Good Omens, the new TV series based upon the fantasy novel of the same name from literary dream team Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman debuts on 31 May. Ahead of the show, Dr Karen Attar trawls reviews and editions of the original book stored in Senate House Library’s Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive.
When Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman produced their first collaborative work, Good Omens, in 1990, it met with instant critical, as well as popular, success. Reviews, collected helpfully in the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive at the University of London’s Senate House Library, consistently say how funny the book is, and frequently compare it with Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for ‘the same touch of skewed British humour’ (Times Record News, 21–22 October 1990).
‘There should be a warning on this book against reading it in public, as serious embarrassment may be incurred from laughing too much’, wrote Keith Bell in the Belfast Telegraph (17 November 1994). Nik [sic] Morton in Auguries stated more explicitly, ‘Extremely funny throughout, not just in patches and with numerous amusing footnotes.’ Praise reaches its pinnacle in an unattributed review in What’s On. ‘Almost every new novel from Terry Pratchett is acclaimed as the greatest yet, but in this case that claim is justified.’
The only more analytical review present is John Clute’s in Interzone (July 1990), which can hardly be considered negative: ‘It is not, in other words, a comedy. But is it any good? Yes and no and yes. It is very funny indeed (yes), though bedevilled throughout by neurotic nudgings of narrative focus and galumphing tonal shifts (no), and in the end it shines through (yes). It is a very strange book indeed; perhaps all genuine collaborations are.’ He continues by praising the collaboration: ‘Who conceived or wrote what in this book it would be foolish to guess.’
Even in the US, there was a sense that not all the humour came across in translation. One needs to know Britain and to appreciate British self-deprecation to appreciate some topographical explanations. For example, that demons, concerned with making difficulties for humans, were responsible for the M25 motorway and Manchester, while angels were involved in Shropshire and Edinburgh. Neither demons nor angels claimed responsibility for Milton Keynes, although both reported it as a success.
To offset the specifically British references and humour which might not be comprehensible elsewhere, the English version first published by Gollancz was revised in 2014 for the edition published in New York for the American audience. Other twists appealed to speakers of languages other than English. For example, the surname of the witch, ‘Agnes Nutter’, becomes ‘Agnes Spinner’ in German and ‘Agnès Barge’ in French.
With such alterations, the book certainly travelled. Editions in the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive include translations into Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew as well as a range of northern, western and eastern European languages. The collection continues to grow, with audio versions and with a translation into Taiwan expected to arrive. Most translations follow the American text; only the German follows the English.
Even the names of the authors do not appear uniformly. By agreement, American editions are attributed to ‘Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’, while in England and elsewhere Pratchett’s name precedes Gaiman’s.
It is not only the language that changes. Whereas those of Terry Pratchett’s books with a cover design by Josh Kirby for the English publication tend to take the design with them across languages, the cover design for Good Omens varies across editions.
Chris Moore designed a cover, featuring the number 666, for the first English edition, while other illustrators have included Graham Ward (English), David Frampton (American), Rowena Morrill (French), and Atelier Lembke (German), as well as Josh Kirby for a Serbian edition.
The variation between copies arises from the outset within Britain, with the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive holding copies published by Victor Gollancz ([Pratchett] B.487) and by Guild Publishing by arrangement with Victor Gollancz ([Pratchett] B.486). The two issues share a printer and typesetter, such that the setting of the text, except for the title leaf, is identical; differences occur in the identifying numbers (ISBN for Gollancz; ‘CN6407’ for Guild), reproduced on the back cover of the issues, and in the extent of information on the verso of the title leaf.
Most strikingly, the Gollancz publication acknowledges permission to reproduce lyrics from Frederick Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which the Guild issue does not. While none of this affects the pleasure of reading, (how many readers scrutinise the information on the reverse side of the title leaf?). Bibliographers may pounce upon it for the fascination of the relationship between texts and the evidence that subtle differences between issues do not end with the introduction of machine-press books.
Literary historians may relish another item in the collection, a print out of the text on a dot-matrix printer ([Pratchett] MS.28). Small differences occur between it and the published text, both English and American, as scrutiny merely of the first few pages shows. Some are issues of capitalisation or italicisation while others amend the text.
The first chapter, as printed, begins: Current theories on the creation of the Universe are that, if it was created at all and didn’t just start, as it were, unofficially, it came into being between ten and twenty thousand million years ago. By the same token the earth itself is generally supposed to be about four and a half thousand million years old. These dates are incorrect.
In the print out, ‘thousand million’ appears as ‘billion’. Meaning can shift slightly. The prologue of the book, a discussion between a devil and an angel has Crawly, the devil, say: ‘Funny if I did the good thing and did the bad one, eh?’ ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ have emerged from the starker and narrower ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of the print out.
If you enjoy the television serialisation, do explore the written text and its ramifications. Then investigate the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature for 17th-century works on witchcraft.
Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Image: Front cover of the German edition of Good Omens, 2001 ([Pratchett] B.313)