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Wright’s Writing Corner: On Angels
Rafe the Scruffy Angel of Joy
Some time ago, I promised to begin a series of articles about writing about the Great Ideas. The first Great Idea listed by Mortimer Adler happens to be Angels. So, today, I thought I would write about writing about angels.
Some things are intrinsically hard to write about. Angels may be one of those things. I have almost never seen them done well in fiction. I have, however, read really stirring accounts of people who believe that they have seen real angels. While I have no way to judge the veracity of their stories, I can feel the power of the narrative. It come with a sense of awe and wonder.
Somehow, that sense almost never appears in depictions of angels in fantasy and science fiction. Depictions of angels in genre literature and media is almost universally negative. They are the real bad guys, while demons are misunderstood, emo, moody hunks. Or they are weak. Angels are rigid. Angels are hand-wringers. Angels are boring.
Only the ones who fall in love…emphasis there on the word fall…are even the slightest bit interesting. When they fall, then they get to be the cute scruffy hunks.
A perfect example of the way angels are often handled is Neil Gaiman’s Angel Islington from Neverwhere. I love Neverwhere, but Islington is just a villain, and not even a particularly inspiring one. Still, Islington does stand out in my mind as the archetypical example of that kind of wimpy evil angel that seems so popular now. One sees these angels in books and TV shows. They are also popular in a certain kind of movie.
Well…a number of reasons.
First of all, it is hard to have a powerful force of good and still have a story. Because the logical question then becomes: well, if they are good, and then are powerful…why haven’t they solved all the problems?
Problem is that the author has to answer that question in a way that makes sense in his story world. Not that easy to do.
A popular answer is: the prime directive. “We angels cannot interfere in the squabbles of men because…we are too benevolent. You must use your free will.” Angels do not interfere for the same reason that parents don’t interfere when their older son is beating their younger son at Monopoly and the younger one is in tears. The adult might comfort the child, but he does not win the game for him. That would not be fair.
In real life, this may make sense, but it is hard to make it satisfying in a story. In real life, letting go of the grip of the world around us and turning to God may be a goal…but in a story, we, the writers, need to do the opposite. To suck people into our imaginary world, to get them to suspend their disbelief. It is difficult to keep the reader in a story where we are telling the reader that the happenings are not important enough for the real good guys to bother with.
A word about real life. I have often wondered how traditional Christians can buy the ‘we don’t interfere like a parent’ theory…when losing the game means going to Hell. I do understand how it would work in according to my church—where Hell is a state of mind you can escape from if you turn to God—or in the world of Near Death Experiences, which also seems to include a Hell one can be prayed out of.
But if Hell is real and permanent? Well, I might not stop my older son from winning the game…but I’d sure stop him from hurting or killing his brother!
But back to the world of fiction.
There are other ways to solve the dilemma. When it was my turn, I turned to some ideas from my church and from C. S. Lewis and decided that Heaven and heavenly things were more substantial than earthly things, not less so. So, when the angel comes into the world, it begins to warp around her and seem flimsy. She can only stay a little while…like a child’s contraption that an adult would break if he climbed into it. So, the parent can only come help for a moment, when the child is really stuck. Otherwise, they have to figure it out on their own. This gave them a slightly stronger reason for not hanging around.
Are angels ever done right? Yes, occasionally, they are. When the spirit of a true testimonial of God’s messengers in our life is brought to the story. Christmas stories often capture this mood.
One of my favorite angels was Rafe Kovick on the soap opera Port Charles. Back in December of some year about a decade ago, I was working out at the gym in front of a large bank of TVs and I started watching this soap opera…only time I have ever watched one. It had on it this character who looked like a scruffy bad boy, only—he was an angel. And instead of all the terrible things that usually happen on soaps, this one month, in honor of Christmas, the angel would come by and something unexpectedly good would happen. (He was really there to hunt a vampire, but he could pause to perform a few other miracles as well.)
It was just delightful to watch. Every day, something else uplifting occurred. I loved it.
And that is what makes the “real” stories about angels so wonderful…that sense of unexpected joy, of something good appearing where there seemed to be only sorrow, of eucatastrophe…something, surprisingly and unexpectedly good.
