By Neil Gaiman, A Comedic, Apocalyptic, Wonderful, Beloved Novel
I recently found myself wanting some sort of inspiration (and faced with a lengthy plane flight). And there’s something about a really well told and solidly constructed book that just feels satisfying. It seemed like a good time, then, to re-read Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.
Good Omens Film Adapation
Update: Good Omens has been developed into a 6-episode series on Amazon, released May 31, 2019. You can watch it here.
“I mean, pointing out the Tree and saying ‘Don’t Touch’ in big letters. Not very subtle, is it? I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain or a long way off? Makes you wonder what He’s really planning.”
In Good Omens, the anti-Christ has been born, which means the end of times is coming soon. However, Crowley, a demon, and Aziraphale, an angel, have each spent a lot of time on earth and would prefer not to see it destroyed.
So, Crowley and Aziraphale decide to work together to prevent the apocalypse. Their plan is to influence the upbringing of the newly-born anti-Christ (Spawn of Satan), in an attempt to thwart the anti-Christ’s role in the apocalypse.
Like Paradise Lost, the book opens with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It then jumps forward in time to the birth of the Anti-Christ. His presence on Earth indicates to the forces of Heaven and Hell that the apocalypse “is nigh,” as the book states, and that the Armageddon will culminate in the ultimate battle between good and evil on earth.
These events, however, had been foretold by a witch hundreds of years ago, giving the residents on Earth a sliver of opportunity to stop the impending apocalypse, in the face of powers of Heaven and Hell who have been waiting millennia for a battle both powers are eager to engage in.
Good Omens is a comedic, apocalyptic, satirical novel that is much loved by many. The concept is high-brow, but the comedy in it is decidedly low-brow. It traverses the same territory as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the fall of man and the battle between Good and Evil) and the main story arc is the impending Armageddon.
Meanwhile, the plot is helped along by the Anti-Christ, the Anti-Christ’s gang of childhood friends, the Four Horsemen, a duo of Witchhunters, a gang of bikers, an angel, a fallen angel, the last remaining descendant of a soothsayer and a whole host of other characters.
Somehow, this mishmosh of characters and zany plot come together to form a book that is very coherent, surprisingly thoughtful, and very funny.
Free Will in Good Omens
The inquiry on which the story implicitly builds is biblical (though it’s message can be appreciated by almost anyone, I think) – if God exists and has a plan, where does free will come in? And why do we have or want free will, and where does it fit into God’s plan?
Good Omens draws from Paradise Lost’s answer to this question: that the powers of Hell are angels who have fallen from Heaven; that the pull between Heaven and Hell are necessary for there to be free will; to truly have free will means that we have the power to use it, poorly if we choose; that Earth was set in motion as a battle between between the two ultimate powers that be; and good and bad are a balance, they enhance one another, and the price we pay for the pleasures and sorrows of free will is that free will requires us to make difficult decisions.
At its heart, Good Omens is a book about the apocalypse for optimists – its message is a positive one, but almost an admonishment as well. Small actions, good or bad, have resounding effects. And with free will, comes responsibility over our actions.
At the end of the book, the power to re-create the world lies in the hands of one boy:
“Think of all the things you could do! Good things!”
“Like what?” said Adam suspiciously.
“Well…you could bring all the whales back, to start with.”
He put his head on one side, “An’ that’d stop people killing them, would it?”
She hesitated. It would have been nice to say yes.
“An’ if people do start killing ‘em, what would you ask me to do about ‘em?” said Adam. “No. I reckon I’m getting the hang of this now. Once I start messing around like that, there’d be no stoppin’ it. Seems to be the only sensible thing is for people to know if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.”
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are both primarily science fiction writers – Pratchett moreso than Gaiman – but I’m not much of a science fiction fan, and I love this book.
Terry Pratchett is a wonderful constructor of worlds – he is the author of the Discworld stories and has an amazing grasp of splicing together an internal logic for worlds he draws out of thin air.
Neil Gaiman, I think, brings the heart component to the story. I think his work has an empathy, tenderness and emotional resonance that makes him a very beloved writer. Separately, they are both very good. Together, they are sort of wonderful.
