Neil Gaiman is a prolific and adaptable writer, producing novels for both adults and children, writing screenplays for film and television, and continuing to work in comics (Gaiman). Religious topics are a recurring motif in many of his books; American Gods (Gaiman 2004) explores what happens to deities after their believers disappear; Anansi Boys (Gaiman 2005) features one of the deities from American Gods and his two sons; the characters in Neverwhere (Gaiman 2003) are inspired by the London Tube stations, including the Angel Islington, who lives in London Below; and Good Omens (Gaiman and Pratchett 1990), co-written with Terry Prachett, is a satirical retelling of The Omen (1976) and the apocalypse. Before most of these, Gaiman wrote The Sandman, a comic (or graphic novel) which ran for seventy-six issues, from 1989 to 1996; it exhibits a similar interest in religious themes and ideas.
Gaiman's influences are various. He describes himself as a precocious and copious reader as a child and young man (Wagner, Golden, and Bissette 2008, 451-69). In writing Sandman, Gaiman drew on the "rich literary traditions of (primarily) British authors whose work challenged the reader by treating them as intellectual equals rather than patronizing the readership as does some popular culture ... Gaiman's work reflects the literary tradition in that the characters are more fully developed and the plots are rife with meaning and symbolism" (Murphy 2006, 14). The breadth of literature that influenced Gaiman was noted in the introduction to the last volume of the collected Sandman. Mikal Gilmore wrote;
Gaiman was doing something more than simply producing good comics stories on a monthly basis; he was also creating a work that aspired to stand as genuine, full-fledged mythology ... But with Sandman, Gaiman aimed to use a comics-based mythos to expand on, interact with, and deepen classical legends of mythology and popular history. On one hand, this approach might seem like merely another clever postmodern ruse, taking old Greek and Norse myths, European and Asian and Islamic folk tales, plus scenarios from Dante, Blake, Milton, and Dore, and mixing them with 20th-century comics and horror elements. Still, Gaiman made it all work. (Gilmore 1997,9)
Analyzing all these different sources goes well beyond the scope of a short article. Rather, I intend to focus on Gaiman's intertextual dialogue with Milton and, to a lesser extent, Dante. Some of the Sandman mythos derives from a desire to maintain continuity with the DC comics universe (Bender 1999, 73, 95, 99-100, 104, and so on), but at least in relation to Lucifer, Satan, and Hell, Gaiman creates a mythological world influenced by Jewish traditions. This is especially apparent in issues 21 through 28, collected into volume four, Season of Mists (Gaiman 1992). In this set of stories, Gaiman explores the nature of Hell and Lucifer, offering a dramatically different interpretation than is found in traditional Christian stories, especially Milton's Paradise Lost.
Before delving into Season of Mists, I will briefly describe the Sandman universe. (2) Gaiman imagines seven siblings, the Endless, who have existed from the beginning of time; Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium (formerly Delight), and Destruction. The series focuses mainly on Dream; of the other siblings, Death appears most frequently. Dream (sometimes addressed as Morpheus or Onieros or other names), is the lord of dreams. He is able to range through people's dreams or nightmares as well as interact with people in the material world. But he is strongest at his home, his castle in the heart of the dreaming. There, he is assisted by various other characters. Eve, Cain, and Abel also reside near Dream's castle.
