“Men of good fortune, often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings, often can’t do anything at all.” – Lou Reed
This is an analysis of the excellent Neil Gaiman story ‘Men of Good Fortune’ which first appeared in the Sandman series (Volume 2 – ‘A Doll’s House.’). It concerns Hob Gadling, a man living in the year 1389 who unwittingly becomes immortal after striking a bargain with two of the Endless. In return for his boon, Hob must meet up every 100 years with Dream, to tell him about his experiences. The story follows Hob’s adventures as he moves through the ages, charting his various fortunes as we go. The text is filled with references and is rich with ideas, so I have tried to break these down to give a little context. Chief among the ideas the story contains is the notion that time is recursive and the same themes pop up again and again. Hob the protagonist may be immortal, but in many ways, he changes little during the course of his long life and has more time in which to make more mistakes. Here are the fruits of my labours – I hope you enjoy. Needless to say, if you have not read this excellent story, I heartily recommend you do.
- Robert ‘Hob’ Gadling is a one-time soldier who has fought in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and has seen ‘half (his) village’ killed by the Black Death (c. 1346-1353). He says he fought in France ‘under Burgundy.’
- Hob’s companions mention ‘The Wandering Jew’ – a legend which spread across Europe from about the 12th Century, of a Jew cursed to wander the Earth until the Second Coming (a fate ironically anticipating that of Hob himself who unwittingly becomes immortal after claiming death is a ‘mugs’ game’ within earshot of Death herself).
- In the tavern is Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), author of the Canterbury Tales. His companion is sceptical of the popularity such stories would find with the public and tells Chaucer that ‘Piers Plowman’ (composed c. 1370-1390) is what people are after. This conversation anticipates that of Shakespeare and Marlowe 200 years later.
- Hob says his companions are ‘thick as King Dick’ (Richard II – the current monarch who was overthrown by his cousin in 1399 following a confused and often despotic rule) Two of them claim to be ‘Pope Urban’ and ‘Pope Clement’ respectively. Presumably Pope Urban VI (Bartolomeo Prigano) and Antipope Clement VII (Robert of Geneva), the latter being elected by the French Cardinals in opposition to the former at the end of the Avignon schism.
- Hob has kept busy with soldiering and banditry, noting that the country has been relatively quiet since ‘Richmond got in’ – i.e. Henry VII (1485-1509). We are now at the start of the Tudor period. He also fought for both Lancaster and York at various points during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485).
- He asks Dream if he has made a bargain ‘with the devil’ to obtain his unnaturally long life. This echoes the legend of Faust or Dr Faustus (see 1589 section). Dream assures him he has not and that he (Dream) is ‘merely interested.’
- Hob mentions playing cards by which men at the tavern are playing games of ‘Trump’ and ‘Ruff.’ Playing cards have a long and complex history and slowly spread across Europe during the 14th Century becoming gradually more common, having originated elsewhere in the world.
- He also mentions using ‘bits of cloth’ to wipe one’s nose. He is presumably talking about handkerchiefs, said to have been invented by Richard II.
- Hob has also become involved in a ‘new trade’ of printing which he (erroneously)believes is just a passing fad.
- An old man at the tavern complains of ‘chimblies’ (sic) which Hob praises as a wonderful invention. In fact, chimneys did not become commonplace in households until the 15th and 16th Centuries although they were becoming more common by 1489.
- Hob’s fortunes have prospered, and he is now Sir Robert Gadlen. He made his money by using the money he made from printing to invest in ‘Henry Tudor’s shipyards’ and owes his title to a ‘gift of gold’ to the crown.
- He refers to his time the previous century working with ‘Billy Caxton’ i.e. William Caxton (1422-1491), who introduced the printing press into England c. 1476 and was the first seller of printed books in the country.
- He has also had ‘the Queen’ staying at his home (presumably Elizabeth I, 1558-1603).
- Hob mentions a time ‘when fat Henry did for the abbeys.’ Presumably the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII (1536-1541) mostly under Henry’s minister Thomas Cromwell (executed 1540).
- In the tavern are Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe (1564-1593) and Will Shaxberd (sic) i.e. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) the latter a struggling playwright with whom Dream talks while he is there.
- Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus is mentioned and its theme of making a pact with the Devil (echoing the pact Hob has made with Dream). The quote Will utters ‘The god thou serv’st…’ is taken from Dr Faustus (2.1.10-13).
- Hob’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he is now destitute having suffered a series of misfortunes.
- His wife Eleanor died ‘in childbirth’ and his son Robyn was killed in a tavern brawl when he was 20 (c. 1609) – in the manner of Kit Marlowe whom we met previously (Marlowe was killed in such a brawl in 1593).
- After this, Hob did not go out much and lived in the same place for 40 years and due to his unnaturally-long life was tried as a witch. Historically, witch trials were common in the century, with Matthew Hopkins (c.1620-1644) particularly notorious as the ‘Witchfinder General.’
- Hob fought for the king i.e. Charles I, in the English Civil War (1642-1649) and was ruined as a result.
- The turmoil of Hob’s life mirrors the uncertain state of England which has only just experienced the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
- Hob is now prosperous once more, having involved himself in the slave trade. He believes himself indirectly responsible for starting it in the first place, noting it was he who funded John (‘Jack’) Hawkins (1532-1595) some 200 years ago. Hawkins was a naval commander who profited from the so-called ‘Triangle trade’ of the 16th Century among other things, by supplying slaves to the New World colonies.
- Hob mentions the French Revolution, then in its early stages (the storming of the Bastille occurring on July 14, 1789). Also the curious belief that if the French nobles had played cricket with their underlings, the same could have been averted.
- The tavern itself appears to have become a coffee house an establishment which had become increasingly fashionable during the 18th Century.
- Hob notes he has seen King Lear performed but that the ending had been altered to make it ‘happy.’ Dream states this will not last and that great stories will always return to their original (and true) forms. In the version Hob saw, ‘Mrs Siddons’ played Goneril. Presumably, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), the greatest tragedienne of her day.
- Dream advises Hob ‘it is a poor thing to enslave another’ and suggests he finds a new line of work. Interestingly, Dream himself is later captured and enslaved (chronologically, that is), from 1916-1988.
- A prostitute mistakes Dream for ‘Jack hisself’ (sic). Presumably Jack the Ripper whose reign of terror would have begun and ended the previous year (1888).
- Hob regrets his involvement with the slave trade which was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and suppressed by further Acts of Parliament.
- This final chapter (for now) in Hob’s adventures takes place in the present day (or at the time of printing). It is essentially a brief greatest hits package of some of the remarks we have previously heard in the tavern, to give an idea of the circular nature of time. The remarks include the following:
- “Thatcher’s bloody Poll Tax….” – echoes conversations in the inn of 1389 in which peasants complain of the ‘fourth poll tax’ inflicted upon them by Richard II.
- “The Labour movement died with the Miner’s Strike” – echoes conversations of 1389 in which someone claims freedom ended with the deaths of Wat Tyler and John Ball (both d. 1381)
- “It’ll be the end of the world very soon….” echoing remarks made in the tavern in 1689.
- “AIDS isn’t God’s way of punishing…” – echoing remarks made about The Plague in 1689
- “Make more money from the dole….” – the same comment is made in 1689.
- “….are you hunting for rabbits again, vicar?” – an innuendo-based joke, with the same wording as one heard in 1389, only with ‘friar’ substituted for ‘vicar.’
- The point of all of this seems to indicate that while the trappings of the tavern etc may alter with the passage of time, the nature of people does not, reflected in the same banal comments being made.