Terry Pratchett passed away in 2014, and there’s a wonderful obituary written by Neil Gaiman that I highly recommend reading if you’re a fan of either of them.
Read it or Skip it?
Good Omens is one of my favorite books of all time, so I’m a little biased when I recommend this book to others. It’s thoughtful and hilarious at the same time, which I find delightful.
It’s very light-hearted and silly in its tone, but asking its readers to consider some serious topics. It is in some ways respectful of Christian ideals, while at the same time questioning anyone’s ability to point to certain things and state what God would or would not have wanted.
I’m a non-Christian, but I think it’s a book that almost anyone with the least bit of curiosity about the world could enjoy or at least appreciate. (And the novel’s immense popularity reflects that, so this is not really a particularly earth-shattering conclusion.) It is also very funny; I’m probably making the book sound much more serious than it is. If you haven’t read it, you should. Happy 2015!
See Good Omens on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
In the BeginningAziraphale, an angel, and Crawly/Crowley, a serpent-slash-demon, are discussing the recent expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Aziraphale has given them (Adam and Eve) a flaming sword, and Crowley is wondering whether he did the right thing with the whole Apple thing.
Eleven Years AgoBaby A, Baby B and the Antichrist Hastur and Ligur, two demons, are waiting for Crowley to give him instructions. He's told to head to a convent hospital for the Convent of the Chattering Order along with a newborn baby, the Antichrist. The Chattering Order of St. Beryl are a group of satanist nuns. At their hospital, two women are giving birth -- Deirdre Young (Baby A) and Harriet Dowling (Baby B). The nuns have been previously instructed to secretly swap out Baby B with the Antichrist, so the Dowlings can raise the Antichrist (Baby X). However, due to a mix-up (one of the nurses ends up in the wrong room and then another nurse swaps the wrong baby), the Antichrist (Baby X) is given to the Youngs to be raised as their baby. The name him Adam. The Young's Baby (Baby A) is raised by the Dowlings, and is named Warlock. Finally, the Dowling's baby (Baby B) is given up for adoption. A few days later, the purpose fulfilled, Hastur and Ligur burn the convent to the ground. Aziraphale and Crowley Aziraphale is an angel and is technically supposed to be Crowley's enemy. But Aziraphale and Crowley have both been living on earth since the beginning of times and are basically friends. They have a tacit agreement of non-interference in each other's activities. Aziraphale is supposed to do good and Crowley does evil, but they do it in a way that essentially cancels each others' activities out but they can report the good/evil stuff their doing to their higher-ups. Sometimes they work together or on each others' behalf for convenience. Aziraphle and Crowley are concerned about the impact that the birth of the antichrist will have. They agree to jointly oversee its upbringing to steer it away from bringing about the apocalypse. Anathema Device, Agnes Nutter and Newton Pulsifer Anathema Device is a girl who learned to read by reading The Book (The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch). Anathema is Agnes's descendant and has the gift of prophesy as well. There's only one prophetic work in all of human existence that consists of entirely accurate predictions, culminating in a prophesy about Armageddon (The Book). It was published by Bilton and Scaggs in September 1655 and written by Agnes Nutter. It didn't sell, and no one knows what happened to the copies. Only one copy remains. Newton Pulsifer is a kid who likes electronics, but isn't great with them. The Four Horsemen The book then introduces four characters (later identified as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), all of whom wreak havok wherever they go. Scarlett has auburn hair, is good at machinery and is in the process of inciting civil war. "Dr." Raven Sable has black hair, and is an author who writes diet books to encourage starvation. White/Blanc/Snowy/Chalky is pale, was present at Chernobyl, and is busy causing an oil spill. Finally, the fourth entity is Another, who is always working. Warlock Dowling Crowley and Aziraphale both (incorrectly) think Warlock is the antichrist. They shows up at the Dowling's, disguised as a nanny and gardener. Crowley teaches Warlock to be evil. Aziraphale tells Warlock not to listen to nanny and to love all living things. The later leave and reappear as two tutors. By the time he's ten, Crowley is concerned because Warlock is too normal and doesn't seem to have any powers. On his 11th birthday, Hell will be sending over a Hellhound to guard Warlock.
