What’s one thing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten have in common? A not-so-subtle list of book recommendations. Sandman and The Unwritten are packed with references to important literary works, stressing the weight those stories carry. Both Sandman and Unwritten have heavy themes of the importance of stories and literature, and the place of high importance they own in human history. The two stories are, in a way, simply about the power of stories.
The universe of The Unwritten is a world where books have shaped the culture. Tommy Taylor’s fans are so moved by the story they riot over the scandal of Tom’s identity, even though he’s stated clearly from the second page he appears on that he is absolutely not Tommy Taylor. Later when Tom tries to point out the lunacy of Count Ambrosio’s stake in the story, the Count responds that “Stories are the only things worth dying for,” citing any death caused by religion. Wilson Taylor also pushes the importance of stories, equipping Tom with no background for the dangerous world he’s falling into, full of enemies who are themselves fictional and a very real threat, but a wide knowledge of the most important pieces of literature through time. The last section of Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity shows Kipling worried at how he has changed the world with his stories: creating violence and death through a colonization he helped popularize.
Literature is also proven important in The Unwritten through all of the texts it references and gleans from, including most prominently the Harry Potter series. It also acknowledges Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and multiple works by Oscar Wilde and Ruyard Kipling and many others. These stories aren’t necessarily needed for the plot, and don’t come with an explanation; they are mentioned and the audience is assumed to know enough about them for their mentioning to make sense. This is, in itself, support for the books other claims that literature and stories are what shape the world.
Neil Gaiman shows the same stance on the importance of literature in Sandman, particularly in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” section of volume three. Morpheus is preparing for his death, and when tasked with preserving himself, he does it with literature, buying three plays from Shakespeare. The same preservation is shown when he explains why he’s commissioned the play to Oberon and Titania. Even though they have entirely left Earth and never plan on coming back, they are still remembered, and will be for hundreds of years.
Gaiman’s “Calliope” and “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” also stress the importance of stories. The stories Calliope inspires go down in history, are made into movies, and bring their authors fame and glory. Only some of it is lasting, however: Richard Madoc and Homer are remembered and loved, celebrities in their times. But Erasmus Fly loses his glory, asking Richard to attempt to get his book back into circulation. He dies shortly after losing Calliope: like in Tommy Taylor, stories are worth dying for. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” stresses the motivational and world-changing power of stories again, going as far to say the world we live in is created entirely by the stories we believe in, and that if we change what we believe, we change the world.
Gaiman, Carey and Gross present us with worlds that are unquestionably shaped by the stories that float through them, and they present them to us as versions of our own, familiar world. In creating these stories, they do exactly what their work is about: change the world by giving us readers a new lens to see ourselves and the world we live in differently.