As soon as Christmas was over. The angel fell in love, fell, and became uninteresting. But he was so cool when he was an angel!
So…what is your favorite handling of angels in literature or media?
Obviously I'm enjoying what you're working on now. ; )
I did like the original Wings of Desire, particularly the scene of the angels standing behind the library patrons doing old-fashioned research (80s film). They'd turn a page. Hold a hand. Quietly look off now and again and silently greet each other. Whispering voices all around. Much good being done even in a bleak and intellectually challenging setting.
Agree--much less interesting when the "fell."
I think you gave me a copy of that.
I like the angels in Jane Siberry's song "Calling All Angels." In addition to the, dare I say, angelic voices of Siberry and k.d. Lang and the haunting melody, the vision of the angelic quandary is stunning. The angels watch a man who is weighed down with the heaviness of his life, and they want to help. "If you could, do you think you would trade it all, all the pain and suffering, but then you'd miss the beauty of the light upon the lake and the sweetness of the lady." In the song, the man's angels are "calling all angels" for help in this one because they're not sure what to do.
Interesting. I'll look it up.
When it's a ladybug or something larger in trouble, I can usually help it safely. But a gnat or small spider or other very fragile creature -- my touch is more likely to hurt than help. Even the touch of the soft ragged edge of a scrap of tissue.
I think Lewis used an image like that, somewhere: we are too fragile to be helped.
Sometimes I can put something in reach that the insect may be able to use: like a twig for a drowning butterfly to grab. Or elsewhere, blow an insect in the direction of safety, as Aslan did Eustace in THE SILVER CHAIR.
I think I mentioned Lewis as an influence. I meant to anyway. If I didn't, I'll add it.
|Date:||December 2nd, 2011 10:32 am (UTC)|| |
I also liked in CS Lewis's depiction of angels in his Cosmic Trilogy is how as they are pure good, and us being sinful makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable in their presence, as a criminal would feel when surrounded by the police. And the possessed demonic character gives him a look of inviting him into his hurting of the local wildlife, as a "friend."
I like his eldil, too.
And Aslan, of course!!! Not an angel...but the same principle.
I have an enduring soft spot for R. A. MacAvoy's Damiano trilogy, but my judgement may be coloured by the fact that I moonlight in classical guitar and having an archangel for a music tutor is just so far beyond cool! :)
It's been ages since I read the books, though; I should probably reread them to see whether they stand the test of time.
I recently discovered Remy Chandler, the hard-boiled angel detective... He's not exactly fallen, since he's one of the good angels... but he has mixed feelings about heaven, I guess you could say.
While such stories are often really enjoyable, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's easy to make a character who is uncertain about something. It's hard to show an angel...a creature that actually works for God and is unswerving.
I was just thinking yesterday that the reason (or one of the reasons) the later "first" Star Wars trilogy failed (and the original trilogy did not) was that it portrayed all the Jedi leaders with the sorta/maybe/not-really exception of Obi Wan as being basically perfect, without any of the faults and contrasts that turn characters from 2D into 3D.
(Actually, I think just about all of the main characters fell a little flat... any attempt at putting contrast in there seemed artificial somehow.)
|Date:||December 3rd, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)|| |
Do you know any book which would explain the doctrine of Christian Science - as precisely and scientifically as possible? The more I learn about it, the more important it seems to me (not necessarily in the good sense, BTW).
As for angels:http://www.drbo.org/chapter/31001.htm
" Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, when I was in the midst of the captives by the river Chobar, the heavens were opened, and I saw the visions of God.  On the fifth day of the month, the same was the fifth year of the captivity of king Joachin,  The word of the Lord came to Ezechiel the priest the son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans, by the river Chobar: and the hand of the Lord was there upon him.  And I saw, and behold a whirlwind came out of the north: and a great cloud, and a fire infolding it, and brightness was about it: and out of the midst thereof, that is, out of the midst of the fire, as it were the resemblance of amber:  And in the midst thereof the likeness of four living creatures: and this was their appearance: there was the likeness of a man in them.
 Every one had four faces, and every one four wings.  Their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their foot was like the sole of a calf's foot, and they sparkled like the appearance of glowing brass.  And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides: and they had faces, and wings on the four sides,  And the wings of one were joined to the wings of another. They turned not when they went: but every one went straight forward."
