Sunday, June 16, 2024

Good Omens aborts the Apocalypse

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That books by Terry Pratchett are a delight to read is no secret, with the exellent Discworld series being the best known. Of course, these are not the only books he has written, as he is also known to collaborate with other authors, so today we are taking a look at one such collaboration: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (known for, among others, Sandman, Coraline and American Gods).

The book is set in the late 20th century and begins eleven years before the scheduled biblical apocalypse. Said apocalypse shall be initiated by the antichrist who has just been born and is now meant to be raised by good, pious Satanists. Unfortunately for heaven and hell, the antichrist was switched at birth.

Divided into four main storylines, the book follows the efforts of various parties to ensure either the continued existence of earth and humanity, or the destruction thereof. Lots of philosophy concerning good and evil, home, and the love of humanity are to be expected.

Angels and Demons

People couldn’t become truly holy, [Aziraphale] said, unless they also had the opportunity to be definitively wicked. Crowley had thought about this for some time and […] said, Hang on, that only works, right, if you start everyone off equal, okay? You can’t start someone off in a muddy shack in the middle of a war zone and expect them to do as well as someone born in a … castle. Ah, Aziraphale had said, that’s the good bit. The lower you start, the more opportunities you have. Crowley had said, That’s lunatic.No, said Aziraphale, it’s ineffable.

First, we are introduced to hell and heaven’s emissaries on earth. Their names are Crowley, a demon whose idea of demonic work is messing up telephone signals, and Aziraphale, the angel running the least customer friendly book-shop in all of London. They have been official adversaries for about six-thousand years.

Of course, being arch enemies for thousands of years isn’t easy and somehow, they ended up in an Arrangement which includes feeding ducks in the park, shared favorite restaurants and Crowley’s Bentley full of Aziraphale’s music (or half a dozen best of Queen albums, because that is just the way the car works), they are at times even mistaken for a couple.

But now Crowley is supposed to make sure the antichrist initiates the apocalypse as planned by both of “their sides”. This doesn’t sit well with either of them, as they both have comfortable lives they’d loathe to leave behind, so they hatch a plan: In the eleven years leading up to the apocalypse they will influence the antichrist, an American ambassador’s son named Warlock Bowling, with both heavenly and hellish propaganda in hopes of him refusing to initiate the apocalypse, or at least being neutral.

“I can’t interfere with divine plans,” [Aziraphale] croaked. Crowley looked speculatively into his glass, and then filled it again. “What about diabolical ones?” he said. “Pardon?” “Well, it’s got to be a diabolical plan, hasn’t it? We’re doing it. My side.” “Ah, but it’s all part of the overall divine plan,” said Aziraphale. “Your side can’t do anything without it being part of the ineffable divine plan,” he added, with a trace of smugness.

However, Warlock is not the actual antichrist, which comes out on the boy’s eleventh birthday, turning the entire plan moot. Panicked the two of them try to find the actual antichrist.

While they are the focus of the first part of the book, and stay present thorough, their overall role has the least effect on the actual apocalypse, instead focusing on examining the designated morality of heaven and hell and how humans usually defy both.

Crowley: “Cards on the table time. I’ll tell you ours if you tell me yours.”

Aziraphale: “All right. You first.”

Crowley: “Oh, no. You first.”

Aziraphale: “But you’re a demon.”

Crowley: “Yes, but a demon of my word, I should hope.”

Aziraphale named five political leaders. Crowley named six. Three names appeared on both lists.

The Antichrist and Friends

“Potentially evil. Potentially good, too, I suppose. Just this huge powerful potentiality, waiting to be shaped,” said Crowley. He shrugged. “Anyway, why’re we talking about this good and evil? They’re just names for sides. We know that.”

The actual antichrist is named Adam Young, he grew up in the village Lower Tadfield, not far from the army base Warlock’s surrogate father worked at.

Adam’s childhood is perfect, his village is idyllic, the weather is always as it is supposed to be (there’s even snow for Christmas), he has a gang of three good friends, Pepper, Brian and Wensleydale, always referred to as the Them by anyone but themselves, and they have adventures and fight off Greasy Johnson and the Johnsonites.

They always looked expectantly at Adam. He was the one that had the ideas.

All this perfection is naturally caused by Adam himself, the rest of his world unconsciously bending itself according to his will. The terrifying hellhound, prophesied to arrive on the eleventh birthday of the antichrist he turns into a small dog with a funny ear.

“No,” said Adam. “He’s got to do what he’s told. I read it in a book. Trainin’ is very important. Any dog can be trained, it said. My father said I can only keep him if he’s prop’ly trained. Now, Dog. Go inside.” Dog whined and gave him a pleading look. His stubby tail thumped on the floor once or twice. His Master’s voice. With extreme reluctance, as if making progress in the teeth of a gale, he slunk over the doorstep. “There,” said Adam proudly. “Good boy.” And a little bit more of Hell burned away …

Unfortunately for the world he encounters the witch Anathema soon after. Anathema reads occult magazines, which she happily lends him. Suddenly Adam believes in friendly Aliens and other conspiracy theories and, since whatever Adam believes becomes true, aliens and tunnel digging Tibetans start causing trouble around Lower Tadfield.

