EP 035: HEY MR SANDMAN – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
Some of the stories we’ve told so far might creep into your livelier and more technicolor dreamscapes, but today we’re going a little less Walking on Sunshine and a little more Toccata & Fugue in D minor. So lock your doors, switch on your brightest lights, and pop over to Instagram afterwards, which is an excellent place to confirm that your SO is, in fact, real.
To paraphrase, I believe, God, the world changes in mysterious ways, and in the short time we’ve been on hiatus a new and Tom Sturridge shaped phenomenon has swept the globe. The Sandman exploded into the Netflix scene recently, pulling a whole host of new tributes into the weird, and very wonderful, world of Neil Gaiman, which, quite frankly, was long overdue. But whilst Tom Sturridge’s very broody Morpheus has only been haunting the be-postered walls of teenage bedrooms for a couple of months, the Sandman himself has been haunting our collective dreams (and or nightmares) for a whole lot longer.
Anyone who had grandparents remotely like mine knew two things: 1. The tooth fairy is a transparent and despicable fabrication perpetuated by charlatans trying to discredit the very real and perilous work undertaken by the Tooth Mouse. And 2, that gunk you rub out of your eyes in the morning – or, alternatively, is gently pointed out to you by a colleague in the middle of a career defining presentation – is evidence that the Sandman has been paying calls. The figure of the Sandman seems to stem from the far flung mists of Scandinavian folklore, and simultaneously answers two perfectly rational, and eternal, questions – namely, where do dreams come from? And Why do we wake up with eye grit, when our eyes were perfectly ungritted the night before?
For slightly less rational reasons, the Sandman – a mythical and presumably immortal figure with, one imagines, a plethora of techniques (and time) at his disposal – decided a long time ago that the best way of convincing recalcitrant children to shut up and go to sleep was to blind them with sand.
Now I don’t have children so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of this strategy. But if you’re feeling like it may make the Sandman morally grey, I will just say in his defense that it may actually be the fault of an old German expression for someone who is nodding off at table. According to some sources, the German phrase the sandman is coming grew out of the idea that a sleepy person looks as though they have been filled up with sand. (Please don’t try this at home.)
The Sandman fables were, unsurprisingly, retold and slightly sanitized by the Brother’s Grimm. In their version he’s called Ole-Luk-Oie, and he’s so fond of children that he minimizes the sandblasting to the smallest amount possible, although that still clocks in at slightly more than you’d expect. As they tell it:
“[He] throws a small quantity of very fine dust in their eyes, just enough to prevent them from keeping them open, and so they do not see him. Then he creeps behind them, and blows softly upon their necks, till their heads begin to droop… Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night. But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreams at all.”
If you’re thinking right now – oh wow, Neil Gaiman slash Netflix slash Tom Sturridge went in a far creepier direction – then our next story might make the DC character look like someone you’d like to take home to your mother.
In 1817, The Sandman reached his first peak of mass consumption, in a short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It’s titled, unimaginatively, The Sandman, probably because his enormous creative capacity was thoroughly exhausted by the time he scribbled a title onto the finished manuscript.
It’s the story of Nathanael, a slightly narcissistic and vaguely manic young man, engaged to the very even tempered Clara. To complete the game of happy families, he’s also besties with Clara’s brother, Lothaire. Everything is wonderful and nothing can possibly go wrong. The end.
Except, like so many people, Nathanael has had a troubled childhood and an insufficient amount of quality therapy. The story starts with him writing a letter to Lothaire, his soon to be brother in law. In it, he talks about the Sandman – a mysterious character in his nurse’s bedtime stories. The nurse, who was great with kids and definitely fully qualified to take care of them, had told him that:
“[the Sandman] is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.”
The young Nathanael was haunted by this image, and in a perfectly natural leap, started to equate it with the only other terrifying, nighttime visitor he knows of: his dad’s colleague Coppelius. His dad was an amateur alchemist, which is very normal and not at all weird. In the letter, the adult Nathanael describes to Lothaire an evening when Coppelius had caught him spying on their experiments, and tried to blind him with burning coals, cementing his certainty that Coppelius is the Sandman. His father died in fishy circumstances a year later, and Coppelius conveniently disappeared.
