Getting Ready for the Show: A Good Omens Primer

by Beth Keithly

Good Omens is an introduction to Terry Pratchett for those who do not know his work

In a review of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, a book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett released in 1990, the New York Times reviewer Joe Queenan suggested the book could be used as a cure for “the recurring disease of Anglophilia.” The reviewer also said “Good Omens is a direct descendant of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a vastly overpraised book or radio program or industry or something……” Thirty years later, Queenan’s review was reviewed by The Guardian and determined that while Queenan’s review was wrong, it was well-written and amusing that it was all right.

This is not a review of the review of the review, but it is important to note the phrase “a direct descendant of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is either high praise or a vicious cut, depending on how you feel about surreal humor, especially the British version of it.

And how you feel about surreal British humor will impact how likely you are to watch the Amazon Prime series Good Omens starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen beginning May 31, 2019, and including Adria Arjona, Jon Hamm, Benedict Cumberbatch, Miranda Richardson and Neil Offerman.

Good Omens is the story of an angel and a demon who work together to prevent Armageddon after the birth of the Antichrist because they would much rather be on Earth.

Since an actual review of the book could possible spoil the entire series, this will serve as an introduction to surreal humor, Neil Gaiman (assuming someone reading this needs one), Terry Pratchett, and some of the main ideas of Good Omens.

The Theatre of the Absurd and Surreal Humor

Without going too deep into the history of the absurdist movement, it is basically an offshoot of the philosophical theory of existentialism, which focuses on the individual and the individual’s ability to determine his/her own development in an irrational universe. The simplest summary is that life is meaningless and therefore, it is up to each individual to make some meaning out of it. The movement started in the 1940s and thrived post-World War II.

Absurdism hits its height in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the Theatre of the Absurd. Think Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard (who wrote Shakespeare in Love and Brazil). In Theatre of the Absurd, the plots are nonsensical, but explore loneliness, a failure of individuals to connect with one another, and the absurdity of life and death. There are a lot of famous examples, including Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Perhaps more commercially familiar is Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which became a 1990 movie starting Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Richard Dreyfuss.

If you have seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead you have seen Theatre of the Absurd. While there may be funny moments, it is not a comedy. The characters are often frightened as they attempt to find bigger meaning in what is happening and failing.

Surreal humor, however, took the Theatre of the Absurd notion of subverting audience expectation and the notion that life makes no sense, but having some fun with it. If the universe makes no sense, then situations do not need to be logical nor do anyone’s reactions to them. Think Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Or, more recently, Rick and Morty. Both shows which both mix joy and sorrow in often surreal universes.

And one can also track a direct line from absurdist humor to “neo-Dadaism,” a movement the animated show BoJack Horseman eagerly embraces. The themes of loneliness and a failure to connect with others feels just as relevant today as they did fifty years ago.

Good omens cover

Themes of Neil Gaiman

To connect back to Good Omens, readers who look for themes of loneliness in Neil Gaiman’s work will have no problems finding it. Lost, lonely people find their way into new and magical worlds in much of Gaiman’s work. Because he writes across multiple genres, finding a common theme in everything he writes is a challenge, but I would argue most of his work discusses the balance between self-reliance and isolation as well as the importance of believing in something, the value of compassion, forgiveness and community.

Funny thing about Gaiman though. When Good Omens came out, The Sandman had just started and Terry Pratchett had been writing Discworld novels for nearly ten years. Although things have changed since, in 1990, Terry Pratchett was more famous than Neil Gaiman. When I bought Good Omens, I wondered how “the comic book writer” would impact the voice and tone I loved so much.

So, readers who are excited about Gaiman’s series and wonder how “that fantasy writer” is going to impact Gaiman’s voice and tone, let me take a moment to introduce you to Terry Pratchett.

Good omens author TP

Terry Pratchett’s Way

You may already know him without realizing it. For example, fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels may recognize the quote from Cold Days: “I know it’s not thematically in tune with my new job and all, but I find it effective. ‘Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day’, I say. ’But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life.’ Tao of Pratchett. I live by it.”

Terry Pratchett, a novelist who died in 2015, wrote more than 41 novels as part of a career that started in the 1970s. His writing is funny, satirical, and very, very British. Some of his jokes require an understanding of British history and current geography that most people outside the UK do not possess. For example, in Good Omens a character names his car after an 18th century highwayman and is desperate for people to ask him about it. I am fairly certain Pratchett came up with it. Not that Gaiman couldn’t, but I do not think he would.

Some of his lines make you laugh and think. A personal favorite from Good Omens: “’I don’t see what’s so triffic [sic] about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset cos’ they act like people’, said Adam severely. ‘Anyway, if you stopped tellin’ people it’s all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.’”

The Way of Pratchett, assuming a coherent idea of it exists, is that absurdity is as much a part of life as anything else (and embracing the absurd makes things better), we connect through our stories, personal ethics are important and must be defended, and we have a right to a good life and a good death.

Most of Pratchett’s novels are part of the Discworld series, which all take place on a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. Witches, wizards, dwarves, trolls, dragons and Death all play major roles in these series. The books look at the absurdity of religion, gender relations, education, sports, city living, and many other issues.

In Carpe Jugulum: “I mean, it’s one thing saying you’ve got the best god, but sayin’ it’s the only real one is a bit of a cheek, in my opinion. I know where I can find at least two any day of the week. And they say everyone starts out bad and only gets good by believin’ in Om, which is frankly damn nonsense.”

From Thief of Time: “Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.”

The series should not be read in order, which is a good thing because there are more than 30 Discworld novels. There are several ways to read them. I recommend thematically, which allows you to follow some of the characters you might like most. That may be Death, or the witches, or the wizards, or the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. All of his work looks at the absurdity of so many of our issues.

Good omens

When You Put Gaiman and Pratchett Together

Take Gaiman and Pratchett and put them together for a novel about the end days and you get a funny book about a serious topic. You get the absurdity of assigning “good” and “evil” to things. Heaven and Hell are working towards the same plan. The demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale are neither completely good nor completely evil, but have justifications for what they do.

There is also a look at free will. If a plan is “ineffable,” does it actually exist? If the Antichrist is raised by a neutral family, will he be evil? Or good? Or neither? Can someone actually foresee the future?

But at the end of the day, when Gaiman and Pratchett write together, they embrace the following view of humanity:

“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.”

Which, at the end of the world, may be the right answer after all.

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