Cruel Bravery in the Context of Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald

Cruel Bravery

in the Context of Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald

Keith Fallows writes about courage and cruelty in the award-winning genre mashup by Neil Gaiman...

Bravery is difficult to define. Neil Gaiman wrote his novel Coraline because he wanted his daughters to learn that bravery is being afraid and doing what is right regardless.[1] Gaiman’s understanding of bravery is accurate and has its roots in the cruelty his characters endure. The endurance of cruelty is what leads Gaiman’s characters to cultivate courage and act accordingly. Among Gaiman’s short works, A Study in Emerald denotes this notion of bravery with great clarity.

A Study in Emerald follows its narrator who we, as readers, are led to believe is Colonel Sebastian Moran, one of Sherlock Holmes’s central adversaries. Moran has a friend, who is hinted at being Professor James Moriarity, another of Holmes’s adversaries, who often acts as a consultant for Scotland Yard. During his time on campaign in Afghanistan, Moran was touched by a creature that emerged from an underground lake while in combat with Afghani cave dwellers. The scene we want to focus on relates to the injury Moran sustained in Afghanistan and comes when he finds himself accompanying Moriarity to a conference with Queen Victoria. They are meeting the Queen because she wants to know the status of their investigation into the murder of her nephew, Prince Franz Drago of Bohemia.

The Queen is revealed to be a deity, one of several related deities ruling as monarchs across the Earth, from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Upon seeing Moran, the Queen places one of her tentacles on his wounded arm and says, ‘Isz not to be afraid. Isz to be worthy. Isz to be a companion.’[2]

After a second reading, we spent time considering how the Queen’s touch relieved Moran’s pain and placed him on the path to recovery. In a sense, we can conclude the cruelty Moran suffered and dealt on the battlefield, yet survived, proved his courage to the Queen. The Queen then bestows upon him a healing touch which proves a moment that falls in line with Gaiman’s idea of bravery. Furthermore, Gaiman demonstrates how the brave among us are often unaware of, also unappreciated for, their courage and what it means to those around them through the Queen’s appreciative treatment of Moran. Additionally, Gaiman also, regardless of whether he realizes it, taps into our expansion of Artaud’s notion of the Theater of Cruelty. For, after all, cruelty is what leads Moran to bravery.

Though he focused on theatre and wrote about cruelty long before A Study in Emerald was published, Antonin Artaud reinforces our line of thinking when he, regarding the theatre and cruelty, says, ‘At the point of deterioration which our sensibility has reached, it is certain that we need above all a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart.’[3]

The interaction between Moran and Queen Victoria, especially in the context where the monarch is a Great Old One, indeed stirs our nerves and heart. We often feel distant from our supposed leaders and chosen Gods, restricted to hopeful prayer or desperate letters. Reading Moran receiving a quasi-blessing that restores his arm and eases his nightmares causes us to feel a considerable amount of sympathy toward the Great Old Ones despite their malignant appearance and usual indifferent stance toward humans. Without question, such teachings of compassion and bravery arising from cruelty are present throughout contemporary religious canon and classical mythology. Therefore, we ought to search for and make note of these moments where positives arise from cruelty, from the horrific, in mythopoeia.

As shown thus far, Gaiman’s idea of bravery appears in his work more often than noticed and ought to be noted as much as possible. Much can be deduced from embracing fear, cruelty, for the sake of courageous growth. Joseph Campbell offers a chance to consider what mythopoeia can teach us in his work The Power of Myth when he tells us that myth has a pedagogical function regarding how to live a human lifetime in any situation.[4]

Cruelty and bravery are linked, and myths allow us to witness the chains between them. In other words, the ties are cause and effect of actions in the lives of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains which lead them along their respective paths. Gaiman’s work, even when playing with the myths of another author like H.P. Lovecraft, uses horror and fear to create an effective relationship between his readers and characters. An effective relationship we can conclude requires a level of the cruel and brave.


[1] Jeal, Erica. ‘Neil Gaiman on Coraline the terrifying opera: Being brave means being scared.’ TheGuardian, Accessed 26 May 2021.

[2] Gaiman, Neil. ‘A Study in Emerald.’ neilgaiman, 2008,

[3] Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Grove Press. 1958, p 84.

[4] Campbell, Joseph, Bill D. Moyers, and Betty S. Flowers. The Power of Myth. 1991, p 39.

Keith Fallows

Keith Fallows

Keith Fallows writes about horror from a mixed approach. He holds a B.A. in English from Neumann University and MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College.

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