But most dangerous of all, Adam learns about war, hunger, and pollution, all the things humans do to planet earth and each other and he gets angry, and more and more he thinks the world might be better off under the benevolent rule of himself and his friends.

Witches and Witchhunters

Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.

The aforementioned prophesy is one of many from the book of the Nife and Accurate Prophefies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, she was the last witch burned by the witch finder army and is the ancestor of Anathema Device, witch.

As any witch from a Pratchett book can be expected to be, she is despite being raised on ancient prophecies, a smart and practical woman.

[A]ny prowling maniac would have had more than his work cut out if he had accosted Anathema Device. She was a witch, after all. And precisely because she was a witch, and therefore sensible, she put little faith in protective amulets and spells; she saved it all for a foot-long bread knife which she kept in her belt.

Anathema grew up reading the book full of prophesies and expecting the apocalypse to occur there, she moves to Lower Tadfield, where she meets and unconsciously influences Adam.

Meanwhile, the descendant of Agnes Nutter’s executioner Thou-shalt-not-commit-adultery Pulsifer, Newton has just joined the witchfinder-army, whose Sergeant and only member, the unpleasant Mr. Shadwell has him search for strange occurrences possibly caused by witches.

There is no longer a real Witchfinder General.

Nor is there a Witchfinder Colonel, a Witchfinder Major, a Witchfinder Captain, or even a Witchfinder Lieutenant (the last one was killed falling out of a very tall tree in Caterham, in 1933, while attempting to get a better view of something he believed was a satanic orgy of the most degenerate persuasion, but was, in fact, the Caterham and Whyteleafe Market Traders’ Association annual dinner and dance).

There is, however, a Witchfinder Sergeant.

There is also, now, a Witchfinder Private. His name is Newton Pulsifer.

The witchfinder army’s principals are as outdated as the amount of their payment and Shadwell is, while funny in his incompetence and paranoia an overall unpleasant character, which shows espeacially in his treatement of Madam Tracy, the part-time medium next door, who he continuously insults as among other things a “painted Jezebel”, even though she is nothing but generous towards him and even provides him with free food.

This eventually leads him, too, to Lower Tadfield, where he meets– and quickly gets together with Anathema, as the prophesy demands, and the two set out to stop the apocalypse. As do eventually Mr. Shadwell and Madam Tracy.

The four horsepersons bikers of the apocalypse

While the central conflict is centered around Adam torn between his wish for what he believes is a better world and his love for the world as it is, the four horsepersons of the apocalypse embody all the things most plaguing the world and humanity.

The horsepersons are War, Hunger, Pollution (the replacement of the sadly demised Pestilence) and of course, since this is a Pratchett book, Death. They awaited the end-times for millennia and now that it is time they can’t wait to start the apocalypse.

Over the course of the book we see them assemble and prepare for the apocalypse, their intervals of appearance giving the story a sense of inescapable doom.

They are presented as exact foils to Adam and his friends, the Them. War mirrors Pepper, with her easily provoked temper, Wensleydale mirrors Hunger insofar that both are very controlled, and appear businesspeople at heart. Brian who is always dirty is naturally analogous to Pollution, which leaves Adam being the foil to the most commanding presence in all of Pratchett’s works Death.

And there was Another. He was in the square in Kumbolaland. And he was in the restaurants. And he was in the fish, and in the air, and in the barrels of weedkiller. He was on the roads, and in houses, and in palaces, and in hovels. There was nowhere that he was a stranger, and there was no getting away from him. He was doing what he did best, and what he was doing was what he was. He was not waiting. He was working.

This is Adam’s foil, his equal, and Adam chooses his love of living and his perfect little world and this is what eventually prevents the ineviatable apocalypse.

Interplay and the overall book

The book is, as can be expected, a delight to read. The different story lines interplay nicely, even if Anathema and Newt are missing from the first part, while Crowley and Aziraphale seem to disappear for a while around the middle. Over the course of the story it is clearly visible how along with Adam’s image of an ideal world, the entire story goes slowly off the rails.

It is at the same time threatening as it is absurdly funny, there are lots of witty puns and things that would seem contrived in any world, where a child could not just create Atlantis and regrow the Amazonas, but as they always end up serving the characters, they mostly read as epic.

Eventually everybody takes a stand toghether, both against heaven and hell, who agree on a surprising degree of human related issues, after all. But god’s plans are ineffable, and if Adam choses to be human, who says it is not the humans who are supposed to win. Eventually everything returns to normal, while creating a middle ground, independent from heaven and hell in the process.

It may help 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.

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