The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
When we say “Sleer” out loud we pronounce it “SSSSSSLEER” to really emphasize the creepy hisssssing sound you might hear if you ever meet it (and we hope you never do). It makes the hissing sound because it’s some kind of three-headed snake creature. Yeah – it’s freaky. Also, we say “it” because the Sleer is one being. But, it’s also multiple beings. The Sleer is both singular and plural all at once – not only does it have three snaky heads, but those heads seem to be made up of parts of other beings. In Chapter 7, Bod finally gets to check out all this creepiness:
Afterwards, he was never able to describe what he had seen: something huge, yes; something with the body of an enormous snake, but with the head of what…? There were three of them: three heads, three necks. The faces were dead, as if someone had constructed dolls from the parts of the corpses of humans and of animals. The faces were covered in purple patterns, tattooed in swirling indigo, turning the dead faces into strange, expressive, monstrous things. (7.740)
OK, so we know what it looks like (really gross and like a Frankenstein snake), but where did this thing come from? Well, first, we know that the Sleer is the oldest creature in the graveyard. Through Scarlett and Bod’s investigations of just how old this Sleer is, we get a quick and dirty lesson in British history. We learn that the Sleer is older than Caius Pompeius, who is the oldest person buried in the graveyard. Caius is a Roman, meaning he was born in – you guessed it – Rome.
The Romans came to Britain (from Rome) and conquered the Celts, the people already living in Britain. The Celts were a diverse group of people united by a language, Celtic. Before the Celts, there were Druids, priests of an ancient religion. (For a handy timeline of British history, click here. Also note that forms of Druidism and Celtism are still practiced today.) The Sleer, it seems, is from all the way back to the time of the Druids, meaning that it’s thousands of years old.
As Scarlett and Bod learn, the Sleer is buried in what Scarlett’s parents inform her is a “barrow,” or an ancient underground burial site. It doesn’t seem to be the body of a live creature that died, but something created to guard the treasure – the brooch, the knife, and the cup. In “Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory” we discuss these items as symbols of greed. And any greedy folks who seek this treasure die in the Sleer’s tomb.
The original master (who must have been some kind of powerful Druid, to make this Sleer thing) has either forgotten about the Sleer, or died, leaving the Sleer to wait around for anybody willing to be its master. As we see from what happens to Jack Frost, though, being a master isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because the Sleer masters those who try to master it. Or, as Caius Pompeius suggests, the Sleer is a person who was buried, and then somehow developed into the Sleer.
The Sleer is kind of in between good and evil. The Sleer can only hurt you if you’re greedy or afraid (we think) and Bod returns to it throughout the novel without getting killed or maimed like previous people who went down there. It’s almost like Bod’s friend, and it even gives Bod some really good advice: “FIND YOUR NAME” (7.322). OK, this doesn’t sound like good advice at first, but it turns out to be really important. Bod (and we) never learns the name Bod was actually given by his birth parents. For Bod, not finding his name means accepting himself as Nobody Owens, the only name that really matters to him. He might have come to that on his own, but the Sleer prepares him for the moment.