Are good or evil intrinsic in humans or does free will play a role? Does destiny guide our actions or do they instead stem from the choices we make? These questions are the basis of most religious thought and a major part of philosophy — where they may sometimes need learning the new vocabulary created by the thinker concerned. But there may be other, easier ways to understand. In a comic satire, perhaps.
And “Good Omens” (1990) is definitely one of a kind.
Had this irrepressible story dealt only on these questions of theology and moral philosophy, it would have been adequately interesting but what makes it irresistible is how co-authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman go about making it an inspired encomium to human nature — particularly its propensity to act independent of purported influences from either above or below.
Pratchett and Gaiman, who knew each other even before they became famous, started collaborating on this by themselves and though they confessed to certain parts, they hold “large sections were being done by a composite creature called Terryandneil”.
Besides being a classic example of British humour, or in other words having no shortage of irony and understated and subtle sarcasm (which is evident right away from the “disclaimer” on the title page: “Kids! Bringing about Armageddon can be dangerous. Do not attempt it in your own home”), it is a parody pageant unrivalled.
In its cross-sights are the Bible (Genesis from the Old Testament and Revelations from the New), cult horror film “Omen”, Richmal Crompton’s William series, perceptions and stereotypes. They are supplemented by insights — rather sardonic — into various facets of the human condition (humans “just get carried away by new ideas, like dressing up in jackboots and shooting people, or dressing up in white sheets and lynching people, or dressing up in tie-dye jeans and playing guitars at people”) and technology (eg. computer warranties).
Then there is a surfeit of references from history, culture (both high and pop) and other genres, including “The Dirty Harry” series, and espionage trysts and the question of what happened to Elvis Presley.
The plot seems simple. The Apocalypse is drawing close and will be led by the son of Satan, the Anti-Christ, who will be raised by an American diplomat in London — sounds familiar? And when he turns 11, he will lead the Four Horsemen (not exactly, as we find out) of Apocalypse to cause the End of the World.
But what the hosts, heavenly and otherwise, have forgotten to take into account is that they have to deal with humans only for the gambit’s success. And a junior nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (all surreptitious Satanists) tasked with exchanging the babies muffs it up spectacularly when she confuses an Englishman whose wife is expecting with the American diplomat and attempts to make him feel at home.
And then there is an Angel and Demon, stationed among humans to further the cause of their respective sides but have turned “native” with a vengeance — and entered into an “arrangement” of a sort between themselves to cover up for each other.
It is these characters — angel Aziraphale, the guardian of Eden’s eastern gate, and demon Crawly, an angel who didn’t fall as “saunter vaguely downwards” and is the serpent that enticed Eve to eat the forbidden fruit — we meet first shortly after Adam and Eve have been banished and obtain a vivid insight into their characters.
And while (the now) A. Crowley after passing the child Anti-Christ to the nuns, is aghast at the consequences and shares his fears with Aziraphale, they then conspire to avert the outcome by exposing the Anti-Christ to both good and evil equally so he cannot commit himself to a side. They only learn this child is the wrong one when his eleventh birthday passes off without any of the expected phenomenon.
Scrambling to detect the correct child, they seek to utilise an organisation they are — unknown to each other — both bankrolling, but only comprises a bigot and a technology-challenged young man, Newton Pulsifier. And then there is Anathema, descendant of England’s last witch who penned a book of obscure but correct prophecies and an assorted array of “aliens, Americans and Atlanteans” and many others.
Meanwhile, Adam, the real Anti-Christ, is growing normally in an idyllic English village. When confronted with his real ‘destiny’, he chooses to behave as a human would, despite the presence of the motorcycle-borne Apocalyptic Horsepersons who ask him to lead them and then Beelzebub and Metatron (“The Voice of God” or a rather a spokesman) turning up to convince him, before Aziraphale and Crowley question their assumptions and send them off to consult with their superiors.
But then as his enraged real father threatens to appear, Adam subtly changes reality to make it all right for all.
A sequel was planned but never fructified and now seems improbable after Pratchett’s death. But then, there is ineffability. Right, Mr Gaiman?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])