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Wright’s Writing Corner: On Angels Reboot
In honor of Christmas, here’s a reposting of my article on 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.
Not sure this one falls in love, but…scruffy hunk!
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 think they must use a different explanation. 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’s Christmas appearance 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.
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!
I have a lot of angels in the Rachel Griffin series. Some are good angels. Some are very good. Some are only so-so. One idea I borrowed from the friend who originated the idea is that very few angels understand how humans think. (Think of how adults often don’t seem to understand children. Now imagine you’d never been a child, never did anything wrong. How easy would it be to understand them?) Therefore, even when they try to help, sometimes they just make things worse.
So, you can see why their Father might have set rules for how they are to interact with men.
Also, another popular idea that I also take advantage of is: when angels act, demons are allowed to act, too. So angels don’t want to interfere unless they have to, because they give their enemies license to do something.
This particular option appeals to me, because I see things that remind me of this in real life all the time. Think of how a good idea tends to get distorted when it becomes popular. That’s a bit like an angel (message from God) being warped by demonic interests.
Stories that follow this format could be quite interesting. Sadly, there are not a lot of them.
So…what is your favorite handling of angels in literature or media?
Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon
Well now I'm definitely interested and reaching Rachel Griffin and seeing how angels are portrayed...
So anyway, judging from the picture YET from the lack of references, I see that you don't have much familiarity with Supernatural...
Of course there's two era of the shows it is helpful in splitting up for these discussions. I'll focus on the first era less I bore everyone. ;-D
In that, God's actually vacated Heaven at large as well (or at least, no angel but 1 has seen or talked to him in many centuries) so the angels are doing their own thing, really. In the first 5 seasons, once they appeared, angels are portrayed as more... forces of nature. If something is to be done, they are going to do it. So if they have to stop some kind of mystical event, they'll wipe out an entire town (even if its full of innocents) to do it. In the fight against evil, Angels are the a-bombs, hunters et al would be the more targeted strikes.
It's certainly at least an interesting take and I've applauded the show for at least keeping demons still just as evil (or worse) than the angels.
Can post more if requested but since I tweeted this, I'm wondering if other SPN fans will start swamping the post... lol
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 05:51 pm (UTC)|| |
I use that picture for someone else. I don't actually watch Supernatural...though I am rather familiar with it.
I've seen other stories where God was missing. John put one together once. It's a neat way of explaining the problem...so long as you have an answer to why.
Sure...go to town!
"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 think they must use a different explanation."
Two explanations immediately spring to mind:
1.Angels are trying to help people out all the time, but likewise demons are always trying to hurt them. The two sides tend to cancel out fighting each other, except in those rare instances of angelic or demonic activity that are experienced by us mortals, where human holiness or wickedness gives one side a foot in the door.
Alternate Version of 1: Angels are helping out all the time, their help just tends to be more subtle and less Book of Tobit "I'll disguise myself as a man and help this young lad exorcise a demon with fish guts and win the girl"-style.
2.God is playing the long, long game, so naturally there will be times where us nearsighted folk are going "Gee, some angelic intervention would be great right now" while God, knowing exactly what needs to be done for our salvation, decides otherwise.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 06:13 pm (UTC)|| |
My personal guess is #1. I think the angels are helping us all the time, and the demonic/evil/erroneous influences are there as well...and we listen to the ones we chose to hear.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 06:13 pm (UTC)|| |
Number two is probably true, too. ;-)
You share my theories. :D
I rather like the idea of Angels As Swans-- we picture them as all graceful and stuff, when they're actually scrambling like heck.
Oooh... that works nicely for my supernatural story, since I already have less of the Supernatural Bad stuff happening in Christian nations.
Professor Tolkien handled his angelic characters well, I think. When the Valar intervene to lock up Morgoth, the ensuing struggle sinks the continent of Beleriand, which explains their absence in The Lord of the Rings (except for Manwe's Eagles). The less powerful Maiar are sent instead. Gandalf is a wonderful character, and his ability to draw upon his powers is tempered by his orders from above, which are to inspire and encourage rather than overawe and dominate. Saruman falls into the latter, giving a good picture of an angel twisted by pride, while Radagast falls away by becoming far too engrossed in the material world he has entered into, and forgetting to think of higher things.
Jim Butcher handles angels well as well. He writes Uriel into just the right places so that he can be angelic, majestic, and powerful without being a "game breaker" as it were. There also seems to be hints that angels can't go jumping in wherever they want because it would provoke magical escalation between the forces of good and evil. That's what Dresden is for.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 06:24 pm (UTC)|| |
John once made up a sequel to the Lord of the Rings that involved Radagast following his brothers who went bad and setting up an empire of domesticated beasts. (A very different Radagast than the movie one!)
Most of Butcher's Uriel stories came out after I wrote this essay the first time. I should have written something about them. He handles Uriel very well! Maybe I'll so an On Angels -- part two at some later point.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)|| |
I also enjoyed Lewis' portrayal of the Eldila in the Space Trilogy, as well as the angels in "The Great Divorce," one of which did not help a man initially because he did not have the man's permission to do so. The man at least partly wanted to hold on to the enemy he was struggling with, and was afraid of being hurt himself if the angel assisted.
Not to be an old-fashioned grump, but I have always been a fan of epic poetry and mythology, and Milton's angels in Paradise Lost are one of my favorite portrayals, especially their interactions with Adam and Eve before the fall. The gravitas and the power conveyed in both their speeches and their battles is fantastic.
