In the beginning
It was a nice day.
All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.
The angel of the Eastern Gate put his wings over his head to shield himself from the first drops.
“I’m sorry,” he said politely. “What was it you were saying?”
“I said, that one went down like a lead balloon,” said the serpent.
“Oh. Yes,” said the angel, whose name was Aziraphale.
“I think it was a bit of an overreaction, to be honest,” said the serpent. “I mean, first offense and everything. I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway.”
“It must be bad,” reasoned Aziraphale, in the slightly concerned tones of one who can’t see it either, and is worrying about it, “otherwise you wouldn’t have been involved.”
“They just said, Get up there and make some trouble,” said the serpent, whose name was Crawly, although he was thinking of changing it now. Crawly, he’d decided, was not hint.
“Yes, but you’re a demon. I’m not sure if it’s actually possible for you to do good,” said Aziraphale.
“It’s down to your basic, you know, nature. Nothing personal, you understand.”
“You’ve got to admit it’s a bit of a pantomime, though,” said Crawly. “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.”
“Best not to speculate, really,” said Aziraphale. “You can’t second-guess ineffability, I always say. There’s Right, and there’s Wrong. If you do Wrong when you’re told to do Right, you deserve to be punished. Er.”
They sat in embarrassed silence, watching the raindrops bruise the first flowers.
Eventually Crawly said, “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”
“Er,” said the angel. A guilty expression passed across his face, and then came back and camped there.
“You did, didn’t you?” said Crawly. “It flamed like anything.”
“It looked very impressive, I thought.”
“Yes, but, well-”
“Lost it, have you?”
“Oh no! No, not exactly lost, more-”
Aziraphale looked wretched. “If you must know,” he said, a trifle testily, “I gave it away.”
Crawly stared up at him.
“Well, I had to,” said the angel, rubbing his hands distractedly. “They looked so cold, poor things, and she’s expecting already, and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up I thought, well, where’s the harm, so I just said, look, if you come back there’s going to be an almighty row, but you might be needing this sword, so here it is, don’t bother to thank me, just do everyone a big favor and don’t let the sun go down on you here.”
He gave Crawly a worried grin.
“That was the best course, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not sure it’s actually possible for you to do evil,” said Crawly sarcastically. Aziraphale didn’t notice the tone.
“Oh, I do hope so,” he said. “I really do hope so. It’s been worrying me all afternoon.”
They watched the rain for a while.
“Funny thing is,” said Crawly, “I keep wondering whether the apple thing wasn’t the right thing to do, as well. A demon can get into real trouble, doing the right thing.” He nudged the angel. “Funny if we both got it wrong, eh? Funny if I did the good thing and you did the bad one, eh?”
“Not really,” said Aziraphale.
Crawly looked at the rain.
“No,” he said, sobering up. “I suppose not.”
Slate-black curtains tumbled over Eden. Thunder growled among the hills. The animals, freshly named, cowered from the storm.
Far away, in the dripping woods, something bright and fiery flickered among the trees.
It was going to be a dark and stormy night.
Good Omens is the book that put The Apocalypse back on the map for our popular cultural imagination. It is fairly ubiquitous now (650 reviews on Amazon can’t be wrong) but there’s always the off chance that people haven’t tried it yet. I can’t believe I’ve never reviewed it, but here’s no time like the present so let’s get to it.
Fast-paced, witty, and slightly sadistic, Good Omens was written in 1990 by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett at a golden time when both had nothing else going on. One tries to imagine a time like that at any other point in their very busy careers and … no, you can’t do it. Both authors are prolific, clever, and have a way with twisting fantasy that appeals to the book reading public. Gaiman is darker and Pratchett is punnier, but both clearly worked well together and this book is a true classic.
But what’s it about, I hear some asking.
Aziraphale and Crowley (who did wind up changing his name after all) have been hanging around Earth since the beginning and the constant association over 6000 years has turned them almost into friends. When Crowley receives the infant Antichrist with instructions to watch over him, they agree that they prefer living on Earth to what they’d find after the apocalypse. The two enter into a pact to keep the Antichrist perfectly balanced between good and evil. Which might work. If someone hadn’t misplaced the Antichrist so that Crowley and Aziraphale have been working on the wrong child. Meanwhile, 11 years later it is hard to imagine anyone more human than the Antichrist, who has been living in a normal home in the countryside. It’s up to plain old human nature and free will to see whether the apocalypse will begin.
Similar in style to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the story turns on one ludicrous misunderstanding after another. It is those misunderstandings that make us laugh and also are the points upon which satire is presented to skewer the religious and unbelievers alike. Gaiman and Pratchett are like a modern-day Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain and we are the better for it. Certainly we have been laughing more because of their book, while at the same time we’ve been made to think a bit about what we believe, how we live our faith, and why it matters.
Crowley had got a commendation for the Spanish Inquisition. He had been in Spain then, mainly hanging around cantinas in the nicer parts, and hadn’t even known about it until the commendation arrived. He’d gone to have a look, and had come back and got drunk for a week…
And just when you’d think they were more malignant than Hell could ever be, they could occassionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.