The series begins with Dream having been trapped on Earth by a magician who steals his emblems of office. After seventy-two years, Dream escapes, punishes the magician's son, and starts trying to regain his treasures; a helmet, a bag of sand, and a ruby. His quest to regain his helmet takes him to Hell, where he defeats a demon, and Lucifer promises to destroy him (SM 1.129) (Gaiman 1995). Season of Mists starts with Destiny calling a family council, at which Desire and Death both criticize Dream for condemning a woman he loved, Nada, to Hell 10,000 years ago. Dream decides to free Nada and sends Cain as his envoy to Lucifer, announcing his intention. This message serves as a catalyst, prompting Lucifer to decide to close Hell and expel the damned. When Dream arrives, Hell is almost empty; he accompanies Lucifer as he throws out the laggards and locks all of Hell's gates. Lucifer gives Dream the key to Hell, predicting that if it does not destroy him, it will make his life difficult. Dream is uncertain what to do with the key, but envoys from a number of different mythic pantheons visit his castle to request it. Eventually, Dream gives the key to two angels from the Silver City (akin to Milton's Heaven, as it is the Creator's realm in the DC universe) who reopen Hell and allow the demons and damned to return. At the end of Season of Mists, Lucifer is on a beach in Australia, enjoying the sunset and listening to an Aussie discuss God (SM 4.212-14). Later in the series, Lucifer appears as the owner of a night club, Lux (Light), in Los Angeles, the City of Angels (SM 9.17, 21) (Gaiman 1996).
Gaiman signals that Sandman is going to be offering a vision of Lucifer and Hell that differs from Milton's when he has Lucifer quote perhaps the most famous line in Paradise Lost; "Still, 'better to reign in hell than serve in heaven'" (PL 1.263) (Milton 2005). But Lucifer continues, "We didn't say it. Milton said it. And he was blind" (SM 4.58). Using this double entendre (since Milton was, in fact, blind when he composed Paradise Lost), Gaiman both invites comparisons to Milton's work and suggests that Milton was wrong.
In both Paradise Lost and Sandman, God's power and control are never in doubt. Milton s Satan misjudged God's power (PL 1.94) because God concealed it (PL 1.640). Fearing God's power, Satan decides to attack humanity, thereby indirectly attacking God. But God's control, even in Hell, is demonstrated when Satan and all the fallen angels are transformed into snakes (PL 10.504-20), making his punishment fit the crime of tempting the humans in the guise of a snake. Similarly, in Sandman, the Creator's power and control are never in doubt. This is apparent from the outset of the story; Lucifer explains that Dream sent Cain as an envoy to Hell because "Cain is under the protection of one far greater than the lord of dreams" (SM 4.48) and quotes Genesis 4;15-16 to explain this. (3) Thus, even in Lucifer's realm, Cain's mark protects him from any harm because the Creator's power is so great. Similarly, Lucifer says that "there is but one greater than us. And to him ... to him we no longer speak" (SM 4.57).
While Milton and Gaiman agree that God/the Creator is almighty, they disagree on many other parts of the story. Both authors discuss the fall of the angels but have different perspectives on it. Milton wrote Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to men" (PL 1.26), and one of his major goals was to squarely place the blame for the Fall on the humans and Satan. As God says of the fall, "Whose fault? / Whose but his own. Ingrate, he had of me / all he could have; I made him just and right, / sufficient to have stood though free to fall. / Such I created all the ethereal powers / and spirits, both them who stood and them who failed; / freely they stood who stood and fell who fell" (PL 3.96-102). Satan agrees. When talking to himself he says; "Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand? / Thou hadst" (PL 4.66-67) and continues, "Cursed be thou, since against his thy will / chose freely what it now so justly rues" (PL 4.71-72). Lest people blame God for the fall (why did God put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden? why did he call the humans' attention to it? and so forth), Milton goes well beyond the biblical account of Genesis 3 by suggesting that Adam and Eve were warned, repeatedly and explicitly, not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (PL 5.521-37, 8.321-335, 8.640-44). But humans, like angels, have free will, so both Satan and they are "free to fall."
Gaiman's viewpoint is not so clear. When first introducing angelic inhabitants of the Silver City, he notes that they have names and identities and writes that "perhaps they possess something we might recognize as free will; perhaps not" (SM 4.105). This ambiguity, perhaps reflecting Gaiman's awareness of theological debates about free will and determinism (Erickson 1992, 415-16, 423, 632-3, etc.), is maintained in the subsequent narrative. Lucifer, a former resident of the Silver City, wonders if he actually...