More recent depictions tend to be a unbearably cliche and boring to my mind. We seem to have lost the ability to depict the overwhelming awe, wonder, and sometimes terror that always went along with seeing an angel in older writings. From a biblical perspective, if you saw an angel, the usual result was that you fell on your face and were physically unable to stand until it raised you up and told you not to be afraid. The only gear the secular sphere seems to have these days is "sexy", which would be comical if it were not so sad.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 07:20 pm (UTC)|| |
Milton does do it very well!
I definitely should do a post on who writes angels correctly.
So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passd,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind
Superior, nor of violence fear'd aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd
On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom'd.
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 09:02 pm (UTC)|| |
|Date:||December 11th, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)|| |
Oh yes, Abdiel is certainly a favorite, not least because Milton saw fit to revisit him in battle after his shunning of the apostates:
...a noble stroke he lifted high,
Which hung not, but so swift with tempest fell
On the proud crest of satan, that no sight,
Nor motion of swift thought, less could his Shield
Such ruin intercept: ten paces huge
He back recoild; the tenth on bended knee
His massive Spear upstaid; as if on Earth
Winds under ground or waters forcing way
Sidelong, had push't a Mountain from his seat
Half sunk with all his Pines
|Date:||December 12th, 2013 03:43 am (UTC)|| |
on angels reboot (from JDM)
What about Frank Peretti (Piercing the Darkness, This Present Darkness)?
|Date:||December 12th, 2013 03:44 am (UTC)|| |
Re: on angels reboot (from JDM)
Alas, while I have heard very good things about his books, I have not read them...so I cannot comment.
I'm not sure any modern media has done angels 'right'; fall-on-your-face awesome, terrifying inhuman creatures of wings and wheels and flames and eyes...
Okay, I've got a rather old-school idea of doing angels 'right', I admit that. :)
Which contrasts with one of my favorite depictions of angels, from the In Nomine RPG. They, and their fallen counterparts were playable characters with powers, skills, stats, the usual character sheet stuff. Loyal angels could Fall, and it was hinted that Fallen could be redeemed. The Archangels and Demon Princes were massively powerful, and were the movers & shakers in realms above and below. Your PCs would work for a particular one, and each had their sphere of influence and interests. While it was not terribly 'accurate', at least from my Catholic POV, it was fun, with great opportunity for storytelling.
From the back cover:
They are very much like us.
Some seek to do good,
others corrupt and destroy.
Some set out to do one thing,
but accomplish another.
Some are fiercely devoted to their work.
Some doubt that they really
make a difference.
And some wonder,
in the small hours of the night,
if they picked the right side.
They have great powers,
for good and evil,
but they are merely pawns
of greater powers still.
They are very much like us.
(Also, the 3d6 die rolling convention was fun: roll 3 ones, Divine intervention! Roll 3 sixes, and you've caught the attention of the darker powers...)
|Date:||December 12th, 2013 03:55 am (UTC)|| |
John has a game based on that system he's started a few times. Somehow, we never get to finish it.
I remember when I was little being read some of Madeleine L'Engle's books. I haven't reread them in a long time so they are somewhat jumbled in my mind, and I can't exactly remember which characters appeared in which books. I can remember distincly however how otherworldly angels appeared to me. Although perhaps not the exact words L'Engle used to describe them, to me they were something shimmering, and changing, like fire, like a wheel, like a face, very much in the Ezekelian vein.
If my memory serves me, their place in the narrative was a secured by them not quite understanding humans / being lesser messengers, meant to foster good will amongst men, but not to dominate and overawe.
There were some well-done demonic beings too.
|Date:||December 12th, 2013 12:18 pm (UTC)|| |
Really good point! Her books do a great job.
I just finish David Almond's Skellig. Which -- might -- have an angel in it.
Dear Ms. Lamplighter,
What is your opinion of the angels, "eldila," of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy? Lewis limits them by a combination of "out of my jurisdiction," not understanding humans, and generous side-order of reality warping. In "Perelandra," the protagonist has an Ezekiel-inspired, trippy experience as two major angels who have dealt little with humans grope for a suitable manifestation. At the beginning of the same book, an angel who isn't even trying to appear turns out rather Lovecraftian, bombarding the narrator with alien perspectives and colors. In the last book, it's suggested these alien angels have to tread delicately lest they shatter the Earth.
|Date:||December 14th, 2013 04:08 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Space Trilogy
I think he does the eldil very well...particularly in the end of That Hideous Strength. I will add that to my list, should I write the "where angels are done well" article. ;-)
|Date:||May 19th, 2014 02:43 pm (UTC)|| |
Very late to the party
I know this is very late to the party... but I had to comment.
Not counting the classics - Tolkien, Lewis, etc. - the best modern portrayal of angels I've seen has been in Jim Butcher, especially Uriel. Ghost Story explores this heavily, but one of his best lines was in Small Favor.
"How could God really care about what's happening to one person on one little planet among a practically infinite number of them?"
..."Seems to me you're assuming something you shouldn't assume... That God sees the world like you do. One thing at a time. From just one spot. Seems to me that He is supposed to be everywhere, know everything. Think about that. He knows what you're feeling, how you're hurting. Feels your pain, any pain like it was his own. Hell, son. Question isn't how could God care about just one person. Question is, how could he not."
|Date:||May 19th, 2014 06:39 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Very late to the party
;-) Very, very true.