What can be more terrible that a creature which is absolutely indifferent to everything, but goes and does what he has to do, without ever turning?
Book of Enoch (non-canonical, ie apocryphical) is also interestinghttp://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/boe013.htm
Nothing explains Christian Science as well as Science and Health itself. It is available online:http://www.spirituality.com/dt/toc_sh.jhtml;jsessionid=KLM35G4WEEY3HKGL4LYCFE
To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, to-day is big with blessings. The wakeful shepherd beholds the first faint morning beams, ere cometh the full radiance of a risen day. So shone the pale star to the prophet-shepherds; yet it traversed the night, and came where, in cradled obscurity, lay the Bethlehem babe, the human herald of Christ, Truth, who would make plain to be-nighted understanding the way of salvation through Christ Jesus, till across a night of error should dawn the morn-ing beams and shine the guiding star of being. The Wise-men were led to behold and to follow this daystar of divine Science, lighting the way to eternal harmony.
The time for thinkers has come. Truth, independent of doctrines and time-honored systems, knocks at the portal of humanity. Contentment with the past and the cold conventionality of materialism are crumbling away. Ignorance of God is no longer the stepping-stone to faith. The only guarantee of obedience is a right apprehension of Him whom to know aright is Life eternal. Though empires fall, "the Lord shall reign forever."
|Date:||December 6th, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC)|| |
Thank you very much.
|Date:||December 4th, 2011 06:04 am (UTC)|| |
My take on angelic interference is always that God Said Not To, and unlike humankind, angels don't/won't) disobey. 'nuff said. Theodicy is a whole 'nother story. Though I will note, that if you had a choice between destroying your son: that is, making Juss, Not Juss, in order to mind-control him so that he didn't go to hell, you might choose to let him freely choose hell. If only because God didn't make hell, and nothing not made by God is eternal. But that's not theology, just my fancied opinion: if it seems foolish to you, please disgregard it.
Back to the topic at hand: Angels done right in popular literature (Classical literature: Milton, Dante, etc. have no shortage) Here goes:
Jim Butcher does them fairly well in his Dresden files: there are only glimpses of the awe, and beauty and terror, but since we only see Dresden when he's Hip Deep In It, and his focus is usually laser tight to the problem at hand, it work.
Madeline L'Engle: A Wind in the Door: Oh the cherubim! But you knew that, right?
Zilpha Keatley Snyder Three Cornered and Secure my favorite bar none. If your library can't get you a copy of Holding Wonder, I'll loan you mine. You will love, love, love these stories: they're right up your alley. ZKS is the only SF&F author for adults who routinuely Gets Kids (and the parents who love them) RIGHT: whether you're reading as a kid or as a parent.
There are probably more, but as I type this, it occurs to me that most of the kind of stories you described involve A Romantic Element: boy-girl/courtship/mate-y-date-y stuff. The three examples above (guy-fic, kid's fic, and fully-human-involved w/kids and families-fic) simply don't really need that element. It might appear, if a particular storyline calls for it, but it's not central to the work.
And let's face it, angels, realio-trulio-angels aren't going to be involved in romantic shenagins of the human (or Greek gods-n-demigods) type unless there's something seriously broken about them.
Edited at 2011-12-04 06:04 am (UTC)
|Date:||December 4th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: You rang?
I agree entirely about real angels...I think the "God said no" explanation is harder to fit in some stories, as the story as to give a sense of God's scope and control before that feels believable and many stories with angels and demons nowadays don't.
I LOVE Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and I have never even heard of that book!!! I will look for it right away. If I cannot get it, I would be sooooooo grateful to borrow yours!
|Date:||December 9th, 2011 01:16 am (UTC)|| |
Re: I got my Zs mixed up
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: the title is correct, but the author is Zenna Henderson. I also thought you'd like ZKS, but I was also pretty sure you already knew about **her**
So sorry! Bad librarian, no bikkie!
|Date:||December 9th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: I got my Zs mixed up
I still want to read the book. ;-)
|Date:||December 5th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: You rang?
But that's not theology, just my fancied opinion: if it seems foolish to you, please disgregard it.
IIRC, that's basically the Catholic version of why God doesn't just make it so everyone goes to heaven.
