Staff Review: Instructions by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess

Reviewed by Oscar

One of the things that makes Neil Gaiman a relatively unique – and popular – writer is his subtle incorporation of mythological and fairy tale motifs in his fiction. One of my favourite stories in this respect is Instructions, a piece that appeared before in short story collections like M Is for Magic and Fragile Things. It’s great news then, that this little tale has now been published separately with wonderful illustrations by Charles Vess, who’s worked with Gaiman before on works like Stardust and the Sandman classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Instructions, as the title suggests, is a fairy tale written in the imperative. “You”, as a reader/adventurer – represented in the illustrations by Puss in Boots – are instructed to follow certain guidelines and bits of advice, in order to bring the tale to a satisfactory end. Examples include:

[W]alk down the path.


Inside [the castle] are three princesses. / Do not trust the youngest. / Walk on.


Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.

Compared to your usual fairy tale, Instructions is stripped bare of any narrative flesh, so to speak. What remains are the motifs and symbols that actually give a fairy tale its resonating meaning, and that’s why this story is so successful. Presented in this way, the instructions read almost like a poem in which every line counts. The tale also lays bare the relevance – albeit somewhat mystic – these symbols have for everyday life. In the end, the road is open:

And then go home.

Or make a home.

Or rest.

Charles Vess’ lovely illustrations accompany this tale beautifully; his works recall that of classic fairy tale illustrators like Arthur Rackham, though the drawing seem geared a bit more to a younger audience here, with soft colours and lines, broad strokes. In some ways, a far cry from the sometimes quite realistic bloodiness that can be seen in Stardust.

Altogether this is a lovely short work that will delight children and adults alike. Especially recommended for everyone who knows fairy tales are fascinating works for all ages.