I was working on today’s “Throwback Thursday” blog, and I took a break to heat my lunch. When I came back with the intention to resume it I glanced at my Facebook feed, saw the notice of the passing of prolific fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, and started crying. He died today at age 66 from complications from that bastard Alzheimer’s Disease*.
I am a book nut, I devour literature from the classic to the trashy like some folks devour potato chips; I can never eat just one. I need to have an idea of what my next literary journey is before the last 100 pages of whatever I’m reading or I begin to sweat, and get a sinking feeling in my stomach. I wish I had something like Goodreads or the book version of the beer logging ap untappd back when I picked up my first book as a child, I wonder to this day how many hundreds of thousands of books I have gobbled up in the near continuous orgy of voracious reading of the last 50 years.
What might screw up the data is the fact that there are about a dozen books of which I have read and re-read so many times I have lost count. There are a handful I read maybe once a decade, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited, or Kenneth Robert’s Northwest Passage, one or two that I would plod through annually that now I reserve them for every 5 years or so, such as John Fowle’s The Magus, Pratchett’s co-author Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill.
And then there’s the special ones, the ones that I have to touch base with every year or at least every other, like visiting a good friend and catching up whenever they come into town, these are truly the special books. The ones that touch me deeply in an evocative, visceral way, like Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, where I break down in tears every time I read the epilogue, yearning for the simpler magic of childhood.
There’s the ones that help me get through holidays (which have often been for various reasons, lonely or painful times for me) with a smile on my face, two of which are written by Christopher Moore; The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (more on this book in another blog, as we get closer to Easter.)
And then there’s Good Omens… A book that just like Lamb annually entertains the heck out of me. But has also gone on to inform and color the way I look at God, Jesus, Religion , the nature of good & evil, human nature, scripture, and even how I do my own ministry.
It’s a book that truly helped me pull the stick out of my butt, and helped me come to realize that God (religion, Jesus, etc.) are all way too important to be taken so damn seriously; Reminding me that although Jesus may have wept, he also laughed, and drank wine, and celebrated life’s many celebrations on occasion too…
For those of you unfamiliar with this book, publisher’s weekly gives a nice plot blurb;
When a scatterbrained Satanist nun goofs up a baby-switching scheme and delivers the infant Antichrist to the wrong couple, it’s just the beginning of the comic errors in the divine plan for Armageddon which this fast-paced novel by two British writers zanily details. Aziraphale, an angel who doubles as a rare-book dealer, and Crowley, a demon friend who’s assigned to the same territory, like life on Earth too much to allow the long-planned war between Heaven and Hell to happen. They set out to find the Antichrist and avert Armageddon, on the way encountering the last living descendant of Agnes Nutter, Anathema, who’s been deciphering accurate prophecies of the world’s doom but is unaware she’s living in the same town as the Antichrist, now a thoroughly human and normal 11-year-old named Adam. As the appointed day and hour approach, Aziraphale and Crowley blunder through seas of fire and rains of fish, and come across a misguided witch hunter, a middle-aged fortune teller and the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse. It’s up to Adam in the neatly tied end, as his humanity prevails over the Divine Plan and earthly bungling. Some humor is strictly British, but most will appeal even to Americans “and other aliens.”
The cracking good, fast paced and funny storyline is one thing, it is gripping and entertaining as any adventure yarn should be but with a huge shot of humor thrown in for good measure. There’s a ton of funny little details, like what happens to tapes (this was written at the end of the 80’s,) left in the demon Crowly’s car for more than about a fortnight; They metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.
“It’s Tchaikovsky’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’,” said Crowley, closing his eyes as they went through Slough. To while away the time as they crossed the sleeping Chilterns, they also listened to William Byrd’s “We Are the Champions” and Beethoven’s “I Want To Break Free.” Neither were as good as Vaughan Williams’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls.”
But what really makes the book special is those extremely insightful, and irreverent observations about human nature and all those “spiritual” things I mentioned earlier.
God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players, to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
Most of the members of the convent were old-fashioned Satanists, like their parents and grandparents before them. They’d been brought up to it and weren’t, when you got right down to it, particularly evil. Human beings mostly aren’t. They 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. Offer people a new creed with a costume and their hearts and minds will follow.
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.
He rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon. Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse.
Just when you’d think they were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this freewill thing, of course. It was a bugger.
There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.
It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.
“I don’t see what’s so t’riffic 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.
There never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.
I’ve been threatening lately about an article that’s been percolating about the notion of a “Grown up God.” Much of this notion, actually stems from some of the ideas mentioned above. Especially the idea about good and evil; how there’s really not some “supernatural,” anthropomorphic being existing in some literal place called Hell, making us act like monsters towards each other… how sadly, we really do have the market cornered on evil behavior all by ourselves.
So I think we need to stop passing the buck on the ultimate cloven hoofed “Scapegoat” and start looking at ourselves and what we do to each other. Anyway… more on that later.
As much as Terry wrote, I really am sorry to admit, that the rest of his work such as the Discworld series, never really captured my attention. But I think I’ve more than made up for it with my admiration and adoration for Good Omens.
I really don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not to admit that a person’s, especially a minister person’s religuous/spiritual worldview has been shaped by a work of fiction.** But for me it’s true.
I came to realize a long time ago that often it’s not in the “established” or “canonical” works that the most profound teachings exist. Those are often shaped by politics, prejudice, or power, much like what Winston Churchill has been credited with saying about history, that it “is written by the victors.” Written by those who have a “stake in the outcome.”
Rather I have discovered that the most profound ideas are often “hidden in plain sight,” in those things thought to be frivolous, humor, media, art, or song. Or much like Jesus’ own teaching style, buried in parable or story.
I may be the only one, but on many levels Good Omens was truly a paradigm shift for me, and I am profoundly grateful for it, and for its authors.
Sleep well Sir Terry, you were taken at 66 way too young and with way to many words left unsaid I’m sure.
* Actually Dr. Aloysius “Alois” Alzheimer, (14 June 1864 – 19 December 1915) the Bavarian-born German psychiatrist and neuropathologist who was credited with identifying the first published case of “presenile dementia”, which would later be known as Alzheimer’s disease, was probably not a bastard, at least it was known that his father was the Notary Public of his family’s hometown. Although the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention his mother, so maybe he was. 
Hopefully if you’ve read Good Omens, then perhaps you realize that the use of a footnote is actually an homage to Mr. Pratchett and Gaiman’s work.
** Of course many Atheists would argue that of ALL of Christianity. Heck I might even agree somewhat. #TerryPratchett
I just listened to a moving tribute to Terry on CBC’s “As It Happens.” I heard that he died with his family and that those tweets truly were his last public words. Also that he was, like me, passionate advocate for the right to die.
Crying while listening and holding my much beloved, and much taped together copy of Good Omens. Guess it’s time for another re-read.