Difference between telling the kid what he should do, and taking control of the game.
|Date:||December 6th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)|| |
Spoilers about Supernatural, but most of them are from the first 5 seasons, and its season 7 now.
Are you including the TV show Supernatural as an example of how angels are handled badly? I rather liked how the show actually brought up the subject and it wasn't just demons and forces of darkness all the time, like Buffy was.
I like how angels are warriors of god and exceptionally powerful. THey don't quite understand our material nature nor our emotions. An angel in his natural state is dangerous and can shatter ear drums just trying to say "don't be afraid". They have to possess humans to interact mostly. Angels need permission from the vessel before they can take control.
As for plotting, God has left them and the Angels decide to put the apocalypse into motion. The Winchester brothers decide this is a bad idea, and convince one angel to help them oppose the rest. So they have angels on one side and demons on the other. "The demons are dicks and the angels come across as shady politicians from the planet Vulcan".
Demons are all evil. Lucifer gets free and he's very soft spoken, quiet, and even sad. But all the more scary. He hates the demons he created and uses them as cannon fodder. After he's through killing the humans, he'll go after the demons. One demon (named Crowley, natch) starts to help the Winchesters for this reason.
The theology is interesting, but isn't quite right (or they just made it up) But at least Supernatural doesn't skirt the issue of angels. Pushing God off the stage on some mysterious mission seems sort of of a copout, but what else could they do? Even Aslan backed off occasionally and let the humans figure things out on their own.
Any other Supernatural fans? The show is not kid friendly, but has its scary parts and doesn't take itself too seriously.
|Date:||December 6th, 2011 12:10 pm (UTC)|| |
I have not seen Supernatural myself. It is one of several shows that sound REALLY COOL, but are just too upsetting and violent for met to watch. So, I support it but don't watch it.
As to your question...yes, I consider any story where the angels are treated as a force to resist instead of as good guys on our side as anti-angel.
That being said, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy such stories. They can be really good. They aren't about what I think an angel really is, but that doesn't mean that they aren't neat in their own right.
One thing I really like about the roleplaying game with Castiel in it that a friend ran, which I am currently trying to turn into a YA novel, is that Castiel manages to have quite a few complaints about Heaven (in this version, his world was destroyed...and he thinks it was partially because he got too involved with the inhabitants.) And yet the other angels are very angelic. In the story, the two manage to work side by side rather nicely.
I used to be. It started off on an interesting foot when they brought Christian archetypes in, but it just went downhill. I don't expect non-Christians to portray things the way Christians might--they'll do weird things with theology to tell what they think is a good story, which is fine--but the show got to the point where I just had to call it profane, which is not usually something I do. And its angels became small characters, muddled mouthpieces for postmodern cliches half the time.
One of the problem is that angels are now often deployed as ideological proxies, in one of two prevailing modes. In the Modernist mode, they become cog in the cosmic machine, a foot soldier receiving orders from the heavenly bureaucracy, with tinges satire in the vein of "Cath-22." In Postmodernist Mode, Heaven becomes a proxy for the Metanarrative (TM) that must be rejected (one twist sometimes being God has left and Heaven is now a corrupt racket) and angels are either its tyrannical zealots, conflicted agents, or heroic rebels. In any of these cases, the problems are the same: too small, too frail, too human. It all boils down to many authors being unable to paint a picture of what goodness actually looks like. But portrayals of angels--and by extension, goodness itself--were already slouching toward maudlin sentimentality and safe banality long before literary Modernism finally caught up.
Tolkien (LotR), Lewis (Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces), and Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, etc.) are three authors who could do compelling portrayals of goodness and compelling angelic characters. The example that most comes to mind is the Ghost of Christmas Present; jolly, joyful, innocent, exuding goodness, powerful, overwhelming, wild, king-like and child-like at the same time. He had an aura of Creation in its youth, unfallen, and reflects some of the glory of the Creator in whose presence he was fit stand. "Fear and trembling" is an appropriate phrase for such a being. Lewis, of course, did something similar with Aslan. Tolkien's Elves are more melancholy, but again, with similar themes at work.
