04 September 2009

Dreaming Down a Hunt

Yesterday I offered a lengthy quotation from Neil Gaiman’s afterword to The Dream Hunters, explaining how he had come to rewrite a Japanese folktale into a Sandman volume for DC Comics.

Or had he? In Prince of Stories, an admiring book about Gaiman by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden, and Stephen R. Bissette, the now-Newbery-winning author explained the story behind that story-behind-the-story:

So Amano was illustrating Dream Hunters and I got a worried call from [editor] Jenny Lee, saying that the book was going to run short and could I do anything to fill a few pages at the end. So I wrote an afterword, about how this really was an old Japanese folktale, and [I] expected it to be treated with as much respect as my claims on the box of the first Sandman statue, that [artist] Kelly Jones and [sculptor] Randy Bowen and I had been allowed into the vaults beneath the British Museum to copy it.

And then it turned out that we didn’t have the pages to fill after all, and the afterword was printed in small official-looking type.

Which somehow made it no longer part of the story, and nobody ever doubted that I was telling the truth about this being an old Japanese folktale which happened to have Morpheus, a raven, and even Cain and Abel in it.
So in The Dream Hunters, Gaiman wasn’t rewriting a Japanese folktale at all. But he was hitching a ride on outsider images of Japanese culture—was that cultural appropriation and misrepresentation? To complicate matters, Gaiman’s secondhand and ersatz Japanese images were then turned into graphics by the actual Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano.

Perhaps in describing “the Rev. B. W. Ashton’s Fairy Tales of Old Japan” Gaiman really appropriated an aspect of stereotypical British culture: the earnest Victorian clergyman engaged in amateur scholarship, creating leather-bound books that no one will read for decades.

Complicating matters further, on 25 Dec 2007 Gaiman was presented with the news that someone had written on Wikipedia that he’d borrowed elements of the tale from from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which he’d never read.

TOMORROW: What this strange tale really tells us.

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