Have you read this book?
Neil Gaiman wrote something called Sandman. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. He wrote some novels and short stories and, oh, by the way, won some awards along the way. Then he got this idea to write a new version of a very old Japanese story called “The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night’s Dreaming”, only he would call his The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, and it would tie in with his Sandman series, and it would be illustrated by the esteemed Yoshitaka Amano who, among various other works, produced one that some of you may be familiar with, Vampire Hunter D. This combination of talent produced the spiffy little book by DC Comics that is one part art book, one part seductive fable, and many other parts plainly excellent.
It’s about a monk who lives alone in a temple that is coveted by both a fox and a badger who want to make their dens there. Said fox and badger wager to drive the monk from his residence, winner taking it over, loser continuing to scrape about in the uncomfortable wilds. Badger goes first, attempting to trick the monk into believing he has been summoned to the Imperial Court, but despite the magical nature of the badger, the monk clearly sees through the trick and laughs the badger away.
Next, the fox takes her turn, disguising herself as the daughter of the governor of the province of Yamashiro who shows up half drowned in a rainstorm. Of course she is very fetching, and the monk takes her into his temple to warm her beside his fire. When she tells him she was waylaid by brigands who will attack the temple and kill anyone they find there and that they should flee, the monk sees through her trickery, saying, “I have never seen eyes like yours on a human face.” Thus the fox, too, is defeated by the monk. Later the badger returns and is soundly defeated. Then the fox, too, returns, except this time she apologizes for the mischief. When the monk agrees to let her remain in the countryside as long as there’s no more foolishness, everything seems hunky-dory.
Except there are complications. See, first of all, the fox has fallen in love with the monk. Second, a distant and very powerful wizard — here in the Japanese referred to as the onmyoji, a fellow with arcane knowledge and power over spirits, and whose plight seems strikingly resonant with Macbeth — is afraid. He learns (by consulting with three witches, hmm…) that the way to put an end to his fear is to take the peace that the monk possesses. Oh, but the monk has to die. And he has to die before the next full moon. And he has to die without violence. Or pain.
So sets the ball rolling that will bring about a Romeo and Juliet-like (almost) ending, and during the course of events the little fox will have to make sacrifices to save her beloved because, unbeknownst to him, she has overhead demons discussing his demise. Her experiences in the realm of dreams and the supernatural advice she receives offer both subtle foreshadowing and compelling simplicity, those scenes accompanied by Amano’s wonderful artwork which starkly evokes the wickedness of the demons, the idyllic nature of the countryside, and the forbidding tension of her inquiries into how to save the monk. Before all is said and done, the monk must meet with the King of All Night’s Dreaming to restore the proper order of action and consequence that has unfairly burdened the little fox and which, if properly restored, threatens his own well being.
There’s a fairy-tale like moral offered up in the ending that isn’t a happy-go-lucky one, but it’s perfectly sensible to the monk and well within keeping of the numerous early hints that, “These things rarely end happily.” Although the King of Dreams comes close to making that unstated moral explicitly clear, he doesn’t. That’s because he doesn’t need to. After all, who needs to be reminded that our suffering is our own and that nobody can, or should, take it from us? The monk knows this, even if the fox does not, and a further lesson here might be that love is not in and of itself curative of all suffering. Some things simply have to be endured.
Which brings us to what remains so compelling in this simple and nifty little story. Although we see the true nature of the ending well before it arrives, part of what keeps us reading is the hope that the ending we foresee will not come to pass, that something smashingly clever will happen that will let us have a reassuring “and they lived happily ever after” ending. That things don’t work out like that, and don’t work out like that at all, strikes of immediate disappointment, but the harsher route also manages to confirm the aforementioned and Wittgenstein-like notion, “accept and endure.” That may be the harshest, and perhaps even the best, of life’s hard lessons, which makes The Dream Hunters more than a pretty trifle. Excellent combination of storytelling and artwork. Highly recommended.