With the work of influential British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman springing onto our screens with the TV series American Gods, I’ve decided to revisit one of his works that was also previously appeared on television, albeit in 1996. For this instalment of What I’ve Been Reading, I’ve been visiting London Below with Neverwhere.
Published in 1996, Neverwhere follows finance worker Richard Mayhew into the subterranean, fantastical world of London Below and his subsequent quest to help Door, a young woman who he first encounters injured on the streets of the more familiar London Above. Much like his other works, Neverwhere is full of colourful characters who aren’t always what they seem, fantasy locations that make you wish you could jump into the pages of the book and explore (I was particularly taken by the descriptions of the bustling Floating Market), and an interweaving of the familiar and the extraordinary.
*From here on I will be discussing elements of the plot that will include spoilers*
Mayhew and the monomyth
If you are a fan of Gaiman’s use of a mixture of mythologies in American Gods, I would strongly recommend Neverwhere. Although you won’t find an Egyptian god of the underworld or Norse warrior god in this novel, you will find an abundance of medieval fantasy elements and mythologies worked into the world of London Below. In fact, various plot points within the narrative can be seen to reflect and respond to the monomyth or ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as described by Joseph Campbell in his comparative analysis of myths and legends The Hero with A Thousand Faces.
In some cases the plot responds in the expected way to these plot points, such as Lamia’s attempted and almost successful seduction and destruction of the novel’s protagonist Richard. In doing so, ‘The Women as Temptress’ aspect of the hero’s journey appears to be present, where a hero is tempted away from his quest and towards his downfall by a woman. I also found that the black velvet-glad and dangerous Lamia, was a dead ringer for the character of Duessa, who appeared in the Elizabethan work The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spenser), a key text in the canon of fantasy traditions. Richard’s eventual return to the normal world of London above and then rejection of it to a freer life in London Below, also almost perfectly seems to perfectly match the conclusion of the monomyth, which has worked towards the hero achieving a Freedom to Live.
Alternatively, Gaiman also subverts the monomyth by displacing elements that should be within the journey of the protagonist to other characters, for instance although Richard as several near death experiences, it is the Marquis de Carabas who encounters the ‘abyss’ of death and return described by Campbell. Another example of where Gaiman subverts monomythical expectations is by introducing a guide, helper and angel in the form of Islington – in medieval fantasy angels, gods and goddesses are usually protective characters who aid the hero and act as helpers – only to reveal towards the end of the novel that this character is the main plotting villain.
When looking at Gaiman’s other works like his adaptation of the Beowulf myth and twists on gods in American Gods, it’s no surprise that such a knowledgeable writer as Gaiman utilises and plays with the structure and tropes of the monomyth in his heroes journey, and as I was reading, I found that it helped to build my expectations and give twists extra impact when they came by playing to something so familiar then introducing something so new.
My London and their London
As somebody that has lived in London, the portrayals of London Above and London Below really appealed to me. From Richard mistaking the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, which I’m convinced is a right-of-passage for Londoners since it’s a mistake that been made so often – to the enjoyable miniature realms created from puns on place names, such as the train bound semi-medieval Earl’s Court and subterranean Down Street.
Also, London Below seemed to indicate something very true about England’s capital city to me. Like, Richard’s life in London Above, when first experiencing the city as a tourist or visitor, it often seems extremely well-ordered, full of galleries and museums alongside their overpriced canteens, and is somewhat sanitised. However, after spending a longer time there you discover the murkier undersides of the city, the troubles of it, but also the colourful, wonderful grass roots events and creativity that exists if one looks between the cracks, much like London Below.
Personally, as well as providing an excellent world for Richard to enter into in the manner of a portal fantasy, I found the conflicts between London Above and London Below also translated the conflict between the financial centre, gentrified and touristy aspects of London and the sub-cultural ‘underground’ and different diverse clans that are two worlds that exist within one city. Saying this though, there is absolutely no need to have a working knowledge of London to appreciate the Above or Below, it’s at the same it accessible, but also full of reference for those who are a bit more familiar with the city.
One to read?
If you’e been watching and loving American Gods, or want a fantastic fantasy read, Neverwhere is certainly for you. It’s a read full of mystery, exploration, escapism and a wonderful host of characters that I enjoyed spending more than a few hours with (even the murder-loving ones).
Although, I think Neverwhere would appeals to most readers, if you’re one of those people that is alienated by unrealistic world-building and like your novels to mirror the real-world, this isn’t the novel for you. Although if you’re a hardcore fan of realistic narratives, I couldn’t imagine that you would be wandering into the fantasy section of the book/e-book store to find it anyway.