Having grown up on a literary diet of comic books and Doc Savage novellas, I have always had an appreciation for the fantastic. Since our town was relatively dull, it helped to have flights of imagination within the price range of those with humble means. I discovered Neil Gaiman (it seems that many profound writers are named Neil or Neal) through the machinations of one of my Rutgers students. After reading American Gods, which was an obvious starting place for someone of my erstwhile profession, I have sampled a bit more of his fare. I long ago gave up on comic books since I prefer the pictures I make in my own head, although I must admit that the few graphic novels I’ve tackled have required considerable thought. So it was that I came upon Stardust, a graphic-turned-prose novel.
Stardust serves up a number of folklore themes with the charm and wit that Gaiman generously doles out. It is a story replete with witches, fairies, and storm gods. A figurative smorgasbord of the mythical. What particularly arrested my attention was Gaiman’s use of the title Lilim for his witches. Lilim (or lilin) are mythical creatures of Semitic pedigree related to the (in)famous Lilith. Some traditions make the Lilim her children, and it has been suggested that they also put in an appearance or two in Mesopotamian mythology. Gaiman’s portrayal is fairly accurate here with the Lilim being selfish thieves of the night, but not entirely evil.
Beyond the escapism of relatively happy endings, this mix of evil tinged with the helpless inevitability of aging speaks paradigmatically of mythical ambiguity. Many modern-day religions tout the answers, but mythology parades the possibilities. The mythology of old continually returns to us in new forms. Using a mix of fantastical creatures from various eras of human story-telling, Stardust is a gentle fairytale for adults. Like the book of Ecclesiastes the story has a fatalism to it, no real happy ending but no hair-rending tragedy either. Turning the classic quest for the father into an unwitting search for the mother, the novel offers seemingly endless potential for hope. Although penned a few years ago, that message is still desperately needed today.