Most mythologies have fallow corners. With Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, that never seems to be the case.
Part of the brilliance of the series is its ability to go anywhere. Through Morpheus the Lord of Dreams, Gaiman is able to not only tell sweeping, high-stakes stories set in a mythology filled with gods, immortals, demons, magic and lost lovers, but also standalone stories connected to the rest of the Sandman mythos only through their liberal use of the mystic grip of dreams. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is not only one of the earliest of these standalone tales; it’s also one of the best.
It’s night, in what seems to be an ordinary neighborhood. A couple prepares to go to bed while their young white kitten settles in for the night. But as the humans leave, the kitten is summoned by an older cat outside, summoned to a special meeting where a regal Siamese tells a group of felines a dark secret.
The world was not always as we know it to be now, she says. Once, cats were larger than humans. Cats ruled the earth. They hunted man, enslaved them, held dominion over them. The one day, a single human began preaching a message of the power of dreaming. If, he said, enough humans could dream that they were superior to cats, then perhaps they could make that dream a reality.
And so the world became as it is now, and this Siamese is traveling far and wide to preach her own message about the power of dreams. If enough cats dream that they rule the world again, perhaps they will.
The simplicity isn’t deceiving you. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” really is a very simple fable/fairy tale/parable about the power of dreams, the way they can erase the world of yesterday so quickly and rebuild something new in its place. In many ways all of Sandman, even the most epic portions of its 75-issue run, are variations on this same theme, often overshadowed by tales of lost love, betrayal and immortals facing their own changing existence.
It’s in stories like this one, when things are stripped down and all the pageantry of the major storylines is whittled away, that the magic of Sandman often seems to be at its purest. Morpheus himself makes a brief appearance (as the “Cat of Dreams”), but it’s not a story about the Dream King. It’s a story about his realm, where we all go when we close our eyes, and how where we venture by night can literally change our waking world.
“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is available in the Sandman collection Dream Country