The point of the letter, which Nathanael eventually reaches, is to tell Lothaire that a travelling salesman the spitting image of Coppelius has appeared in his boarding house, calling himself Coppola and trying to sell people barometers. Nathanael, who has no chill, is immediately suspicious and vows revenge.
Unfortunately for Nathanael, his career as an amateur detective slash spy is hampered by his inability to properly address letters. The reply comes from his finance Clara, who tells him gently that he has sent the letter to her by mistake, but that her and her brother are both very moved by his trauma. She also says, lovingly, that he’s completely off his rocker.
Nathanael ignores her completely, but writes back to Lothaire (double checking the address this time). He informs his friend that on second thoughts Coppola can’t be Coppelius, because he’s been vouched for by his super trusty new physics professor, Spallanzani, and also that the prof’s daughter, Olympia, is very hot. Which is another super normal thing to write to your brother in law.
Unsurprisingly, Nathanael’s obsession with Coppola/ Coppelius starts driving the trio apart, not helped by his penchant for writing increasingly insane poetry, but they manage a nice reconciliation before he goes back to university to complete his final year. Unfortunately, this spirit of homely affability lasts about as long as the train trip. He arrives to find that his new digs look straight into Olympia’s bedroom, and he falls straight into obsessing over her beauty and naming their unborn children. Coppola arrives at the door calling ‘pretty eyes, pretty eyes,” to which Nathanael has a slightly hysterical and completely undignified reaction. When he realizes that the man is just trying to sell spectacles and lenses, he covers his embarrassment like all rational people – by buying something. He uses his spiffy new telescope to spy on Olympia, and only finds it slightly weird that she sits staring out of the window for most of the day.
Sometime later, the prof throws an enormous party, and Nathanael gets to see his new lady-love up front and center. She sings, she dances, she plays the harpsichord, and when spoken to she answers Ah! to everything in a tone of reverential agreement. All of this is completely up Nathanael’s alley, and he decides to marry her – forgetting, apparently, that he is meant to be marrying someone else. He calls on her for the next few days, drowning her in his awful poetry just to check that she really is the one. Apparently Ah! is a far more pleasing response to Please throw that drivel into the fire, and he forgets about poor, sensible Clara completely.
When he eventually works up the nerve to totter over, cap in hand, he finds Spallanzani and Coppola having a terrific argument. This might not have hampered him, except that Olympia’s lifeless body is lying between them, and they are at blows over who gets to file the patent over which mechanical body part. Coppola, now revealed as Coppelius, runs off with the clockwork body, and the sight of Olympia’s eyeballs rolling about on the floor tips Nathanael over the edge. He tries to strangle the professor, but ends up in an asylum instead.
The narrator pauses at this junction, to tell readers that the discovery of this automaton had such a profound effect upon society that young lovers and old marrieds alike began dreaming up strange and innovative ways to check that their partners were, in fact, actual people, and not very realistic machines. You may feel the need to do the same, but I urge you not to resort to the drawing of blood. A strong magnet should do the trick.
Anyway, Nathanael seems to bounce back quite nicely, and is reunited with Clara and Lothaire. They decide to move to a nice house in the country, and whilst house hunting, climb to the top of a tall steeple. Clara points out some interestingly shaped topiary, and Nathanael pulls out the telescope to have a better look. As he is putting it to his eye, he catches sight of Clara through the lens. Here, it becomes very clear that he’d skimped out on the journaling and group therapy portions of his rehab. He goes completely bonkers and tries to throw Clara out the window. Coppelius appears in the crowd below, Nathanael starts yelling “pretty eyes, pretty eyes!” and then hurls himself out of the window instead.
Clara, you’ll be pleased to know, was sighted some years later (presumably not through a telescope). She was in the company of a kind looking man and two children, with a neat little country house in background. No extraneous sand was noted.