by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 24, 2022
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This is the first of Terry Pratchett's books I've read, although I have a few others, and I've read several by Neil Gaiman. Originally published in 1990, my copy is from the Science Fiction Book Club's 50th Anniversary Collection, which I've had for at least 15 years. It may have been among the last club purchases before I canceled my membership. Not sure why it took me so long to read it. I did enjoy it, but not as much as its reputation led me to expect. That may have more to do with my aversion to biblical theology than how this story was presented.
Even though the title page in my copy does not include it (it's on the dust jacket flap), some editions may have the subtitle: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Her prophecies were uncannily accurate for more than 300 years after her death, most particularly for her descendants and for those of her executioner, Witchfinder Major Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. She had foreseen when she would be burned at the stake, and was a bit upset that Pulsifer was about ten minutes late. She didn't actually burn at the stake, she exploded instead, taking out Pulsifer, his cohorts, and most of the village as well. She had hidden lots of gunpowder and roofing nails in her petticoats. Afterwards, her daughter and son-in-law received the manuscript of her prophecies, which was published, but not one copy sold, most of them destroyed, making it a very sought after treasure for book collectors. One copy was handed down by Agnes's descendants, all trying to decipher the prophecies, which were confusing even to Agnes, since she was trying to describe her visions without understanding future trends and technologies. For instance, how could she know the "Oriental chariot" was actually a Japanese automobile?
Maybe I'm wrong, and none of the editions include the subtitle, since there are many other elements to the story, which is where biblical references come in. It starts with establishing that the universe is not billions of years old, that mankind is not millions of years old, but rather in line with Bishop Ussher's declaration that it all began in 4004 BC. Garden of Eden, snake tempting Eve, her and Adam being driven out of Paradise, Angels and Demons (fallen Angels), etc, etc. Two such beings who were supposed to be on opposite sides of the heavenly conflict become reluctant allies instead. Aziraphale the Angel, and Crowley the Demon. Crowley was originally known as Crawly, having taken the form of a serpent to tempt Eve. Aziraphale gave Adam his flaming sword for protection in the wilderness. The two met many times over the millennia, commiserating with each other about the tasks they were expected to perform, both reluctant to do so since it seemed so unfair to humanity, which had never consented to be created in the first place. Now as the End Times approach, they are especially reluctant to fall in line, since they've grown very fond of humans and all the pleasures of Earth. For Aziraphale it is fine food and genteel entertainments; Crowley loves alcohol, partying, and loud music. No matter what cassette he puts into his car's player it automatically morphs into something by Freddie Mercury and Queen.
Crowley is summoned to deliver the Antichrist baby to the hospital, where it is to be exchanged for the baby just born to an American diplomat's wife. Premature labor puts a local woman in an adjacent room to the diplomat's wife, confusion ensues, the Antichrist baby (named Adam) is taken home to the nearby village of Tadfield instead of the diplomat's residence in London. Armageddon is to take place shortly after the child's eleventh birthday, after he is gifted a Hellhound and names it. Adam Young isn't aware of who he is, and since he wants a small, playful pet, the Hellhound changes its appearance and demeanor, transforming into a small, cuddly mutt. Crowley and Aziraphale realize something is amiss when the diplomat's son, who had been named Warlock, does not get a dog on his eleventh birthday. At the same time all of this is happening, Agnes Nutter's great, great, great, etc etc, granddauther, Anathema Device, is trying to track the End Times approaching, ending up in Tadfield, eventually meeting Adam, whom she thinks is a nice, intelligent young boy. Unaware of his heritage, Newton Pulsifer happens upon the last remaining Witchfinder in England, Sergeant Shadwell, who has been receiving periodic financial help from both Aziraphale and Crowley. The fates of all of them, all of humanity, converge on Tadfield, and the final battle will apparently take place at a nearby American airbase, rather than on the plains of Israel's Megiddo (Armageddon in Greek). Instead of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, Famine, Pollution (Pestilence retired sometime in the 1930s), and Death appear as a motorcycle gang.
It's funny but also profound, apocalyptic but also hopeful. Which is more than can be said for The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which no one really understands even while thinking they do. I'm sure there are some who will be upset to know there are others like me who consider the Bible just as much fantasy as anything written by Pratchett or Gaiman (or Tolkein, or anyone else). I can laugh at a lot of the references since I was raised to believe the Bible was the inerrant word of God while also pushing back on all of it, in fact not believing in the type of god described. Very petty and petulant most of the time. I don't restrict my rejection of theology to only Judaism or Christianity, but to all man-created religions; Islam, Hindu, Zoroastrianism, and on and on. That doesn't mean there aren't worthwhile ideas in any of them, and I'm definitely not saying this book is not worth reading. It eventually comes around to the notion that humans should be the masters of their own fate, and that the purpose of life is to live it, in whatever way suits each individual. Yes, there will still be good and evil, but that is inherent in our nature, it's not dependent on outside forces. We should recall what Lincoln once said, about calling on the better angels of our nature, but also not forget what Shakespeare wrote: "Hell is empty, and all the devils are here." In other words, live the best you can, live like there will be no tomorrow, but embrace it when it comes. Live, laugh, love. If there is any god, she shouldn't expect any more from us.
My review of the Amazon Prime series.
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