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Edmund Wilson is credited with saying, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Of course, we behave as though there can be single interpretations that are absolute, although we read as we live, looking through a veil of ego, experience, and expectations. Certain people throughout time have assumed permission to be the final word about work they did not write. I was once told by a colleague that the interpretation one of my students and I developed of a particular poem was wrong. Simply wrong. He had learned the CORRECT interpretation in college…not from the author, however. Most authors would defend the notion voiced by Wilson. Speaking as a writer, I grow from differing views of my work. With that consideration in mind, I offer this discussion:
As I watched the TV/DVD series of GOOD OMENS after reading the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, I could hear disapproving “tsking” in my imagination. It’s a British-flavored satire broadly drawn from traditional interpretations of the BIBLE and religion. The series is beautifully executed and very funny. It is not reverent. In it, entities from both Heaven and Hell are eager to enact the war of Armageddon in order to establish which side wields the most might. To both sides, the world is expendable. Many people would insist we shouldn’t question the BIBLE or examine its historical or moral inconsistencies. Not Gaiman. For example, the demon Crowley is appalled that God would destroy all “the locals” in a flood—including kids. He thinks mass destruction would seem more appropriate if it came from his lot—not Heaven. The central characters in GOOD OMENS conclude God’s plan is “ineffable” or too grand and complex for comprehension.
One obvious takeaway of the series is that humans are made of inconsistencies and so are our interpretations. We have no heroes who have no faults, nor any villains who have no mercies. Piety often masks grievous misdeeds. We are on thin ice whenever we pontificate or judge. Laws and rules are meant to operate moral civilization, but claiming sole proprietorship of wisdom or goodness is a blatant denial of essential humanity. The demon and the angel who are secretly best friends seem to be the only entities in the series who don’t always act to enhance power for their respective sides. They relish living on Earth. Humans often unwittingly pre-empt the assignments given to the demon Crowley by fomenting evil such as war or famine without his intervention, but he’s happy to accept the credit. Meanwhile, the angel Aziraphale is reproached by his superiors for donating his flaming sword as defense for the vulnerable humans driven from Eden. The friends aren’t infallible as they covertly stick up for one another. They are endearingly human-esque.
In his comments, Gaiman says he was anxious to produce the story of GOOD OMENS in these times. Why now, you might ask. I won’t pretend to have his answer. In his tale, the most reliable prophecies are contained in a book written by a woman who was burned at the stake (in a matter of speaking) as a witch for foretelling the future. She knew that when the antichrist was eventually born, he would be confused with a regular human boy, although the real antichrist would finally be granted the power to manipulate reality according to his preference.
Good and evil aren’t simple to sort out, even with the advice of those who have all the right words, but the charge is ours. Existentialism or the confusing results of free will require us to be careful in our thinking and our choices. We bear responsibility for what we do, in spite of the words we may read or say. We’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of the learning experience. Crowley explains that he didn’t mean to fall; he just got in with the wrong crowd. He protects his angel friend and vice versa as they struggle to defend the world. Unconditional love is the most potent good omen for us all.