The last time I went to a renaissance festival, I saw a booth that said, “Ye Olde Taco Stand,” or something similar. It was delightfully anachronistic, and pointed to the quirky nature of things like renfests. It’s a bunch of people with relatively esoteric interests in things that may or may not relate to the actual historical period getting together to put on a day for themselves and people who want to come visit. In a lot of ways it feels very much akin to conventions that I’ve been to, though without so much of the crowding and obnoxious waiting in line to do fun things.
In this issue of The Sandman, Gaiman takes the concept of the renfest and gently skewers it with the help of my favorite centuries old curmudgeon Hob Gadling. This story takes place a few months after Dream’s funeral, and it just chronicles a day that Hob spends at a renaissance fair where his latest girlfriend works. Most of the day is spent simply drinking to help cope with the cheesy environs, but in the midst of that stubbornly mundane series of events, Hob processes his own reaction to Dream’s passing.
It seems that at the heart of this story is a reflection on how time gradually erodes relationships and priorities. Hob has lived significantly longer than most people, and the major strings of thought he focuses on here have to do with the friends he’s lost (remember that the last time we saw Hob before Dream’s funeral was in the immediate aftermath of another lover’s sudden death) and the evil things he’s done (Hob has recently started dating a Black woman, Guenevere, and this new experience has him fixated on his own culpability in the Atlantic slave trade). It seems like the perfect sort of set up for Hob to finally decide he’s ready to die, but even after having a conversation with Death confirming that Dream’s funeral was a thing Hob really experienced, he decides to go on, unsure that he’ll ever be ready for the end.
When you break this story down to its plot points it’s a pretty thin one, but that feels okay. Hob holds a pretty special place in The Sandman mythos as the first person Dream called his friend in the series, and it’s fitting that our last moment thinking about Dream’s passing are spent with him. The themes that Hob meditates on here, slavery, regret, carrying on without your loved ones, echo the experiences that Dream’s had over the course of his story. He told Hob he shouldn’t be in the slaver business in the first place, and then he ended up trapped himself. He spent much of the series learning how to make amends for things he’d done to others before, and Hob, whose few centuries are only a fraction of Dream’s lifetime, is caught in a place now where he’s unsure how to make up for his own sins; the people he personally hurt are all long dead, unlike Dream who had the luxury of associating mostly with immortals. Hob’s many dead friends also echo the most painful aspects of Dream’s own history; it’s arguably Nada and Orpheus who left the strongest imprints on Dream, and the only way he’s able to reach closure with them is by helping them move on. It’s perhaps only the fact that Hob learns these lessons more quickly, if not more easily (how can persistent loss ever be easy?), that distinguishes him from his friend.
Maybe that, and the fact that unlike Dream Hob is not resistant to change for the better.
The issue’s climax is an extended conversation Hob has with Death; she comes to visit him as a favor to Dream. She confirms for him that Dream really has died, and she presents him with the option to die if he’d like. He defers, wondering if he’ll ever be ready to do that, even with all the losses he’s experienced in his life (though Hob’s first few centuries appeared to be characterized by him being relatively carefree, it’s been well established that he’s had a long line of lovers and wives and left behind at least a few children). Hob thinks of his life as a long, slow robbing of what he holds dear, but I see him more as being weighed down. He has so many memories of pressing down, affecting how he sees things in the present, but he maintains this resilience to keep going on, perhaps indefinitely. A look at the trajectory of Hob’s life suggests that even if his relationship with Gwen is successful, they’ll have a few decades at most before he’ll either need to disappear again or she’ll die and leave him behind. It’s a painful cycle that has to bear down immensely after so many repetitions, but Hob keeps soldiering on, finding happiness in each new meeting as he sees reflected in it the memories of previous partings.
The issue ends with Hob having one last nap before he and Gwen head home for the day. It’s a brief one, but during it he dreams of Dream. It’s a weird moment, because this is clearly a dream that happens chronologically after Dream’s death, so the Dream Hob meets is actually a dream of Dream, although that’s not entirely clear since Destruction is also there, and for all we know it really is Destruction come to hang out with Hob and his brother. The metaphysics of the Dream in Hob’s dream can get confusing pretty quickly, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about them. Instead, I want to just end on the image of comfort Hob has here. It evokes a familiar feeling for me; I occasionally dream about loved ones who are gone, and those are always really good dreams.
Next time we’ll look at the story of an old man crossing a desert.