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Satirising the Apocalypse in Good Omens

Good Omens (1990) is a collaborative work of two English authors Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) and Neil Gaiman (1960-). It is a satirical novel about the Biblical Apocalypse, featuring the Antichrist as the protagonist, and the constant opposition between Heaven and Hell as one of its major themes. The novel is quite allusive as it “adapts an entire field of texts associated with John of Patmos’s Apokalypse, also known as The Book of Revelation” (Clemons, 2017, p. 86). Besides, as the title of the novel suggests, “it draws heavily on Richard Donner’s 1976 film The Omen” and the mass of fiction, both mainstream and from Christian media, that have adapted the plot of the Apocalypse (Clemons, 2017, p. 86). Good Omens includes some canonical Biblical figures, like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, angels, demons, and even the voice representing God, along with secondary characters, like witches and witchfinders. Both Pratchett and Gaiman had had religious upbringing and both “touched on theology before in their works”, though, both claimed to be atheists (Haraldsdóttir, 2014, p. 7). Their collaborative novel criticises outdated aspects of Christian ethics as well as the rigid polarisation of Good and Evil. Furthermore, it rejects the idea of the inevitability of destiny and clearly states that people are free to make their own choices, just as freedom is a central aspect of human experience.


Figure 1. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Wilkinson, M. 2008.

The novel satirises the Christian notion of the arrival of the Antichrist at the End Times, but also the perception of the apocalyptic theme in mainstream Western culture. Instead of following a traditional recurring narrative of the Antichrist in American popular culture (Gerlach, p. 1027), the novel mocks the notion of the Armageddon “as some sort of cinematographic show that you wish to sell in as many countries as possible” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 40). Good Omens indeed borrows directly from the Omen film franchise and The Omen’s plot of a satanic baby swap, which plants the new-born Antichrist in the fold of an unwitting American diplomat family. The novel ridicules the twist by having Satanic nuns mistakenly give away the Antichrist to a middle-class British family living in a small village in the countryside. While The Omen fulfills the audience’s expectations of how the birth of the Antichrist will lead to the eventual destruction of human civilisation, Good Omens does the opposite in its characterisation of Satan’s son, approaching the same theme not as a human drama of a man-turned-monster going on a destructive rampage, but as a comedy in which a naïve protagonist is completely ignorant of his true identity.


Figure 2. Adam Young, the normal Antichrist, discovering the wonders of the world. Amazon/BBC studios. 2019.

As a result of the Satanic nuns’ failure, Adam Young grows up to be a fine boy under the positive influence of his family and friends. He is an eleven-year old Antichrist, who does not want to start Armageddon, as he has been raised away from the surveillance of Heaven and Hell and is not aware of his mission on Earth. Adam’s name links him directly to the Biblical Adam, as well as his “angelic” appearance, described as “something like a prepubescent Greek god” with golden glowing curls (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 129). Adam is presented as a somewhat mischievous child, causing minor disturbance in the little town with his best friends. But he is not evil; moreover, he is very joyful, imaginative and he loves his home in Tadfield. After meeting Anathema Device, a witch who provides him with alternative magazines, he becomes very concerned about whales, rain forests, nuclear stations and the environment of Earth in general.


Unconsciously, he starts using his powers to make all the unbelievable things real, and, at some point, he faces the choice of accepting his satanic nature. However, when Heaven and Hell insist that Adam should play his prescribed role as the destroyer of the world and fulfill his destiny, he refuses and says: “I don’t see why it matters what is written. Not when it’s about people. It can always be crossed out” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 337). At the end of the novel, Adam rejects his prescribed role and simply sends away the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, breaking the prophecy of the end of the world. Even though he claims that he is “not rebelling against anything” but only “pointing out things” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 336), he expresses the idea of free will. He chooses to live a normal life and to enjoy it as well. Through the figure of Adam, the novel rejects the notion of prophecy, the inevitability of Armageddon, and the necessary evilness of the Antichrist.


Figure 2. Aziraphale and Crowley plotting to prevent the Apocalypse. Amazon/BBC studios. 2019.

