Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I decided to reread Good Omens because of the Amazon Prime series–though don’t tell fundamentalist American Christians that the series is on Prime or else they’ll have to end their boycott of Netflix. It is a pretty silly protest–not because playing with the powers of darkness is something we take likely (see the current geopolitical scene), but because it shows that the offended religious folk hadn’t bothered to take the time to be offended by the actual series. Instead, they were offended by an IMDB listing.
Intriguingly, unlike their anti-religionists, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are pretty nuanced in this sacrilicious book.
Terry Pratchett was an avowed atheist, and Neil Gaiman is a Jewish author who is generally reticent to speak about faith, though I think it’s fair to say he has a pretty secular outlook. Individually, they are among the most important fantasy writers of the generation.
It is reputed that Pratchett’s Discworld series represented 1% of the book sales in England, even through the Harry Potter craze. This 40ish-book series begins in parody but develops into a book-world of some beauty and depth. Pratchett hinges the series on various characters–Samuel Vimes and the Watch, Granny Weatherwax and the witches, Rincewind and the wizards, Moist von Lipwig on industry, Tiffany Aching on the Chalk, and Death on what it means to be human–allowing the series to become detective novels, social commentary, adventure stories, quest narratives, and character explorations as the story develops organically (and often goofily). Pratchett’s Discworld is a stunning achievement, and I miss him.
While Pratchett’s work continues in the parodic, idiosyncratic, colourful trajectory of Good Omens, Gaiman’s most important fantasy moves into more mythic realms. A certain kind of reader will be forever grateful for Gaiman‘s Sandman project, and yet I think American Gods is his most important and underrated work. I would go further: I think that American Gods is the single most important work of American mythopoeic fantasy, with Stephen King‘s The Stand as a possible exception. Patrick Rothfuss may unseat American Gods if he would ever finish his work, and George R.R. Martin has a more extensive reach. But in terms of genre development and a rooted reorientation of classical stories, Gaiman is mythmaker without contemporary equal.
Intriguingly, Gaiman and Pratchett as so-called anti-religious writes can have strikingly original and helpful things to say for Christian readers. I could speak endlessly about their work from a theological perspective, but it is important to note that Good Omens isn’t a parody of the church or of religion. Like a pretty typical UK landscape, the people are largely non-religious–a post-Christian culture trying to figure out how to live normal lives with all these oddments of religion still lying around. Good Omens is a parody of the film The Omen, with some drive-by swattings of religious ideas and popular culture along the way. It is often obscure in its writings, with bits of past-its-prime cultural humour and “this is the real meaning of life” preaching that it could do without.
Good Omens is a flawed book, for certain. But there is an instinctive reaction to popular themes of Christian theology that warrants our attention.
In the tradition of Voltaire‘s anti-theodicy, Candide, Good Omens puts ideas about God, faith, neighbourliness, violence, hope, and love in the stocks. This results in a public viewing of some of our difficult beliefs, misrepresented ideas, and things that live as paradoxes for faithful believers. Some of these ideas will be mocked–and sometimes for legitimate reasons. But putting these ideas in the stocks of cultural view also tests the character of these beliefs, giving us a chance to clarify, to challenge, to defend, to live beautifully with Christian authenticity, and to make our own art that explores the depth of our worldviews.
Such as ineffability, to choose a pertinent example.
So I think faithful Christian readers owe Pratchett and Gaiman a debt of gratitude.
I suspect my offended American fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ don’t feel the same. Setting aside the fact that Christ never calls us to be offended–and it is in some people’s minds a lifelong vocation of monastic clarity–it is okay for us to disagree. But the sheer ridiculousness of the protest is a sad and often accurate picture of the Christian response to a kind of cultural criticism that Good Omens offers. Quite frankly, I don’t know that European Christianity ever truly responded to Voltaire’s Candide, and it has meant the senescence of Christianity in much of that society.
In this way, outside of the American context, the sheer normalness of Good Omens shows how clearly unnecessary the offended fundamentalists are to the rest of the world.
And yet, American fundamentalists protesting the wrong firm for a TV show that they haven’t seen is a kind of goofiness that I think fits well in Good Omens. In fact, it could be a scene in the book, though I think it would be better if environmentalists protested the Archbishop of Canterbury for the death of all the fish. Perhaps it is better that religious folks were pretty much left out of the book altogether.
While it is a book with a lot of flaws, Good Omens is an important work of cultural criticism. It’s also pretty funny. I don’t know what they have done with the series on Prime, but it looks pretty good. If it is well done, it will also be a work that tells us a lot about the cultural moment. For this reason, if not for the great fun of the story, it is worthy of our attention.