WednesdayThe Hellhound On Warlock's 11th birthday, the dog doesn't show and Crowley and Aziraphale realize something is wrong and that there must have been a mix-up. The hellhound appears, but for its real master, Adam (Antichrist). By naming it, Adam will imbue the hellhound with it's identity and its function. When Adam names it simply "Dog", the hellhound transforms into a normal dog, it has a sudden desire to wag its tail. The Book and The Convent Hospital Records Crowley and Aziraphale decide to try to find the hospital records and head to the convent (not knowing it burnt down). On the way, they hit Anathema Device with their car. They help her home, but in the process Anathema realizes she has lost The Book. Sister Mary has turned the remnants of the convent into the Tadfield Manor Conference and Training Center. On arrival, Crowley and Aziraphale walk into a paintball team training game that the center is having. Crowley turns the paintball guns into a real guns, which wreaks havok. They find Mary and try to ask her for records, but there aren't any. As they drive off, Crowley and Aziraphale find The Book in the backseat of the car. Aziraphale, who collects books and especially prophetic books, recognizes it as the only copy of The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch and starts to read. Carmine "Red" Zuigiber / Scarlett Gets a Package Scarlett is now a journalist going by the name Red Zuigiber, writing for the National World Weekly. She curiously manages to arrive at war zones just before war breaks out. She receives a package containing a sword and proceeds to massacre everyone in the room.
ThursdayAnathema Meets Adam Pepper, Brian, Wensleydale are Adam's friends, known collectively as "Them" around their town of Tadfield. Adam is their de-facto leader. There is someone knew in town, living at Jasmine Cottage, who is rumored to be a witch. Adam heads over to Jasmine Cottage and finds Anathema crying. She says she's lost her book. Adam offers to help her find it. Anathema teaches him a little about the occult and the environment. After she tells him about her concern over nuclear power stations, he subconsciously causes a nuclear reactor to turn into a single lemondrop. Meanwhile Adam reads some of her magazines and learns about stuff like UFOs, Tibet, Bigfoot, The Lost City of Atlantis, etc. (The next day, somewhere far way, a ship captain discovers the Lost City of Atlantis. )
FridayRaven Sable Gets a Package Sable is busy with a business to create and sell CHOW (food with no nutritional content that could never make you get fat), SNACKS (junk food), and MEALS (food with no nutritional content that makes you get fat and eventually die of malnutrition). He gets delivered a package, containing a pair of small brass scales. With that, he books a flight to London. All Roads Lead to Lower Tadfield Anathema is studying her ley lines and realizes they converge on Lower Tadfield. Meanwhile, Aziraphale, after reading The Book, calls the Youngs in Lower Tadfield. Newton Pulsifer answers an advert in the paper to help fight the forces of darkness. It's actually a group of witchhunters. He's recruited by a man named Shadwell as a Witchfinder Private. Their "job" is to look for witches and other weird phenomena. He hears about a town with oddly perfect weather -- Lower Tadfield -- and heads out to check it out.
SaturdayChalky Gets a Package, Death Gets a Message A deliveryman delivers a package to someone named Chalky. It's a crown of diamonds. When "Chalky" touches it, it turns black. Finally, the last package is not a package at all, but a message. The deliveryman gets hit by a car. As he dies, he delivers the message to Death. The message is "Come and See". The Death of Agnes Nutter When Agnes Nutter was burned at the stake, she left behind a box and a book. The book was the copy of her book which her publisher had given her, with instructions to send it to her son, John Device. The Witchfinder that torched her was named Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. Newton Pulsifer Meets Anathema Device In present day, Newton is headed toward Tadfield, but comes across a UFO. The aliens say hi, and then leave. Soon, he comes across a Tibetan man crossing the road. He swerves and ends up in a car accident in front of Adam's house. Adam sees Newt and takes him to Anathema's house for help. Anathema has foreseen his arrival and has medical supplies ready. Anathema tells Newt that she's a witch and their meeting and his accident was all prophesied by Agnes. Anathema explains to him how Agnes's prophesies are a little hard to decipher since often they don't have enough context to help you understand it until it's already past. She also explains that most of the prophesies relate to her family and their well-being -- Agnes wrote it as her way of taking care