I think the one thing to remember is that its very tricky to use angelic character as a protagonist. That's where a lot of writers get in trouble (such as when angels fall in love). It's not that it is impossible to do it, but it isn't advisable for most.
I agree with previous commenters who brought up Tolkien and Lewis, and also Dickens (I hadn't thought of that!).
If you can get angels right, you're probably a good writer (and on the way to great). Kind of a litmus test...one of those "I know it when I see it" things. It seems that whenever anyone tries to explain how to write a good--or a wicked--angel it's as though they're grasping at smoke...more questions come up than are answered!
As for your core question about why, oh why, don't the angels meant to help us toward God do more, it must be tied up in the same questions:
- Why does God allow evil?
- Why doesn't God give us undeniable proof of himself so that no one would doubt?
- If miracles are real, why don't we see more of them?
- If I had superpowers, I would do so much more! Why don't the angels?
The answer has something to do with how good and evil work, but it's mostly beyond me: something about how evil seems to use direct, visible, powerful means while good works slowly, quietly and hidden away. That doesn't make sense to us, but it does to God. Think of the "smallness" of so many great saints. How do they do it? How do simple love and obedience and suffering beat back the powers of money, governments and militaries? How??? It's a good question, and a "theme" probably on your list of the ones that make great stories.
Why angels don't help us more in real life doesn't bother me that much...as I think I understand it to some degree.
But how to make a story where this seems reasonable without seeming weak is a different problem. ;-)
But I do think you are correct about this being on the list of themes for great stories!
Yes, nothing worse than a vanilla angel. Our tendency, since we're human and we don't understand divine/supernatural motives even when directly pondering them, is to assume that inaction is either do to weakness, wickedness or devotion to some flawed "prime directive" (as you mention).
Lewis' answer to this was to portray the eldils in the space trilogy as monumentally, frighteningly powerful beings. They were neither weak and clearly were too beautiful to be wicked. What glimpses you saw of their philosophy was also complex. In the end, you might have said "I would have done it differently," but you couldn't argue that the eldils got things done and all ended well.
Angels are a topic that really drives me nuts when I watch modern movies. The angels are nearly always wrong, wrong, wrong! I particularly hate the "fall in love with a human" angels and the "misunderstood freedom-fighter" demon. Ugh! The real angels are soooooo much more interesting than the latest "real angels you never knew!" that are portrayed today.
|Date:||December 6th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)|| |
What about Clarence?
I love Clarence. The theology is fuzzy...but I think that is the right kind of angel.
|Date:||December 9th, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC)|| |
I also really like Joseph and the serene, unnamed angel. Together, the three of them add a little colour and personality to the usul drab portrayal of the heavenly host.
|Date:||December 6th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)|| |
The first well-written angels that come to my mind are those from Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness. His angels are, admittedly, not much more than superpowered invisible human beefcakes who can move through walls, but by being consistent with that image, and by making the angels really good (though not flat or boring) and the demons really evil (and sometimes funny), Peretti put together an enjoyable novel even if it is neither particularly innovative nor theologically precise.
The other cool angels, both fallen and not, that come to my mind first are those from your husband's War of the Dreaming duology.
The worst angels in fiction are probably Philip Pullman's pansies who can get beat up by twelve-year-olds.
|Date:||December 7th, 2011 01:36 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Well-Written Angels
John does great angels...both the Christian kind and the non-Christian kind. (The angels in the Corruption Campaign are not related to God. They are servents of the greek gods, but they are still cool as all cucumbers.)
Your Pullman comment really made me laugh!
Love that didn't fall
Gregory Peck's angel that falls in love but chooses God over the woman is what makes "The Bishop's Wife" worth watching for me. I also enjoy the way that he only works miracles when people aren't looking, so that they can still choose to believe or not but are so touched by his goodness that their hearts are moved rather than their minds.
|Date:||December 9th, 2011 01:09 am (UTC)|| |
Re: Love that didn't fall
I do love that movie. It always makes me laugh because when the angel threatens the Bishop with lightning in one scene, my friend we were watching it with announced, "Do your worst. I'm properly grounded!"
|Date:||December 9th, 2011 01:10 am (UTC)|| |
Re: Love that didn't fall
LOL I hadn't looked to see who commented when I wrote that. It was Allan Korff who said that.