The late Victorian period in England produced an upswing in the belief of all things magical and mystical. From mediums conducting séances, a resurrection of druidic rites, a fascination with the darker forms of the occult, to a belief in fairies, they all reflected a concerted effort to counterbalance the emergence of the industrial revolution.
As England shifted further away from her rural roots of landed gentry and noblesse oblige to an urban-based industrial economy with power and wealth in the hands of the mercantile class, people developed a romantic, idealistic view of what England used to be. With bucolic pastures giving way to ugly factories and the forests filled with dark nooks and crannies where all types of creatures could be found lurking being felled as raw material to be fed into the maw of industry, it's not surprising there would be some sort of reaction.
Perhaps what is most surprising is the depth of feelings that these events evoked. Aside from people claiming to have photographed fairies, there was a general upsurge in art featuring fanciful portrayals of life in the land of the faerie. Whether the small winged creatures flying amongst frogs and song birds, impish devil faces that were more mischievous that demonic, or scenes of supernatural creatures like unicorns and gryphons, all became familiar presences on the canvasses of that time.
It was around this time that stories telling of people travelling into faerie and losing their wits and time and becoming lost to our world forever became commonplace again. So did stories of the mysterious places that offered entrance to the world of faerie that must be guarded at all times lest some unhappy mortal mistakenly wander where he shouldn't. In some ways you could say that Neil Gaiman's novel Stardust is a product of those more innocent (but not naïve) times, but that would be ridiculous because he is writing over a hundred years after they have gone by.
But you know, have you ever looked real close at Mr. Gaiman? At the look in his eye and the strange little half smile on his lips? It's the look of a man with a secret, I'd say, of a man who's walked the paths of faerie at some point in his life and drifted around in time; touching down here and there, being a visitor for a while and then moving on.
Oh, he's not always been Neil Gaiman of course, that's just who he looks like this time, but he (or she) will always show up when there seems to be a need for the world's imagination to be pushed into believing in the things that go bump in the night or the light that can dazzle so bright. How do you think that Barrie fellow was able to write Peter Pan? Didn't all that stuff about believing give you a clue?
Anyway, enough of that, let's just be looking at what we're looking at, which is Mr. Gaiman's book, Stardust. According to an interview that's included in the book, or it might have been the author's note, he claims that this book is a prequel to a story that may well never be written. (If that isn't an example of something being a little off the boil I don't know what is.)
Now that's almost as confusing as that Star Wars thing, what with last being released 20 years before first – but that, I think, was a case of not knowing your arse from a tea kettle more than anything else, if you was asking me which you aren't, so we won't waste no more breath on the matter. Save for to say that's the only time you'll see me comparing Neil Gaiman with something like that; it's like comparing cabbages and kings if you ask me. (Of course since they both give me gas on occasion – cabbages and kings – not Neil Gaiman and Mr. Lucas, although the latter can be a right pain in the place where gas emits – there may be some merits for comparison but it's too deep a matter for this shallow shovel to dig into.)
So, for sure Mr. Gaiman knows a thing or two that he's not letting on, but one only has to look at the evidence against him to know that he knows things that others don’t. Perhaps, as that nice French pilot put it, (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince) they may not appear to be "matters of consequence" to most of the world, but to those of us who have learned that "it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye," they are matters of great importance.
Stardust is chock-a-block full with such matters of importance. Never would I have known that when in faerie one should never say where one has come from or where one is going, but you should also on no account lie. Rather say you've come from behind and are going ahead and that will do nicely. You see, that's where everyone has been and are headed themselves, so they will understand.
Now I've gotten slightly ahead of myself, or I'm leaving you behind, which is equally unfair, so I need to start over again at the beginning of the story. It's about a father and son, from the family of Thorn, who live in the small village of Wall during the time of Queen Victoria.
Now Wall is so named for the wall that runs between it and, well… you know… unbroken save for one gate. The people of Wall guard that gate to prevent anyone – well nearly anyone – from crossing through from Wall to beyond the wall. Nobody ever seems to want to come from beyond the wall into Wall, so that isn't a concern.
But every nine years, people from all over the world come to boring little Wall so they can cross through the wall into the field where the Market is to be run — the Market being when the people who live in faerie (you did know that's what I meant by living beyond the wall didn't you? I thought such an intelligent reader like yourself would figure that one out) come to trade with people who live in the world of men.
Now Mr. Thorn senior went to the market beyond the wall to see if he could find a gift for his girlfriend, but he found more than he bargained for. He met and became besotted with the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen (who cared that there was something feline about her furry pointed ears?) and readily agreed to meet her that evening. The result of that tryst was pushed through the gate in the wall to Wall just over nine months later, about seven months after Mr. Thorn had married his human girlfriend.
Well Mr. Thorn accepts his responsibilities and takes young Mr. Thorn into his home, and if his wife bears any resentment, she quickly loses it for love of her new son. He's a gentle boy, meek and mild, and grows up to be far too unassuming to talk with girls. But he's been secretly in love with the fairest maiden in the village of Wall and finally one night he summons the courage to walk her home from where he works and even more astoundingly finds the courage to tell her of his love for her.
She dismisses his protestations of love with a laugh, not a mean one, for she is far too good a girl ever to be mean. As it happens, they both turn to see, at the same time, together, a star falling over east of the wall. In a burst of inspiration she says to young Mr. Thorn if he were to bring her back that fallen star she will give him anything he desires of her.
Much to both their surprise he readily agrees and sets out that very moment to cross through the hole in the wall that surrounds Wall from the land to the East. At first he is turned back by the guards. But when his father hears of the events of the night he escorts his son to the wall and reminds the guards of where young Mr. Thorn had come from.
That, as they say, is when the adventures begin, but I'm afraid you'll have to read about them for yourself. Sufficient for now should be the news that there is a unicorn involved, flying boats that fish for lightning, a trio of evil witches, seven murderous brothers (thankfully only amongst family — they are quite friendly to strangers), and of course a fallen star.
I will also tell you that Mr. Gaiman has once again taken words and painted animated pictures that come to life inside your head. His magic lies in how few words he needs to communicate beauty, horror, wonder, and what's being eaten for breakfast with the clarity of a person photographing the moment. You just know that he is either working from photos he took of the trip or the extensive notes he kept while being one of the critters watching events unfold. (I believe we catch a quick glimpse of him once as a hare that scolds young Mr. Thorne for trying to kill it for supper.)
There is no other explanation for him knowing in such detail what happened to young Mr. Thorne and the fallen star on their journey through the land of faerie as they attempt to make their was back to the wall around Wall. There are the natural obstacles of the world to avoid, as well as some less than savoury characters who have designs on the fallen star that by no stretch of the imagination can be defined as honourable.
The English language has gone through some transformations in usage and meaning since the days of Queen Victoria, and in that time wonder has become more a question then a feeling. A person is more apt to wonder about something than to feel wonder in the everyday course of their life these days. That's where Mr. Gaiman comes to our rescue – he can genuinely create a world where wonder is an everyday occurrence and we can experience it simply by reading his words.
There are no major intellectual breakthroughs in his books, no difficult emotional barriers to overcome, just the easing of the toils of the mind and the heart for a short while, which in itself is a wonder all its own. Though I must warn you — these books can have a strange effect on those who read them, which spills out into their world in unexpected ways. But I have yet to see any evidence of that. Although it would be nothing to wonder at if it were true.