"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people."
Fire and brimstone. That’s how many of us picture the end of days and, as current world events leave many with the feeling that the world is teetering on the edge of the abyss, it’s not difficult to see why some believe the end is near. The more religious may envision angels and demons; perhaps even the appearance of the Antichrist and the Four Horsemen. But what would our last few days on Earth actually be like, before the world comes apart at the seams? Would War, Pestilence, Famine and Death ride in, tall and terrible, to bring the human race to its knees or would we simply flicker and go out like a candle at the end of its wick? In Good Omens, the apocalypse isn’t nearly so straightforward. According to the prophecies of 17th century witch, Agnes Nutter, the end does not take the form of fire or ice, but of aliens, fish and a misplaced Antichrist.
For a subject as all-encompassing as the apocalypse to have been handed over to two of England’s greatest literary jesters, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman this, I would say, is a recipe for hilarity on a purely cosmic level. Pratchett, whose unfortunate passing in 2015 from Alzheimer’s (which Pratchett himself labelled an “embuggerance”) marked the end of his 44-year career during which he published a staggering 70 pieces of literature that made their way to all corners of the globe and were translated into no fewer than 37 languages. For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Pratchett is perhaps best known for his comedic fantasy series, Discworld (featuring a flat world perched on the backs of four elephants all of whom, in turn, hold up this world from the back of the giant space turtle, A'Tuin), and his remarkable flair for whimsy. His literary hallmarks include a flamboyant use of footnotes, an avoidance of chapter divisions, character names that are often puns or cultural references and, most famously, the use of capitalized dialogue without quotation marks in the case of his most fundamental and beloved character, Death, who also takes his place in Good Omens as one of the Four Horseman, along with War, Famine and Pollution (replacing Pestilence since the invention of penicillin). With such a legacy to leave behind, it’s no wonder that Pratchett continues to hold the title of Britain’s second-most-read author, having been bested only by J. K. Rowling.
His literary co-conspirator, Neil Gaiman, was a man at the onset of his own dazzling career, when he devoted himself to this project. The current repertoire of this British-born author includes the acclaimed American comic book series, The Sandman, as well as an assortment of novels such as Stardust, The Graveyard Book, American Gods and Coraline, to name a few. He has also successfully collaborated with writer and producer, Steven Moffat, in the scripting of two episodes of history’s longest-running science-fiction show, Dr. Who (episodes Nightmare in Silver and The Doctor’s Wife), and also contributed a short story to the lore (Nothing O’ Clock) for a 50th anniversary collection. Like Pratchett, Gaiman makes great use of anthropomorphic personifications in his characters and incorporates his ready wit to keep his work approachable, but clever. Their work on Good Omens remains one of many high notes in their repertoires likely facilitating the exciting recent news of its television adaptation.
Good Omens is the best possible merger of their two bodies of work, at times making it difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. The story itself centers on an angel, Aziraphale (described as being English, intelligent, and “gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide”), and a demon, Crowley (“An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”), who have been stationed on Earth for millennia, weaving the tapestry of time to serve the ends of their respective masters. Over the ages, living alone on Earth, the two became friends of a sort, generally putting their own terrestrial pleasures before their own separate missions. When the time of the apocalypse finally approaches, the two are gutted at the prospect of returning home to begin preparations for the final war. When the Antichrist, Adam, is accidentally swapped with another baby at the hospital (having been delivered on a night neither dark nor stormy) and grows up in an idyllic English town with his loyal (demon) dog, rather than being appropriately groomed for the task at hand, Crowley and Aziraphale hope, in vain, that this will be enough to call off Armageddon. Their only hope, a book of prophecies meant to reveal the details of our demise, written by the witch, Agnes Nutter, is found to be more than cryptic due to her limited 17th century knowledge.
Her descendant, Anathema Device has, like much of her family, devoted her life to deciphering her work, but finds that the key may be in Adam who, quite disappointingly, seems to be an entirely ordinary, yet imaginative young boy. When strange things start happening (the reappearance of Atlantis and humanity’s first, albeit rather useless, contact with aliens), Anathema realizes that the time has come. What she doesn’t initially realize is that Adam has been inadvertently using his powers to protect the people and places he loves. When finally Adam is faced with the responsibility of kicking off Armageddon, he looks into the faces of angels, demons and the Four and fearlessly refuses. One by one he shoots down their reasoning (assisted by the wily Aziraphale and Crowley), insisting that he should not be asked to destroy the world before he has had a chance to experience it for himself. Even the potential wrath of his father, Lucifer, does not weaken his resolve. Instead, the stubbornness of an 11 year old boy saves the world. It is this particular brand of humor that elevates a simple tale into one of apocalyptic proportions.
When two men of humor and invention combine the power of their imaginations, they are not limited by sky or sea or star. What could have been yet another tale of a boy and his Dog exploded into a colorful palette of whimsy and sarcasm, shrewdly poking fun at the common absurdities of modern life. I firmly believe that it is during times of great difficulty that such a collaboration can do the most good; reminding us that sometimes a little rebellion can go a long way.
What does it – in literature – mean to have style or not to have it? Can it be taught and learned or is it a matter for the muses?
Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
In the Francophone cultural world, the romantic image of a pure author, inspired by the Muses, serves the literary structures.