“Everyone needs a Greasy Johnson”: Picking Sides
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Or: Why Heaven without Hell Makes No Sense
Literature and philosophy have quite a lot in common. Both consider the world not necessarily as it is, but as it can be – as it should be. Children’s literature with its roots in language game and play, on the one hand, and fables, fairy tales and stories often intended at least to a degree for the “instruction” (Anon title page) of boys and girls, on the other, is especially affected by this. The question of what is moral – and, indeed, amoral – is deeply ingrained into it. (To be fair, this is also the case with much so-called ‘adult’ literature throughout history, adhering to the well-established Classical principle ‘teach and delight.’ What is perhaps at the epicentre of moralist stories – i.e. fables, fairy tales and religious parables of all kinds –, are, of course, widely acknowledged not to be targeted at children at all, at least not exclusively. It’s not a contest. There’s no either/or.)
What is deemed (a)moral in a given story depends on a couple of factors. First, there must be generally accepted rules about what is moral and what is not, i.e. which actions should and should not be taken in the fictional world. These can vary quite drastically throughout cultures, time periods, perhaps even genres (an avenger, for example, seems to be a character that can be both moral and amoral – even at the same time – throughout different generical conventions. Am I mixing up categories here? Maybe); some, however, seem universal. Haughtiness, for example, comes under attack in Aesop’s famous fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” (collected 6th century BCE) when the Hare does not even consider the Tortoise as competition, underestimating his ingenuity. Likewise, in the fairy tale “König Drosselbart” (‘King Thrushbeard’; published 1812) collected by the Brothers Grimm, the princess – after laughing at and scorning all her suitors – has to learn that humility goes a long way. Pride goeth before a fall and all that. We stop here. Second, and this is true for fiction rather than real life, there must be characters who are moral (the ‘good’ guys) and those who are not (the ‘bad’ guys). It’s a kind of general personification: evil and amoral dragon defeated by noble and moral knight. Or princess. Or locomotive. I’m thinking Jim Knopf here (Ende 1960).
I acknowledge that it only seems this simple on the surface. Especially since the rise of the anti-hero who is not amoral but simply unheroic. (If you think about it, these kinds of heroes and heroines really do have a long-standing history in children’s literature, think of Mark Twain’s, Louisa May Aclott’s or Lucy Maud Montogomery’s characters. A German example would be the 1885 novel by Emmy von Rhoden tellingly titled Trotzkopf, i.e., roughly, ‘Pig-Headed Girl’). There are also in-between characters, though many of them lean towards one or the other ‘side’. That both sides exist in some way – even if it is within the same character (in a sense that’s exactly what an anti-hero – or a human being – is) –, though, is crucial for the story to work. There must be an ‘other,’ an opposition, a “Greasy Johnson” (Pratchett and Gaiman 311).
Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens (1990), a novel imagining the apocalypse at the end of the twentieth century with all the dark humour the topic deserves (apparently my blog is keeping up with the times), discusses this question as the antichrist, ironically called Adam, discusses the end of the world with his friends, the Them (sometimes finding a gang name is a tricky business…). They are faced with the question of what would happen if their rival gang, “the Johnsonites” (310), and their leader would have “jus’ gone away” (309). “They tr[y] to get their minds around the concept of a world with a Johnson-shaped hole in it” (309), first rejoicing in the idea – “I reckon it’d be brilliant” (310) –, but then slowly realising what such an obliteration would mean for (T)hem:
‘What you’re all sayin’,’ he [i.e. Adam] summed up, in his best chairman tones, ‘is that it wouldn’t be any good at all if the Greasy Johnsonites beat the Them or the other way around?’ ‘That’s right,’ said Pepper. ‘Because,’ she added, ‘if we beat them, we’d have to be our own deadly enemies. It’d be me and Adam against Brian an’ Wensley.’ She sat back. ‘Everyone needs a Greasy Johnson,’ she said. (310-11)
It’s essential to have both sides – (self-picked) good and evil, heaven and hell (not metaphorically speaking in this case) – in order for their lives to be “interestin’” (310) and, indeed, continue to exist. At this point, the children are not aware of the wider context of the apocalypse and Adam’s role in it. At least not much. The reader is. Nevertheless, they have understood something essential about the way of the world, identity and alterity, self and other, and their interdependency: “Everyone has to take sides in something” (311). Even if it is “your own side” (311). Especially if it is “your own side.”
Sides are important: they create tensions, “interest[…],” selves (the familiar concept of ‘I-may-not-know-who-I-am-but-I-know-I-am-not-you’), stories and even worlds. Paradoxically also this one – as well as its approaching end. What is maybe less important is what exactly these sides are. They change anyway, even by simply shifting perspectives. Adam suggesting “I reckon you can make your own side” (311) may be what is truly exiting about all this. A new moral for a new age. Be not bad, be not good, be you. Position yourself, pick a side or make one and – in Good Omens – you just might keep existing.
Anon. Memoirs of Dick the Little Poney. 1800. The Hockliffe Project, http://hockliffe.dmu.ac.uk/items/0178.html. Accessed 23 March 2020.
Pratchett, Terry, and Neil Gaiman. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. 1990. Corgi Books, 2019.