The narrative line of the fantasy genre is often created around the conflict between two sides: Good and Evil, using the opposition in order to reflect on the issues of morality, virtues and heroism (Fabrizi, 2016, p. 2). While Good Omens is defined as a fantasy novel, it does not act traditionally, according to its genre, and through its comedic approach rejects the accepted norms. In the story, Heaven and Hell represent the polarities, however, neither of them being a positive force, as both sides look forward to the Apocalypse, and thus, opposed to the third side in the conflict – human beings. The authors grant an angel Aziraphale and a demon Crowley with certain human characteristics in order to make them sympathetic for the reader as the protagonists. However, it is obvious that their behaviour is not typical, in comparison to the representation of angels and demons in biblical stories, as well as the artistic images of such supernatural figures derived from the Bible. Crowley and Aziraphale are considered as outcasts in their respective homes, which attracts them to each other and allows them to build a friendship over the centuries. They decide to work together to prevent the end of the world from happening, while neither Heaven nor Hell are interested in peace and the wellbeing of humanity. In Crowley’s opinion Heaven and Hell are “just sides in the great cosmic chess game” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 77), which stresses on the failure of the system and the meaningless of the opposition between Good and Evil.


Another aim of the satire in the novel is the ineffable plan of God. By definition, ineffable means something beyond understanding and that cannot be put into words. In the beginning of the novel, Aziraphale says that it is “best not to speculate” at all about God’s plan, and then expresses the didactic notion, “There is Right, and there is Wrong. If you do Wrong when you’re told to do Right, you deserve to be punished” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 4), even though he is not entirely sure about this attitude himself. The novel begins with Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden, after they had disobeyed God by eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Similarly, Adam Young, thinking and acting out of his free will, disobeys Hell and Heaven and prevents the Apocalypse from happening. After the main events, Adam climbs a tree to steal an apple, which makes a clear reference to the scene from the Bible and demonstrates Adam’s feelings on the matter, “He couldn’t see why people made such a fuss about people eating their silly old fruit anyway, but life would be a lot less fun if they didn’t. And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 367). In order to satirise a submissive attitude towards religious truths and demonstrate the absurdity of the blind acceptance of the unknown, the novel takes on a “frame of rejection” (Clemons, 2017, p. 88), a comic move that allows it to convey a critical idea of people being the masters of their own destiny.


Figure 3. Angel, demon, and the Antichrist facing the end of the world. Amazon/BBC studios. 2019.

In Good Omens Pratchett and Gaiman take already existing topics and plot elements from both the Bible and popular horror culture, and present them all from a new comical perspective. The story erases the line between Good and Evil, by portraying the supernatural characters, like Crowley, Aziraphale, and Adam Young, as very ambivalent towards the conservative moralities of “right” and “wrong,” and thereby more human. Ultimately, the authors explore such serious philosophical problems as free will, individual choice and human destiny, satirising a submissive reliance on dogma and unquestioning obedience to authority.


Even though Good Omens was received warmly back in 1990, the recent TV adaptation of the novel has caused much disturbance in the American Christian community. In response to the show, more than 20,000 Christians signed a petition in 2019 calling for it to be cancelled. This Christian petition accused the show and the creators of making “Satanism appear normal, light and acceptable”, mocking “God’s wisdom” and destroying “the barriers of horror that society still has for the devil” (Flood, 2019, para. 3). More importantly, Good Omens was criticised exactly for its satirical perspective on the story of the Apocalypse, representing the Antichrist as a normal child and describing Armageddon in a humorous way. Pratchett and Gaiman created a story that rebels against both the Christian and mainstream Western views on the Apocalypse, as “the ‘comedic’ is always identified with a refusal of accepted norms” (Clemons, 2017, p. 96). The novel invites the audience to appreciate the humorous side of these serious matters, and simultaneously to reflect critically on current standards of normality and morality.



Bibliographical References

Clemons, A. L. (2017). Adapting Revelation: Good Omens as Comic Corrective. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 28(1 (98)), 86–101. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26390195


Fabrizi, M. A. (2016). Fantasy Literature Challenging Genres (1st ed. 2016.).


Flood, A. (2019, June 20). Thousands petition Netflix to cancel Amazon Prime's Good Omens. The Guardian. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/20/petition-netflix-cancel-amazon-prime-good-omens-christian-neil-gaiman-terry-pratchett


Gaiman, N. & Pratchett, T. (1990). Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. (Reprint). William Morrow.


Gerlach, N. (2011). The Antichrist as Anti-Monomyth: The Omen Films as Social Critique. Journal of Popular Culture, 44(5), 1027–1046. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00886.x


Haraldsdóttir, E. F. (2014). Religion in Good Omens. A Study of the Usage and Effect of Religion in the Comedic Fantasy Novel Good Omens. [Thesis, Sigillum Universitatis Islandiae]. Semantic Scholar.


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