Rereadings: ‘Stardust’ by Neil Gaiman
I first read Stardust by Neil Gaiman when I was eighteen. I was a first year at college and, what with adjusting to everything from the new rigors of college academics to living in a tiny room in an old house with a gaggle of other equally stressed, but fiercely competent and intelligent young women, I was perhaps more keen than usual for fantastical escape.
My new roommate eagerly provided me with a Charles Vess-illustrated version of the book, raving about the beauty of the illustrations. She was a distinctly visual reader, someone who could and did read comic books, graphic novels, web comics, and all manner of illustrated narratives happily and fluently, enjoying in equal measure the text and the images.
I was rather the opposite. Having grown up on novels read aloud before bedtime, with neither text nor any accompanying illustrations visible, my familiarity with the genre of illustrated narrative was limited. In fact, I was practically illiterate. I either ended up expending my energies entirely on the text, ignoring or skimming the images, or I was unable to not look at the pictures to the detriment of the text. It was seemingly impossible for me to combine the two features into any kind of satisfying reading experience.
Stardust really rammed my failings as a visual reader home for me. It was the first book I’d ever really encountered where the pictures truly complemented the text and visa versa. It was written with the intention of there always being both; it was a collaborative effort, rather than one part or the other being created later to expand on whichever came first. And I just couldn’t hack it.
My roommate was right: the illustrations were beautiful and Rackhamish, but I found them distracting and detracting. I couldn’t seem to focus on the story enough what with the richness of the illustrations beckoning from every page. Nor was I giving the illustrations enough attention. On the whole, it was a disappointing read and I lied to my new roommate about enjoying it. I wanted her to like me and think I had good taste.
A few years later the movie came out and fulfilled everything I had wanted the book to be. I loved the film version unequivocally and grumbled to myself, wondering why the book couldn’t be as good.
Cut to the present. I still loved the movie, but had also grown to appreciate Gaiman much more than I did when I first read Stardust. Neverwhere had by this point opened my eyes to all that Gaiman was able to do as an author (and so seemingly effortlessly!) and I had finally become the Gaiman fan I pretended to be at eighteen. I was in the midst of enjoying some of his short stories when it occured to me that perhaps I should give Stardust another try. There were non-illustrated versions to be had, and with pretty English covers no less, so for Christmas I treated myself. And this past weekend I delved in.
Coming as it did amidst my A.S. Byatt/Victorian fairy tale Renaissance, this re-reading benefited greatly from its context. Gaiman’s ability to flawlessly mimic the style of Dunsany and other Victorian and Edwardian tale-spinners was stunning. The story itself was both derivative and charmingly original. I’m always impressed when authors are able to ape a milieu so perfectly and create something new that feels like something well-established. (See also: Possession) Gaiman does this with aplomb in Stardust.
Beyond appreciating the skill it took to write such a tonally-perfect book, I also just plain old liked Stardust a lot more the second time around. It isn’t a perfect fairy tale in the Disney sense, something which I think grated on me the first time I read it. The happy ending provided in the book isn’t terribly dramatic. Evil isn’t really conquered and true love doesn’t dramatically proclaim itself. But, as I realized in the re-reading, the happy ending provided is actually a much more mature and touching articulation of those sentiments than is usually provided by fairy tales. I found myself smiling softly at the sweetness and truth of the narrative rather than cheering for any stunning conclusion.
I suppose my next step should be to re-read the Gaiman/Vess version, although I almost don’t want to tempt fate and ruin the good feelings I currently have towards Stardust. But perhaps my new appreciation for and familiarity with the story will make it possible for me to enjoy the illustrations more this time around. I can certainly hope so and I am happy to report that, this time around, I don’t need to lie to my roommate or anyone else in thoroughly recommending Stardust.
This is part of our on-going and sporadic Rereadings series wherein we take a trip down memory lane to reread some of our favorite books. We are looking for guest bloggers for this series, so if you’re interested in taking a second look at one of your favorites, drop us a line at literarytransgressionsATgmailDOTcom!