of them. Anathema also mentions that the end of the world is scheduled from a few hours from now. Anathema and Newt sleep together. A Storm is Brewing Adam and his friends have been talking about saving the whales and the forests and ozone and whatnot. Adam starts to realize that he knows he has the power to fix all of it. Adam then starts to contemplate that everyone is ruining the world and maybe it would be better to start all over. A storm begins brewing. His mood turns dark as he thinks about remaking the world. In a city far away, a forest emerges from out of a place where a city once was. Elsewhere, a Kraken emerges from the water. Aziraphale Reports to Heaven After reading The Book, Aziraphale opens a portal to Heaven. He tells them where Adam is so they can prevent the apocalypse (ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell). Heaven is uninterested. They are confident that they will win the battle. They (Metatron) tell Aziraphale that it's time for him to return to Heaven. Shadwell (in charge of the Witchfinder Army) then bursts into his shop looking for Newton. In the ensuing encounter, Aziraphale knocks over a candle and accidentally steps into the portal. Aziraphale disappears. Crowley, Shadwell and the Four Horsemen Converge on Tadfield Meanwhile, Crowley is in trouble since Hell has realized Warlock is not the Antichrist. He narrowly escapes Hastur and Ligur, and goes to Aziraphale's shop which has been ablaze from the candle. He finds The Book. In it, Aziraphale has left a note. He reads it and heads to Tadfield. Aziraphale is now body-less and can only make contact through spiritual mediums. He uses Madam Tracy (a fortune teller) to explain to Shadwell what is going on. Soon, Shadwell and Tracy/Aziraphale are headed to Tadfield as well. Red (War), Black (Famine), White (Pollution) and Death all reunite at a cafe. They are dressed as bikers and all have Hell's Angel's jackets on. The other bikers decide to join them. They motorcycle towards Tadfield. Face-off at The Lower Tadfield Airbase Around Tadfield, the storm is full-blown. The horsemen get to the airbase and mess with the equipment and weapons systems. Adam Young heads with his friends to the Lower Tadfield Airbase as well. Before they get there, Adam stops and realizes that they will need a sword, a crown, and some scales. Adam and his friends come across the Four Horsemen at the base. The Four Horsemen tell him that it is done and that they will bring about the apocalypse. Adam tells them that's not what he wants. The Horsemen insist he must lead them, but Adam refuses. As instructed, Adam's friends get out their own "sword" (made of sticks), "crown" (made of grass) and "scales" (made of string and twigs). Adam explains that these Horsemen are not real, they are more like nightmares. As his friends wield their weapons, War, Famine and Pollution disappear. Once they are gone, Death leaves as well. Meanwhile, Newt and Anathema try to shut off the equipment that the horsemen turned on. Newt notes that everything he tries to fix, breaks. So, he tries to repair it instead and it works. The machinery shuts down. Heaven and Hell Adam comes across Shadwell and Madam Tracy/Aziraphale. He separates Aziraphale and returns him to his body. Metatron (voice of Heaven) shows up and Beelzebub (representative of Hell) as well. Both Metatron and Beelzebub want the war to happen. They tell Adam that it is his destiny to start the war. Adam thinks about his gang of friends and their rival gang (the Johnsonites). He thinks his gang is better but ultimately even if they got rid of the Johnsonites, it would just be a matter of time before they found another enemy or turned on each other. Adam ultimate decides he doesn't care what "is written" or what his destiny is supposed to be. He also doesn't want to rule the world, as he doesn't see a point in trying to clean up everyone's messes. Adam ultimately decides to wipe people's memories of the whole affair. Afterwards, Aziraphale and Crowley wonder if this wasn't part of His (God's) plan all along.
SundayFurther Nice and Accurate Prophesies Anathema has spent her whole life deciphering Agnes's prophesies and now has no more to decipher. She is sleeping and Newt is making breakfast for them when a deliveryman shows up. There's a box that is finally being delivered (after 300 years), as instructed. It contains a book, The Further Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Before Anathema opens it, Newt stops her, asking if she really wants to spend her whole life deciphering prophesies. Meanwhile, Aziraphale and Crowley have resumed the status quo. Adam is grounded for the day for running off the night before without permission. The book ends with him chasing Dog and stealing some apples from a neighbor.
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