The series is written by Gaiman and is very entertaining.
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Great, good! I can’t wait!
The book was written over twenty years ago, so I imagine some of the jokes would be a bit dated now. The thing about the M25 being a satanic glyph is still funny though.
I got lots of the humour, but missed some. I can understand the evilness of highways.
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The M25 is particularly bad. It’s right up near the top of the list with the highways in Montreal.
Montreal’s roads are confirmation of a darker power.
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My (nearly?) omnivorous approach to science fiction and supernatural films ground to a halt when The Exorcist was released and I did not like the sound of it. Nor did I see The Omen. I’m not sure I ever heard of Good Omens whether as book or as film/series, till here and now. So, no informed response (but, taking the spoiler-plunge, I find neither the Wikipedia novel or miniseries plot summaries made either sound appealing to me…).
However, I am struck by the thought of “important work[s] of American mythopoeic fantasy”, including what might be the “most” important ones and “the single most” – what an exciting topic to ponder! (And, who(-all) has/have handily chronicled such things, to speed such pondering?)
About equally striking is the question in how far “European Christianity ever truly responded to Voltaire’s Candide” (with what effects for “Christianity in much of that society”)? Wow – exciting food for thought, here, too! I see the Wade has some lecture notes by Charles Williams on Voltaire (MS-240, MS-344) – I wonder what’s in ’em…?
Horror is kind of a guilty pleasure for me. Every 4 or 5 weeks I do a solo horror night, but no one else in my house cares that much. Partly, I suppose, I’m not really scared by it. The Omen, though, is creepy. And I like the religious connections in much of horror.
Goodness, CW on Voltaire…
You raise a good number of ideas in this post about a very good book. The best I can do is to take each topic one at a time.
In terms of a novel being dated, I always tend to take a more cautious and nuanced approach. If the inescapable fact of any given novel will contain elements that date it is to be counted as mark against it’s favor, then I’m afraid we’ve arrived at the same ground where if you have to slight one book for being old, then you have to go on from there to all the rest, until we reach books like “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Alice in Wonderland”, or “Huck Finn”.
I can’t help but take an opposite approach to this whole thing. My own arrived at conviction is that it’s almost impossible for any society to move forward without first going backward to gain as much of a mature, and nuanced understanding of the ideas of the past, and the events that resulted from them. As Gaiman says in “Mr. Punch”, “That’s the way to do it”. I think we’ve reached a point where contemporary society needs to have as much learning as possible under it’s belt if it wants to get anywhere. That means gong back to a lot of the old books and drawing from the wisdom contained in them. This requires a mindset that can enter into the thought of the book to at least enough of an extent that a mental bridge has been created between time periods and generations.
I’d even go so far as to argue that this is what authors like Lewis and Tolkien did in their own fictional works. Tom Shippey’s “Author of the Century” can help provide a better demonstration of the kind bridge-building I mean. In the introduction of that work, he lays out a bare statement about the nature of Hobbits as a deliberate anachronism provided by Tolkien to help guide the reader back into the medieval mindset of writers like the Beowulf Poet. Shippey’s statement is as follows:
“In chapter 1 I consider in particular the literary function of hobbits, and of Bilbo Baggins, their representative. I argue that the are above all anachronisms, creatures of the early modern world of Tolkien’s youth drawn, like Bilbo, into the far more archaic world of dwarves and dragons, wargs and wear-bears. However Tolkien, as a philologist, and also as an infantry veteran, was deeply conscious of the strong continuity between that heroic world and the modern one (xxviii)”.
Shippey also stresses that in the Battle of the Five Armies, Tolkien is pushing for an idea of tolerance that stretches not just between races, or culture, but also through ages of historical epochs. It is in that sense of the word tolerance that I think it’s wrong to hold the historical information in a text as invalid unless we’re are, in fact, dealing with questions of racism on the part of the author. Of course, then that brings up the conundrum of writer like Lovecraft. Still, one thing at a time.
As for Gaiman’s own spiritual outlook, at the very least, I’m willing to go with the idea of him being “Open to Orthodoxy”. Maybe this response was mine alone, yet as I read through the arguments Crowley and Aziraphale, I couldn’t shake the idea that a lot of their back and forth was based on very similar conversations that Gaiman and Pratchett had between themselves. Think of it as a latter-day Addison’s Walk conversation, except this time there wasn’t exactly a conversion, though perhaps the door was never really closed on the subject, at least as far as Pratchett was concerned.
