Neil Gaiman’s Stardust suggests that true heroes are made in Faerie the same as they are in the human world. He enchants us into enjoying it afresh by offering a hapless—and happy go lucky—young man named Tristran Thorn as the knight errant.Tristran comes of age in the village of Wall, so called because it borders a wall between the human world and the world of Faerie—a wall his father crossed once, and through which Tristran was delivered to the human world nine months later.
When Tristran sees a falling star while trying to win the affection of the local beauty, he swears to retrieve the star to prove his worthiness. And like his father before him, Tristran crosses through the wall into the world of Faerie. Unlike his father, though, Tristan does not return—not really. Instead, in his journey through faerie to find the fallen star, he discovers exactly how to thrive in the world which is at least half of his birthright:
Rule #1: Hospitality, friendship and kindness matter more than magic.
Early in the novel, Tristran meets a small hairy man who turns out to have been the very man whom Tristran’s father had hosted years before. Tristran helps the man escape a terrible fate from an angry forest. In turn, the man helps Tristran discover his gift of knowing exactly where he is and where he’s going—and explains that he (a) ought not tell anyone what he’s trying to do nor (b) what his true name is. Later, when he meets up with the Lord Primus, he breaks the rules, feeling the man had “earned the right” to know his true name.
Rule #2: Humility, especially willingness to ask for help, is rewarded powerfully.
By the time he and his star—in Faerie, a beautiful young woman named Yvaine—escape from a witch determined to cut out the Yvaine’s heart, they land on a cloud. The star points out that clouds are liable to fall apart and that their situation is hopeless. When Tristran begins to call for help, she laughs at him and tells him it’s both silly and pointless—until a cloud ship comes along to rescue them both.
Rule #3: A word is a powerful thing that cannot be changed or replaced.
Tristran swore to find the fallen star, and so never lost his way. The witch swore that one “Madame Semele” would not benefit from the knowledge of a fallen star, and so Madam Semele never knew Yvaine travelled in her caravan back to Wall. Madam Semele swore to give Tristran lodging, food and transport back to Wall—and so she did, though she turned him into a dormouse first. And the village beauty swore to wait for Tristran to give him his heart’s desire.
Gaiman’s Faerie has whimsy—heaps. And there are evil witches and cruel lords—galore. And Tristan has the kind of bashful, simple-minded charm that makes readers cheer for him—wholeheartedly. But more significantly, Stardust traces the path of the epic journey. The rules Tristran discovers for living in Faerie become landmarks on the path already well-trodden by everyone from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker. Ultimately, equipped with these rules for living in Faerie, Tristran lives—“not happily ever after…but a long time as these things go.”
Again, outside the context of the review, I’d say that the main fault of the novel is how fragmented it is, especially early on. I understand it was converted to a prose novel from a graphic novel, and that makes a lot of sense of the early chapters which seemed to jump between several discrete stories. Once I understood that they would all converge, I felt more patient with it, but it was disorienting at first.