads as an interesting statement on how characters, particularly female ones, aren’t allowed to be complex.  Eve possesses the aspects of all three women in her story, but the sources she’s working from felt the need to distribute the facets of her personality piecemeal to a range of distinct characters, perhaps because they couldn’t tolerate a version of the story where one woman was just as complex as the man.

The art for this issue is done by Jill Thompson and Vince Locke, and it’s really a beautiful piece of work.  Cain and Abel are rendered here in less cartoonish form than the last time they appeared together much earlier in the series, and the shift in presentation lends a distinctly more gruesome feeling to Cain’s continued abuse of his brother.  Eve’s a fun character to look at, as she says very little outside of her story, but her body language throughout the impromptu tea party provides some interesting characterization all on its own (I’m also partial to the way Thompson makes each of the three wives in Eve’s story look distinct while still giving them essentially the same face and hair).

The next issue we look at will prominently feature Delirium and launch the long arc Brief Lives.

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