JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve come back from Milton Keynes… Do you remember where we were before that?
ALAN: Ah, tangents. Don’t you love them? I’m sure I had something important to say before I got sidetracked…
Oh, yes… Gaiman’s writing pal Terry Pratchett has also dipped his toes into the murky waters of humour about religion and spirituality.
Small Gods tells of the god Om who comes back into the world and, rather to his surprise, finds himself manifested in the body of a tortoise. He has only one disciple, a boy called Brutha (which presumably is pronounced “Brother” and which also suggests “Buddha”). The book is a wonderful satire on the role of religion in politics and the practices of religious institutions.
Books such as this convince me that Pterry is not really a writer of funny books per se. In his later novels in particular, he is really writing about deeply serious subjects. It just so happens that the ways he finds to discuss those subjects are hilarious… In the words of the title of a book about his writing, Terry Pratchett is clearly guilty of literature.
JANE: I adore Small Gods. It is both broadly humorous and deeply satirical. What makes Small Gods work as a commentary on religion is that it does not in the least attack those who are either truly religious or truly spiritual – Brutha and some of his associates are both. What Small Gods takes issue with are those who would use the forms of religion as an excuse for doing things (like torture) that are horrible by any measure.
Terry Pratchett doesn’t restrict his exploration of the relationship of God/gods and humanity to the Omnians. The Rincewind books (a subset of the Discworld books, for those of you unfamiliar with Pratchett’s work) feature of host of gods who are, literally, playing dice with the universe, most particularly with the residents of the Discworld. Rincewind is the favored playing piece of one deity in particular, and his hopes for a peaceful and boring life do not benefit from that interest.
Okay, your turn! I see you bouncing up and down over there.
ALAN: If only in passing, I have to at least mention Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. We’ve discussed it before so I don’t want to spend too much time on it again, but for the sake of completeness I must point out that by using Anansi, the trickster god (a common figure in many mythologies) Gaiman manages to show, humorously, that even the gods need a little anarchy in their lives if those lives are to have any meaning.
JANE: Trickster figures are far more than anarchy – in fact, many people would argue that they are less figures of anarchy than they are emblematic of righting the balance. Anansi – like Coyote, like Prometheus, and others – is associated with bringing fire to humanity.
ALAN: This aspect comes out quite clearly in the novel.
Spoiler Alert, since I can’t explain this without talking about plot details.
Following the death of his father Anansi, Charlie Nancy (lovely pun!) finally gets to meet his brother Spider, who has inherited all the godlike powers of their trickster father. They celebrate their meeting with rather too much wine, women and song. The next day, Charlie is far too hungover to go into the office and so Spider, magically disguised as Charlie, substitutes for him. Spider quickly discovers that Charlie’s partner has been embezzling funds from the company. But Spider cannot resist his own nature and he himself steals the affections of Rosie, Charlie’s fiancée…
The Nancy brothers are initially out-maneuvered by Charlie’s partner, which sets in motion a complex chain of events that occupy the rest of the novel. But in the end the balance is properly restored – the embezzler is turned into a stoat, Spider marries Rosie, and Charlie becomes a successful singer. Their dead father Anansi watches his two sons with approval.
JANE: And, it is implied, may have intended this result or something like it all along…
And we can’t really leave Neil Gaiman and this topic without a nod to American Gods. I don’t want to provide a spoiler – especially since many people are rediscovering the novel because it’s being adapted for television or something – but I will say that by the end the question of what might be the new American Gods is provided with a very provocative answer.
ALAN: Of course, Gaiman and Pratchett et al were building on a well-established comic tradition. In 1907, G. K. Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday.
JANE: You mentioned this when we were starting this thread and I just finished reading it. Wonderful language wrapped around an apparently absurdist plotline that, by the end, has almost too much meaning. I very much enjoyed the book.
ALAN: Chesterton is perhaps best known for his “Father Brown” detective stories. These are not without humour, and Chesterton also sometimes uses Father Brown as a foil for theological asides which somehow manage to give an insight into the solution of the current case.
These aspects of Chesterton’s writing all come together beautifully in The Man Who Was Thursday and it is his masterpiece. The book tells of a group of anarchists, whose central council maintain their anonymity by naming themselves after the days of the week. Their leader, insofar as anarchists have leaders, is known as Sunday…
Oh, dear, it seems I must issue another spoiler alert…
JANE: Go ahead. Let me help. Spoiler Alert, folks!
ALAN: Thank you. It turns out that all the council members are undercover detectives, each of whom has been employed mysteriously, and assigned to defeat the very council of which they are a part! It’s all a devious plot by Sunday, of course. He has set detective against detective, with nary an anarchist in sight. What could his reasons possibly be?
A clue comes on one of the final pages of the novel when Sunday is asked if he has ever suffered. His response is “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”, which was the question that Jesus used to challenge his disciples’ commitment to his teachings.
The novel is a Christian allegory (though rather more subtle than many). Its saving grace is that it is very, very funny and the humour has stood the test of time well.
JANE: I would argue that there are many earlier “clues” – including the fact that the group’s leader is called “Sunday” – to Sunday’s probable identity.
What I thought was even more interesting than who Sunday might be was how the numerous, often hilarious, discussions of the value of anarchy versus law or order can be seen as arguments for and against free will. All the policemen who ostensibly are upholding order thrive in one way or another by being encouraged to take on the role of anarchists (that is, show a bit more free will), while the one true anarchist is – in a very odd way, because he can only exist with Law to act against – the only real advocate of order.
It’s not that simple, but it does provoke thought.
ALAN: Humour can do that to you. It’s a sneaky technique. For example…
JANE: No! We must stop here. We’ve already gone on longer than I intended and I need to get some work done. Please make notes and save it for next time!