As for the adaptation, I’ll admit I haven’t seen it myself, yet I have read excerpts from Gaiman’s screenplay that make me expect the worst. The gist of Gaiman’s introduction to the screenplay boils down to, “Look, I had all these neat ideas, and then I was told that we didn’t have the budget for all that, so I had to chuck the whole lot and compromises were made”. It almost reads like the author is trying to tell the reader, “If it wasn’t your cup of tea, don’t blame me folks”.
I’m not filled with confidence myself based on what I’ve seen and heard about the adaptation myself. I think part of it stems from the fact that the filmmakers might not quite be able to grasp the kind of style that Pratchett and Gaiman were writing in. To me, books like “Good Omens”, or the “Discworld” series are nothing less than what would happen if the minds behind “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” had decided to move into the market of ink and paper book writing. It just sounds like all the familiar stylistic tropes are there.
This can be seen best when it’s realized that Pratchett’s style doesn’t just take a lot from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, it flat out is Adams’ narrative voice brought back to life by another writer. Because of this, whenever I read Pratchett’s books, it is always Adams’ voice I here sounding out the words in my head. What makes this so effective is that I’ve actually heard Adams narrate the first “Hitchhiker’s” book. The best part is that he reads it all like a member of the Pythons (who he also wrote for, during a brief moment). Anyone who is familiar with the Python’s will be able to recognize all the same quirks of comic timing in Adams’ reading.
Because of this, my own ideal adaptation of “Good Omens” would have been a radio play collaboration between Gaiman, Pratchett, and the Pythons, and would have featured Terry Jones as Crowley, and Michael Palin as Aziraphale. Of course, that’s a window of opportunity that left the building a long time ago. Still, it’s how it all sounds in my head whenever I have a chance to get back to the book. It’s probably the best thing Pratchett ever did.
I will say this, Gaiman has been an artist I’ve been returning to in my thoughts, and not just in isolation, but also as part of what I can only describe as an informal literary group similar to the Inklings. What I’m thinking of now was never anywhere as formal as the Oxford club. Instead I just noticed how the late 70s and early 80s saw the arrival of a whole group of artists who went on to influence the nature of modern fantastic literature, of which Gaiman is just one name on that list. I’ve started to put down the beginnings of my thought about this. I just can’t shake the idea that studying a series of artists as part of a collective whole won’t help shed light on maybe some kind artistic zeitgeist or phenomena that was going on around that time.
My first efforts along these lines isn’t about Gaiman, but it is another artist with whom he is connected. His name is Alan Moore, and he was a big influence on graphic novels at one time:
Hi Chris, more briefly still.
On old books, I think you are right. Lewis and Tolkien–as well as Shippey and the work that Dale Nelson has done on here–is about that driving to deepening of knowledge. I think it is more than ad fontes, to the sources, but not less than that. That’s why I wrote those older posts on “canon.”
Great idea on the radio play. I think Good Omens and the early Discworld books are good Adams pieces, but Pratchett’s voice develops too. There is nothing Douglas Adams about “A Hat Full of Sky.”
Of course, to speak of “Neil Gaiman’s spirituality” or something like that is going to be a wee bit false as it has no doubt developed over 25 years. I have his “American Gods” queued up for reread in September, and then to the series!
Thank you very much for this post. After having watched the series (which is goos, very funny and very careful with the original book- Gaiman did a very good job adapting it to the sceen, it’s a touching tribute to his friends and fellow-writer), I had very similar thoughts. Stories like this offer a different POV, you can look at the christianity from a different perspective, see it “from the outside”, the way others see it. And if the story is well-written, it will give food for thought.
Thanks. These comments make me want to see the series!
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I have been a fan of Terry Pratchett for quite some time. I have read rather less Gaiman, but I have enjoyed what I have read, although when it comes to Gaiman my goals are more aspirational than accomplished.
As somebody who considers herself something of a fundamentalist Christian, I have to say I feel snubbed. Nobody has told me of this boycott. In fact, I had heard of neither the show nor the boycott. I am thankful you let me know. I will try to watch the series and will continue to remain in ignorance about the boycott.
Ha, well, we’ll have to make sure you are on the fundamentalist protest listserve. It lost a little energy after the Disney protests, and Westboro makes it a bit awkward, but there’s still hope.
Usually, though, they protest the right production company. This one was special.
I’m part of a movement (denomination) that shades fundamentalist, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ/Christian Church). As I largely believe the fundamentals, I have often at my secular university called myself a fundamentalist, really to get a rise out of students. Today, identifying as evangelical will do that easily enough! Moreso, really. There is a lot of heat in bellies these days.
Thanks for the note.
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