Laureation Address: Professor Neil Gaiman

Tuesday 21 June 2016


Laureation by Dr Chris Jones, School of English, for Professor Neil Gaiman, recipient of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Neil Gaiman.

Winner of the Newbery and Carnegie Medals, of four Hugo Awards, six Locus Awards, four Bram Stokers, three Geffens, two British Science Fiction Awards and many others besides, Neil Gaiman is the author of (if I counted right) 38 novels or story collections for both adults and children, several comic serials and graphic novels, including the hugely popular Sandman, five film scripts, two stage plays, episodes of a number of TV programmes, including two Dr Whos, and an episode of The Simpsons, in which he stars as himself, and steals credit for a book that was actually written by Lisa Simpson.

Neil Gaiman enjoys writing across a range of media without regard for whether they are supposed to be ‘high-brow’ or ‘low-brow’ forms; he is a writer who loves how stories will not stay still, but escape everywhere into our culture where they set about performing their necessary, subversive work. A brief example might perhaps illustrate just a few of Gaiman’s themes and methods:

On the Saturday of the last week before the End of the World, in Good Omens, a novel Gaiman co-wrote early in his fiction-writing career with Terry Pratchett, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse assemble for the first time in thousands of years in the Happy Porker bikers’ café. They arrive not on supernatural steeds, but black motorbikes (it is the 1990s, not the Middle Ages, after all), and in War’s case she sports a jacket emblazoned ‘Hell’s Angels’, which is accurate in a very precise, philological sense. The less literal, regular, Hells Angels in the café are suspicious of the incomers and do not understand why the quiz machine is suddenly asking questions according to the categories Pop Music, Current Events, War and Famine. If there is one thing Hells Angels cannot abide, apparently, it is weekend bikers, so Ted sarcastically asks the Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: ‘You’re Hell’s Angels? What chapter are you from then?’ In upper case caps lock Death replies: ‘REVELATIONS. CHAPTER SIX.’ Pollution, the horseman who replaced Pestilence after he retired in 1936 with the invention of penicillin, helpfully adds from Death’s elbow: ‘Verses two to eight.’

Gaiman is a writer who likes to have fun with old texts. Whether it is the first-century apocalyptic ravings of St John of Patmos (as in Good Omens), or with Norse myth in his masterpiece American Gods, or the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf for a blockbusting Hollywood movie, or Victorian fairy tales in Stardust, Gaiman’s work shows an intuitive understanding that myth and archetypes that roam our imagination should not be treated as if fixed, but must be retold in the light of our contemporary concerns. He reminds us that the works we study and teach in this institution belong not only in the library, but also beyond its walls, living and breathing in contemporary culture. And for this, and much else besides, we are grateful.

That Gaiman’s writing for children is as successful as his writing for adults is something often commented on, as if it surprises us that one can write well for both audiences. Gaiman succeeds because he does not make patronising assumptions about what children want to read. He knows that young readers have fears that they need to confront, and that transitioning into the imaginative world of adulthood requires the kind of intellectual nourishment that is found in the often terrifying realm of the original, unsanitized faery tales. The Graveyard Book is rightly acclaimed for the way it portrays the themes of bereavement and fear of death for young readers. If I can speak personally for a moment, as the father of two, now teenage, girls, it was something of a godsend to have challenging but absorbing fare like Wolves in the Walls when I was trying to wean them off Disney princesses. Gaiman writes strong female characters in genres that have perhaps traditionally (though wrongly) been thought of as ‘masculine’. Perhaps most obviously, in the serial graphic novel Sandman, which Norman Mailer described as “a comic book for intellectuals”, Death is a funny, articulate young goth woman who likes to quote Mary Poppins.

Beyond his fiction writing, Gaiman is a passionate advocate for libraries, and has championed The Reading Agency, a charity that aims to support and keep people reading at all stages of life. In an inspirational and highly poetic lecture against the recent cuts to our library services, Gaiman writes: ‘Books are the way that we… learn lessons from those who are no longer with us. […] We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. […] [T]he truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.’

These then are reasons enough to honour this versatile, challenging writer and generous champion of literacy. But I hope he will not mind if I also make mention of his deep intellectual friendship and collaboration with the author Terry Pratchett, who sadly died last year. Any of us who have ever enjoyed even one of Pratchett’s novels will be grateful to Neil Gaiman for the companionship he shared with Pratchett, especially in his final months. That kind of intellectual friendship, which exists across generations, at first between a mentor and mentee, later between equals, is the kind of relationship that we hope an institution like this university can foster. So we thank Neil Gaiman not only for his own work, but also for reminding us of the meaning of shared creative and intellectual labour, of what it is we hope to do well within these walls, and of the great love and human dignity that can grow from something as simple as a book.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to storytelling in many genres, his work in promoting reading, the life of the imagination, and of shared intellectual friendship, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Professor Neil Gaiman.

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