George Giles is a boy raised as a goat who rises in life to be Grand Tutor (spiritual leader) of New Tammany College (the United States). He strives for (and achieves) herohood, in accordance with the hero myth as theorized by Lord Raglan and Joseph Campbell. The novel abounds in mythological and Christian allegories, as well as in allusions to the Cold War, 1960s academia, and religion. Rather than discovering it, George chooses his identity, much like Ebeneezer Cooke does in The Sotweed Factor .
The principle behind the allegorical renaming of key roles in the novel as romanà clef is that the Earth (or the Universe) is a University. Thus, for example, the founder of a religion or great religious leader becomes a Grand Tutor (in German Grosslehrer ), and Barth renames specific leaders as well: Jesus Christ becomes Enos Enoch (meaning in Hebrew "The man who walked with God" or "humanity when it walked with God" ), Moses becomes Moishe, Buddha becomes the original Sakhyan. As the founder of the maieutic method, Socrates becomes Maios; Plato (whose Greek name Platon means "broad-shouldered") becomes Scapulas (from scapula, shoulder-blade); Aristotle, as the coiner of the term entelekheia (lit. "having an end within," usually translated "entelechy," or glossed as the actualization of a potentiality), becomes Entelechus. The heroes of epic poems tend to be named after the Greek for "son of": Odysseus becomes Laertides (son of Laertes), Aeneas becomes Anchisides (son of Anchises), and so on. The subtitle The Revised New Syllabus means, in the novel's Universe=University allegory, a parodic rewriting of the New Testament. Satan is the Dean o' Flunks, and lives in the Nether Campus (hell); John the Baptist is John the Bursar; the Sermon on the Mount becomes the Seminar-on-the-Hill; the Last Judgment becomes the Final Examination. Among the parodic variations, a computer replaces the Holy Spirit, and an artificial insemination the Immaculate Conception.
A hypertext encyclopedia also figures in the novel, years before the invention of hypertext and three decades before the Web became part of society at large. The character Max Spielman is a parody of Ernst Haeckel, whose insight "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is rephrased as "ontogeny recapitulates cosmogeny" and "proctoscopy repeats hagiography". The "riddle of the universe" is rephrased as "the riddle of the sphincters".
The text is "discovered" by the author (much like in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night ). The novel contains a forty-page parody in small type of the full text of Oedipus Rex called Taliped Decanus . The digressive play-within-a-book is grossly disproportionate to the length of the book, parodying both Sophocles and Freud.