Tales from the Classroom: “Return of the Thin White Duke” by Neil Gaiman

I very, very rarely share excerpts from my English homework.  My teachers run everything we hand in through a plagiarism checker, so I feel it is appropriate to only publish anything from school to the blogs after I’ve received my grade.  Wouldn’t want them to think I plagiarized some poor struggling author named Allison Rose, after all!

The following is an analysis of Neil Gaiman’s “Return of the Thin White Duke” where I demonstrated literary synthesis (and killer APA citation skills) with a reliable article about the late, great David Bowie and his controversial on-stage persona of the same name.

TW: References to drug use and abuse, mentions of fascism and neo-nazism.


Gaiman’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke” is “unabashedly fanfiction” (Gaiman, n.d., par 2) about the deceased rock star David Bowie.  This highly fictionalized version of Bowie is perhaps even more phantasmagoric than his real-life, onstage personas, but I was curious to see how much of the plot consists of allegories to the real Bowie’s life.  For example, according to Light (2017), Bowie at one point attempted to write a novel-memoire called The Return of the Thin White Duke.  Gaiman evidently borrows the title.

My knowledge of the Thin White Duke character that Bowie introduced to audiences during his live shows in the Seventies is fairly limited.  I know that it was a particularly controversial phase, as the character appeared to be personifying white fascism and expressed interest in world domination, among other ugly things.  Light (2017) shares some historical factoids about Bowie’s personal life at the time that the Thin White Duke reigned: Bowie’s marriage was disintegrating; suffered from extreme cocaine use, and much of his unusual conduct during this time was under the drug’s influence.  Years later, Bowie (as cited in Light, 2017) expressed immense regret for this period of his life.


Gaiman (2017) opens the story with the Duke surveying in a desolate, steampunk kingdom spanning many worlds under his command, where all that once flourished is now gone.  The Duke observes, “…It is impossible … if you rule, to do only good, for you cannot build anything without tearing something down, and even he could not care about every life, every dream, every population of every world.” (Gaiman, n.d., para. 3)  The Duke lives a selfish lifestyle to the detriment of his kingdom, until one day, an unnamed prisoner calls him a monster, and this strikes a chord within him.  He reminisces about the “dawn days of Dukedom” (Gaiman, n.d.,, par 5), when there was free love and peace and all those tacky things the rock songs glorify, but the Duke became sadistic and selfish, and the good things died out.

The Duke decides that he needs to learn to care to cure himself of monstrosity, and sets out to rescue a queen who has reportedly been held captive by a greater beast, but kills the would-be rescuers she deems unworthy.   The Duke faces obstacles on his way, including a crowd of demonic spirits in the form of beautiful people who wish to trap him with promises of eternal love; he notes a blue-eyed, fair-haired lady-demon who appears to resemble “someone long-forgotten” (Gaiman, n.d.,, para. 53), but rejects her because “[he does] not believe [her] love will prove to be good for [him].” (Gaiman, n.d., para. 53)

The Duke meets the imprisoned queen, a woman described to have “dark skin and … amber eyes” (Gaiman, n.d.,, par 109), who tests him and agrees to escape with him when he proves that he’s capable of feeling love and caring for others.  He expresses his increasing disdain for ruling worlds, and a desire to make music.  When they escape, the Duke finds himself in a more realistic setting, a city street with passing cars and the sounds of music.  This is where the story ends.


The fictional Duke in Gaiman’s story appears to be living in a fantastical world that soon changes into one that is more realistic.  As noted, Light (2017) writes of Bowie’s reckless drug use and deteriorating spousal relationship as additional factors in the Thin White Duke era.  Perhaps Gaiman is signifying Bowie’s recovery as he realizes what he’s become (for example, he personified monstrosity to those who perceived the onstage Duke as a neo-Nazi), as the drug-induced fantasies slowly wear off and fade into reality.  The desire to care and love again and the subsequent escape from the steampunk world, in my opinion, signify a conscious effort towards sobriety and personal responsibility.

Of particular note to me are the two female characters the Duke encounters in this story.  Perhaps the fair-haired demon-woman, whose love the Duke declares would not be healthy for him, is an analogue of his first wife, Angela.  As shallow as it is to judge characters by their skin tones (unfortunately Gaiman doesn’t provide many other points of description for them in this respect), I also wonder if the imprisoned Queen the Duke proves himself to and escapes with is an analogue to his second wife, Iman (“About,” n.d.), a celebrity of African descent, to whom he remained married until death did them part.  As far as I know, their marriage was happy, I wonder if meeting the Queen and escaping with her signifies a further step on Bowie’s part from his sordid past into a better, more positive lifestyle influenced by his marriage to Iman.




About David Bowie. (n.d.). David Bowie. Retrieved from http://www.davidbowie.com/bio

Gaiman, N. (n.d.). The return of the Thin White Duke. Retrieved from http://www.neilgaiman.com/Cool_Stuff/Short_Stories/The_Return_of_the_Thin_White_Duke

Light, A. (2017, January 23). How David Bowie brought Thin White Duke to life on ‘Station to station’. Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/inside-david-bowies-station-to-station-w462438


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